This is What Democracy Looks Like

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.

Dirt: the Movie

Dirt: The Movie

Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow (2009)

Film Review

This documentary focuses on the rapid destruction of the planet’s topsoil, with its dire implications for food production and human survival. Through a combination of industrial farming, deforestation, urbanization and extractive mining, humankind has destroyed one-third of the world’s topsoil in a hundred years.

The film begins with a basic introduction to on the abundant microbial life that characterizes healthy topsoil. Plowing, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and heavy pesticide and herbicide use render soil infertile by destroying these microorganisms. Deforestation hastens the process by destroying deep root systems that protect against nutrient runoff. The productive farmland that isn’t wrecked by industrial farming and deforestation is paved over as cities expand or destroyed by fracking, mountaintop removal and strip mining. This voracious greed for new fossil fuels benefits a few hundred people and carries immense costs for the rest of us.

The film depicts quite eloquently the western slash and burn mentality that approaches food production like running a factory. Extracting a quick profit is all that matters. There is no planning whatsoever for food security, much less the needs of future generations. You clear cut a forest, plant acres of a single crop (an open invitation to pests) and pour on industrial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. In three to four years you have depleted the soil, and you cut down another forest.

Dirt: the Movie also poignantly portrays the link between environmental destruction and human degradation. It’s always the poorest and most disempowered who have their land destroyed by multinational corporations. Rapid desertification in Africa and India is forcing thousands of subsistence farmers to migrate to city slums – and Haitian mothers to make dirt cookies to ward of their children’s hunger pains.

Meanwhile increasing desertification (from a combination of deforestation and industrial farming) in Africa and India and the thousands of farmers forced to migrate to city slums when their land becomes useless. The film also emphasizes the link between environmental destruction and human degradation. It’s always the poorest and most disempowered who have their land destroyed by multinational corporations. The most heart breaking scene depicts Haitian mothers making dirt cookies to ward off their children’s hunger pains.

Water mismanagement also plays a major role in desertification. Because they have paved over their rivers, Los Angeles spends billions of dollars from as far away as Wyoming – and millions more managing rainwater runoff. Liberating their rivers would solve both problems at a fraction of the cost.

Significantly the main voices featured in the film are those of women of color: the late Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Mathai, who won a Nobel Prize for founding the Green Belt tree-planting movement, Indian environmentalist and organic farming advocate Vandana Shiva and Greening the South Bronx founder Majora Carter (see Greening the South Bronx). In addition to championing urban agriculture and green roof projects in the South Bronx, Carter has helped establish a prison greenhouse and organic farm at Rikers Island prison and the Green Team. The latter is a project that allows ex-cons to use the skills they have learned in tree planting, urban agriculture plots and New York’s first green roof* business.

*A green roof is a living roof partly or completely covered with vegetation, to optimize energy conservation and minimize water runoff.