Notes on the “Battle in Seattle” from someone who was there

Author: Mark Hosler

by Mark Hosler of Negativland
(www.negativland.com)

On Tuesday, November 30th, 1999 (and shortly before moving from Olympia, Washington to Santa Fe, New Mexico), I was part of the march and direct action protest against the WTO that was organized by the DIRECT ACTION NETWORK in Seattle.

Personally, I have never been comfortable with huge protests and chanting simplistic slogans, preferring to deal with political and anti-corporate issues through the music/performance group I am a part of (Negativland). But the issues surrounding the WTO are so compelling and frightening that I felt I had to be there. I was willing to risk arrest but was unprepared for how violent and aggressive the police would be towards peaceful protesters.

The DIRECT ACTION NETWORK itself was incredibly well organized, totally committed to nonviolent protest, and the group organized thousand’s into an action that successfully blocked every single street surrounding the WTO convention building. No one could get in or out!

The organizational structure and plans for the DIRECT ACTION NETWORK for this day were very cool ……there were small affinity groups (5 to 15 people at most), larger clusters of affinity groups, and finally huge wedges made of the clusters. Each “wedge” was assigned a specific street to block. There was nothing random about how this action happened! The DIRECT ACTION NETWORK itself, the wedges, clusters, and affinity groups were all decentralized and made decisions by consensus. There were no “leaders”.

We were out there by 7 a.m. and arrived in downtown by 8 a.m. I had assumed that the police would have had undercover folks at many of the planning meetings of the DIRECT ACTION NETWORK so that they would know exactly what was planned and have a way to head it off. These meetings were open to the public and for months D.A.N. had been making it very clear to Seattle police and officials what they planned to do. To my surprise, the various wedges spun off from the main march and got into position exactly as planned! There were D.A.N. volunteer medics, lawyers, legal observers and action co-ordinators with each wedge at their respective locked down intersections.

Communicators on bikes moved from wedge to wedge to keep everyone informed, and they also would pull folks from overly crowded areas to help the blockades at the weaker links. And of course, EVERYONE seemed to have a cell phone or was taping the events with their video camera. About 20 streets were blocked in all.

It was all very peaceful until I guess the cops got freaked out about being completely surrounded and closed in by the action. It was as if they were caught off guard by how successful the whole thing was and how many people came (what we later heard from the Mayor of Seattle was that the Secret Service was also freaking out and that about 10:30 a.m. they ordered the police to clear and “take control” of the streets). So many delegates were kept out that the entire day was basically a loss for the WTO. Some meetings went on but had so few major players in attendance that, for all effective purposes, the WTO WAS successfully shut down for the day. Even Madeline Albright, UN Secretary Kofi Annan and U.S. Trade Rep Catherine Barshefsky were trapped in their hotels (and tear gas got sucked into the air systems of the Sheraton Hotel, so they go gassed as well!)

There was a LOT of completely unprovoked firing of rubber bullets, concussion grenades, tear gas and pepper spray in the eyes of protesters who were peacefully sitting or standing in rows with their arms linked together. I never heard ANY warnings whatsoever before the police did this. My friend witnessed a police officer lean down to a seated protester, pull her goggles from her eyes, pull her head back, forcing her eyes open and spray pepper spray directly into her eyes. This happened many times. I got tear gassed and had concussion grenades tossed at me and rubber bullets were being fired at us. You may have read that the police only became violent after the protesters did. But the opposite is true. The police were firing on us for FOUR HOURS before any windows were broken by protesters.

STARBUCKS, NIKETOWN, BANANA REPUBLIC, WARNER BROTHERS, THE GAP, BANK OF AMERICA and NORDSTROM’S were all smashed up and spray painted. No local businesses were targeted, only huge corporate chains and banks. A very small minority did this — and I guess it looks bad in the press as that is what they will focus on, but it was fun to see PLANET HOLLYWOOD completely covered with anarchy symbols, eggs and spray paint all over NIKETOWN, all of STARBUCKS windows smashed, etc.

