2014 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Battle of Seattle, the week of protests in November-December 1999 that shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) Third Ministerial Round. Also known as the Doha Round, the intention of these negotiations was to significantly expand the power of multinational corporations to challenge democratically enacted labor, environmental and health and safety laws.
Opening ceremonies had to be canceled on November 30, when seventy to one hundred thousand global protestors stormed downtown Seattle and hundreds of activists chained themselves to cement pipes to block delegates’ access to the Paramount Theater. The police riot which ensued was our first encounter with the police militarization that would characterize the new millennium. Rather than simply arresting them, Seattle police beat, tear gassed and shot rubber bullets at peaceful protestors, journalists and passersby alike.*
Organizing Began in January 1999
I still lived in Seattle in 1999 and participated in the local organizing. We began in January 1999 when Mike Dolan, Public Citizen’s national field organizer, called the first planning meeting at the Seattle Labor Temple. Dolan continued to visit Seattle for monthly meetings, as well as coordinating organizing efforts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Washington DC and other major US cities.
The biggest challenge in organizing the anti-WTO protest was that hardly any Americans had heard of the WTO in 1999, much less recognized the immense power Clinton was handing to private corporations with the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) and the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the treaty that created the WTO in 1994.
With 100,000 activists descending on Seattle, it became necessary to set up a home stay network to provide them with accommodation. I hosted seven activists in my home, two each from Los Angeles and Alaska, and three from the Mendocino County Rainforest Action Network.
The IFG Teach-In
The week started Friday night November 26, when 3,000+ of us packed into Seattle’s Symphony Hall for a two day teach-in organized by the International Forum on Globalization. World famous anti-globalization activists (including Indian anti-GMO activist Vendana Shiva, Malaysian economist and journalist Martin Khor, Canadian water activist Maude Barlow, Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, French farmer activist Jose Bove, Ghanaian farmer activist Tete Hormeku, anti-sweatshop organizer Kevin Danaher and Owens Wiwa, brother of executed Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa) each gave twenty minute presentations, followed by questions and small group discussion at the Seattle Art Museum across the street.
Maria Galaradin recorded all the presentations and has many of them archived at TUC Radio
On November 27-29, there were a series of small non-confrontational protest actions organized by specific interest groups. On November 28, I participated in a protest march to the Cargill grain elevator at the port to protest the corporate takeover of global food production by large companies such as Cargill and Monsanto. It was led by representatives of the Zapatistas, Via Campesino and the US National Family Farm Coalition.
Protest organizers had scheduled the main protest, involving fifty thousands global trade unionists and tens of thousands of farm and environmental activists for November 30, the day WTO negotiations were meant to start. We had planned three days of workshops and small localized protests for December 1-3.
Mayor Paul Schell Declares Martial Law
All this changed when Mayor Paul Schell declared martial law and made it illegal to carry anti-WTO signs, wear anti-WTO buttons, chant anti-WTO slogans or carry anti-WTO leaflets into downtown Seattle. Angered by the unprovoked police violence and suspension of our first amendment rights, organizers cancelled all previously scheduled events. Instead we held daily spontaneously organized marches into downtown Seattle – in direct defiance of Schell’s suspension of the Constitution.
Both of the videos below were produced in 2000. The first, Trade Off, by documentary filmmaker Shaya Mercer, focuses mainly on Dolan, his organizing strategy and the wide range of international organizers and groups who helped make the protest possible.
The second video This is What Democracy Looks like was produced by Seattle Independent Media Center, which would spawn the birth of the global IndyMedia network. This film focuses more on the militarized police violence against peaceful protestors and the role of the week long protests in convincing third world WTO delegates to reject the draconian demands of the US and its first world allies.
Obama Resorts to Secret Treaties
Despite numerous attempts by the Bush and Obama administrations, the Doha Round of negotiations was never revived – thanks to the staunch stance of third world delegates.
Obama’s solution has been to try to introduce the same draconian corporate protections through two secret treaties, the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Negotiations for both treaties are being held in total secret. Although 600 corporations have been allowed to see (and write) the both of them, members of Congress and national parliaments are forbidden to see either treaty until they’re signed. Several sections of the TPPA draft have been leaked by Wikileaks. See New Zealand Kicks Off Global Protest Against TPPA
Obama is lobbying for fast track authority on TPPA. Under fast track, the Senate would be forced to vote the treaty up or down without debating its provisions. Congressional Democrats defeated Obama’s efforts to win fast track on TPPA earlier this year. Recently, however, the President expressed confidence a new pro-business Republican Congress will grant him this authority in 2015.
*Seattle Chief of Police Norm Stamper resigned one week after the WTO protests. He subsequently apologized, in 2009, for excessive and inappropriate use of force by Seattle police. In 2007, a federal jury ruled the city of Seattle was liable for arresting protesters without probable cause, a violation of their constitutional rights. As a result the city awarded a $1 million settlement to the 600+ activists arrested during the 1999 protests.
**The Zapatistas are a Mexican international liberation army founded in 1994 in reaction to the North American Free Trade Act (1994). They control several autonomous areas in rural Chiapas.
***Via Campesina is an international movement which coordinates peasant organizations of small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities.