The Legacy of the Battle for Seattle
Mike Dolan, one of the principal organizers of the "Battle of Seattle" three years ago, returned in late August--with Jim Hightower's Rolling Thunder DownHome Democracy Tour--to a changed city. As he juggled cell phones from the stage in Seattle's Petrovisky Park, near the burial site of Jimi Hendrix, Dolan noticed there was no tear gas this time, only sunshine.
There were still dirty tricksters hanging up posters on Broadway, the heart of radical Seattle, warning people to stay home because there was no parking at the event, but 5,000 people turned out, to reflect on the movement they launched at the World Trade Organization conclave in 1999.
The world of BS--"before Seattle"--was a dizzying can-do era of overnight millionaires with fantasies of wiring the planet in a grid of greed. Then came the protests, the greatest civil disobedience of the era, with thousands of people teaching the masters of the universe that they could no longer conduct business as usual, and the fantasy world began to shudder.
With dot.coms bombing and Boeing going, Seattle has lost its artificial luster, returning to the status of a lovely, cultured city instead of the mecca of a global kingdom. Corporate sway over the economy lost its sex appeal when the Nasdaq fell 355 points on a single March day in 2000, Bill Gates lost $10 billion in a week and 25,000 workers were laid off in the software sector. There was the campaign that coerced the public into voting to subsidize the local baseball stadium, and the team's star, Ken Griffey Jr., left anyway. In the same period, Boeing chose the global economy over loyalty to its hometown and announced it was headquartering in Chicago, downsizing production and relocating plants to places like Mexico, China and Malaysia. Even the pump-priming boondoggle of the war on terrorism couldn't save them from the grim morning-after logic of globalization.
Seattle might have salvaged a new identity by taking pride in the rough birth of the movement against corporate globalization on its streets in 1999, rooted in the militant Northwest populist and labor traditions that Hightower's tour echoes today, but the local legacy of that "people's history" remains contested and unclear. Shortly after the confrontations, the police chief resigned. An anti-WTO member of the King County Board of Supervisors was defeated. Mayor Paul Schell never fully recovered from that week, and was defeated for re-election last year under the growing cloud of civic malaise. On the other hand, state representative Velma Veloria who hosted progressive legislators during the WTO protests, is running for re-election this fall, and Nick Licata, who helped house and protect the protestors, remains an energetic force on the City Council. Both Veloria and Licata attended the rally in Petrovisky Park in high spirits. Veloria, in response to Seattle 1999, has formed a legislative oversight committee on the adverse impact of trade agreements on Washington State. (Nation readers who wish to support Velma Veloria should contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
One of those returning to interpret the continuing "Battle of Seattle" was Lori Wallach, the indefatigable, street-talking Harvard trade lawyer who coordinates fair-trade lobbying and activism at cyclone speed from her offices at Global Trade Watch in Washington, DC. Wallach has molded herself into one of the more dangerous enemies of the WTO on the planet, able to wipe out corporate lobbyists in television debates, maintain a laser-accurate understanding of thousands of pages of trade regulations, knit together international alliances, forge and hold together aliances on the left and right, and inspire hope for political reform, while scheming, if necessary, to "ratfuck" her enemies, a term she learned somewhere in the underworld of the planet's largest corporations.
Wallach is not entirely heartened by developments since Seattle 1999, citing the rise of internal disputes over "sectarianism" and "egoism" since the movement reached prime time. The emphasis on localism, and its philosophical corollary of anarchism, limits her role as a prime mover and shaker, while critiques of the whiteness of the movement makes alliance-building both essential and difficult. The alienation of many activists from electoral politics robs political victories, like the recent campaign finance reforms, of their potential energizing potency. The fallout from Ralph Nader's presidential campaign, combined with the failure of most Democrats to break cleanly from the corporate agenda, suggests a treacherous electoral future.
