The Legacy of the “Battle of Seattle”

D. W. Gibson

In 1999, 50,000 activists hit the Seattle streets to block a major World Trade Organization conference. The anti-globalization movement petered out shortly thereafter, but the protests set the tone for the mass mobilizations of the 21st century.

Protesters at a demonstration against the WTO confrence in Seattle on December 1, 1999. (Pascal Le Segretain / Sygma via Getty Images)

Interview by
Chandler Dandridge

For many of the organizers and attendees, the week of November 30, 1999, in Seattle, Washington, was a high-water mark of their activist lives. During the “Battle of Seattle,” an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 protesters descended on the Washington State Convention and Trade Center with one intention: to stop the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s Ministerial Conference. The protesters viewed the WTO as the embodiment of globalization — an unelected group seeking to supersede local and national politics in an effort to deregulate trade and ensure corporate dominance worldwide. Despite brutal police tactics and biased coverage from mainstream media, the protesters were successful in significantly disrupting the conference.

The anti-globalization movement’s momentum lasted for a year or two. After September 11, 2001, its energy dissipated as many of the organizers turned their attention to the US “war on terror.” Nevertheless, the 1999 WTO protests can be seen as an important antecedent to the various mass movements of the twenty-first century: from the Iraq War protests to the Occupy movement to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign to the Black Lives Matter protests and the recent university encampments in support of Palestinian liberation.

D. W. Gibson’s One Week to Change the World: An Oral History of the 1999 WTO Protests provides an oral history of the Battle of Seattle, as told by the organizers, labor leaders, protest musicians, political commentators, law enforcement, and others who were present that week. Gibson compiles the accounts of sources ranging from Noam Chomsky to members of Soundgarden and Dead Kennedys into a thrilling narrative of that week, which was at turns malicious and miraculous.

Gibson spoke to Jacobin contributor Chandler Dandridge about his book, the unique organizational and protest tactics leading to the successful shutdown of the conference, the ideological split between national labor leadership and rank-and-file members on the ground that week, and the importance of cross-generational, in-person conversations in organizing spaces.

Chandler Dandridge

The 1999 WTO protests were organized internationally around anti-globalization efforts. How did the city of Seattle at that time reflect the material conditions connected to globalization?

D. W. Gibson

Seattle really exemplified the agenda of the [Bill] Clinton administration when it came to achieving globalization with NAFTA and strengthening the WTO. It was a quaint port town in the ’70s and ’80s with a lot of union guys and blue-collar workers. But then what you get in the ’90s is this influx of tech and big business. Boeing had been there, and it was always a big employer for generations, but you start to get the growth of Microsoft. Amazon then begins to become a nugget of a factor as well. And these entities become a controlling force in Seattle.

There was an official organization put together called Seattle Host, which was a corporate-driven group involving Boeing, Microsoft, and Bill Gates to try and lure the WTO into holding its ministerial conference in Seattle. And that really was an example of what was starting to happen in the US. As manufacturing towns became more hollowed out, cities adapting to the tech environment started to “succeed” more.

Chandler Dandridge

The WTO protests were a real moment of unity among disparate groups of people. What were some of the dynamics that made it possible to organize such a broad coalition?

D. W. Gibson

The right-left coalition was gobsmacking and seems unthinkable in today’s climate. You had Pat Buchanan there, and you had Ralph Nader there. You had Teamsters and environmentalists locking arms and marching together. There were Catholic priests concerned with Third World debt marching side by side with anarchists looking for personal liberty.

But that wasn’t always easy. You had to find a way to get what became known as the Direct Action Network [DAN], which was a consortium of hundreds of individual players and small organizations working together to shut down the meetings, to work in concert with the established DC-based NGOs. There was a lot of fraught energy there, but they realized that whatever differences they might have regarding worldview or specific policies, none of those mattered if democracy was brought to its knees and corporate governance became the organizing structure of the world. So while this coalition seems unthinkable today, I think that’s a good lesson to take away.

The word they used in Seattle was “convergence.” They rented a giant warehouse and called it the Convergence Center. They spent months organizing there, holding meetings and deciding how they were going to organize the protests. They built big puppets and put together bands and had all these different tactics for how they were going to go about this week of protesting.

