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John Charlton

Talking Seattle

(Spring 2000)

From International Socialism 2:86, Spring 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Only a couple of months after the event the word ‘Seattle’ has acquired a new meaning. It is where ‘we’ kicked the system. The word pops up in India when power and port workers come out on mass strike against privatisation. ‘Is it the Seattle effect?’ asks a newspaper. The internet is replete with articles analysing its meaning.

I posted a questionnaire on the internet between November 1999 and January 2000. The responses I received, along with personal testimonies and articles, became the basis of this piece. [1]

That a turning point in the struggle against the excesses of world capitalism should take place in Seattle is not without its ironies. Seattle has been lauded as a hub of the burgeoning economies of the Pacific Rim. A boom town of the 20th century’s last quarter, ‘Seattle’ is almost a metaphor for high-tech consumption. It is the home of Boeing, of Microsoft, and those symbols of galloping consumerism, the Starbucks coffee shop empire and Nike, just down the road. A place to live in grace and comfort. All this explains why the Clinton administration wanted to take the World Trade Organisation to Seattle.

Yet there is a downside. In the liberalisation of the global economy US domination may have may have increased, but millions of American workers have been victims of the shrinkage of basic industry, its relocation and the intensification of exploitation in the workplace. For some time the cynical and corrupt leaders of the labour unions have been under pressure from their members to organise a fightback. They chose Seattle because their public profiles would be enhanced in the glare of the international media circus surrounding the WTO meeting.

There is another twist which should not be lost. The new millennium was being ushered in by the system’s leaders and its media on an extravagant tide of hype. Millions of new shopping opportunities were being heralded via the cyber-supermarket. But their party was ruined in the virtual home of e-commerce.

A fightback starting in Seattle has yet another lovely resonance. The city was the location of the only general strike in US history so far. In 1919, in the crisis following the end of the First World War with the US government attempting to smash the Russian Revolution, Seattle workers struck. Jeremy Brecher wrote: ‘Anger, hope and militance grew as in a pressure cooker. Nowhere did this radicalisation go further than in Seattle. The radical IWW and the AFL Metal Trades Council co-operated in sponsoring a Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Workingmen’s Council, taking the soviets of the recent Russian Revolution as their model.’ [2]

This forms a nice backcloth to the events of November and December 1999.

‘Think the WTO is bad? ... Wait till you hear about capitalism!’ – placard

Seattle hit the international media on Tuesday 30 November, but events were moving in the previous week. Mitchel C wrote, ‘No matter where you turn, rallies, teach-ins and other events are exploding out of the pavement. I went to the International Forum on Globalisation that occurred Friday and Saturday ... Tickets were sold by Ticketron. Around 2,500 people participated, the huge auditorium filled to capacity for two days, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ... Sunday, 1,500 people took to the streets in a wonderfully colourful and peaceful (if raucous) procession, hundreds of giant puppets and mass performance theatre against genetic engineering and the WTO, drummers beating on makeshift instruments, an army of genetically engineered corn, another “army of forested trees, fighting against the evil soldiers of the New World Order”.’

Damon, Pittsburgh: I got on a Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh at 3am the morning after Thanksgiving and travelled two and a half days to Seattle to join the protests against the World Trade Organisation. I arrived to see tens of thousands of activists from the widest range of causes I’ve ever seen in one place, united around a common concern – their desire to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives, otherwise known as democracy.

‘The senators who ratified the WTO treaty should be tried for treason’ – placard

Bill O., Chicago, Illinois: We were up at 5 a.m. on Tuesday 30 November. We had a big day planned. There were two main marches, one leaving from downtown and one from Capitol Hill. I was in the Capitol Hill march. We loaded up all the puppets into trucks and sent the larger ones up the road. On our side we had an Earth Mother puppet whose head was eight feet in diameter. Her head and each of her hands were mounted on a wheeled cart, and her fabric body stretched across the street. We also had a ten foot square rolling ‘pyramid of corporate power’. I was dressed in my full clown ensemble. I wore signs on my front and back that read, ‘WTO – who elected these clowns?’ I normally refrain from using ‘clown’ as a derogatory term, but I felt justified here somehow. I carried my diabolo with me.

