Reflections upon the battles in Seattle at 20

Though I am neither a migrant farmworker nor a member of their union, on the morning of N30 I stood with Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), which fights for the rights of Latinx workers of rural Oregon from their base in the Willamette Valley. I marched in solidarity with PCUN because the union prioritizes workplace organizing and political education—ingredients I felt to be essential for effective mass mobilizing against the WTO. Moreover, though I wanted to participate in the march with labor, I sought to emphasize the transnational dimension of our struggle. I also had some misgivings about the affinity group model reflected by the Direct Action Network (DAN). In my experience, after protest events, such groups tend to dissolve. Unions, by contrast, can use events like Seattle to build strength elsewhere.

But of course it was the DAN that shut down the streets around the Seattle Convention Center. I missed that, to my regret, because all morning I was listening to union leaders giving predictable speeches at the labor rally a mile away. The speaker from South Africa’s Congress of Trade Unions (COSATU) was one exception. In COSATU’s conception, our confrontation with the WTO was another step in a global battle against apartheid. And I recall that the President of the Longshoremen (or ILWU, which closed the Port of Seattle on N30) received the loudest applause. His speech was short. “Let’s get on downtown,” he said. “We need to join the fight.”

Thus we marched, led by the leadership of the AFL-CIO. Unaffiliated unions like PCUN walked behind, so we were still outside of the city center when it was announced by bullhorn that the WTO Ministerial was canceled. The jubilation! The thrill was palpable. We were making history and we knew it.

Two blocks later, however, the union march was physically directed away from downtown. Union men linked arms to prevent the mass from straying off the permitted route of the march and entering the city center—where, at that very moment, the melee was peaking. I pushed through the cordon and joined those actions. Some others did too, but most did not. The labor march turned away from history in the making. In his next Nation column, Alex Cockburn posed a sharp counterfactual question: what if all those rank and file union members—who probably numbered 20,000—had refused orders, marched downtown, and helped the affinity groups to hold their ground?1 We could have made it impossible for Bill Clinton and US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky to kick-start the Seattle Ministerial the next day under cover from the National Guard. We could have held on for several days. We could have won a great deal more.

Alas, that did not happen. Indeed, some of the union leaders responsible for redirecting their members away from the street conflict would claim credit for the victory in Seattle. Thus, there was not one battle in Seattle: there were battles. For not only was the left divided, spatially and tactically, engaging in political combat with different means and aims.2 Moveover, the battles over interpreting the ‘battle in Seattle’ started before the fires on 4th street had even burned out.3

The left, at least in the USA, still rarely addresses one deep fault line in interpretation. The left in the USA tends to forget that the WTO Ministerial resumed on December 1, 1999—the day after N30—and that the WTO held a full-blown Ministerial that very nearly pushed through a major new international agreement on trade and finance policy. During this time, the National Guard locked Seattle down. Inside the Convention Center, the US delegation were twisting arms to close the deal on their ‘Millennial Program’.

Remarkably, they failed. The Ministerial in Seattle failed because a group of delegates from the developing world, led in particular by African and Asian states, held up to pressure from the USA, refusing to commit to another round of neoliberal policies.4 They probably could not have stopped the agenda if the US leadership had not lost so much time and authority with the conflict around the protests. Still, it was the courage and leadership of those developing-world delegates within the WTO Ministerial that closed the chapter on the Seattle protests. Their courage, too, should be remembered.5

These battles left a deep mark upon my life. They gave new impetus to the left in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where I lived. For the next year, I was involved in a flurry of meetings and protests, in which many more people were involved than before Seattle. The Mayday protest of 2000, for instance, felt five times larger than the previous year. A conference on anti-globalization organized by students at the University of Minnesota bought out hundreds of people. Then, along with some other anti-globalization activists, I redirected energy toward one of the pillars of Minnesota’s political economy: Cargill, a giant multinational that controls a vast share of the world’s grain supply. We managed to organize one large protest at Cargill’s global headquarters. Many of us also marched with the movement that April 2000 in Washington DC, where we targeted the World Bank and IMF annual meetings, and at the WTO Ministerial in Cancún, where the protests played out very differently than in Seattle.6

Nevertheless, in Minnesota like elsewhere, this surge of activist energy dissipated after 9/11. The words ‘anti-globalization’ dropped out of the left vernacular. We faced bigger problems: ending the war in Afghanistan, stopping the invasion of Iraq, confronting Islamophobia, beating back the right wing. Obviously, we failed.

