by Geoff Olson
This month marks the 10th anniversary of protests against the World Trade Organization’s conference in Seattle. In preparing for the November 30th opening of the WTO’s “millennial round of talks,” the mayor’s office and local police had no contingency plan for one inconceivable possibility: that protestors would succeed in their goal of “shutting down” the most powerful organization in the world.
How did this happen, and what, if anything, has been the legacy of the “Battle in Seattle” in 1999? Law enforcement officials, civic leaders and trade delegates were unprepared for the hallucinatory events that unfolded in the so-called “Emerald City.” Lifted out of their consensual Kansas by a tornado of democratic dissent, officials found themselves stranded somewhere between a bad mushroom trip and Munchkinland.
By the morning of November 30, Seattle’s streets were transformed by a massive, colourful wave of street theatre, while passively-resisting protestors in the downtown core kept trade delegates from conducting their Oz-like deliberations. To add a nightmarish L. Frank Baum touch, police in riot gear dispensed truncheon blows, tear gas and pepper spray. The only things missing were the flying monkeys –unless you count black-clad anarchists brandishing hammers, crowbars, paint bombs and spray paint.
What’s been forgotten is how massive this event was and how it rippled across the world. Throughout the week, the firefighters’ union refused authorities’ requests to train firehoses on protestors. Longshore workers closed down every West Coast port from Alaska to Los Angeles. Just before, during and after the WTO protest, thousands of Indian farmers marched to Bangalore in solidarity. In 80 cities across France, 75,000 people took to the streets and 800 miners clashed with police. European activists stormed the WTO world headquarters in Geneva. In Turkey, peasants, trade unionists and environmentalists marched on the capital of Ankara. Thousands marched in sympathy in the Philippines, Pakistan, Portugal, South Korea, Turkey, and across Europe, the US and Canada.
This was not a simple gathering of aging, disaffected American lefties or bongo-playing kids with dreadlocks, with a trendy grievance against the world. This WAS the world, saying ‘no more’ to secretive, unelected officials with the power to expand transnational corporate power past the control of all governments.
The Battle of Seattle was not the first successful pushback against international trade agreements. In 1998, an international coalition of NGOs, environmental groups and labour organizations succeeded in its campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. The broad support against the MAI was reflected by the city of Seattle itself in April of 1999 when the city council declared the city a MAI-free zone by unanimous vote, in concert with other cities across the world.
Leaked documents subsequently revealed that European officials had decided to shift the entire MAI agenda to the WTO conference in Seattle. Activists prepared to take their fight to the Pacific Northwest.
Non-governmental organizations from across the world, environmental groups, labour unions, student groups and even religious groups spent months preparing for the WTO protests. Many of their plans incorporated European-style street theatre and culture jamming. As a trailer for the main feature, thousands of hoax editions of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer hit the streets on November 24. The front cover wraparound, inserted into piles of newspapers awaiting distribution, contained bogus stories such as “Boeing to move overseas” and “Clinton pledges help for poorest nations.”
“Many activists have romanticized Seattle as a semi-spontaneous rebellion that arose as if by luck. This ignores the key strategizing, mass mobilizing, networking, education and alliance-building that made Seattle possible,” wrote Art and Revolution founder David Solnit in a 2008 article in Yes! Magazine. “We won because we were strategic, well organized and part of strong local, regional, national and international networks.”
With such a wide divergence of interests, it was inevitable that the activism would have many facets. This was to be the first large-scale protest in the US that wasn’t wholly committed to the ideals of Gandhi and King. The AFL-CIO organized the labour rally and parade into the city (bypassing the protest area), with the intent of influencing national trade policy and the impending presidential election through a peaceful show of numbers. The so-called black bloc of anarchist groups targeted specific corporate outlets in Seattle for property damage. In between these two poles, the Direct Action Network immodestly sought to shut down the WTO by blocking access to the Washington State Convention & Trade Centre, through passive resistance.