Shawna, Jeff and Corey, Victoria, British Columbia: The Progressive Librarians’ Guild banner elicited quite a few comments. Most surprise – all positive. We were quite a novelty. People first looked at the banner, then looked again (just to make sure), and looked us up and down as if to assess what librarians look like outside a library. Finally they would look one of us in the eye, smile or pat us on the shoulder. A child asked his mother who we were and she explained, ‘These are the people who make sure Harry Potter stays inside the library.’ She looked at us, grinned and added, ‘Among other activities, I’m sure.’

Bill O: At 7.30 a.m., the march began and turned towards downtown. The rain beat down on us. As we reached key intersections we saw human chains, lockdowns and tripods start to emerge. The police forced us to turn several times. We wound our way about, around toward the Paramount Theatre, which was the location of that morning’s WTO opening ceremony. We found a way over the highway and there we were. The front of the Paramount Theatre was walled in with metro buses. Riot police stood on the other side. We had a tripod and a locked down human chain on the other side of the block. There was a bus blaring music down the block. Protesters got up on top of the bus barrier and yelled at the WTO delegates who made their way around the back of the theatre. For a while I thought that the protesters were going to go over the barrier and confront the relatively few police on the other side, but this did not happen. We set about making blockades so the delegates could not get through to attend the meeting.

‘Keep the sweatshop in the sauna’ – banner

Jake, Seattle: I found a great protester line to help barricade and actually exchanged with WTO delegates from South Africa (Afrikaner bastard), Egypt, Germany and France. Some delegates discussed the issues of child labour, genetically engineered food etc., in sympathy with our causes. Others were belligerent and got a good rash of chanting, blocking and deriding in mass numbers. The arrogance of some of these folks was unbelievable. They were very outnumbered but still tried to push through us. It was very satisfying to say ‘no’ to their faces, and there was not one damn thing they could do. The shoe was on the other foot. How does that feel? It wasn’t bricks that did it. It was massive peaceful protest after laborious turnout work. It was the most unbelievable feeling to rove the canyons of downtown corporate America completely free from state police authority. Tipped dumpsters blocked every intersection. All walks of life cruised the streets going from one line of police standoff to the next. Before the police gassing and macing rush at nightfall we felt completely safe in unity with the mass of humanity. If the bladder was full, pee on a Nordstrom Christmas display window next to a graffiti artist. Probably less human on human violent crime was committed downtown that day than any other day of the year.

David, Berkeley, California: Tens of thousands of union members marched downtown to join the protest. Having shut down all the ports along the Pacific coast from Alaska to San Diego, union members chanted and waved picket signs as their ranks filled the streets as far as the eye could see. Each union’s members marched together, each with its own colour jacket or T-shirt, each carrying banners and hundreds of signs printed for the occasion. Many of the morning’s young protestors were visibly impressed by the strength of the numbers and organisation. For Annie Decker, ‘The power and size of it made me feel joyful. I was proud that we were together, bringing the WTO into the public eye.’

‘Capitalism destroys all life’ – placard

Bill O.: A trickle of delegates was getting through, however, and teams were dispatched to plug the holes. All around the theatre were lines of riot police. At each of these lines protesters made human chains. The police were not going to let us in, but we were not going to let any delegates in either. Some of the delegates who came up on the line I was in were understanding, a few even had conversations with us. Many were very angry and violent, however. One screamed obscenities at us for ten minutes. We would not be provoked.

Ain’t no power
Like the power of the people
And the power of the people
Don’t stop!
Whose streets? Our streets!
Whose streets? Our streets!
street chant

Peter B.: The vanguard of the ‘big’ march arrived downtown about 1.30 p.m., occupying the whole street. Although it came in fits and starts, it flowed past my vantage point for 50 minutes before I found my Salem friends and joined them. We looped through a number of blocks of downtown, and then began to head out of downtown a block over from where the march came in. To my amazement, we could see a steady stream still coming in! It was 2.45 p.m. I Ieft the march and stood on the corner to view the rest of the march. By 3 p.m. the march’s end had passed the point at which I could see it entering downtown a block up the street. However, it was still another 20 minutes before the end passed my vantage point. This means that the march that often filled the entire street took about an hour and a half to pass one point. Could that be less than 50,000?

