The World Turned Out in Seattle

WTO+10: Ten years later, what has been the legacy of the 1999 Seattle protests?

Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) joined the protests—shutting down major shipping ports in the process.

(C) 1999 Dang Ngo/ZUMA Press. All rights reserved.

It seems like yesterday when I joined tens of thousands of others at what has come to be known as the Battle in Seattle. Thousands came from all over the country to show solidarity and outrage, and more importantly, to make change. They circled the Kingdome, demanding annulment of the Third World debt, while thousands blocked intersections, hotels, and the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. They were teachers, students, faith-based people, farmers, Longshore workers, moms and dads—and even turtles—who came from all over the country to express their disgust with corporate greed and its devastating consequences on working families, the environment, and life itself. They were tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed, but they stayed firm in the midst of it all till the front page of national papers cried out, “Talks Collapse.” The world felt the tremor of this courage and witnessed a new face of the United States.


(C) 1999 Dang Ngo/ZUMA Press. All rights reserved.

Events from November 26 to December 6, 1999, culminating in the shutdown of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial and the collapse of the trade talks, have been described many times over, been a subject of several documentaries, and even the focus of a full length feature film. To understand what transpired in Seattle, the Pentagon commissioned the Rand Corporation to produce a study, in which the movement was described as “the NGO swarm,” difficult for governments to deal with because it has no leadership or command structure and “can sting a victim to death.” Corporate public relations consultants Burson Marsteller published a “Guide to the Seattle Meltdown” to help clients like Monsanto “defend” themselves. 

The Battle in Seattle has come to hold a special place in political movements of the twenty-first century. Ten years later, efforts continue to explain and understand its true meaning. There are several factors that contributed to its unique place in history.

To me, as an activist of Indian origin, the significance of Seattle first and foremost lies in the fact that in the United States of America, a nation that is an unabashed apologist for unrestrained capitalism, young activists, trade unionists, farmers, environmentalists, and opponents of poverty, hunger, and homelessness faced off—using puppets and street theater—against corporate and government leaders and their armies of bureaucrats. Before Seattle, communities around the world had been organizing, marching, and rising up—be it the people of Madhya Pradesh fighting to hold Union Carbide accountable for the poisonous gas leaked from its factory in Bhopal, the ski-masked Mayan Indians that emerged in Chiapas to make the world listen, or the residents of shanty towns in South Africa who protested prepaid water meters as an attack on their human right to water. The mass mobilization that brought the WTO to its knees was carefully nurtured through cross-border alliances, but it was “Made in the USA.”

More reflections on the 10th anniversary of Seattle WTO protests:
Walden Bello
Sarah van Gelder
Fran Korten
Rebecca Solnit
David Korten
David Solnit
Dispatches from the 1999 event:
YES! Magazine archive

Secondly, Seattle is an example of what strategic, determined, and disciplined cross-border organizing can accomplish. Its strength came from the diversity of civil society groups, and its unity from the diverse strategies they employed. The reasons that brought people to Seattle during the WTO week were myriad, but the tens of thousands of people on the streets represented the collective force of justice, democracy, and plain decency. What has been termed as the student-turtle-Teamster-policy wonk-tree hugger-partnership made the other WTO possible—the World Turned Out in Seattle.

And lastly, the WTO has had a difficult time recovering from the blow it received in Seattle. Once described as the “jewel in the crown of multilateralism,” the WTO has come close to its demise several times since Seattle. Trade talks have stuttered and stalled and failed to move forward despite arm-twisting and blackmailing. It was only through the imposition of “war on terror” tactics following the 9/11 attacks in the US that the Doha Round of the WTO was moved; it has still to be concluded.

Doha was followed by the collapse of talks in Cancún. There, Kenyan delegates walked out of the ministerial, followed by representatives of South Korea and India. Civil society mourned Lee Kyung Hae, a South Korean farmer who took his own life to protest the WTO’s devastation of the Korean countryside. He stabbed himself at the barricades built to keep poor farmers and other protestors out of the talks. Hong Kong joined the exodus, and the WTO had to satisfy itself with a minimum package that, at best, functioned as a life support system. Since then, scared by massive mobilizations and protests and the growing confluence between delegates of the developing world and civil society, the WTO has been reduced to having mini ministerials with the hopes of hammering out a deal with a handful of its members. Its credibility as a multilateral institution has been reduced to tatters.

Reclaiming Corn and CultureReclaiming Corn and Culture
In communities throughout Mexico, farmers are replacing NAFTA's disastrous "free trade" policies with working models of “fair trade."

The plight caused by the 2008 food-price crisis was exploited by international financial institutions, with the backing of rich nations, in order to boost free-trade agendas and move the WTO talks further. However, efforts to promote the WTO as a solution to growing hunger were thwarted, and even the Economist magazine held the food crisis as the biggest threat to globalization.

In Seattle and soon after, those who heralded the end of the WTO and its free trade agenda were labeled as “anti” globalization, and called protectionists and even globophobes. The events since Seattle have proven that the international civil society that united in Seattle is for democracy, for livelihoods, for environment, and for human rights. And that’s what has made it a force to reckon with—even hailed by the New York Times, on the eve of the 2003 US war on Iraq, as the world’s other super power.

As the free trade agenda has shattered amidst the ruins of the global capitalist economy, Seattle has gained new significance. Seattle was a call to action for ordinary working people to stand up and take back their streets and their nation. It was a call to ensure that democracy is wrenched free from corporations and that it remains of the people, by the people, and for the people. Ten years later, civil society’s vigilance and mobilization efforts remain essential to ensuring that responses to the current global financial crisis promote and protect the human right of all to live in dignity and to provide social and economic justice for all.

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