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International Socialism, Summer 2000


Abbie Bakan

From Seattle to Washington: the making of a movement


From International Socialism 2:87, Summer 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Kevin Danaher and Roger Burbach (eds.)
Globalize This! The Battle Against the World Trade Organization and Corporate Rule
Common Courage Press 2000

The making of a movement

November 30, 1999, marked a turning point in history. Tens of thousands of ordinary citizens took to the streets of Seattle to stop the World Trade Organization (WTO) from conducting ‘business as usual’ (ie making rules for the entire planet that merely serve the interests of large corporations) ... Seattle marked the greatest failure of elite trade diplomacy since the end of World War Two. Even in 1982, when the Reagan administration tried – and failed – to force through a new round of negotiations for trade liberalization, there was at least a declaration and future work agenda at the end of the conference. Not in Seattle. The Clinton team, led by US Trade Representative Charlene Barshevsky, handled the controversy in Seattle so ineptly that the talks ended in total collapse. [1]

In certain circles, Kevin Danaher is a bit of an American idol. He’s not a movie star and he hasn’t released a single that made it to the top ten. But for a growing section of young people whose lives have been changed since the Battle of Seattle, Danaher is becoming known as one of the leaders of the movement. Globalize This! The Battle Against the World Trade Organization and Corporate Rule is the most recent of Kevin Danaher’s books. An edited collection, compiled with Roger Burbach, the book tells the story of what happened when the World Trade Organisation’s Millennium Round meetings were halted in Seattle, Washington, at the end of November 1999. The contributors to the book are supporters, and many were participants, in that event – and in the months of organising that led to its success. They also continued to be participants in the numerous struggles, small and large, that have taken place since, consciously identifying with the movement for global justice.

Globalize This! is not only a book worth reading for its content. Collectively, the articles present a window into the new movement. There is a sense of the new mood of struggle – the anger, the passion, and a remarkable clarity of purpose in challenging a system gone bad, combined with a searching confusion and diversity of strategies about what system to put in its place.

Seattle: uncut

The book combines 24 articles under four headings: What Happened in Seattle and What Does it Mean?; Dealing With Diversity; The Case Against the WTO; and Ways to Restructure the Global Economy. The editors are among the various leaders of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including researchers, academics and activists, from the US, Canada, Europe, India, the Philippines, Nigeria, Mexico and Malaysia. Kevin Danaher is a co-founder of the NGO Global Exchange, and editor of Corporations are Gonna Get Your Mama: Globalization and the Downsizing of the American Dream, and 50 Years is Enough: the Case Against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; Roger Burbach is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas in Berkeley, California, and author of Globalization and its Discontents. Other noted contributors are Susan George, Manning Marable, Vandana Shiva, Walden Bello and Tony Clarke.

The collection expresses the sense of optimism and accomplishment that has arisen in the aftermath of the successful protest in Seattle. William Greider, foreign affairs correspondent for The Nation and author of One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, expresses it this way:

The promise of Seattle was captured in an antic moment observed by one young environmental activist. Amid broad ranks of protesters, he saw that a squad of activists dressed as sea turtles was marching alongside members of the Teamsters union. ‘Turtles love Teamsters’, the turtles began to chant. ‘Teamsters love turtles’, the truck drivers replied. Their call-and-response suggests the loose-jointed new movement – people of disparate purposes setting aside old differences, united by the spirit of smart, playful optimism. The corporate-political establishment doesn’t get it yet, but sea turtles and Teamsters (with their myriad friends) can change the world. [2]

One of the most interesting articles is written by Martin Khor, director of the Third World Network, based in Penang, Malaysia. In a short, journalistic piece titled ‘Seattle Debacle: Revolt of the Developing Nations’, Khor describes the deepening fissure within the WTO between Third World nations on one side, and the nations of the EU and the US on the other. The protesters in Seattle, who were facing down police batons and pepper spray, forced open a divide within the world’s ruling class that had been threatening to widen for some years.

