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wenty years have passed since the battles of Seattle when tens of thousands of protestors confronted the World Trade Organization (WTO) at its Third Ministerial meeting. For many geographers of my generation (at least in the US and Canada) the protests on November 30, 1999 (N30), constitute one of the high-water marks of left political activist organizing—an event that raised hopes for a radically different world. Although our hopes were not realized, the twentieth anniversary of these events provides an occasion for reflection. In the immediate aftermath of the protests, Dr. Gerry Pratt, then editor of Society & Space, invited two essays interpreting Seattle, which were drafted quickly and placed at the front of issue 18(1): one by the late Neil Smith (2000), a second by Jim Glassman, Scott Prudham, and me (2000). I thank the editors of Society & Space for making these two essays free to access and the opportunity to add a few lines of personal reflection.
Rereading these essays at twenty years remove, they feel alive since they reflect the sentiment of the moment. Their analysis of the situation has aged well, too. If there is an error—but that is probably not the right word—it is that the tone of these essays is overly optimistic, written as if one big street protest could spark a movement that would reshape our world. Consider these lines from the last paragraph of Smith’s essay (2000): “Seattle was about getting the world to spin the right way. Whether it becomes a sustainable global movement with the power to remake the world—global Seattle—remains to be seen.” Viewed from the present, to even raise this question feels naïve. But this sense only demonstrates how far the world has shifted to the right since N30.
On the morning of N30, I joined Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), a union fighting for the rights of Latinx workers of Oregon from their base in the Willamette Valley. I marched in solidarity with PCUN because the union prioritizes workplace organizing and political education—strategic ingredients I thought essential for effective mass mobilizing against the globalization of capital. I also had some misgivings about the affinity-group model reflected by the Direct Action Network (DAN). In my experience, after major protest events, such groups tend to dissolve. Labor unions, by contrast, can use events like the battles in Seattle as a springboard to build strength elsewhere. Still, 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) provided one exception. In COSATU’s conception, our confrontation with the WTO was another step in a global battle against a form of neoliberal apartheid. I also recall that the President of the Longshoremen (or ILWU, which closed the Port of Seattle on N30) received the loudest applause. His speech was concise. “Let’s get on downtown. 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 (2000) 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? 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 may 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. The left divided, spatially and tactically, engaging in political combat with different means and aims (see Wainwright, Prudham and Glassman, 2000). Moreover, the battles over interpreting the ‘battle in Seattle’ started before the fires on 4th Street had even burned out.
At least in the USA, the left rarely acknowledges a deep fault line in interpretation. The WTO Ministerial resumed on December 1, 1999—one day after N30—and a full-blown Ministerial occurred in the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, protected by the US military (the National Guard). The Seattle Ministerial 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 was twisting arms to close the deal on the ‘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 (Lal Das, 2003). 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.
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 (Wainwright, 2006). Meanwhile the movement for justice in Palestine articulated the BDS platform, which was to be announced at the University of Minnesota on 11 September 2001. The press conference was canceled.
In Minnesota like elsewhere, the surge of activist energy pivoting around 1999–2000 dissipated in the wake of 9/11. The word ‘anti-globalization’ dropped out of the left vernacular. Smith’s (2000) radical conception of a movement where we “construct a wholly different, popular internationalism that does away with class-exclusionary institutions like the WTO” never got off the ground. 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 heard 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 examine 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 (Wainwright and Kim, 2008).
Two decades on, the struggle continues. ‘Global Seattle’ was easier to imagine then, but we need it even more now. The work of groups like Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, battling at the intersection of labor struggle and justice for migrants, has taken on new urgency. May the anniversary of those battles inspire renewed militancy today.