“Those who were arguing they were going to shut the WTO down were in fact successful today.” That was the frank admission of Seattle police chief Norm Stamper after the events of November 1999.
A huge protest had disrupted the World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in the city.
US president Bill Clinton, government ministers from across the globe, and the heads of the world’s mightiest corporations were there to plan how they could increase their domination of the planet.
Instead, tens of thousands of protesters gave a glimpse of the power of ordinary people to challenge the rule of this global elite.
Demonstrators were met with pepper spray, beatings, rubber bullets, armoured cars and billowing clouds of teargas. But the demonstrators won – and they won because of a unity forged between trade unionists, students, environmental activists and many others.
The WTO opening ceremony was cancelled. Delegates simply could not reach it through the protest-filled streets.
And the “Battle of Seattle” opened up a new chapter in politics.
It became a focus for issues from child labour to debt, the environment, working conditions and union rights. The power of the protest showed millions that the corporations can be halted.
The first protests took place on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 November. On Sunday, as WTO delegates began arriving in Seattle, there were two somewhat larger demonstrations. There was also a rolling programme of teach-ins and meetings alongside the demonstrations.
On the Monday the sea turtle costumes that would become an iconic image of the Seattle WTO protests made their first appearance, in an environmental protection and animal welfare march. Other groups of protesters demonstrated outside the WTO’s evening reception.
The demonstrations and meetings had a carnival atmosphere. Diane Lively, a student from Alabama, had travelled thousands of miles to be there. “I just want to tell the WTO to get their hands off our planet,” she said. “I want people before profits.”
Tetteh Hormeku, from Ghana, asked, “How can there be a ‘level playing field’ between the US and, say, Burkina Faso in Africa? There, 86 percent of the population depends on agriculture, but there are fewer than 200 tractors in the whole country and 87 percent of the agricultural population is illiterate.”
Mike Ellison, a Seattle health worker and union shop steward, said, “The WTO is about corporations brushing us aside and seizing everything. Its rules mean poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America – and in the US as well.”
The defining moment of victory came early on Tuesday morning, when the direct action protesters out-manoeuvred the authorities and shut down the WTO.
The police assumed demonstrations and blockades would not start before 8am, and so did not deploy their forces until 7.30am. However, demonstrators gathered much earlier. Well before 8am protesters occupied intersections on all sides of the conference centre.
The police began using teargas and pepper spray to force demonstrators away.
Labour organiser Verlen Wilder said, “The cops told them to sit down. They shot percussion bombs into the crowd and they teargassed them. And they brought buses around and arrested them all.
“That’s when we said, enough, that’s it, we’re going to protest with them, we’re going to go right down the middle of downtown.”
A workers’ march moved off towards the town centre, but the trade union leaders were determined to keep the demonstration away from the convention centre.
Union officials tried to channel the demonstrators down a side street. Unwillingly the first group obeyed their instructions. Then came the longshoremen (dockers). Their large contingent was packed with people who had stopped work in protest at the WTO – 1,200 were out in Seattle, a similar number at Tacoma and hundreds more in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Long Beach.
“We’re going to the convention,” shouted one crane operator. “I’m going to help those turtle kids,” said another docker, referring to the environmental protesters on the receiving end of police brutality a few streets away. For a minute the line of marshals held and then, slowly, it began to part. Chanting, cheering, the trade unionists swept straight on.
The two groups, the workers and the young protesters, met. “Union!” screamed the trade unionists. “Power!” replied the students and youth. “Solidarity! Solidarity!” they chanted together.
So in the centre of Seattle, by the citadels of corporate power, stood Boeing workers and students, post workers and people with floral headscarves – all together. “Disperse or you will be subject to riot control measures,” announced the police. Were they going to teargas the teamsters (truck drivers), steel workers and machinists (engineers)? They were not. They chose defeat on the day instead of risking wider rebellion.
For the two hours while the union-led march went past, the police fired no gas or rubber bullets. They were beaten. The WTO opening ceremony was cancelled. Only later, after the trade unionists left, did the police unleash their fury. Dozens of protesters fell choking, their eyes and noses burnt by the gas and pepper sprays. Others suffered wounds from the rubber bullets.
In 1968, when police smashed demonstrators against the Vietnam war at the Democratic Party convention, the protesters had chanted, “The whole world is watching”. Now the same chant was taken up.
Protester Tom Gorlick said, “I was part of the Chicago ’68 demonstrations. That defined a generation and Seattle will as well.”
That afternoon in Seattle, the mayor declared a state of emergency and a curfew. Large squads in riot armour and gas masks, backed by armoured vehicles, began sweeping through downtown using percussion grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas to force remaining protesters and bystanders alike off the street.
Several hundred protesters retreated to a residential area and, when police followed, angry residents joined the protests.
The National Guard was called in before daylight the next day. Troops and officers lined the perimeter of the “no protest zone”. Throughout the day, police used tear gas to disperse crowds downtown, although a permitted demonstration organised by the steelworkers’ union was held along the waterfront.
President Clinton was unable to address a delegates’ reception.
By the Friday the protests continued and the police had essentially backed off. The WTO talks collapsed and thousands marched together again through Seattle.
Cory Mckinley was a worker at Kaiser Aluminium who was locked out by his employers for 14 months. He said, ”Never in a million years did I think I would be walking with these sort of people. My motto has been there is nothing more beautiful than a big redwood deck. Now I have learnt about ecology and those things.”
Protester Cynthia Smith said, “We are fighting for real justice in a world that denies justice to billions. Something is changing in America when you can have a day like this.”
Bob Hasegawa, secretary of Teamsters union Seattle local 174, said, “It was a once in a lifetime thing. I was amazed how seriously we kicked their butts! They still can’t get their shit together. They have been trying to have meetings, and they just can’t seem to.”
The people in this article were either interviewed by Charlie Kimber for Socialist Worker’s 1999 eyewitness report of the Seattle demonstrations, or come from interviews by the University of Washington’s WTO history project