The Direct Action Network was a coalition of environmental and political activist groups, including the Rainforest Action Network, Art and Revolution and the Ruckus Society. Long before its members hit the streets, DAN “had coordinated nonviolent protest training, communications and collective strategy and tactics through a decentralized process consultation/consensus decision making,” writes Paul de Armond in his 2000 paper Netwar in the Emerald City.
Well before the demonstrations began, de Armond explains, DAN had full multimedia access, through the use of the Internet, cell phones, police scanners and video cameras. The Battle of Seattle was the first full-fledged information war, with DAN having an advantage over the city police, who seemed to be caught on the wrong side of the cyber-divide, unable to adapt their tactics to fast-changing circumstances. DAN, which eschewed a top-down chain of command that could easily be decapitated, used protest tactics partly honed in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Early on the morning of November 30, Direct Action Network protestors seized control of empty intersections, locking themselves together with bicycle locks and tubes and blocking access to the Convention Centre and surrounding hotels. Within hours, police were caught in an untenable situation: supporting the tens of thousands of people in the permit-approved AFL-CIO march from the stadium to downtown, and suppressing the crowds hunkered down at intersections. What happened next would turn the tide for the protestors.
I arrived in Seattle that morning on a bus carrying other reporters from Vancouver to the Seattle labour rally at the Key Arena. The AFL-CEO rally had extended invitations to other organizations to join – a mix of social justice, environmental and human rights groups. It made for an estimated crowd of 20,000 and an extraordinary mix of people. Forest workers mingled with tree-huggers, machinists and wonkish-looking types in expensive Gore-Tex jackets. There were clean-cut students with notepads, senior citizens in rain gear and retro hippies with placards.
After the speeches, streams of marchers flowed from the rally into the streets. The plan was to march downtown and then take a wide turn back, bypassing the protest area. Thousands of people ignored the parade marshals and made their way toward ground zero where DAN protestors were chained together in the intersections.
In his Netwar paper, Paul de Armond explains how DAN had fielded a hard-core contingent of “first wave” protestors for key city intersections. They had voluntarily chosen to risk violent confrontation from police and arrests once the demonstrations began. “The first wave consisted of 200-300 people in ‘lockdown’ affinity groups – those who had opted for nonviolent civil disobedience and arrest. Their job was to penetrate the area close to the conference site, seize the dozen strategic intersections that controlled movement in the protest target and hang on until reinforcements arrived… The second wave included several thousand protesters, also organized as affinity groups, who had opted for nonviolent demonstration and not being arrested. Their task was to protect the first wave from police violence and plug up the streets by sheer numbers and passive resistance. Many more people joined this second wave than DAN expected.”
The “third wave” was supplied by labour members who split from the designated AFL-CIO parade route, along with several thousand people constituting the People’s Assembly, a coalition of environmental and humans rights groups. With the added numbers of people in the streets, the surrounded police, with their cordon broken and cut off from officers outside, could not properly carry out their arrests of the lockdown groups.
By midday, members of the Direct Action Network learned they had succeeded in “shutting down” the WTO. They would succeed in shutting it down for the rest of the week.
“As police fought our blockades with armored cars and fired rubber, wooden and plastic bullets, as well as tear gas, pepper spray and concussion grenades, the corporate media looked for ways to dismiss a popular uprising as merely a few dozen people window- breaking corporate chain stores,” wrote David Solnit. The anarchist’s ‘black bloc’ was later estimated at between one hundred members, slightly less than the lockdown “affinity groups” of DAN. While they may have only constituted a vanishingly small fraction of the crowd, the anarchists captured the mainstream media’s attention through deliberate vandalization of Seattle corporate outlets.
