Today’s Socialist Revival Began on the Streets of Seattle 20 Years Ago

The global justice movement exploded onto the scene in protests against the Seattle WTO meetings twenty years ago today. The movement was far from perfect, but its anarchist, direct action-oriented politics were crucial learning experiences for a left that has today finally found its footing.

Police pepper spray protesters at the Seattle World Trade Organization protests in 1999. Steve Kaiser / Wikimedia Commons

On November 30, 1999, just a few weeks after turning seventeen, I witnessed another possible world taking shape in Seattle as tens of thousands of protesters took the World Trade Organization by surprise. I wasn’t near the West Coast, but I was on Indymedia. The site first went live to document the Battle in Seattle, aggregating activist-generated stories, photographs, and videos for turn-of-the-century left radicals, and received 1.5 million unique visitors that first week alone.

It was the dawn of the anti-globalization movement. Or the global justice movement. Or, perhaps, the alter-globalization movement. Whatever you called that movement, it was suddenly clear that an alliance between labor, youth radicals, environmentalists (hundreds of whom marched in sea turtle costumes), and countless others contained incredible power that we had not known we possessed.

We knew what we were against and, in broad strokes, what we were for. Most of all, we asserted that the world could be very different. This all seemed extremely radical after years of Bill Clinton’s carceral neoliberalism insisting that it was the left wing of the electorally possible.

Margaret Thatcher is said to have remarked that Tony Blair and New Labour were her greatest achievements. Bill Clinton was the same for Reagan, consolidating neoliberalism’s power by aligning the Democratic Party behind it. The Cold War’s end promised a new world drawn together by trade under Washington’s benevolent guidance. Instead, bipartisan consensus spawned the demonization of undocumented immigrants, mass incarceration, and an anti-union onslaught as corporations with an increasingly global reach decimated worker power.

The loudest voices of dissent before Seattle were failed presidential candidates Pat Buchanan, a far-right extremist, and Ross Perot,  an ideologically-incoherent crusader against corruption. The global justice movement finally gave us an alternative. It was an incipient left-wing rebuttal to the idea that we were living in the best of all possible worlds.

We saw that a cutthroat capitalism that destroyed the environment and exploited workers everywhere could only be confronted by people everywhere uniting. But though we believed this struggle would be the movement of our lifetimes, it soon disappeared. Twenty years later, however, we can see that we were right. Today’s left revival in the United States began that Tuesday morning, when radical protesters—organized by the Direct Action Network and trained by the Ruckus Society in Earth First!-style tactics—linked themselves together at strategic intersections and successfully blocked delegates from entering the WTO.

“Those who were arguing they were going to shut the WTO down were in fact successful today,” Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper lamented.

The WTO meetings finally got started thanks only to fierce police repression: tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, a 25-square block “no protest zone,” and hundreds of arrests. “We will clear this intersection,” a Seattle cop, captured in the classic activist-made documentary This is What Democracy Looks Like, told the group blocking it. “We will clear it with chemical and pain compliance. If you do no move, you will be the subject of pain.” Steelworkers President George Becker told the “youngsters who were peacefully demonstrating who weren’t doing a damn thing to hurt anybody,” who he saw facing down “jackbooted, helmeted, club-holding” cops: “This is where you belong, right here with the labor movement.”

And then, inside, negotiations reached an impasse and the summit collapsed. The dramatic coincidence of external protest and internal dissensus suggested that neoliberal globalization was no fait accompli.

The direct action that shut down the WTO meetings was led by young people. But it was the presence of organized labor from across the United States and around the world — “a logistical feat that has never been repeated since,” in the words of longtime Oregon labor journalist Don McIntosh — that set the stage for a historic confrontation with global capital. As McIntosh writes,“The Oregon AFL-CIO mobilized an estimated 1,600 union members, including fifteen busloads and a specially chartered 350-seat Amtrak train. In Washington, every central labor council sent at least three busloads, and Tacoma sent over thirty. Forty-two busloads crossed the border from British Columbia.”

Twenty-five thousand gathered at an AFL-CIO rally at Memorial Stadium, including representatives from abroad like Barbados Workers Union head Leroy Trotman. “Brothers and sisters, keep the struggle going. Make sure that the leaders of the governments around the world will never forget this day,” said Trotman. “This demonstration is not a demonstration of United States, it is a demonstration of all working class people all over the world.”

Many broke off from the AFL-CIO’s permitted march to support direct action in the streets. Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, a bastion of radical organized labor that survived the Red Scare, shut down ports along the West Coast.

Protest attendance was not limited to the remnants of the labor left. Unions seemed ready to mount a counteroffensive after decades getting beat down and losing membership under neoliberalism. After long years of fighting against free trade on their own and losing, the AFL-CIO, under newly progressive leadership, saw the power of coalitions. Even Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa Jr did.