As Khor summarises:

The impact of the grassroots protests against globalization, already evident in the campaigns on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) and against genetic engineering, had its coming-of-age in the street battles of Seattle ... However, the more basic cause of the Seattle debacle was the untransparent and undemocratic nature of the WTO system, the blatant manipulation of that system by the major powers, and the refusal of many developing countries to continue to be on the receiving end. [3]

Weeks prior to the Seattle meeting, the North/South conflict had been raging at WTO headquarters in Geneva. Five years after the WTO was founded, developing nations had failed to see the promised benefits of a new era of free trade. Moreover, they were facing repeated challenges under the WTO regulations to accessing Northern markets. What Khor refers to as the ‘untransparent procedures’ of the WTO included a series of so called ‘green room’ meetings where crucial issues would be decided among selected groups of delegates in closed door sessions with members of the ruling ‘Quad’ states – the US, Canada, the EU and Japan. Most developing nations were routinely excluded from the green room meetings.

Conflicts over these procedures had compelled US trade representative Charlene Barshevsky, who presided over the Seattle process, to ‘promise to run a transparent meeting’. Yet on the second day of the Millennium Round talks, Barshevsky announced her ‘right’ as chair to ‘use procedures of her own choosing to get a Declaration out of the meeting’. Barshevsky, with WTO director-general Mike Moore, set up a series of green room meetings, some of which were organised to run simultaneously, on the key issues of disagreement in Seattle. A typical green room meeting included the delegates from the major powers, plus those from a few selected developing countries:

Ministers and senior officials of most developing countries were left hanging around in the corridors or the canteen, trying to catch snippets of news or negotiating texts. Their anger at the insult of being at the receiving end of such shabby treatment boiled over on the third day of the Conference. The African Ministers issued a strong statement that there was ‘no transparency’ in the meeting ... ‘Under the present circumstances, we will not be able to join the consensus required to meet the objectives of the Ministerial Conference.’ Similar statements were issued by the Caribbean Community Ministers and by some Latin American countries. Barshevsky and Moore were thus faced with the prospect that if a draft Declaration were presented at a final session, there would be an explosion of protests and a rejection of developing nations ... In the end, it was less embarrassing to decide to let the Seattle meeting collapse without attempting even a brief Declaration. [4]

Other articles address the agenda of the WTO, the process of organising the ‘modern pilgrimage’ that succeeded in transporting literally tens of thousands of activists across the US to demonstrate in Seattle, debates over non-violence and direct action tactics, the distortions of the media, the police repression, international solidarity, and how to increase the representation of blacks and people of colour in the movement. Manning Marable, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University in New York City and author of numerous works on racism in America, summarises the sense of unity in a common struggle that characterises this collection:

It was immensely significant for black America that the last major public demonstration in the US in the 20th century was a protest over global economics and trade ... Black Americans therefore should be in the forefront of the debates about international trade, but we must do so by recalling the activist slogan of the 1960s: ‘Think Globally, Act Locally.’ There is an inescapable connection between Seattle and Sing Sing Prison, between global inequality and brutalization of Third World labor and what’s happening to black, brown and working people here in the United States. As globalized capitalism destroys democracy, unions and the environment abroad, it is carrying out a similar agenda in our own backyards. [5]

From Seattle to Washington

The largest and most significant protest to date following Seattle took place in the capital city of the US – Washington DC – when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank met in April.

Kevin Danaher and Roger Burbach rushed to complete Globalize This! for release at the 14 April teach-in in Washington DC, organised by the International Forum on Globalisation, that preceded the main demonstration two days later. Many of the contributors to the book were also speakers at the Washington teach-in.

When people take on the most powerful international ruling class organisations in the world and the armed force of the most powerful state in the world mobilises to stop them, the thirst for ideas rises exponentially. The publications rooms on the second floor of the Foundry United Methodist Church where the teach-in was held were packed out. There was a continuous queue at the table featuring Danaher and Burbach’s new book. When he wasn’t behind the podium, Danaher was one among many of the speakers who were talking to people about how to organise, writing down names and e-mail addresses, marking down dates in diaries, making plans for the next events.

Some 1,500 people attended the teach-in. Tickets were sold out well in advance, then tickets for the overflow video room were sold out. Then there was another hall booked with a one hour delay video replay for the overflow of the overflow. The 36 speakers addressed a packed crowd from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., only breaking for one hour in the evening. At no time were there any less than 800 in attendance.