Bill O.: At this point the police were doing their best to be cordial and communicative. They talked to the spokespeople for the protesters. They tried to keep the tension down. This was good, but it did not last. As the afternoon wore on it became clear that we were winning. Most of the delegates were unable to make it to the opening of the meetings and they were cancelled. The bus barrier around the Paramount Theatre was removed.

‘Brush with direct action. Helps to prevent truth decay’ – placard

Peter B.: I saw signs for at least these unions: steelworkers, electrical workers, teachers, bricklayers, ILWU (longshoremen), painters, Stanford workers, service employees, Teamsters, sheet metal workers, marine engineers, transit workers, boilermakers, plumbers, steamfitters and refrigeration workers, public service workers of Canada, cement masons, pulp, paper and wood workers, nurses, Canadian Airlines workers, and carpenters.

Steve saw ‘United Steelworkers from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chicago and Gary, United Autoworkers from the Midwest, International Longshore and Warehouse Union from right down the West Coast, Service Employees International Union from all over, Teamsters from all over, International Association of Machinists mainly from the North West, and many craft unions – carpenters, boilermakers and sheet metal workers, mainly from the North West.’

Doug Henwood: Togetherness was the theme of the labour rally – not only solidarity among workers of the world, but of organised labour with everyone else. There were incredible sights of Teamster president James Hoffa sharing a stage with student anti-sweatshop activists, of Earth Firsters marching with Sierra Clubbers, and a chain of bare-breasted BGH-free Lesbian Avengers weaving through a crowd of machinists. [3]

We don’t need no corporations
We don’t need no thought control
Lock the delegates in the bathroom
WTO has got to go
Hey, coppers! Leave those kids alone!
street chant, after Pink Floyd

Police riot, mass arrests

Steve, Seattle: There were around 1,000 Seattle Police with many coming in from outlying areas – King County Sheriffs and cops from other cities, perhaps as many as another 1,000. There were also 200 National Guards, who were mostly held in reserve. All the cops were in riot gear – padding, shields, with gas masks on or at the ready. The suppression of free speech and assembly was a conscious policy by the city, state and federal government. The pressure was intense from the Secret Service (since Clinton came to town on Wednesday 1 December) and specifically from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Attorney General Janet Reno. Reno demanded that the National Guard be called out. Mayor Schell imposed a ‘no protest zone’ around the convention centre and hotels where the delegates were staying. There was a 7pm to 7am curfew through wider areas of downtown. The ‘state of emergency’ declared by Mayor Schell was endorsed by the city council with no effective opposition, and even support from the so called ‘progressives’ on the council. The police chief tried to claim that ‘excesses’ by the cops were few and understandable considering the strain they were under. In fact, the ‘excesses’ were the rule. The government decided to clear out the protesters and punish them for their success on 30 November. In doing so tear gas, pepper spray, rubber and wooden bullets, percussion grenades, clubs and arrests were all allowed and encouraged. Six hundred plus were arrested. The police chased protesters into a residential/business neighbourhood a mile out of downtown with no pretext of defending the convention centre area. This was not an ‘excess’. It could have been stopped at any time by city officials and wasn’t. It was clear policy.

Bill O.: The mood was jubilant, but our work was not finished. I hooked back up with the giant puppets. The organisers with radios were sending us to ‘trouble spots’ where there was tension brewing or small groups in need of support. We brought the puppets to each of the barriers and I entertained the locked down human chains. Our Earth Mother puppet was so large that its very presence changed the energy of every intersection we came to.

‘WTO = global injustice!’ – placard

Shawna, Jeff and Corey: The ‘legal’ AFL-CIO march in which we were participating had originally planned to merge with the direct action people on 5th Avenue before turning round and heading back to Seattle centre ... However, in a decision that we considered a betrayal of our frontline comrades, the AFL-CIO organisers detoured the march route ... a group of marshals stood in front of a street to block our path towards the direct action protesters. We decided to join the direct action group and continued straight through the line of marshals. We found ourselves in a war zone.