Seattle was not the acme of my years of anti-globalization protest. That came with the 2005 WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong, where I was arrested and held for two days with around two thousand other protesters. I was jailed with comrades from Indonesia, Thailand, and Taiwan. Sadly, I never saw from them again. Fortunately, I was able to forge ties later with some of the workers and farmers from South Korea who were also arrested in Hong Kong. The Korean contingent was among the largest and most militant at the Cancún and Hong Kong Ministerials. In subsequent years, I collaborated with Korean colleagues to explain the depth of the anti-WTO sentiments in Korea and the political valences expressed in transnational protest—for instance, when a large group of Korean protesters went back to Seattle to protest against the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement.7

On a scholarly level, I continued to fight the battles in Seattle for a few years. If I made any contribution, it was to correct the lack of emphasis in the literature on the international conflicts that played out within the Seattle Ministerial and to show how those battles have continued to play out in Cancún, Hong Kong, Doha and beyond. As for my activism, like most of the left in the US, my energies were redirected toward other causes—particularly indigenous land rights and climate change.

Today the work of groups like Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, battling at the intersection of labor struggle and justice for transmigrants, has taken on new urgency. Two decades after the battles of Seattle, our struggles continue. May the anniversary of those battles inspire renewed militancy today.

1 Republished in A. Cockburn and J. St. Clair. 2000. Five Days that Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond. New York: Verso.

2 See J. Wainwright, S. Prudham and J. Glassman. 2000. “The battles in Seattle: microgeographies of resistance and the challenge of building alternative futures.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 18(1): 5–13.

3 In early days, the principal points of contention for the left were to confront the narrative that our protests were violent, and internal squabbling over credit and tactics. Upon the discussion matured to produce nuanced discussions about movement strategy, dynamics of race and difference in the movement, and the challenge of international solidarity. For instance, see (a chronological selection): A. Starr. 2000. Naming the Enemy: Anti-corporate Social Movements Confront Globalization. London: Zed Books; J. Glassman. 2002. ‘From Seattle (and Ubon) to Bangkok: the scales of resistance to corporate globalization’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20(5), 513-533; T. McFarlane and I. Hay. 2003. ‘The battle for Seattle: Protest and popular geopolitics in The Australian newspaper’. Political Geography 22(2), 211-232; F. Jawara and A. Kwa. 2004. Behind the Scenes at the WTO: The Real World of International Trade Negotiations. London: Zed Books; A. Starr. 2004. ‘How can anti-imperialism not be anti-racist? The North American anti-globalization movement’. The Journal of World-Systems Research 10(1), 119-151; J. Wainwright. 2007. ‘Spaces of resistance in Seattle and Cancún’. In Contesting Neoliberalism: Urban Frontiers, 179-203; D. Solnit and R. Solnit. 2009. The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle. Oakland: AK Press.

4 See B. Lal Das. 2003. WTO: The Doha Agenda: The New Negotiations on World Trade. London: Zed.

5 Later renamed the ‘Doha Round’, because the Seattle negotiations were concluded in Doha, Qatar (where the US government mobilized pro-US sentiments in the wake of 9/11 to push through a very bad deal for developing countries): see Lal Das (2003) WTO: The Doha Agenda. For reasons beyond the scope of this essay, the Doha agreement was never fully realized.

6 See J. Wainwright. 2006. “Spaces of resistance in Seattle and Cancún.” In Contesting Neoliberalism: The Urban Frontier. J. Peck, H. Leitner, and E. Sheppard, Eds. New York: Guilford, 179–203.

7 See J. Wainwright and S-J. Kim. 2008. “Battles in Seattle redux: transnational resistance to a neoliberal trade agreement.” Antipode 40(4), 513–534.