As I saw with my own eyes, the police provoked almost everything. It was so incredibly stupid. Its approaching winter here in the U.S., so they could have sprayed us with water and let us be wet and miserable. They could have just maintained a standoff until all the protesters got tired and went home. But they chose the violent response. And if you don’t already know, a civil emergency and curfew were declared and the National Guard came in. The violence is unfortunate, but since there were 3,000 (!!!!) media people in the city, I have to assume that if the average person doesn’t know about the WTO and that, for *some * darn reason, people are against it, they do now!!

I had some amazing and thoughtful conversations with delegates and NGO’s that we were blocked from getting in. Most of the NGO’s feel that they are on “our” side. They want the same things we do and wanted us to let them in so they could make their voice heard at the WTO meeting. They are the “liberal” voice inside the WTO. I responded that though I honored their good intentions and wished them no ill will, that the very nature of the WTO is so un-democratic, that it cannot be “fixed” and that today was a vote of NO CONFIDENCE in the WTO. As sorry as I was to inconvenience them, in order to make the statement the action was meant to make, no one could be let in or out.

A police officer tried to ram our line with his police car, smashing into the metal trash barrels we had placed in front of us. He leaped out, furious and screaming at us. The line I was in at that time was pretty thin, so we got out of his way. He grabbed one of the trash barrels and tossed it out of his way, spilling all the discarded bottles inside it onto the ground in front of his vehicle. He then drove forward, driving over the bottles and giving himself four flat tires!

At one point I was standing near a TV news reporter named Jim Foreman who was doing live coverage of the events. As I heard him tell what amounted to outright LIES about what was happening only 150 feet away from him (that the protesters provoked everything), I could not resist shouting over his shoulder into his microphone “You aren’t telling people what is really going on here! The police started all this violence! You’re lying!” Soon after, a small group started chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Jim Foreman has got to go!” and I overheard a plan being made to cut the cable going from his camera to their remote truck. (this particular reporter later physically attacked someone who would not get out of his way and called her a “hippie bitch”).

Despite what the media is showing you, there was very little real violence coming from the protesters. All it amounted to was a lot of broken windows and some graffiti. We did not hurt the police, the downtown was not set on fire. …nothing extreme like that happened….the $$ amount of destruction really amounts to very little. Considering how huge the whole thing was, I think that the incredible emphasis of D.A.N. on NON-VIOLENCE NO MATTER *WHAT * HAPPENS was a big success. The mood of the street was mostly wonderful and quite magical. Everyone was looking out for everyone else, helping each other, trying to block the few window smashers from doing more harm, finding medical assistance for those that were gassed or pepper sprayed.

When we were sprayed and shot at, everyone was yelling “WALK!! WALK!!” to make sure no one ran and got trampled. The more people got gassed and attacked, the more determined and resolved they were to not give up!! People would be temporarily dispersed from the crowd and then come right back to sit down again. It was like something I have only read about in biographies of Gandhi and it was intense and inspiring to see how amazingly caring and compassionate people could be under such extreme circumstances.

As lines of non-violent protesters sitting with their arms linked got sprayed and shot at and forced out of the way, a whole new line would take their place. People who were gassed would leave the area and come back once they had recovered (some of the things used actually wear off in about 20 minutes) The determination shown to simply NOT GIVE UP was extraordinary.

Of all things, BORDERS BOOKS (a corporate chain of bookstores that has put many small local booksellers out of business all over the U.S.), was letting people in to sit down or use their bathroom to wash off the tear gas!! BORDERS was only one-half block from some pretty crazy police violence, and I was amazed to see this happening. The manager was so distraught about what he was seeing in the streets he decided to do this (though almost all downtown businesses were closed, and this is THE major Xmas shopping area of Seattle.) I witnessed the surreal sight of seeing screaming and crying tear-gassed demonstrators streaming into the store, while through the window I could see someone at BORDERS front counter actually buying a book!

Seeing 50,000 to 85,000 people from labor, working-class folks, environmental groups, health issues folks, farmers, etc. all together was great. The range of ages crossed four generations, including lots of high school kids. Opposition to the WTO brought us all together.