Bill O.: In the late afternoon we arrived at a major downtown intersection. The human chain there had already been gassed, but they were holding strong. We rolled up with the puppets and it was clear that there was an attack brewing. Behind the protesters was a police line. Behind them were two more lines in formation, gas masks on and ready. Behind them was a line of mounted police. They were in formation as well. It was clear that this mass of protesters was about to be gassed and sprayed. We brought the puppets in close. My companions started the crowd singing:

Step by step the longest march, can be won, can be won
Many stones may form an arch, singly none, singly none,
And with union what we will, can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.

Drummers and a trumpeter played along. I moved up to the police line and started to do my clown routine, making a spectacle out of myself. The human chain, whose faces had been set in grimaces of fear and apprehension, became relaxed and joyful. A carnival atmosphere quickly developed, attracting TV cameras. It was a surreal sight, the joy of the protesters and the grim, Stormtrooper visages of the police, tensing for attack.

‘Teamsters and turtles together at last’ – placard carried by Teamster

Bill O.: As it happened, however, no attack came. The police in the front started to relax their bodies. I heard one laugh at a bit of my slapstick. A whiff of tear gas from another confrontation floated past, making our eyes water. I waved my hand in front of my face. ‘Whoa, was that one of you guys?’ I asked the cops. Two broke out laughing. Behind the lines the ranking police officers were having a conference. They pointed in our direction and at the cameras. They ordered the horses and the reinforcements to stand down. They were willing to order their men to attack totally peaceful people but the clown and the puppets were too much for them.

By about five o’clock the protests were winding down. Groups were unlocking and dispersing on their own. People were making plans for the next day. It was dark, meetings were over, and we had succeeded. We were moving the puppets around downtown to bring them back for storage for the night. It was in this context that the ‘violence’ started. Be clear, the only violence that happened up until this point was from the police, directed at peaceful, non-violent protesters engaged in civil disobedience.

Jon: The police backlash that Tuesday and Wednesday night was atrocious. I witnessed it personally in the residential neighbourhood of Capitol Hill. Cops (on encouragement from Clinton’s Secret Service as reported in Seattle Post-Intelligencer, our own corporate media) aggressively chased and maced and gassed and clubbed and tackled innocent bystanders, as well as protesters, outside of the curfew police state zone. I was gassed but was too quick to be maced or clubbed. A moderate Republican county councilperson, a local CBS reporter, and a young innocent woman bystander were shoved and gassed, clubbed and arrested, and thrown face down on the concrete and her head stepped on while her arms were pulled back, respectively, in this residential neighbourhood. And yet the police could not maintain control.

‘Stop exploiting workers’ – steelworkers’ placard

Damon: Onlookers began yelling, ‘Get ready! They’re going to do it! Get ready!’ I heard the spray and people began screaming in pain. I was just expecting spray, so I was pretty surprised when I felt one of those big clubs land on the top of my head. The guy behind me took most of the force from the blow so I wasn’t hurt badly. I covered my head with my arm and covered my eyes with my hand. As the screams continued it became obvious – even though I couldn’t see anything from underneath my bandana – that the cops were not only spraying but beating the people as well. A police officer then grabbed my hand, pulled it away from my face and sprayed me in the eyes with a canister of pepper spray.

Dr Richard Andrea, New York City: The police were using percussion grenades. They were shooting tear gas canisters straight at protesters’ faces. They were using so called rubber bullets. These are actually hard plastic. Some of the damage I saw: these plastic bullets took off part of one person’s jaw, smashed teeth in other people’s mouths. I saw police arrest people who had their hands up in the air screaming, ‘We are peacefully protesting!’