“We’ll keep the pressure on,” said Hoffa. “We want the message to go out that the WTO is in trouble; the citizens are revolting.” One protester held a sign that became shorthand for this new sentiment—Teamsters and Turtles United at Last—and the exciting possibility of a union and environmentalist alliance.

The media unsurprisingly fixated on a group of anarchists who smashed store windows, with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz complaining that “for us to have to close our stores during the peak season, the holiday Christmas season just beginning, really is an injustice.” The movement obsessed too, engaging in endless debate over what we called “diversity of tactics.” We denounced police repression, and we also eagerly courted it. Physical confrontation, while undeniably effective in Seattle, became an end unto itself. As did the photographic and video evidence of it, the circulation of which among activists became criticized as “riot porn.”

We were developing a sophisticated analysis, but our political strategy had become spectacle, operating on the same superficial level of imagery dominated by the corporate brands we hated. The failing was understandable, though. Seattle had been the first thing that had worked for the left in a long time, and it seemed necessary to stick to it.

Comrades Everywhere

It was a heady time to be a teenage radical leftist; it seemed like I had comrades everywhere. I joined a budding mass protest circuit, traveling to the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City to fight the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), to Washington D.C. for the IMF-World Bank meetings in April 2000 (“A16” in movement parlance), and to Los Angeles to denounce the proceedings of the Democratic National Convention and the nomination of Al Gore. The book Al Gore: A User’s Manual by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair was my go-to reference source; my souvenirs were a rib cracked by an LAPD officer’s club and memories of hiding from rubber bullets after police shut down a Rage Against the Machine protest concert.

We consumed abundant documentaries, teach-ins, magazines, and books that laid out the problems in detail. One of my favorites: Whose Trade Organization? A Comprehensive Guide to the WTO, written by the consumer watchdog Public Citizen, which played a lead role in organizing the Seattle protests.

At the height of neoliberal hegemony, the very possibility of coordinated left-wing opposition to corporate rule was shocking, to ourselves and our many critics alike. “Is there anything more ridiculous in the news today then the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle? I doubt it,” wrote Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. “These anti-WTO protesters — who are a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960’s fix — are protesting against the wrong target with the wrong tools.”

We did indeed have a problem with our targets and tools, though not the ones Friedman had in mind. We struggled to move from opposition to offense, and we quickly came to deride our own dedication to “summit hopping.” Hop we did: mass protests met the World Economic Forum in Davos, the IMF and World Bank in Prague, the G8 in Genoa, Italy, the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, and beyond.

We wanted to repeat the Seattle miracle. But it always failed, because the cops weren’t to be fooled again. “The actions were powerful, but it felt like a slogan — shut it down — had dictated our strategy, and defined our success,” activist and writer L.A. Kauffman recalled.

The WTO and other international financial institutions symbolized a system of corporate globalization that protected the economy from democratic control. The popular chant “this is what democracy looks like!” spoke to the disconnect between ordinary people in the streets and elite decision-making behind closed doors. But the movement couldn’t quite grasp what democratic government might actually look like, let alone taking power to make it a reality. This was due in part to the pervasiveness of anarchism. We also didn’t get how to make our opposition to global trade pacts and international financial institutions a part of a broader fight against neoliberalism — and maybe even capitalism — rather than the fight in and of itself.

Summit protests were, with some exceptions, concentrated in the Global North. But the movement had global reach and understood itself as representing a global public. We looked to the indigenous people in Chiapas, where the 1994 Zapatista uprising against NAFTA and the Mexican state had become a major reference point. No Logo by Naomi Klein introduced us to a global majority in struggle to which we tried to connect through groups like United Students Against Sweatshops. Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn sketched out the contours of US empire.

The World Social Forum, first held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2002, signaled the movement’s global linkages and, not coincidentally, a new emphasis on concrete alternatives. Later that year, Workers’ Party candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won Brazil’s presidency in a landslide. Latin America’s Pink Tide of left governments and the social movements that brought them to power made it seem like another world was not only possible but actually being built.

The protest in Seattle and its reverberations comprised the most militant mass street movement in the US since the 1960s. As Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatistas put it: “After the Cold War, the fourth world war has started.” This war, however, had barely commenced before the September 11th, 2001 attacks and George W. Bush’s declaration of the War on Terror ended the movement as a sustained force and transferred much of what remained to anti-war activism. As Kauffman writes, “the handful of sizable street actions against corporate globalization that took place in the ensuing years were dispiriting affairs, notable mainly for police repression.”

Instead of a global insurgency from below, we had a clash of civilizations imposed upon us from above. It was a resolution to neoliberalism’s growing legitimacy crisis in the United States, if only, in retrospect, a provisional one.