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POSTSCRIPT- one week later…. Seeing the difference between what I saw with my own eyes, and what the media says “really” happened, has been an incredible experience. And as more video and testimony is surfacing, the true extent of police violence is becoming clear.

Things were MUCH worse than anything I witnessed. Police spraying hundreds of innocent bystanders in residential neighborhoods and cafes in the face, using nerve agents (biological weapons) on the protesters on the second day of protests, running over protesters with motorcycles, a woman who was four months pregnant and had nothing to do with the protests was thrown down and kicked in the abdomen and miscarried, police chasing protesters so they could kick them or strike them in the groin, people being thrown face down into the pavement and having their teeth broken, a person crawling on the ground from being so incapacitated from repeated gassing and having a police officer ram his baton up their ass and gassing them again, police attacking the Independent Media Center, police knocking on the car window of a woman videotaping and, when she rolled down her window to speak to the officer, spraying her right in the face and yelling “Tape that, bitch!” ….it goes on and on….. In fact, a Seattle City Council member is bringing in Amnesty International to look at the human rights abuses that occurred during the protests.

My tips for the WTO for the next time they meet-

Never hold a meeting in the most liberal part of the USA (stay away from Seattle, Olympia, Vancouver, Bellingham, Portland, Eugene, Berkeley and San Francisco).

Never hold your meeting in the USA (try Singapore or China).

Never hold your meeting in the downtown shopping center of a major US city (because Niketown and The Gap are easy targets.)

Never hold your meeting after Thanksgiving. (everyone wants to shop, not protest you! C’mon!).

Never hold your meeting on the eve of a new millennium (it’s too symbolic).

Never hold your meeting in a city with a mayor who was a free speech/anti-war protester in the 60’s. (he won’t be prepared and may be too “soft” on the protesters).

Never underestimate how disorganized and stupid the police and the Secret Service can be.

Never underestimate how well organized and determined your opposition will be.

Never underestimate how many people will be videotaping everything that happens to them.

Never do anything to hurt sea turtles (they are too cute and kids like them and it looks bad in the press).

And finally-

Never name your organization with letters that rhyme with “NO” and “GO” (It gives the protesters too many easy things to chant).

Mark Hoesler’s band Negativland was recently inducted into the Raptorial Hall of Fame.

The Impact of the “Battle In Seattle”

Author: Mark Engler

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, is a senior analyst with
Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming
Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the Web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com

The Impact of the “Battle In Seattle”

The 1999 protests against the WTO were dramatic enough to inspire a new feature film, but did they actually make a difference?

by Mark Engler

Nine years after the World Trade Organization came to Seattle, a new feature film sets out to dramatize the historic protests that the institution’s meetings provoked. The issue that Battle in Seattle filmmaker Stuart Townsend seeks to raise, as he recently stated, is “[what it takes] to create real and meaningful change.”

The question is notoriously difficult. In the film, characters like Martin Henderson’s Jay, a veteran environmental campaigner driven by a tragedy experienced on a past logging campaign, and Michelle Rodriguez’s Lou, a hard-bitten animal rights activist, debate the effectiveness of protest. Even as they take to Seattle’s streets, staring down armor-clad cops (Woody Harrelson, Channing Tatum) commanded by a tormented and indecisive mayor (Ray Liotta), they wonder whether their actions can have an impact.

Generally speaking, the response of many Americans is to dismiss protests out of hand—arguing that demonstrators are just blowing off steam and won’t make a difference. But if any case can be held as a counter-example, Seattle is it.

The 1999 mobilization against the World Trade Organization has never been free from criticism. As Andre 3000’s character in the movie quips, even the label “Battle in Seattle” makes the protests sound less like a serious political event and more “like a Monster Truck show.” While the demonstrations were still playing out and police were busy arresting some 600 people, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman issued his now-famous edict stating that deluded activists were just “looking for their 1960s fix.” This type of disregard has continued with the release of the film. A review in the Seattle Weekly dismissively asked, “Remind me again what those demonstrations against the WTO actually accomplished.”