Kent, Seattle: We were peacefully marching into downtown from the waterfront. The march was led by Bob Hasagawa, president of the 14,000-strong Teamsters Local 174. He attempted to make a speech at the steelworkers’ rally – but they cut him off. So he made a speech from a soapbox where he vowed that if anyone was going to be arrested he would be the first (although he wasn’t arrested). The march grew to nearly 1,000 people and it felt like we owned the streets of Seattle that feeling lasted about ten seconds. From out of nowhere, and from two different directions, the cops came in hard with tear gas and percussion grenades. They split the march into several pieces – one group of 300 and another group of 200. Neither group had broken any laws or even entered into the no-protest zone (although we were trying to take it there). Both were pinned downed by the cops and people were arrested. The cops put us on city buses to be processed. After they filled the fourth bus they ran out of room and let them go. It seems that everyone in the city knew who we were. People lined the streets to cheer us as our bus passed.

‘Monsanto: don’t eat it. Bite back – defeat it!’ – placard

Jon, Seattle: In custody most of the people I met had never been arrested before but were no less militant for it. I was stunned by the level of militancy. There was no question in most people’s minds that they were fiercely devoted to solidarity, and that they would do whatever it would take to remain in jail till all our demands were met.’

The following were fellow-detainees of Kent from Seattle

Mobilisation and motives

It seems that between 60,000 [4] and 80,000 people participated in the events over the five days. [5] This raises two interesting points. Firstly, a total of some 30,000–40,000 people from one region is impressive enough, though not unprecedented. From the Seattle region it is remarkable when we realise its geographical location. The urban area is small and distant from other conurbations. By road, Vancouver is two hours to the north. Portland is three hours and the Bay Area 16 hours to the south. Minneapolis is 30 hours to the east. Organisers cannot rely on a vast influx from adjoining urban centres. Only very well prepared and financed contingents, plus highly motivated individuals, could drop in by air. All this makes a national demonstration in Seattle logistically difficult, and its success all the more startling. [6]

It is remarkable just how many came from far and wide. On a conservative estimate of numbers 20,000 people travelled a very long way. Over 3,000 came from Canada – the bulk from Vancouver, but there were even busloads from Ontario 2,000 miles away. Probably more than 10,000 travelled up the coast from Oregon and California. One respondent mentions a ‘caravan’ from California and another from eastern Canada. There were certainly contingents from, at least, Chicago, New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Fort Collins and Denver (Colorado), Hartford, Kent (Ohio), Bloomington, Knoxville (Tennessee), Nevada, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas and Iowa. It speaks of considerable organisation, and there is already plenty of evidence of that.

From January 1999 messages were appearing on the internet. Many, like Sam from the Bay Area, first saw it there: ‘Six months prior to the WTO meeting I became aware from the internet that a massive protest was in preparation.’ The Direct Action Network and the Anarchist Information Service were very active on the internet but also on the ground, informing and co-ordinating and training. Many people say they heard about Seattle in the summer, and from local sources. Geoff said, ‘I heard about it from anarchist circles in the Bay Area.’ ‘I got an anonymous flyer from some anarchists in Olympia, a small city near Washington,’ recorded Steven. ‘Postering and media reports,’ said Chris from Vancouver. Akio reported, ‘On the West Coast activist communities had been abreast of the plans for six months prior to the event. It was widely circulated knowledge that big plans were being drafted.’ Ann from Victoria, British Columbia, said, ‘I first heard about it in May when a Philippines solidarity activist in Victoria went to a preparatory meeting in Seattle.’ Tresa, a 30 year old Seattle teacher, said, ‘I was in charge of the Religious School ... We ended up having some great classes for the 7th, 8th and 9th graders. The 8th grade teacher in particular had been planning a Holocaust lesson and was wondering how to tie it in with Channukah. We talked about the Maccabees, then I got her to the WTO. The students came in early to class and we ate pizza together so we had a good chance to start conversations then. A number of them had been to demos before school.’

In the summer the Ruckus Society and the Rain Forest Action Network sponsored a training camp in northern Washington. According to Z Magazine 150 activists held workshops which ‘ranged from urban climbing and banner making to non-violence training and peacekeeping, scouting, technical lockdowns and blockades, media, website design, street theatre, legal tactics, even drumming.’ Throughout the autumn, ‘warehouses are being scouted as potential squats. Seattle Food Not Bombs is making preparations to feed the troops. A sophisticated media collective has formed to ensure that the good work of protesters is neither ignored nor marginalised. Low power “pirate” radio activists are communications for the masses, and a network of inconspicuous bike messengers will feed information from the streets to the clandestine transmitters’. [7]

Direct action activists brought an enormous amount to the success in Seattle, but the biggest story was the engagement of labour unions after decades of relative passivity and defeat. The leadership of the AFL-CIO was there in force. Against a background of a long term employer offensive and falling revenues the WTO was a great stage to make its presence felt. With a vulnerable Democrat president in a presidential year, pressure on the wannabes, Al Gore and Bill Bradley, would not be out of place. So they brought their mobilising facilities to bear in a fashion not experienced in recent memory. The AFL-CIO website records that ‘union activists, many arriving in more than 200 buses hired for the occasion, began gathering at Memorial Stadium two hours before a 10.30 a.m. rally. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 participants overflowed the stadium and spilled into the adjoining park ... More than 50 unions, 25 states and 144 countries were [represented] among the activists.’ Many respondents to the questionnaire record that union funds were behind the mobilisation of their cohorts.

The success of the operation depended on grassroots rank and file organisation. Ron Judd, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council (Seattle), said, ‘We went into churches, community groups, neighbourhood organisations, environmental meetings, schools, high schools, colleges, universities and labour halls, even in people’s homes, to talk to them about the WTO and how it affects their lives.’ [8] Tina from Chicago said, ‘The first I heard was about the labour mobilisation at a labour organisers meeting in April.’ Kent from Seattle records, ‘In Seattle anti-WTO groups organised at colleges – and most unions had members organising their co-workers around the WTO. People started talking about the WTO nearly a year ago. The sting of NAFTA is still fresh in the minds of many – so the bitterness was already there.’ Jeff, an aerospace worker from Wilmington, Massachusetts, went with 15 members of the North Shore Boston Labour Council. His factory is being relocated to Mexico. ‘We were pissed. After seven or eight years working on trade issues in our local union it was not hard to sign up 11 people for the trip. Some great trade unionists in the council came along as well. All of us paid our own way and looked to have some fun as well as do some serious protesting,’ he said.

When we consider who the activists were, and what took them to Seattle, we uncover an immense variety of background and personal history. Like Annie from Santa Cruz, several talk of ‘a radical family background in terms of fighting capitalism and racism through labour movement organising and civil rights, both communist and anarchist’. Several others record radical, socialist or union family histories, whilst others have activist histories themselves. Sam from the Bay Area says he is ‘70 plus, a Second World War veteran with many years of participation in union and political activities’. Michelle, a socialist from Toronto, is 37. She has been a political and trade union activist for 20 years, ‘from protesting against Anita Bryant in the late 1970s to the Gulf War, the national student strike in 1995, the mass strikes in Ontario in 1995–1997, etc.’ Kent is a 29 year old socialist metal worker from Seattle, and six years a political and union activist. Annie is a 21 year old student. She has done ‘an AFL-CIO internship, civil disobedience for unions, started a student labour club on campus and done police brutality protests’. Bill O. is 24. He writes, ‘I have been in Art and Revolution for about a year and a half (in Chicago). I am a clown and an actor by trade.’ Anon, 47, is an ‘unemployed paralegal, left anarchist Jewish atheist’. Tina from Chicago is 46. She writes, ‘ [I have been] an activist for 30 years, women’s movement, anti-war, various (non-electoral) political movements, union for 20 years.’ Elizabeth, a student in her early 20s, ‘helped organise as a national leader in the North American Ad Hoc Student Coalition for Fair Trade’. Akio is a 24 year old college graduate from Eugene who says, ‘Seattle was my introduction to the culture of activism.’

Respondents indicated where they believed the pull to Seattle came from. ‘Among the rads and youth,’ wrote Akio, ‘the environment seemed to be the primary concern, followed pretty closely by human rights, especially sweatshop labour ... The AFL’s constituency was primarily concerned with labour rights and erecting international child labour laws, and also voiced a significant amount of concern for the environment. In my opinion though, more significant than the variety of issues comprising the protest was the general sentiment that democracy is being replaced by corporate oligarchy.’ Elizabeth from Vancouver put it down to the ‘threat to public services, including education, threat to democracy and the ability of governments to regulate and create standards, protect labour rights, and safety and environmental standards, more pressure to privatise and on the global South to give up completely on labour, health and environmental standards.’ Tina saw ‘the extraordinary development of the organised labour movement calling for action in the streets on economic and political issues – first time I remember it happening ever.’ An anonymous man from Vancouver simply wrote, ‘I hate capitalism.’

‘I want to tear down borders and democratise corporations. Looked like a good place to do it! Many people wanted to save trees. But most of all I think people are just sick as hell of corporate control. Here (in the States) elections are all bought and paid for by corporate money. Corporations are considered people, with freedom of speech, but are never given the death penalty for dumping millions of gallons of oil into the ocean, or for killing Indians at Bhopal, or whatever,’ wrote Steven. Tom’s view was this: ‘I think some people just want to fuck with the power structures because they resent their parents.’ Bill O. said he was ‘interested in fighting the enormous and growing influence of unaccountable transnational corporations and the human rights and environmental havoc that these monsters promulgate. The WTO is one part of a vast complicated system to recolonise the Third World. Almost any issue can be traced back to the systematised power of capital.’

Thinking Seattle

Surely the very first thing to register about the events in Seattle is their anarchic excitement – the sense, in the often almost breathless accounts, of people experiencing a birth of the new. Amber from Denver said, ‘I came here to protest the killing of turtles. I’m going home determined to turn the world upside down.’ ‘Best thing since ... wholewheat bread!’ says Tina. For Dean, ‘It changed the world and the movement.’ Jon says, ‘I am still trying to understand it all. I am proud to have been there and feel like we accomplished far more than we could have predicted.’ ‘I think it made me believe we can actually change things,’ writes Albert. And Steve just writes, ‘Yeh! Fuck shit up!’ ‘When can we have another one?’ asks Michelle. A locked-out Kaiser aluminium worker said, ‘A year ago I thought a redwood deck was the most beautiful thing in the world. Now I understand the importance of sustainability. I guess I’m an environmentalist now’. [9]

From the union bureaucrats paraphrasing Marx to the Lesbian Avenger proclaiming, ‘My nipples stand in solidarity with the steelworkers and Teamsters and all the labouring people,’ there is a sense of possibility of moving into a new politics with agendas not yet written.

Many demonstrations would throw up an activist profile similar to Seattle in its variety, especially among its organisers and certainly round the environmental issues which have characterised much radical action in the recent past. Yet the best lieutenants cannot build a mass demonstration by themselves. There must be an ‘army’ ready to respond. That there was speaks of an enormous depth of feeling – a raised consciousness across a significant swathe of society. There have been numerous courageous actions by environmental activists, and a rising level of interest in the issues they constantly raise. A whole generation of high school and college students have been touched, so to speak, by dolphins, giant redwoods, the rain forests, the greenhouse effect and urban pollution. And there are no face masks strong enough to block the stench of corruption at the top.

For workers across the Western world the past quarter of a century has been an experience of retreat and retrenchment, faced with declining wages, rising prices and severe discipline in the workplace. Joe B. from Portland expresses it well: ‘You go out to work – if you’re lucky. Some trumped up bastard tells you the time of day. Your wages go up – but not at the rate of cabbages at WalMart. Then the plant shuts down.’ It is this cry that is being heard more and more, but it is still largely hesitant – if angry. The mobilisation for Seattle is the great example, so far, of a shift from awareness and attitude to action.

In one important respect this movement’s composition is different from the movement of the 1960s when, by and large, the working class and its labour unions were not involved. In Seattle it is quite clear that the largest contingents were from that constituency. By the end of the event sections of it were in a close and apparently harmonious relationship with the ‘natural’ constituency of demonstrators: students, environmentalists of several stripes, 1968 veterans and their children.

