Ben ManskI: Seattle WTO Uprising Still a Force in World Events, 15 Years Later

December 1, 2014
Ben Manski
news photo
We live in an era in which it is increasingly normal for individuals not only to reject the power of corporations over their lives, but for some to even occupy public space and defy police and established authorities. Ben Manski discusses how this era was inaugurated on November 30th, 1999 in the streets of Seattle.

Republished from the Berkeley Journal of Sociology
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 2014 Berkeley Journal of Sociology

It was the uprising that began the 21st century. One hundred thousand people gathered in Seattle, Washington to shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The result? Instead of launching a so-called “Millenium Round” of negotiations among global elites about the future of world governance, the Seattle confrontation unleashed a new global spirit of democratic resistance and revolution. The democratic turn of the century had begun.

Over the week of November 28th to December 3rd, 1999, the streets of Seattle were filled with marchers whose banners flew the colors of every hue of the social movements of the 1990s. At that historical moment, that unity in diversity was remarkable, especially where it revealed new alliances between labor unions and environmental groups, urban organizers and rural farmers, and people of the Global North and the Global South.

More remarkable still was that these alliances succeeded in their ambitious goal of shutting down the WTO meeting. Led by thousands of young activists trained in the nonviolent wilderness defense campaigns of the Pacific Northwest, on November 30, 1999, the Seattle protesters effectively blocked the entrances to the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

In response, the police cracked skulls, broke arms, attacked the protesters with pepper spray, plastic projectiles, tear gas, and stun grenades, and instituted martial law in much of the city. By the next day, tens of thousands of Seattleites, angered by the police violence, had joined the protests. Next, scores of WTO delegates walked out in a show of support for the uprising, sounding the beginning of the end for the WTO meeting. Supporters of the Seattle uprising rallied in hundreds of communities around the world. By the end of the week, labor unions and community groups in western Washington had organized a regional general strike, the first such mass labor action widely observed in the area in nearly a century.

The Seattle uprising was to prove a turning point in world history. Before Seattle, corporatization rolled forward with an air of inevitability. It seemed obvious that transnational corporations would gain control of the global economy. Workers, communities, young people might resist—and resist they did—but they would lose.

What happened in 1999 ended that prophecy. In the streets of Seattle, the fits and starts of anti-corporate resistance that had been building throughout the 1990s transformed into a cohesive radical democracy movement. The slogan of Seattle announced that “This is What Democracy Looks Like!” That new slogan, together with novel methods of mass democratic action such as the ‘people’s mic,’ ‘action spokescouncils,’ and independent media, became the words and the acts by which much social unrest has become known over the past fifteen years.

In the two years following Seattle, mass demonstrations and uprisings against the institutions of global capitalism spread like wildfire. In cities across the globe—in both Global South and Global North countries—tens of thousands of local people would join with traveling comrades from abroad to confront elites wherever they convened: from the meetings of the WTO, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Bank, to the G8, NATO, political party conventions, and the UN Conference of Parties (COP) on climate change. Such protests occurred in Austin, Barcelona, Boston, Cancun, Cologne, Copenhagen, Davos, Genoa, Gothenburg, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Madison, Melbourne, Miami, Minneapolis, Montreal, New York City, Philadelphia, Prague, Santiago, Sao Paolo, Seoul, Quebec City, Washington DC, and many other cities. Capital was global, but so too was the resistance.

The resistance took many forms over the next decade. In much of the Global North, the coalitions that had led the opposition to the WTO, IMF, and World Bank became, after September 11, 2001, leading voices in opposing the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the U.S., many of the veterans of Seattle also became leaders in the new voting rights movement that emerged in response to the Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004 presidential recounts.

Across much of the Global South—where social movements had already for decades resisted the IMF, World Bank, and other instruments of global capital—anti-capitalist political parties came to power that championed, “as much representative democracy as necessary, and as much participatory democracy as possible,” in the words of Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Alvarez Herrera. And across the entire globe, spreading from its origins in Brazil, a new World Social Forum process raised the cry, “Another World is Possible!” as it posed a grassroots alternative to the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of global capitalists and world leaders in Davos, Switzerland.

By 2008, when global capitalism crashed, the global movement that had won one of its first major victories in Seattle had matured and become a part of the everyday culture of tens—perhaps hundreds—of millions of people across the planet.

That meant that in 2009, when governments across Europe and the Mediterranean imposed harsh austerity policies, students and youth organized a first “global wave” of strikes and occupations. These were notably strong in Greece, Spain, and especially Italy, where some in the media elite described the protests as an “anomalous wave,” a name the movement mockingly adopted for itself.

It meant that early in 2010, within a day of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that corporations were persons protected by the Bill of Rights, and that money counted as “free speech,” 30,000 Americans had signed on to launch Move to Amend’s constitutional reform campaign.

It meant that in the winter of 2010-2011, shortly after Scott Walker secured the governorship of Wisconsin, tens of thousands of Wisconsinites occupied their State Capitol and school buildings, first taking the name “Wisconsin Wave” in honor of the previous year’s European anti-austerity revolts, and then becoming known worldwide as the Wisconsin Uprising.

It meant that in early 2011, as the cost of living became intolerable across North Africa and the Middle East, protests turned to mass insurrection and democratic revolution. The Arab Spring first inspired unexpected hope, and then, as governments shed the blood of their people, resolute anger.

It meant that months later, as protesters first occupied Freedom Plaza in Washington D.C., and then Liberty Square in New York City, the public act of occupying public space spread to thousands of communities across the world under the banner of the Occupy movement.

And it means that today, after news that the police killing of Michael Brown will go unpunished, marches and rallies in cities worldwide have shut down commerce, transportation, and targeted major corporations as well as the justice system.

The Seattle WTO protests of 1999 did not cause any of these uprisings, just as it itself had not been directly caused by earlier protests elsewhere on the planet. Each uprising emerged out of the interaction of local and global processes, and resulted from the conscious actions of countless individuals. Yet those individuals chose slogans and adopted strategies and tactics, and many of these were first uttered and performed in the the streets of Seattle.

All of this signifies that the democratic turn of the century is still in spin. We live in an era in which it is increasingly normal for individuals not only to reject the power of corporations over their lives, but for those same individuals to choose to occupy public space and to defy the police and established authorities.

In place of corporations and a political class, tens of millions of people have created various forms of self-government. Nearly all the anti-capitalist uprisings since Seattle have involved direct democracy on a mass scale. And workers and community members are building cooperatives and municipal enterprises at a historic pace; nearly one in eight of all workers planet-wide are now employed in cooperative businesses.

“This is what democracy looks like!” has become, since Seattle, more than a momentary expression of an alternative world that is possible. Instead, it has grown into an ongoing direct challenge to corporate capitalism and elite government. To be clear, the cost of that challenge has already proven high. And the past fifteen years have brought not only increased popular resistance but also greater social control in the form of police militarization and violence, security state expansion, unending war, and the legalization of corporate rule. Yet the fact remains that we have witnessed the birth of a global democracy movement that is constitutionally subversive and antagonistic to the institutions, laws, acts, and culture it seeks to transform. In the spirit of Seattle and all the uprisings since, the only successful conclusion to such a movement must be global democratic revolution.

Ben Manski is president of the Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution, an Associate Fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies, a co-founder of Move to Amend, and a founder of the Wisconsin Wave, which played a leading role in the Wisconsin uprising of 2011 and which continues today. He has been committed to building a democracy movement in the U.S. since the early 1990s and helped mobilize the U.S. student movement for the Seattle WTO protests in 1999. Manski (J.D., University of Wisconsin, 2005) is currently pursuing an advanced degree in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.