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The Battle for Seattle: Twenty Years Later


Tomorrow marks the twentieth anniversary of the Battle for Seattle–the protests against the World Trade Organization that was both a real attempt to create alliances between different movements and a moment hijacked by a few black bloc anarchists that allowed the police to be the fascists they always wanted to be. Unfortunately, the media played up the black bloc and that’s become the public memory of the event. Paul Adler, who has guestposted here a few times over the years, is an expert on the role of NGOs in left politics of the late twentieth century. He has a Washington Post op-ed on the anniversary.

When the WTO announced on Jan. 25, 1999, that Seattle would host its next major meeting, various groups sprang into action. The AFL-CIO called for adding labor rights provisions to the WTO. Nonprofit entities such as Global Trade Watch (a division of Public Citizen, founded by Ralph Nader) insisted that the WTO either substantially limit its purview or close shop. Radicals demanded the abolition of the WTO as a step toward overturning capitalism.

These groups advanced different tactics for achieving these disparate goals. Tensions arose. More-mainstream groups such as the AFL-CIO and national environmental and consumer nonprofits planned legally permitted marches and rallies. On the more militant end were the Ruckus Society and the Direct Action Network. These organizations condemned the WTO and “corporate globalization,” but their energies were focused on creative and militant tactics. They did not wish to merely protest the WTO; they aimed to organize a “mass nonviolent direct action. . . to SHUT DOWN the WTO.”

These tensions could have turned the protests into a catastrophe. Yet, a crucial set of informal relationships emerged that soothed these tensions. Some liberal nonprofit staffers quietly supported civil disobedience. They used their connections to ease concerns among mainstream groups about disruptive protests. Concurrently, rather than sniping with the moderates, direct-action activists spent their time meticulously planning how to shut down the WTO meeting. As a core document from the Direct Action Network stated, activists should “make space for and encourage mutual respect for a wide variety of nonviolent action styles reflecting our different groups and communities.”

In the end, these informal connections did not achieve unity of message or tactics. Rather, they simply ensured that most protest groups (those that destroyed property did not participate in these conversations) avoided undermining one another. As one example, the primary civil disobedience actions and the labor march were planned for roughly the same time. The two groups had little contact with one another. Concerned that tensions could arise because of the scheduling overlap, staffers at Global Trade Watch contacted the AFL-CIO, asking on behalf of the Direct Action Network whether the unions objected to the civil disobedience plans. When no one from labor objected, the direct-action folks felt affirmed to move ahead.

While diversity existed in these groups’ ideologies and tactics, one characteristic tied many together: They were predominantly white organizations. This lack of racial diversity stemmed from many causes — the desire among the dominant organizations to sustain certain rhetorical frames, fears of “divisiveness” and ongoing histories of racial marginalization. This did not mean the protesters were only white. Key activists from several Global South countries attended with support from U.S. organizations. Immigrant and minority activists joined in the planning. However, activists of color experienced consistent tokenization and disrespect.

Yet, here, too, the value of loose coordination emerged. Some groups of people of color avoided merging efforts with majority-white groups, instead organizing their own actions and espousing their own rhetoric. This meant that disparate perspectives were heard, representing something of the diversity of people affected by globalization. As noted by Chicana activist Elizabeth Martinez in a widely read essay about race and the protests, where activists of color did work in parallel with the main efforts, they often had “extraordinary” experiences at the actual protests.

In the end, the Seattle protests made their mark. The demonstrationsdominatedthenews. This was partly because of the violence arising from the property destruction carried out by a few activists and from law enforcement’s onslaught of tear gas and pepper spray against protesters and passersby. But the nonviolent protests also garnered attention. The direct-action organizers delayed the WTO meeting’s opening, giving delegates fewer hours to hammer out deals. Labor unions marched — and thousands of rank-and-file members split off to join the shutdown protests. Liberal nonprofit groups conducted teach-ins and lobbied governments to slow down or reverse course on expanding the WTO’s mandate.

I am sure that the only comments from LGM readers will be about the violence, but at least we can start from a position of knowing that there was a lot more going on.

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