Local media left the impression that the violent police response followed the trashing of Seattle shops. Yet the police attacks on the crowd began several hours before when DAN protestors had taken control of a five-block area around the convention centre. According to multiple sources, the King County Sheriff’s Office and Seattle Police Department fired pepper spray, tear gas canisters, stun grenades and eventually rubber bullets at protesters at several intersections. With the release of tear gas around 10 AM, the mood in the streets changed. The black bloc saw its cue and began its spree of property damage, mostly in a two-block area.
Other protestors, witnessing the black bloc members smashing windows, began scuffling with them in the streets, demanding them to stop. Though the anarchists were greatly outnumbered by the nonviolent protesters, and their commercial damage limited, their “propaganda of the deed” instantly became the meme associated with the Battle in Seattle.
At one major intersection mid-afternoon, I discovered upended dumpsters blocking traffic, with protestors calmly standing atop them. Thousands of people milled about, some singing and chanting, others looking dumbfounded that they had taken control of the streets. It looked as much like a costume party as a protest. A kid in a Flash costume leapt around next to me as a young African-American with a megaphone climbed on to a dumpster to address the crowd. “We’re here to look out for one another,” he said, “ but remember; this is a non-violent protest. No craziness.”
Two nervous-looking guys in trench coats, who may have been trade delegates, crossed the street in the midst of this strange oasis of calm. “Nice briefcases,” someone yelled out. I ducked down a side street and tuned back to see the intersection I had just left, now blocked with riot police. There was some jostling at the police line and I watched as a tear gas canister spun into the air and down into the crowds. As smoke billowed down the street, I turned to see a small group of kids, who couldn’t have been more than high school age, in neat, pressed uniforms. They pulled gas masks and drum kits out of their backpacks, struck up a tattoo, and marched in formation toward the melee down the street. They disappeared into a tear gas fog, armed with no more than a steady beat. It looked like a children’s crusade against the WTO.
This is one aspect of the Battle in Seattle that went largely unreported and unanalyzed. An estimated 50,000 people came into the city that day, in a mood that was mostly earnest and festive – at least before the police response changed the tone of the protest. There was an immense outpouring of creativity, the kind later associated with Burning Man celebrations. I appreciated the set of life-size coffins bearing labels such as “worker’s rights,” “health,” “biodiversity” and “real food.” But my personal favourite was a Speedo-wearing protestor wearing a globe on his head, with two holes cut out for eyes. “I’m out of control, I’m out of control,” he hollered as he weaved down Seattle’s steep streets on roller skates.
It was, in essence, an out-of-control megablock party, turbocharged by groups like Art and Revolution, which put together an eight-day series of workshops and trainings leading up to the November 30 protest, involving street theatre, puppet building, mask making, costume design and music. In her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (2006), Barbara Ehrenreich elaborates on this new protest phenomenon that extends past Seattle in space and time:
“In fact, there has been, in the last few years, a growing carnivalization of protest demonstrations, perhaps especially among young ‘antiglobalization’ activists in Europe, Latin America, Canada, and the United States. They wear costumes – most famously, the turtle suits symbolizing environmental concerns at the huge Seattle protest of 1999. They put on masks or paint their faces; they bring drums to their demonstrations and sometimes dance through the streets; they send up the authorities with street theatre and effigies… The urge to transform one’s appearance, to dance outdoors, to mock the powerful and embrace perfect strangers is not easy to suppress,” Ehrenreich writes.
At one locked-down intersection near ground zero, I witnessed a spirit consonant with the parade: grinning protestors holding hands and chanting as police converged on them. The media’s accounts of the carnivalization were sparse, but telling. The Seattle Post- Intelligencer noted how protestors danced in the streets on Friday, December 3, as word spread that delegates would leave Seattle without agreeing on an agenda for future trade talks. “The scene… resembled a New Year’s Eve party: People banged on drums, blew horns and tossed flying discs through the air. One landed at the foot of a police officer, who threw it back to the crowd amid cheers.”