While cynicism comes cheap, those concerned about global poverty, sweatshop labor, outsourced jobs, and threats to the environment can witness remarkable changes on the international scene. Today, trade talksat the WTO are in shambles, sister institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are now shriveled versions of their once-imposing selves, and the ideology of neoliberal corporate globalization is under intense fire, with mainstream economists defecting from its ranks and entire regions such as Latin America in outright revolt.

As global justice advocates have long argued, the forces that created these changes “did not start in Seattle.” Yet few trade observers would deny that the week of protest late in the last millennium marked a critical turning point.

What Happened in Seattle?

Battle in Seattle accurately depicts the mainstream media as being overwhelmingly focused on the smashed windows of Starbucks and Niketown–property destruction carried out by a small minority of protesters. In the past two decades, the editorial boards of major U.S. newspapers have been more dogged than even many pro-corporate legislators in pushing the “free trade” agenda. Yet, remarkably, acknowledgement of the WTO protests’ impact on globalization politics could be found even in their pages. Shortly after the event, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “On the tear-gas shrouded streets of Seattle, 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.”

Seattle was supposed to be a moment of crowning achievement for corporate globalization. Big-business sponsors of the Seattle Ministerial (donors of $75,000 or more included Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Weyerhaeuser, Boeing and GM) invested millions to make it a showcase of “New Economy” grandeur. Any student of public relations could see that the debacle they experienced instead could hardly be less desirable for advancing their agenda.

Rarely do protesters have the satisfaction of achieving their immediate goals, especially when their stated aims are as grandiose as shutting down a major trade meeting. Yet the direct action in Seattle did just that on its first day, with activists chained around the conference center forcing the WTO to cancel its opening ceremonies.

By the end of the week, negotiations had collapsed altogether. Trade representatives from the global South, emboldened by the push from civil society, launched their own revolt from within the conference. Jumping between scenes of street protest and depictions of the ministers’ trade debate, Townsend’s film illustrates this inside-outside dynamic. Dialogue at one point in the movie for actor Isaach De Bankole, who plays an African trade minister, could have been pulled almost verbatim from a real statement released that week by the Organization of African Unity. The ministers railed against “being marginalized and generally excluded on issues of vital importance for our peoples and their future.”

The demands of the developing countries’ governments were not always the same as those of the outside protesters. However, the diverse forces agreed on some key points. Expressing his disgust for how the WTO negotiations had been conducted, Sir Shridath Ramphal, the chief Caribbean negotiator, argued, “This should not be a game about enhancing corporate profits. This should not be a time when big countries, strong countries, the world’s wealthiest countries, are setting about a process designed to enrich themselves.”

Given that less powerful countries had typically been bullied into compliance at trade ministerials, this was highly unusual stuff. Yet it would become increasingly normal. Seattle launched a series of setbacks for the WTO and, to this day, the institution has yet to recover. Efforts to expand the reach of the WTO have repeatedly failed, and the overtly unilateralist Bush White House has been even less effective than the “cooperative” Clinton administration at getting its way in negotiations.

This past summer analyst Walden Bello dubbed the current round of WTO talks the “Dracula Round” because it lives in an undead state. No matter how many times elites try to revive the round, it seems destined to suffer a new death–as it did most recently in late July. Other agreements, such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which aimed to extend NAFTA throughout the hemisphere, and which drew protests in places like Quebec City and Miami, have since been abandoned altogether.

“We Care Too”

The altered fate of the WTO is itself very significant. But this is only part of a wider series of transformations that the global justice protests of the Seattle era helped to usher in. Toward the end of Battle In Seattle, Andre 3000’s character, an activist who spends a decent part of the film dressed as a sea turtle, makes a key point: “A week ago nobody knew what the WTO was,” he says. “Now… they still don’t know what it is. But at least they know it’s bad.”

