The 1999 WTO protests shut down Seattle and brought new attention to the effects of global trade. The event looms large in the activist imagination today.
When Seattle police began tear-gassing peaceful protesters on November 30, 1999, John Sellers was supposed to be in jail.
A day earlier, he had rappelled off a crane to hang a giant banner emblazoned with two one-way street signs. One was labeled “WTO” and the other “Democracy,” with their arrows pointing in opposite directions.
He was visiting Seattle that week as a member of the Ruckus Society, a Portland-based group specializing in high-profile “direct action” that calls attention to environmental and economic injustice. The focus of the group’s attention was the World Trade Organization, whose delegates were set to meet at the Washington State Convention Center to kick off global trade negotiations for the new millennium.
The delegates were met by an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 protesters who feared the ill effects of globalization—a coalition including environmentalists, labor unions, indigenous groups, international NGOs, and students. It was a nonviolent protest that blocked entrances to the convention center, but when the Seattle Police Department deployed tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters, a violent melee broke out downtown. Anarchist groups seized on the chaos to destroy cars and smash windows, causing an estimated $20 million in property damage and lost sales in the city.
The event became known as the Battle of Seattle, and while it was hardly the first activist effort to take on globalization, its scale and impact marked a defining moment in the evolution of activist tactics and law enforcement’s response. The mass street protests successfully shut down the WTO meeting and stalled trade talks that were criticized as detrimental to the developing world. An event that was supposed to mark Seattle’s arrival on the world stage instead became a cri de coeur for the global justice movement.
“Seattle saw the emergence of a new form of, and frame for, protest,” says York University sociologist Lesley Wood, author of Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action After the WTO Protests in Seattle. “It marked a generation of political activism, and because it was successful in the actual shutting down of the meeting—which doesn't happen that often—the story went viral pre-social media.”
Sellers was arrested for his crane stunt, as he expected. What he didn’t expect was for police to release him, a protest organizer, on the eve of a major international event—one that was bringing President Bill Clinton to town. But the Ruckus Society had previously left a credit card with a bailbondswoman just in case, and much to his surprise, he was allowed to post bail.
“I couldn’t believe they let us out of jail the night before the WTO. They had us,” Sellers recounted last week at a 20th anniversary panel discussion in Seattle hosted by the Northwest news outlet Crosscut.
Out on bail, Sellers absorbed the fleeting carefree hours as tens of thousands of people thronged the streets before the violence on N30, as the last day of November became known in protest parlance. He watched as Teamsters square danced with environmentalists in sea turtle costumes, college students boogied down to late-’90s rave music, and Infernal Noise Brigade sparked a generation of radical marching bands.
“It was the best protest party I’ve ever been to,” Sellers said. Following relatively milquetoast social movements in the ’80s and early ’90s, Wood said the WTO protests marked a moment when organizers realized that “protest doesn’t have to be boring anymore.”
A street party was not what Washington Governor Gary Locke and Seattle Mayor Paul Schell had in mind. Earlier that year, they were tickled when the White House had selected Seattle to host an event whose first two rounds had taken place in two alpha global cities, Singapore and Geneva. Washington state likes to tout itself as the most trade-dependent state in the nation and civic leaders thought Seattle was a poster child for free trade. “Choosing Seattle was a huge strategic error,” said Sellers, recalling the post-grunge city as a hotbed of political radicalism and a stronghold of the labor movement.
Releasing Sellers was just one of many errors the Seattle Police Department made during the event. They allowed the protesters to block intersections at the front door of the convention center, and then used heavy-handed riot police tactics to disperse them. Big-city police have since learned from the Seattle Police Department’s failures 20 years ago: It’s a big reason why protesters today are quarantined in “free speech zones” miles away from their targeted event.
If police learned from their counterparts in Seattle, protesters did too. The 1999 WTO protests loom large in the activist imagination. Tactics deployed in Seattle spread through nascent online listservs and message boards, leading to the global proliferation of now standard urban protest practices, including carnivalesque costumes and floats, on-site real-time media, and bodies-on-the-line direct action, as well as more controversial components like black bloc anarchists. While the black bloc tactic traces its roots to West Germany in the 1980s, the bandana-obscuring-the-face anarchist gained mainstream attention with media coverage of the WTO protests. Today the black bloc has resurged in antifa groups fighting the far right.
Conversely, activists can thank the global justice movement for pioneering the organization of simultaneous worldwide events. When this year’s Global Climate Strike in September saw some 4 million people in 4,500 cities and towns demand action to address the climate crisis, organizers were building on a legacy that began with solidarity protests in the late 1990s. According to Wood’s research, there were protests in 54 cities in June 1999 against the G8 meeting in Cologne; activists took to the streets in 97 cities in November 1999 against the WTO.
One of the more mundane but enduring aspects of the WTO protests was their democratic organizing techniques. “The Occupy movement and the Indiganados in Barcelona inherited a lot, from spokescouncils to general assemblies,” Wood says. To this day, the Movement for Black Lives and radical environmentalists continue to use spokescouncils to efficiently find consensus among large groups.
Central to the whole event, of course, were the issues of trade and globalization. Twenty years later, these issues play a leading role in national and geopolitical affairs, in ways that don’t break down neatly along traditional party lines and don’t seem to have a clear trajectory going forward. That wasn’t the case in 1999, Wood says: “Trade agreements were accelerating and there was a sense that the WTO was going to incorporate the whole planet” into a global trade deal.
But she credits the protests with empowering delegates from developing countries to walk away from a deal on agriculture that the U.S. and EU were foisting upon them. “The stakes were very high because at that point countries from the global south and NGOs felt like it was a done deal and there was no way to stop it,” she says.
Even if free trade remains a central issue in the political arena, today’s protest movements have become more insular than they were 20 years ago. Instead of targeting global institutions, there’s more focus on national issues. As a result, activists are arguably less connected today than they were in 1999. Rather than coordinating action through international networks, there’s a greater focus on sharing tactics. “Chileans apparently learned from Hong Kongers that you can use laser pointers to take down drones,” Wood says.
In Seattle, global solidarity hasn’t disappeared. On Black Friday, the eve of N30’s 20th anniversary, the Puget Sound Anarchists are calling for a one-day fare strike to protest the rising cost of living in Seattle. While public transit might seem like an odd target in “America’s bus-lovingest town,” the organizers cite the turnstile-jumping Chilean high school students as their inspiration. They also extol a list of recent social unrest, from France to Hong Kong to Ecuador to Haiti.
The world might be a different place two decades later—Seattle certainly is—but echoes of the WTO protests can be heard all over.