After the Flow, the Ebb

The anti-war movement failed to stop the invasion of Afghanistan, which was protested by a depressingly small number of people. We then failed to stop the invasion of Iraq, which was opposed by the largest worldwide protests ever. Antiwar demonstrations continued but grew smaller and petered out even as the wars continued and public support for them plummeted.

Opposition fed into the Democrats’ 2006 midterm election victory and then, in 2008, Barack Obama’s ostensibly anti-war candidacy. Neither Democratic victory, of course, stopped the forever wars that continue to this day.

The Global Justice Movement’s only bid for power was Ralph Nader’s 2000 Green Party presidential campaign. People drawn to Nader’s social-democratic platform packed in “super rallies” at arenas like Madison Square Gardens. I threw myself into volunteering, though I was too young to vote. We correctly diagnosed the problem as neoliberal Democrats using the two-party system to capture left votes while sticking to corporate politics. But our best guess at a solution was to win Nader 5 percent of the votes so that the Green Party could get federal campaign funds.

As the race between Bush and Gore approached election day, however, nervous liberals fled to Gore, and we failed. Two decades later, what most sticks out about that campaign is that we never entertained winning the presidency as a goal because it seemed — and likely was — entirely impossible.

The Bush Administration was a low point for left-wing politics. It was the era of the Daily Kos and liberal blogosphere, a situation so dire that even Howard Dean, entirely unremarkable save for his vocal opposition to the Iraq War, was deemed an insurgent. One very notable exception was the mass immigrant rights protests of 2006, which among other things reclaimed May Day as a worker’s holiday.

But even as the system that we had challenged in Seattle continued to lose credibility, no significant left opposition emerged to confront it — even after the 2008 financial crisis.

The response to Bush’s wars and Wall Street’s crisis was Obama, whose candidacy and election was greeted with a messianic glee that feels so bizarre looking back from 2019 that it’s nearly incomprehensible. Obama promised to heal a divided nation. Voters wanted not revolution but redemption. What passed for class politics that election was John Edwards’ declaration that there were “two Americas” or, more in a more reactionary register, Hillary Clinton’s comment that Obama lacked support among “hard-working Americans, white Americans.” The Left as it existed was mostly dedicated to non-electoral work, if cautiously pleased that Obama had defeated Clinton, who represented everything we hated about the Democratic Party.

The Obama presidency promised to reconcile the contradictions but of course only accelerated them. As foreclosures mounted and the recovery saved banks alone, the left was nowhere, even as the Tea Party broke out in 2010. Occupy Wall Street’s eruption in September 2011, then, provided a welcome respite: first in Zuccotti Park, and then in cities everywhere, people sat in to declare their opposition to financier rule. It was inspired by, of all things, a staple of late 90s left activism that I didn’t know still existed: the magazine Adbusters. To communicate, protesters used the human mic (“mic check!”) — another Seattle throwback.

But Occupy likewise suffered from the Seattle era shortcoming of defining left politics by a single tactic. After Seattle, we had attempted to shut down one major summit after another. Likewise, Occupy occupied.

When police evictions ended Occupy, however, a radicalizing, immigrant-youth led anti-deportation movement carried on. Then, in 2013, Black Lives Matter took off, indicting state repression and the unequal social order it held together. Militant left politics were back and, unlike those years following the WTO, they maintained a consistent ferocity. But still, the idea that we might and must win state power didn’t become clear until Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Democratic primary challenge. That run shattered the decades-long presumption that the left would be a protest movement and not a governing force, and with it, our self-righteousness, the belief that our very marginality signaled our correctness.

I remember reading about Sanders’s announcement in May 2015, buried deep within the newspaper. I knew immediately that I would vote for him, though with the clear presumption that he would badly lose to Clinton. At age 18, I would never have voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. Two decades ago, though, such a candidacy wasn’t possible. From Nader, we learned that the two-party system was well defended against third-party attacks from the outside; with Bernie, we discovered that it was vulnerable from within.

Twenty years later, I’m resistant to criticism of the Global Justice Movement failings. I don’t see them as shortcomings so much as inevitable learning experiences as we in the US left slowly fought to break neoliberalism’s imaginative bonds and expand our political horizons. In Seattle, we saw Green New Deal politics in rudimentary form: that labor and environment united was the only way forward. Occupy indicted finance; immigrant rights activists and Black Lives denounced state repression within and on the border.

The massive growth of Democratic Socialists of America as an organization would never have happened without so many experiments in radical horizontalism. As a result, DSA remains notable in the history of US socialism for its decentralization and relatively flat power structure (a matter, of course, of significant contention).

In Seattle, tens of thousands of militant protesters reminded us that another world was possible. In the years since, the Left sketched out what that might look like, in fits and starts and under extraordinarily difficult conditions. Today, we can clearly name our politics: we’re fighting for socialism, and we know that the point is to win.