Nevertheless, Wallach is in fine form on this fine day, telling the audience that "Seattle" has become an international code word for the progressive spirit of the American people. When American diplomats and apologists argue with overseas audiences that globalization is good, she says, they are often rebuffed by foreign nationals who simply reply, "Seattle," as evidence that Americans themselves do not agree with the policies their government is trying to impose on other countries.
But, she notes, "the empire has struck back," through strenuous US attempts to cast the Seattle protests as "a fluke." The corporatists will try to make globalization seem as "inevitable as the moon's pull on the tides," but Wallach claims that it is "totally doable to take back what's ours" and that the corporate lobbyists "know what we need to know, that it's all a house of cards."
As evidence, she tells the story, hardly described in the mainstream media, of the Bush Administration's extraordinary efforts to squeeze out a three-vote-margin victory for its "fast track" trade authority in the House of Representatives on July 17. Trumpeted by Bush and the corporate media as an empowering victory for the free trade agenda, Wallach says that "what it took to get 'fast track' through was such an amazing flouting of Congressional rules that it showed our power." The fair trade movement had succeeded, by normal Washington standards, in stifling the Administration's "fast track" campaign until the President himself came to Capitol Hill trolling for votes, knocking on doors and making political horse-trades.
That wasn't enough, however. The House leadership held a closed nocturnal hearing to approve a "conceptual" 300-page bill, employing a rule reserved for occasions of martial law. There were no public hearings and no printing of the bill. Instead, it was e-mailed to House members with a link and set for a vote within twenty-four hours, effectively demobilizing the opposition and flaunting any pretense of an open, democratic process. When the House vote took place, and the Administration's forces still fell short, the leadership declared the clock irrelevent and continued making secret deals with holdout representatives until the three-vote margin was achieved. "It just shows how fragile they are," said Wallach, reminding the crowd to "spank" Washington State Democrats like Adam Smith and Rick Larsen, and "thank" representatives who kept their word to oppose fast track.
Undaunted, Wallach told the crowd to gear up for "Nafta on steroids," the Administration's plan to create a thirty-one-country "free trade" zone in the Americas and expand the WTO, culminating in the September 2003 WTO trade round in Cancun, Mexico. The corporate agenda there will aim to eliminate labor, environmental and public interest regulations across Central and Latin America as well as to privatize services like education, healthcare and water access. These so-called nontariff trade barriers represent protections of the public interest that have been created through years of struggle, thus widening the potential anti-WTO coalition to include, for example, schoolteachers, city officials, municipal water systems and other utilities, and construction workers worried about prevailing wage laws.
Recent events in Latin America along with corporate scandals in this country, Wallach thinks, "show that our analysis has been right." For example, Argentina was "the poster child, the model" of the corporate globalizers, but it now lies in ruins, the victim of International Monetary Fund policies which included demands that Argentina repeal its curbs on bankers who funnel money out of the country on the grounds "that the law chilled the investment climate there." The crisis is spawning new resistance movements as well, like the successful Bolivian "water war," which has blocked a government plan to sell its water rights to the Bechtel corporation. The spread of sweatshops and maquiladoras has peasant organizers conspiring and resistance mounting from southern Mexico to Central America.
"This trade stuff didn't get handed down by God like they think. If it doesn't work, it's time to throw it out and take back what is ours. The only way they can win is by our remaining calm," Wallach finishes. The crowd in Petrovisky Park gets the message, deeply and clearly. The spirit of Seattle is alive, carried in Wallach's words and, more important, in the confidence and memory of the crowd, in their commitment to vote, march, organize, campaign. As she spoke and they responded, it seemed to me that Seattle deserves a monument to the 1999 protests to reflect its progressive heart alongside the empty glory of the Space Needle, the Boeing hangars and the stadium that Junior left behind.
After all, I recalled, King County was persuaded to change its name to Martin Luther King Jr. County. Why not a monument to the Battle of Seattle in this city of the failed dotcom and defense contractor dreams? Someday perhaps, but for now the living monument of its creative, committed activist community will have to do.