One of the speakers was Oronto Douglas, a leading human rights lawyer from Nigeria. Douglas was one of the lawyers on the defence team for Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa before he was executed by the Nigerian military government in 1995. Ken Saro-Wiwa was supposedly executed for murder, but he was not even in the town where the crime he was alleged to have committed took place. He was actually murdered in a show trial for his challenge to the devastating effects of Shell Oil. Here’s what Oronto Douglas said:

What happened in Seattle, when the people decided to stand up and say no to injustice, no to oppression, the world listened. In the next few days, this must not be allowed to die down. Thousands are being killed so that this injustice will be maintained. In Nigeria, thousands are being slaughtered. When you remain silent, you are dead. But when you stand up and fight back, as you are now, people who you do not know are also standing up. When you stand up to rubber bullets and batons, and say no, when you stand up in America, you are standing up for the oppressed people who have no voice, for the people in the Third World. When you stand up, you are alive. [6]

In April in Washington DC, the people stood up. They faced down the police, and in the aftermath there is a renewed sense of commitment to carry on the struggle.

In many ways, the events in Washington indicated a political advance from Seattle. One of the key debates among the organisers of the Seattle protest was whether to demand a complete shutdown of the WTO, or to reform it and make the WTO a more accountable and public institution. These debates are expressed in a number of the articles in Globalize This! [7] But when practice surpassed theory, and the WTO was successfully shut down, an overwhelming united voice called for an escalation of the campaign. The goal of the 16 April demonstration was to shut down the IMF and the World Bank. From the time the Washington teach-in began on the morning of 14 April, this was the sentiment expressed by speaker after speaker.

Susan George, economist, author and longstanding activist against international free trade institutions, sent her regrets to the teach-in that she had to miss it due to illness. But when her statement was read to the audience, the house shook with thunderous applause:

These institutions have had their chance. Anytime anyone asks, ‘And what would you put in its place?’ I am tempted to respond, ‘And what would you put in the place of cancer?’

Njoki Njoroge Njehu, of the NGO 50 Years is Enough, captured the mood:

The enemy is not workers in underdeveloped countries where multinational businesses hire. It is not workers in the maquiladoras who are the enemies of workers in the US. The enemy is the owners of capital. We have to remember that. Enough is enough. These institutions are not alleviating poverty. The IMF and the World Bank increase poverty. The consensus is that the IMF and World Bank cannot be reformed. They have to be abolished.

The teach-in was held in the Foundry United Methodist Church. This is the same church that Bill and Hillary Clinton attend on the Sundays they are in Washington. This is where Bill Clinton went to seek forgiveness when he faced impeachment for his ‘moral indiscretions’. On 14 April, there was no spirit of forgiveness in these halls. There was a spirit of resistance. This was the spirit that brought out 35,000 on 16 April, marching to chants like, ‘This is what democracy looks like’, ‘Ain’t no power like the power of the people, ‘cause the power of the people don’t stop!’, and, ‘One solution! Revolution!’

Washington DC was an armed camp. The immense police and army presence – the blockades, the teargas, the mass arrests – all this didn’t deter the resolve of the demonstrators. Everyone who participated knew the IMF and the World Bank were organisations committed to increasing world poverty, not to its elimination. The delegates to the meetings of the IMF and the World Bank were on the defensive from the beginning, even before the first demonstrations. The meetings were able to proceed, though not without difficulty. But after Washington, the whole world learned the real agenda of the IMF and the World Bank. Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, who attended the Washington demonstrations, summarised their impact:

The first sign of victory came in the weeks before the protest, with a rush among former World Bank and IMF officials to come out on the side of the critics and renounce their former employers... Before the papier-maché was dry on the giant puppets, the failures of the many World Bank financed mega-projects and IMF bailouts were outlined in newspapers and radio talkshows. More than that, the critique of ‘capitalism’ just saw a comeback of Santana-like proportions... After more than a decade of unchecked triumphalism, capitalism (as opposed to euphemisms such as ‘globalization’, ‘corporate rule’ or ‘the growing gap between rich and poor’) has re-emerged as a legitimate subject of public debate. This kind of impact is so significant that it makes the disruption of a routine World Bank meeting seem almost beside the point. [8]

From anti-capitalism to revolution

What Washington lacked was the mass participation of the labour movement that had marked the Teamster-turtle alliance in Seattle. Seattle was a turning point. Washington was different – it marked a movement with a history, a history that started with the Seattle events. Everyone, on every side, had learned from Seattle. The Washington police were determined to teach the Seattle cops how to hold down a city in the face of mass protest. The anarchists who had been at the centre of the successful direct action battles in Seattle were now part of widespread debates about tactics, including the need for collective discipline, mass action strategies, and militancy without random violence.

Lori Wallach, a researcher for Public Concern and a resident of Washington DC, had this to say at the 14 April teach-in:

To all of you from away, welcome to Washington DC. And to all of you from DC, welcome to another planet. The Battle of Washington has begun. We put truth to all their power and we stopped their fast track, their NAFTA expansion, we stopped the MAI, and then the WTO. We’ve stopped their movement cold. Now we are turning to the mop up operation. But we also know that the status quo is not tolerable. I learned from Seattle. After years of lobbying and research, there is something to be said for just plain old direct action. That just ‘I’m so mad I’m not leaving here’ kind of direct action.

And the leadership of the American labour federation, the AFL-CIO, compelled by pressure from below to endorse the 16 April demonstration and to send a speaker to the rally, also learned from Seattle. This time, they didn’t want to be embarrassed, as they were when the WTO meeting took place, by masses of rank and file workers breaking from the controlled protests and joining young people in illegal direct action. Having tied their wagon to the electoral machine of the US Democratic Party, they organised a protectionist demonstration against China’s entry into the WTO earlier in the week.

How the working class and the labour movement fits into the picture of the struggle to transform global capitalism is now a pressing question for the movement. Globalize This! includes a number of articles grappling with the challenges of what is to be done. The sentiment is clearly, consciously anti-capitalist, but an understanding of the central, strategic power of the working class is absent. Instead working class participation is seen as one element, if a welcome and important one, in a long list of interests fighting against a common enemy.

Inevitably, a type of militant pragmatism is compelled to draw conclusions that are either utopian or reformist, but lacking the necessary revolutionary strategy to implement reforms of such magnitude. The former is expressed by the director of the Polaris Institute in Canada, Tony Clarke, who romanticises the United Nations and calls for an Alternative Investment Treaty under its enforcement. [9] Alternatively Deborah James, director of Global Exchange’s Fair Trade Coffee Programme, proposes cancellation of Third World debt – an excellent transitional demand but the implementation of which will depend upon mass, organised working class support. [10] As John Rees put the case after the Seattle events:

The argument that now needs to be put is this: is the working class merely a victim or the central force for change? Socialists have to win the idea that working class self emancipation is the key to challenging global capitalism. [11]

Now, after Seattle, after Washington, the audience ready and eager to engage in such an argument is great indeed. In fact, there is no patience in this movement; instead there is an urgent demand for clarity. Kevin Danaher and Roger Burbach’s book is an important indication of just how receptive this audience is. The last word goes to them:

We can now envision the formation of a truly global movement capable of challenging the most powerful institutions on the planet ... If we look closely we can see the pieces of the first global revolution being put together ... It is a revolution in values as well as institutions. It seeks to replace the money values of the current system with the life values of a truly democratic system ... There will some day be a democratic global economy. The question is: will it take us 500 years or 50 years or 15 years to achieve? [12]


1. Introduction: People Making History, in K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), Globalize This! The Battle Against the World Trade Organization and Corporate Rule (Monroe 2000), pp. 7–8.

2. W. Greider, It’s Time to Go on the Offensive. Here’s How, in K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., p. 143.

3. M. Khor, Seattle Debacle: Revolt of the Developing Nations, in K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., pp. 48–49.

4. Ibid., pp. 50–51.

5. M. Marable, Seattle and Beyond: Making the Connection in the 21st Century, in K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., pp. 82–84.

6. International Forum on Globalization Teach-in, at Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington DC, 14 April 2000. Beyond Seattle – Globalization: Focus on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, co-sponsored by Institute for Policy Studies, Friends of the Earth, International Center for Technology Assessment, Global Exchange, Public Citizen, 50 Years Is Enough Network. Quotes from the speakers are taken from the author’s notes.

7. W. Bello, Reforming the WTO is the Wrong Agenda, and D. Bacon, Will a Social Clause in Trade Agreements Advance International Solidarity?, in K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., pp. 103–119, 124–128.

8. N. Klein, Victory! The World Bank And The IMF Were Shaken To Their Very Core, The Globe and Mail, 19 April 2000.

9. T. Clarke, Rewriting the Rules for Global Investment, in K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., pp. 182–187. A similar argument regarding the United Nations is developed in W. Bello, UNCTAD: Time to Lead, Time to Challenge the WTO, in K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., pp. 163–174.

10. D. James, Conclusion: Ten Ways to Democratize the Global Economy, in K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., p. 205.

11. J. Rees, The Battle After Seattle, Socialist Review 237 (January 2000), p. 10.

12. Introduction: People Making History, in K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), op. cit., pp. 9–11.

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