Ten years ago, tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of Seattle to protest the WTO ministerial and the global trade agreement that sought to expand global corporatization at the expense of communities around the world. The protesters came from all walks of life–they were teachers, students, faith-based people, farmers, unionists, environmentalists, human rights activists, people of color… ordinary citizens. They came to express their outrage, to show solidarity and to demand change. While the trade ministers and corporate lobbyists found themselves trapped in their luxury hotels as activists blockaded intersections, hotels, and the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, the Steelworkers marched side by side with the Turtles and Butterflies. The relentless use of pepper spray, tear gas and rubber-and plastic-jacketed bullets did not deter French and US farmers from breaking bread with their counterparts from India, Mexico and other developing countries, nor did it lower their determination to get the WTO out of agriculture.
The events from November 26 to December 6, 1999, have come to hold a special place in political movements of the twenty-first century. The Battle of Seattle has been described repeatedly and has been the focus of several documentaries and even a full-length feature film, as well as the subject of a study commissioned by the Pentagon. In an effort to undermine the mobilization that took place there, activists were soon labeled protectionists and called names like “globophobes.” After 9/11, media pundits declared the demise of the “anti-globalization” movement, while WTO officials even referred to activists as “intellectual terrorists” in an attempt to criminalize dissent.
On the tenth anniversary of the Seattle protests, it is important to recognize that they did not merely bring about the collapse of the Third WTO Ministerial. Seattle was, in fact, a tremor of courage that sparked international mobilizations for social, economic and environmental justice and set in motion strategic, determined and cross-border organizing that continues to this day.
This is evident in the international struggle for the human right to water. The threat of privatization and the increasing lack of access to clean water for the world’s poor have catalyzed broad social movements. From mass protests in Cochabamba and water wars in El Alto that, respectively, drove the multinationals Bechtel and Suez out of Bolivia, to constitutional amendments in Uruguay protecting the public nature of water, to communities in South Africa subverting the pay-to-access system that was denying their basic human right to water, people around the world have come together to prevent the loss of their water resources.
Similarly, the 2008 food-price crisis, which pushed an additional 100 million people into extreme poverty with over a billion people–one sixth of humanity–undernourished, has galvanized global civil society to demand the right to food for all while pushing back against forces jeopardizing food security. When WTO director general Pascal Lamy tried to conclude the Doha Round in April 2008 as a “solution” to the global food crisis, more than 250 farmer organizations, NGOs, trade unions and social movements from over fifty countries were quick to deliver a strong snub. Their demand that countries be free to protect farmers’ livelihoods and promote food security and rural development has thwarted every effort to prop up trade liberalization and the WTO as a solution to world hunger and poverty.