The fact that they met in that physical space should not be lost. I think in today’s era, we’ve become preoccupied with the idea of organizing on social media. And indeed social media is a tool, but what you lose is the interpersonal connectivity, the convergence, and looking each other in the eye. The only way we’re going to be able to work together and build bigger coalitions is if we come together in physical space.

Chandler Dandridge

The book reads like a political thriller, and not just the parts about the protests themselves but also the organizing in the lead-up. One person who sticks out is David Solnit, cofounder of Art and Revolution. Could you talk a bit about his importance, and also some of the imaginative tactics used in organizing and protesting?


D. W. Gibson

In Seattle, the unions were numerically the most significant group, and they were very hierarchical in terms of how they organizes themselves. Then you had the Direct Action Network, which was allergic to any hierarchical structure. The latter created affinity groups, which they borrowed from the Spanish Civil War. Affinity groups contain fifteen to twenty people, then have “spokes council” meetings where one person speaks for the affinity group. That’s how they come to decisions — hundreds of people where everybody has a buy-in. You don’t necessarily take a vote, but you get to a place where everyone says, “Okay, I think I can accept this plan of action.”

David Solnit was a big part of organizing all of that. His whole approach to organizing is that we need civil disobedience. And we need to make protesting dynamic so that we can create a big tent. That means bringing in different tactics. Not just hardcore tactics like lock boxes, where you put arms together, but also more whimsical tactics. Theatrical tactics. Protest movements always have to have culture, music, and art. So he would construct these gigantic twenty-foot puppets that people would be carrying around the organized marching bands. This was part of the dynamism of the protesting, which makes it more inviting to people who might be afraid to join.

Chandler Dandridge

Independent media was a relatively new concept in 1999. The organizers set up the Independent Media Center [IMC], which held four hundred people at one point. You quote John Sellers, one of the team leaders of the Direct Action Network, saying the IMC was “people-powered media, telling our own stories and not allowing ourselves to be filtered by the corporate media.” Did they succeed in shaping the narrative?

D. W. Gibson

I think that the IMC’s success went downhill as the week went along. That first day they did this famous banner hang from a 300-foot crane with two one-way arrows: “Democracy one way, WTO the other way”. As John Sellers said later in the book, “That was meme warfare.” That was the picture newspapers ran around the country. On the second day of protest — and there were 50,000 people there — fifty people or so decided to smash some windows. Then that became the narrative of what Seattle was about. Not the fact that they successfully shut down meetings.

And really, what other protests can you point to in the last fifty years that have stated a goal and achieved the goal? Even though that’s a remarkable accomplishment, that is not what came out when the week was done. It was like, “Well, they smashed some windows, there was some damage to some stores, and that shouldn’t have happened.”

But you know what also happened that week that nobody reported on? Hundreds of protesters linked arms around Nike stores, a company they hated, so that the Black Bloc protesters who were smashing windows couldn’t smash more windows. Protesters went out with garbage bags and brooms and dustpans and cleaned up the mess. But that’s not a good picture in a newspaper.

Chandler Dandridge

That brings to mind a quote in the book by Hilary McQuie, an organizer with the Direct Action Network, where she says, “People get so bent out of shape in the US if a car gets burned. It’s like if you’re in France . . . that’s just due diligence.”

D. W. Gibson

It points to the fact that in the US we’re obsessed with protecting private property. That is so sacred in an American context. So we need to be aware of that. Someone can get shot in the face with a rubber bullet, but if you turn over a car, that’s a little bit more serious, right? This is a very US-based, messed-up way of thinking. It shows that our society is structured around private property ownership and the importance of capital instead of the human being.

Chandler Dandridge

Organized labor played a critical role in the protests. However, many people in the book spoke about how this was a different sort of political action by organized labor. What made this moment so distinct?

D. W. Gibson

Tuesday was the main day of the protest where they shut down the meetings. They actually got the meetings canceled. And the Direct Action Network, the sort of loose affiliation of collectives and individuals, were the ones really focused on shutting down the meeting.

Labor — the AFL-CIO [American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations], the Teamsters, and steelworkers — were all into the idea of going out protesting, but not everyone was into the idea of sitting down in the street and actually shutting down the meeting. But there were competing points of view between localized and national leadership. For instance, Ron Judd, who still works for the state of Washington, was the main guy on the ground for the AFL-CIO. He was very much into sitting in the street and shutting down the meetings. The leadership back in DC, people like John Sweeney and to some extent James Hoffa, were a little bit more hesitant about those confrontational civil disobedience tactics.