The Seattle protests launched thousands of conversations about what type of global society we want to live in. While they have often been depicted as mindless rioters, activists were able to push their message through. A poll published in Business Week in late December 1999 showed that 52 percent of respondents were sympathetic with the protesters, compared with 39 percent who were not. Seventy-two percent agreed that the United States should “strengthen labor, environmental, and endangered species protection standards” in international treaties, while only 21 percent disagreed.

A wave of increased sympathy and awareness dramatically changed the climate for long-time campaigners. People who had been quietly laboring in obscurity for years suddenly found themselves amid a huge surge of popular energy, resources, and legitimacy. Obviously, the majority of Americans did not drop everything to become trade experts. But an impressive number, especially on college campuses and in union halls, did take time to learn more–about sweatshops and corporate power, about global access to water and the need for local food systems, about the connection between job loss at home and exploitation abroad.

With the protests that took place in the wake of Seattle, finance ministers who had grown accustomed to meeting in secretive sessions behind closed doors were suddenly forced to defend their positions before the public. Often, official spokespeople hardly offered a defense of WTO, IMF, and World Bank policies at all. Instead they spent most of their time trying to convince audiences that they, too, cared about poverty. In particular, the elites who gather annually in the Swiss Alps for the exclusive World Economic Forum became obsessed with branding themselves as defenders of the world’s poor. The Washington Post noted of the 2002 Forum, “The titles of workshops read like headlines from the Nation: ‘Understanding Global Anger,’ ‘Bridging the Digital Divide,’ and ‘The Politics of Apology.’”

Joseph Stiglitz, a former chief economist of the World Bank who was purged after he outspokenly criticized the IMF, perhaps most clearly described the remarkable shift in elite discussion that has taken place since global justice protests first captured the media spotlight. In a 2006 book, he wrote:

I have been going to the annual meetings [in Davos, Switzerland] for many years, and had always heard globalization spoken of with great enthusiasm. What was fascinating… was the speed at which views had shifted [by 2004]…. This change is emblematic of the massive change in thinking about globalization that has taken place in the last five years all around the world. In the 1990s, the discussion at Davos had been about the virtues of opening international markets. By the early years of the millennium, it centered on poverty reduction, human rights, and the need for fairer trade arrangements.

Changing Policy

Of course, much of the shift at Davos is just talk. But the wider political changes go far beyond rhetoric. As Stiglitz noted, “Even the IMF now agrees that capital market liberalization has contributed neither to growth nor to stability.” Grassroots activity has translated into concrete change on other levels as well. Even some critics of the global justice movement have noted that activists have scored a number of significant policy victories. In a September 2000 editorial entitled “Angry and Effective,” The Economist reported that the movement already has changed things — and not just the cocktail schedule for the upcoming meetings. Protests… succeeded in scuttling the [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s] planned Multilateral Agreement on Investment in 1998; then came the greater victory in Seattle, where the hoped-for launch of global trade talks was aborted…. This has dramatically increased the influence of mainstream NGOs, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and Oxfam…. Assaulted by unruly protesters, firms and governments are suddenly eager to do business with the respectable face of dissent.

Various combinations of “respectable” negotiators and “unruly” dissidents have forced shifts on a wide range of issues. It is not glamorous work to trace the issue-by-issue changes that activists have eked out—whether it’s compelling multinational pharmaceutical companies to drop, intellectual property lawsuits against African governments seeking to provide affordable AIDS drugs for their citizens, or creating a congressional ban on World Bank loans that impose user fees on basic health care and education for the poor, or persuading administrators at more than 140 colleges to make their institutions take part in the anti-sweatshop Worker’s Rights Consortium. Yet these changes affect many lives.

Take just one demand: debt relief. For decades, countries whose peoplesuffer tremendous deprivation have been forced to send billions of dollars to Washington in payment for past debts–many of which were accumulated by dictators overthrown years ago. Debt relief advocates were among the thousands who joined the Seattle mobilization, and they saw their cause quickly gain mainstream respectability in the altered climate that followed. In 2005, the world’s wealthiest countries agreed to a breakthrough debt cancellation agreement that, while imperfect, shifted roughly $1 billion per year in resources back to the global South.

