These protests, dubbed the “Battle in Seattle,” targeted a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Starting operations in 1995, the WTO held the promise of becoming the body creating rules promoting a new era of globalization. Many negotiators hoped the talks in Seattle would give the WTO an expanded mandate. These hopes provoked concerns on the left, as activists saw the WTO as a propagator of global socioeconomic inequalities. The protests in Seattle generated international attention as they disrupted the meetings, which failed to produce any new agreements.
While the demonstrators gathering in Seattle hewed to the left, they also represented a wide spectrum — from moderate nonprofit groups to property-destroying radicals. Observers and participants often bemoan a lack of unity among disparate groups as a major reason that protests fail. However, the 1999 Seattle protests suggest that unity is not always vital. Sometimes, as in Seattle, variety — in tactics and beliefs — can prove a strength. Rather than unity, the success of Seattle is attributable to careful planning and loose coordination among diverse groups embracing a range of protest tactics.
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 demonstrations dominated the news. 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.
But were the protests a success? Most protesters answered yes, pointing to the collapse of the WTO negotiations.
Unsurprisingly, many from the WTO, governments and businesses said no. They acknowledged the disruptive effects of the protests. However, most elites argued that the demonstrations did not cause the negotiations’ failure. Some observers sympathetic to the protesters’ messages largely agreed. They pointed to disputes among rich nations and between a bloc of Caribbean and African nations on one hand and richer countries on the other hand as more significant causes.
The question of the protests’ effectiveness in disrupting the Seattle WTO meeting is important, but not the whole story. Examined 20 years afterward, the messiness of Seattle persists in having real effects. Even if the protests played a minimal role in upending the WTO meeting, their inspirational power proved critical in the following years. For the next year and a half (until the Sept. 11 attacks), mass protests in the United States challenged meetings of major global economic institutions. Activist efforts devoted to global economic issues, such as successful campaigns on college campuses against sweatshop labor, proliferated.
Among the unions and larger nonprofit entities, the activist networks built and strengthened at Seattle helped to shift the politics of trade and globalization. Where much of the Democratic mainstream strongly supported “free trade” in the late 1990s, that has changed. When the question of support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership arose in the 2016 Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton felt compelled to oppose it — even though as secretary of state she helped negotiate it — for fear of upsetting the Democratic base.
Today, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, advocate positions on global economics closer to those espoused by the anti-WTO protesters than those expounded by many Democrats in the 1990s. For those further to the left, Seattle also carries resonances. The eruption of Occupy protests took inspiration partly from Seattle. Today, when leftists such as those in the Democratic Socialists of America or Black Lives Matter organize, they employ the kinds of tactical and strategic variety seen in 1999. It seems remembering Seattle may be as crucial as ever.