On November 30, 1999, clouds of tear gas drifted through downtown Seattle, and the facade of inevitability surrounding the ascendance of corporate-led globalization was shattered. That week, some 50,000 protesters—union members, environmentalists, family farmers, indigenous rights activists, faith-based groups, and solidarity organizations—had converged on the city to confront global elites attending the ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization, or WTO. They criticized the organization for overriding public health and environmental protections passed at the local and national level, and they identified it as part of an economic model that trapped workers in a “race to the bottom” as capital moved in search of ever more exploitable labor.
Usually when demonstrators declare their intent to “shut it down,” the rallying cry can be written off as bravado—but not in Seattle. A people’s barricade of the city’s convention center forced a cancellation of the meeting’s opening session. Drawing from British “Reclaim the Streets” actions, the protests surrounded the lockdown with celebratory carnival. Stilt-walkers dressed as butterflies commingled with workers in union jackets. Meanwhile, an anarchist marching band provided musical accompaniment, feminist dance troops performed in blocked intersections, and giant puppets—still novel at the time—stalked the streets.
By the week’s end, amid internal dissent from emboldened delegates from the Global South, the talks collapsed. As a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times put it,”the unruly forces of democracy collided with the elite world of trade policy. And when the meeting ended in failure…the elitists had lost and [the] debate was changed forever.”
To understand Seattle, it is important to remember the dominant political mood. For 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, champions of unfettered capitalism had promoted the idea that the age of ideological contest had ended and that their vision had won. When it came to international economics, they held tight to Margaret Thatcher’s words: “There is no alternative.”
By the late-1990s, “globalization” was becoming the watchword of the day, presented as a benign combination of technological innovation and the advance of open markets. When not heartily celebrated by mainstream commentators, it was treated as inevitable. In his best-selling The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman, to this day corporate globalization’s most enthusiastic pundit, wrote: “I feel about globalization a lot like I feel about the dawn. Generally speaking, I think it’s a good thing that the sun comes up every morning…. But even if I didn’t care much for the dawn there isn’t much I could do about it. I didn’t start globalization, I can’t stop it—except at a huge cost to human development.”
Of course, there had been resistance, particularly in the Global South. Notable outbreaks ranged from the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico—launched on the very day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994—to Filipino sweatshop workers protesting the 1996 meetings of the Asian Pacific Economic Community in Manila, to some 200,000 Indian farmers protesting the WTO in Hyderabad in 1998. (Writer Katharine Ainger noted, “When WTO head Mike Moore visited India in 2000, he joked rather uncomfortably that in no other place on earth had so many effigies of him been burned.”)
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Yet a revolt breaking out within the United States—the home of the “Washington consensus” that prescribed privatization, deregulation, and austerity for countries throughout the world—was a blow to the triumphant self-image of the CEOs and trade ministers at corporate globalization’s helm. It thrust an emerging international movement into the spotlight of the Western media. And all of a sudden, rather than having the righteousness of neoliberal economics taken for granted, the elites were forced to publicly defend their preferred policies. Often, their positions turned out to be indefensible.
A story in Salon written by Bruce Shapiro described the transformation that became immediately evident after the protests: “A week ago, anyone who questioned the World Trade Organization and the broader logic of the global corporate marketplace was spitting in the historical wind—an object of derision by free-marketeers, a tedious, pietistic windmill-tilter to the media. The remarkable events in Seattle changed that.”
For the 20th anniversary of the mobilization, some of the leading planners behind the Seattle protests have created a website offering an Organizers’ History of the World Trade Organization Shutdown in 1999; it captures much of the creativity and boldness of the time. An environmentalist dressed as a sea turtle—who marched alongside union members from Seattle’s King County Labor Council—held one of the most famous signs from the protests: “Teamsters and Turtles, United At Last,” it read, highlighting the unusual alliances that had begun to form amid the mobilization. Trade unionists were not supposed to make common cause with tree-huggers. And communities of working people in the North were not supposed to join with factory workers and indigenous communities south of the border, understanding themselves as targets of the same system of exploitation.
The Salon article went on to quote CNN political analyst Bill Schneider. “We’re seeing a lot of new things in Seattle,” Schneider said. “Some things that haven’t happened in a long time, and some things that are not supposed to happen at all.”
Friedman rushed to label the Seattle protesters “a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960’s fix.” And the mainstream media in general sowed confusion by labeling the demonstrations as part of an “anti-globalization” movement. In fact, the participants were resolutely internationalist. The question, they argued, was not whether we would have an interconnected world, but rather what kind of global order we wanted to live in—and whether corporate elites should be the ones to decide. Sometimes this message broke through, as when Newsweek reported in December 1999 that “one of the most important lessons of Seattle is that there are now two visions of globalization on offer, one led by commerce, one by social activism.”