In early 2007, Imani Countess, national coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee Africa Program, noted that the impact of the deal has been profound:

In Ghana, the money saved is being used for basic infrastructure, including rural feeder roads, as well as increased expenditure on education and health care.

In Burundi, elimination of school fees in 2005 allowed an additional 300,000 children to enroll.

In Zambia, since March 31, 2006, free basic health care has been provided for all [along with] a pledge to recruit 800 medical personnel and slightly over 4,000 teachers.

In Cameroon, [the government made] a pledge to recruit some 30,000 new teachers by the year 2015 and to construct some 1,000 health facilities within the next six years.

“They won the verbal and policy battle,” said Gary Hufbauer, a “pro-globalization” economist at the Institute for International Economics in 2002, speaking of the groups that have organized major globalization protests. “They did shift policy. Are they happy that they shifted it enough? No, they’re not ever going to be totally happy, because they’re always pushing.”

A Crisis of Legitimacy

In its review of Battle in Seattle, the Hollywood industry publication Variety notes that “the post-9/11 war on terror did a great deal to bury [the] momentum” of the global justice movement. This idea has become a well-worn trope; however, it is only partially true. In the wake of 9/11, activists did shift attention to opposing the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. But, especially in the global South, protesters combined a condemnation of U.S. militarism with a critique of “Washington Consensus” economic policies. In the post-Seattle era, these polices have faced a crisis of legitimacy throughout much of the world.

Privatization, deregulation, and corporate market access have failed to reduce inequality or create sustained growth in developing countries. This has led an increasing number of mainstream economists, Stiglitz most prominent among them, to question some of the most cherished tenets of neoliberal “free trade” economics. Not only are the intellectual foundations of neoliberal doctrine under assault, the supposed beneficiaries of these economic prescriptions are now walking away. Throughout Latin America, waves of popular opposition to Washington Consensus policies have forced conservative governments from power. In election after election since the turn of the millennium, the people have put left-of-center leaders in office.

The Asian financial crisis, which occurred shortly before Seattle, and the collapse of Argentina’s economy, which took place shortly afterwards, starkly illustrated the risks of linking a country’s future to the whims of international financial speculators. Those Asian countries hammered in 1997 and 1998 have now stockpiled massive currency reserves so that the White House and the IMF will not be able to dictate their economic policies in the future. Similarly, Latin American nations have paid off IMF loans early so as to escape the institution’s control.

The result has been swift and decisive. In 2004, the IMF’s loan portfolio was roughly $100 billion. Today it has fallen to around $10 billion, rendering the institution almost impotent. As economist Mark Weisbrot notes, “the IMF’s loss of influence is probably the most important change in the international financial system in more than half a century.”

Currently, the United States is experiencing its own crisis of deregulation and financial gambling. We are now afforded the rare sight of Sen. John McCain blasting “Wall Street greed” and accusing financiers of “[treating] the American economy like a casino.” Meanwhile, Sen. Barack Obama decries the removal of government oversight on markets and the doctrine of trickle-down prosperity as “an economic philosophy that has completely failed.” In each case, their words might have been plucked from Seattle’s teach-ins and protest signs.

Townsend’s film ends with the admonition that “the battle continues.” The struggle in the coming years will be to compel those in power to transform campaign-trail rhetoric into a real rejection of corporate globalization. The White House would still like to pass ever-newer “free trade” agreements. And the WTO, while bruised and battered, has not been eliminated entirely. Because its original mandate is still intact, the institution has considerable power in dictating the terms of economic development in much of the world. Opposing this will require continued grassroots pressure.

On a broader level, huge challenges of global poverty, inequality, militarism, and environmental degradation remain. Few, if any, participants in the 1999 mobilization believed that a single demonstration would eliminate these problems in one tidy swoop, and I very much doubt that anyone involved with the Battle in Seattle thinks a single film will solve them either. But the coming fight will be easier if the spirit that drove those protests animates a new surge of citizen activism in the post-Bush era.