The creative possibilities undoubtedly attracted thousands more protestors to the streets of Seattle, the kind of folks who weren’t disposed to locking themselves together at intersections or smashing windows with crowbars. Their immense numbers tipped the balance in favour of the Direct Action Network’s goal of shutting down the WTO and fixing The Battle of Seattle in the history books.
By Wednesday, the second day of the protests, the Seattle police forces were augmented by more than 500 state and regional police, plus several hundred National Guard. The additional forces brought in from outside Seattle were less cautious about making distinctions between curious locals, nonviolent protestors and any remaining anarchists. Six hundred people were arrested in the days that followed, as the police action escalated into increasingly aggressive attacks on people in the streets. For two days, hundreds of protestors held vigil outside the Public Safety Building, singing and chanting and demanding the release of hundreds of fellow protesters. Nearly all the protesters were released by Sunday on their personal recognizance. In January, all of the mass arrest cases were dismissed because the overwhelmed Seattle police had failed to fill out arrest forms.
The city of Seattle went $3 million over their estimated budget of $6 million for hosting the conference. In part, the excess was attributed to city cleanup and overtime billing by police. The damage to commercial businesses from vandalism and lost sales was estimated at $20 million.
On Wednesday morning, I revisited the momentarily calm streets. Several city blocks looked like someone had picked them up and dropped them from a three-foot height. Repairs were already underway to broken windows and graffiti-covered columns. (Who said the WTO doesn’t create work?)
Paul de Armond summed up the strategic dimension to the WTO protests: “The Direct Action Network strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience had succeeded against the black bloc’s efforts to escalate the police violence, the AFL-CIO’s strategy of controlling and marginalizing protests in favour of a symbolic parade, the attempts of the Seattle police to clear the streets with tear gas, and media efforts to frame the issue in terms of ‘violent protesters.’”
The Millennium round of trade talks collapsed in Seattle and the WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico, fell apart in 2003 because of farmer-led protests. Although the Battle in Seattle wasn’t directly responsible for the successive failure of the North-South agreement on trade policies, it definitely brought the world’s consciousness to bear on the interrelated issues of human rights, labour demands and health and environmental protection. This extraordinary experiment in democratic dissent also created a template for later protests in Quebec City, Genoa and beyond. Mainstream media, for the first time, had to seriously address the issues behind the agitation. An immense upwelling of people power was beginning across the planet, rejecting the top-down model of transcorporate rule.
Then came 9/11. The ‘day that changed everything’ certainly changed the antiglobalization movement, sucking an enormous amount of energy out of a shaky coalition of common interests. Suddenly, the threat of “terrorism’ could be conjured by the media at the slightest hint of social unrest. In the post-9/11 mass protests across North America and Europe, law enforcement began to take a more pre-emptive and punitive approach, including new methods of crowd control, such as constitutionally and charter-of-rights bogus “Free Speech Zones.” In a post-9/11 culture of hi-tech surveillance, your freedoms are respected only to the point you exercise them.
Ten years ago this month, men and women, young and old, rich and poor – from farmers and machinists to young university students and loggers – marched in step, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.” A window opened, briefly, to a more sane and sustainable future. There was a dizzying glimpse, just before the window came down. But it didn’t shut all the way. The hinges have been loose ever since that epochal week in the Pacific Northwest.
Were it not for the antiglobalization movement’s visibility in Seattle, it’s unlikely that mainstream North America would have today’s level of awareness about genetically modified foods, environmental toxins, species decline and global wealth disparities. Once-fringe ideas about “bioregionalism” – such as community-supported agriculture, sustainable energy production and civic limits on plastic products – are becoming policy realities in communities across the world.
Since November of 1999, millions of people around the world have been alerted to a new landscape beckoning beyond the battered window frame. At present, this landscape is somewhere between a mirage and a miracle-in-the-making. It’s a vision of people doing what is necessary to survive as a species, by choosing doubt over dogma, education over ignorance, health over wealth, ecology over economy, wisdom over cleverness, compassion over confrontation and love over fear. This is what democracy could look like.