In the years after Seattle, activists continued to apply pressure with major mobilizations at international meetings in places including Washington, DC, Prague, Genoa, Quebec City, Cancun, and Miami. It is fair to argue that the movement sometimes fell into a tactical rut. Because the approach of surrounding and incapacitating a major convention of global elites had been so spectacularly successful in Seattle, global justice activists attempted to repeat it again and again with diminishing returns. After April 2000 protests at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank headquarters, Naomi Klein memorably remarked: “Someone posted a message on the organizing e-mail list for the Washington demos, ‘Wherever they go, we shall be there! After this, see you in Prague!’ But is this really what we want—a movement of meeting stalkers, following the trade bureaucrats as if they were the Grateful Dead?”
And yet, the critique could be overstated. The summit actions created a whirlwind moment in which droves of new movement participants were motivated to educate themselves, make connections between issues, and take part in mobilizations that brimmed with dissident energy. As they joined in, organizations formed, campaigns launched, and leaders were radicalized. Their efforts were tracked on the pioneering websites of the Independent Media Centers that sprung up in dozens of countries in those early Internet days to chronicle dissent and (before YouTube existed) crowd-source footage of grassroots protest. Advocates who had been working over the long term on issues such as debt relief or international access to AIDS drugs found their campaigns receiving an unprecedented boost. As The Economist begrudgingly wrote in a September 2000 editorial entitled “Angry and Effective,” the movement’s elevation of such issues “dramatically increased the influence of mainstream NGOs” as, “assaulted by unruly protesters, firms and governments are suddenly eager to do business with the respectable face of dissent.”
Those unruly individuals will recall the period as one of frenzied activity—with the lines between periodic large mobilizations and ongoing initiatives often blurring. I remember the late Trim Bissell of the Campaign for Labor Rights tirelessly circulating through the summit crowds with a clipboard, signing up recruits for local actions in support of cross-border anti-sweatshop drives. And he was hardly the only such savvy and opportunistic organizer.
“A new generation had an embodied experience of the power of the people and the potency of civil disobedience to create a crisis for the ruling elite,” writes renowned direct-action trainer Lisa Fithian in her newly published memoir. “Some called it summit hopping; I called it movement building.”
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, much progressive energy shifted toward opposing the George W. Bush administration and its wars in the Middle East, and global justice activism faded from prominence in the United States. Nevertheless, major protests continued internationally, as did the growth of the World Social Forums, large gatherings that brought together grassroots organizations from across countries and continents to articulate a vision of a more just and democratic international order.
And the years of activism produced results. As civil society rebelled, the Washington consensus suffered defections from high-profile economists, including Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz, and the wisdom of major tenets such as privatization, deregulation, and the elimination of capital controls came under increasing attack. In 2005 governments passed a major deal on debt cancellation for impoverished countries—which was a long-standing demand of the demonstrations. Meanwhile, plans to extend NAFTA throughout the hemisphere with an ambitious Free Trade Area of the Americas collapsed as progressive governments in Latin America—some led by presidents who had marched in street protests against Washington consensus policies—balked.
Over the last two decades, the base of the Democratic Party has shown a marked preference for a “fair trade” agenda over a neoliberal one, as the watchdog group Public Citizen has repeatedly documented. On the campaign trail in 2008, candidate Barack Obama campaigned on such a platform, slamming NAFTA as “devastating” and “a big mistake.” And yet, once in office, the president veered away from his earlier positions, returning to a Bill Clintonesque advocacy of deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership that were strongly opposed by labor and environmental groups. It was this penchant by Democratic Party leaders to hoist the banner of “free trade” that allowed Donald Trump to co-opt the issue and absurdly present himself as fighting for abandoned workers.
The global justice movement that came to prominence in Seattle did not present a single vision of a political future; organizers held up the idea that they were promoting “one no, many yeses.” It would take another decade and a half before the taboo against openly advocating for socialism in the United States would be broken in mainstream politics. Yet the political space that now exists for a critique of an economy based on the rapacious pursuit of profit owes much to those who dared to challenge the orthodoxy that was once considered as determined as the dawn. When Occupy Wall Street broke out in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, it was a direct descendant of the Seattle-era mobilizations: Veterans from the global justice days could be found running direct-action trainings and aiding with media outreach. And the lineage of such movements will surely hold more rebellious surprises for the future.
At a moment when “there is no alternative” was at its peak, the 1999 Seattle protests insisted not only that worlds other than those envisioned by CEOs and neoliberal economists could exist—but also that these worlds are essential to our survival. That message has never been lost.