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.