So at this key moment on Tuesday when they’re trying to shut down the meetings and the police are starting to get really heavy with the tear gas, and it looks like they could disperse the crowd, the DAN needs reinforcements and more bodies in the street. All the labor people who had been assembled in a stadium and had a big rally are marching toward the conference center. They’re all blocks away, and the DAN can see them, and they’re like, “Here come our backups!” That’s where this split happens, and a lot of the leadership says, “No, we’re not gonna go sit in the streets. We’re turning back now.” But a lot of the rank-and-file people, led by Ron Judd locally, and the steelworkers in particular, decide “No, we’re going to sit in the streets to join the Direct Action Network.” That was crucial because it allowed them to sustain the barricade they had on the conference center and stop the meetings.

That fissure in labor was very real. But once they had success in stopping the meetings, and once a week passed and the WTO was not able to reach a new agreement, leadership back in DC, people like Hoffa, got really excited about this. John Sweeney got more excited about it. In the book, Kevin Danaher tells this story about how a year later, he’s hanging out with Sweeney in DC and Sweeney’s saying, “We’re gonna protest the IMF [International Monetary Fund] with you in the fall, and I’m going to sit in the street this time. It worked in Seattle. Let’s do it this time and make it even bigger.”

But then 9/11 happens, and that just absolutely derails everything. I don’t think it should be used as an excuse, but it is a very important part of the story. A lot of people get scared by the idea of civil disobedience, albeit nonviolent, and they back away from it. Then a lot of the organizing went from pushing back on corporate governance to having to push back on all the wars that the US was launching around the world.

Chandler Dandridge

Noam Chomsky is quoted in the book saying, “Seattle set the stage for the Occupy movement, and Sanders’s movement pretty much came out of Seattle.” Many of the young people who made up a large part of the Sanders coalition, while likely aware of Occupy, were perhaps not as aware of the WTO protests. How do these all connect?

D. W. Gibson

There’s this critique of Seattle that’s like, “Oh, anti-globalization. We know what you’re against, but we don’t know what you’re for.” But they were very clear on what they were for. They were for democracy. They were for trade that respected the individual human, individual laborer, individual worker. Whether you were a farmer, a former sweatshop worker, an environmentalist, that’s what you are for: respect for community and the individual.

That extends to the Occupy movement, right? They push back on corporate governance and a total disregard and dehumanization of the individual. So what begins in Seattle continues to Occupy. And I think so much of Bernie Sanders’s worldview and politics is centered on that idea of honoring the individual and the demos, the people that make up the democracy. That’s at the heart of Seattle, and that’s at the heart of much of what Bernie Sanders has spent decades fighting for.

One of the best points that Chomsky makes in the book is this generational breakdown on the Left in the US. It’s always tabula rasa. A generation gets really worked up about an issue, and starts organizing and putting together campaigns, but rarely builds off of the models that are available to them. And I think that’s something I’m hoping to correct with this book. The more you can engage earlier generations on tactics, on approaches, the better.

I understand that young people don’t want to just sit around listening to older people tell stories from decades ago, but I’m talking tactics here. I want this book in some ways to be practical, to be a guidebook. We have to remember that the internet and social media is a tool in the toolbox. It’s not the whole game. And if you think you’re going to change the world by organizing over Twitter, you’re fooling yourself. You’ve got to find a way to get in the room with people who are going to work with you to build lasting campaigns. If you’re going to build sustained campaigns that last more than a year or two, that effect change over a decade, you’re going to have to develop ways to communicate across generations about tactics and approaches.

Let me give you an example: I would argue that protesting in the US, unless you’re engaging in civil disobedience, it’s useless. It’s just not going to do anything for you. It doesn’t matter how high you hold the banners or how clever they are, it won’t effect change. You need a disruption of some kind, but that can’t be just any disruption. It has to have specific characteristics. Two, in particular: it has to be nonviolent, and you have to have tactical objectives that lead to practical outcomes.

Gandhi goes to get salt. Rosa Parks is going to stay in the seat. Fifty thousand people are going to block thirteen intersections so that you can’t get to the convention center and have a meeting. You need tactical objectives beyond media coverage. You need to find the pressure points for power structures and go and apply your civil disobedience in a meaningful way that can lead to practical outcomes.