Much of the media evinced surprise, as if a sort of Berlin Wall existed between the constituencies. This ignores important changes which have taken place over the last 30 years. The working class has not disappeared; its composition has altered. There are new occupations, and old ones have changed. The skilled have been deskilled and whole areas of formerly ‘middle class’ labour have been subordinated to ‘factory-style’ routine, discipline and insecurity. At the same time the expansion of education has tipped masses of college graduates, often overqualified, into such jobs. The steadily falling vote in US presidential elections has been one register of the growth of an enormous chunk of the population with a rightly cynical attitude to the official political process. This does not make them conscious revolutionaries overnight. Nevertheless, there are fresh tensions and anxieties to add to permanent ones. Seattle is an example of a popular upsurge, a reaction to such tensions. They are quite thrilling in their capacity to break moulds.

Most people, from all campaigns and groups, went to Seattle with only the vague goal of demonstrating effectively against the disparate excesses of the WTO. The scale of the mobilisation surprised many of them. The crude violence of the law and order machine shocked everyone. Enormous warmth was expressed for the birth of new alliances. Ideas were in the crucible. Labour bureaucrats arriving with a nationalist-protectionist agenda felt the pressure from their audience to mute such positions in favour of an internationalist stance. Jeff, the aerospace worker from Massachusetts, wrote, ‘There could be no mistake that this was not a Pat Buchanan crew. This makes building alliances easier, both within the US and across the borders. We’ve come a long way from thinking that the answer is just to “Buy American”.’

David, from Berkeley, California has the last word:

Those who marched or stood or sat in the streets of Seattle this week made history, and they knew it. And like the great marches against the Vietnam War, or the first sit-ins in the South in the late 1950s, it was not always easy to see just what history was being made, especially for those closest to the events of the time. Tear gas, rubber bullets and police sweeps, the object of incessant media coverage, are the outward signs of impending change – that the guardians of the social order have grown afraid. And there’s always a little history in that. But perhaps the greatest impact of Seattle will be on the people who were there. Just as anti-war demonstrations and civil rights sit-ins of decades ago were focal points from which people fanned out across the country, spreading the gospel of their movement, Seattle is also a beginning of something greater yet to come. What will the people who filled its downtown streets take with them back into this city’s rainy neighbourhoods, or to similar communities in towns and cities across the country?


1. I have to thank Albert, Dean, Geoff, Jon, Kent, Steve, Jake and Tresa from Seattle; Akio and Steve from Eugene; Ann, Chris and Elizabeth from Vancouver, British Columbia; Corey, Shelley, Shawna, and Jeff from Victoria, British Columbia; Michelle from Toronto; Bill O. and Tina from Chicago; Peter from Kent; Mitchel from Brooklyn; Damon from Pittsburgh; Jeff from Massachusetts; Tom, Sam, Mark and David from the Bay Area; plus three anonymous respondents. Helpful suggestions were made by Abbie Bakan, Colin Barker, Mick Charlton, Nick Howard, Steve Leigh, Michelle Robidoux and Sabby Sagall.

2. J. Brecher, Strike! (San Francisco 1972), p. 104.

3. D. Henwood, Left Business Observer ( lbo_about.html), 30 November 1999. [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

4. No respondent estimated under 40,000. The highest suggestion was over 100,000. The best guess is somewhere in the 60,000-80,000 region.

5. Estimates of where people came from varied wildly from 15 percent to 80 percent from the Seattle locality, but the majority suggest 50 percent to 70 percent local, so we could settle for around 60 percent, or 40,000 people.

6. A WTO conference might easily have been scheduled for, say, Washington DC. Given that city’s relationship to contingent conurbations down the East Coast we might now have been reviewing and assessing a demonstration of upwards of a million. The level of local participation at Seattle is therefore very remarkable and must surely reflect a new engagement.

7. D. Moynihan, Z Magazine, December 1999.

8. Report by K. Murphy and N. Cleeland, Los Angles Times, 4 December 1999.

9. D. Henwood, op. cit.

John Charlton   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 20.5.2012