This won’t be as polished a response as I’d like, because, frankly, it’s a holiday, I’ve got better things to do, and Joel Connelly’s column yesterday — Seattle’s WTO riots were loud — and ineffective — is so inaccurate, idiotic, and simply factually wrong that it demands some sort of response. Not because anybody much reads seattlepi.com these days, but because, with a series of local events over the next several days commemorating the 10th anniversary of the anti-WTO protests (full disclosure: I’m one of the many organizers), we’re going to be hearing this meme a lot in the next week from local civic opinion leaders whose only real takeaway from the protests was that they gave Seattle a bad name for a while at certain cocktail parties they favored.
Technically, of course, Joel is correct — the “riots” were loud and ineffective. Except that the only people who “rioted,” in the sense of inciting violence, were a few dozen self-proclaimed “anarchists” (really, nihilists) who broke some windows, and law enforcement that spent four days trying to clear the streets by indiscriminately attacking protesters and bystanders alike — everyone, really, except the vandals. That was loud. But the 40,000 peaceful labor marchers (which Connelly acknowledges) and the separately organized, 20,000 or so peaceful people blockading downtown streets (which Connelly ignores) on November 30, 1999 made their point and changed history. The police riot was also ineffective; it didn’t stop the 1999 protests from being the most effective US street protest in at least a generation. Instead, it amplified the protesters’ message, by astonishing people around the world that American citizens would be so willing to take a stand against a neoliberal agenda that they’d provoke, and withstand, that kind of a state response.
You want an ineffective protest? Fifty thousand people marched in Seattle on February 15, 2003, against an imminent US invasion of Iraq. That was ineffective. As are most such marches. But WTO was different, and Connelly couldn’t be more wrong when he writes:
Left activists have scheduled panels to celebrate the 10th anniversary. They will doubtless dance around a basic question: What, if anything, did all the chaos accomplish?
Those panels — at a conference this weekend at Seattle University — will be more focused on the future than the past. But, no dancing:
Fact: Economic elites were looking to the 1999 WTO Seattle ministerial to vastly expand the neoliberal agenda of removal of trade barriers, labor and environmental protections, and global financial regulation (a plank called the “Multilateral Agreement on Investments). Local poobahs like Pat Davis dreamed that the whole package would be known worldwide as the “Seattle Round.”
Fact: Those negotiations failed because African and other global South delegates walked out toward the end of the week, angered that the proposals represented another attempt by the global haves to steal from the have-nots, and, they said, inspired by the actions of the people on Seattle’s streets.
Fact: The global reputation of the WTO, and the facade that such organizations had any sort of broad public support, was shattered by the Seattle demonstrations, which in turn helped catalyze an already existing, vibrant opposition worldwide. The WTO never recovered. Throughout subsequent ministerials in Qatar, Cancun, and Hong Kong — three militarized islands beseiged by demonstrators — the WTO has become a ghost of its former self. The proposals brought to Seattle, and subsequent attempts to expand multilateral neoliberal instruments, have never been enacted.
Fact: If those Seattle proposals had been enacted, the past year’s global economic meltdown, triggered mostly by the unilateral deregulation of US (and to a lesser extent European) markets, would have been far, far, far worse — a global economic catastrophe that would have particularly hammered the world’s poor. As it was, because most global South markets weren’t deregulated as the “Seattle Round” would have had it, those economies were mostly spared the brunt of the meltdown (excepting a spike in food prices caused by commodities deregulation in the North).
[As a side note, in the wake of Seattle, popularly elected governments in Latin America have largely rejected the neoliberal "Washington consensus" in the last decade -- South America now represents only one percent of IMF debt, whereas it was once the bulk of it.]
In other words, there’s a fairly straight line between what Connelly sneers at as “chaos” of Seattle in 1999 and the prevention of a global depression in 2009. That chaos helped save thousands, if not millions, of lives.
It’s not bad for a week’s work. But not for Joel:
Seattle voters did unseat Mayor Schell. But WTO organizing committee co-chair, Seattle Port Commissioner-for-life Pat Davis, was twice reelected before (mercifully) retiring this year….
But nothing has stopped or really slowed conditions that the protesters were protesting.
The United States has continued to bleed manufacturing jobs. Some of those jobs go over the border to Mexico, where unchecked pollution — heavy metals, PCBs, etc. –in the New River flows back over the border into California.
Human trafficking for child labor continues. Annual reports submitted by former Seattle Rep. John Miller, who became State Department ambassador under President Bush, are harrowing.
China, Indonesia and Brazil have demonstrated the ugly side of economic development.
China has doubled its emissions and recently passed the U.S. as the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse gases. Indonesia and Brazil have risen to third and fourth place respectively. The two countries account for more than 60 percent of today’s world deforestation, clearing and burning tropical forests that are the earth’s lungs.
Well, shit, all that is true. And the Seattle protests didn’t cure cancer, either. Economic policy is only now, and only fitfully, catching up to the notion that unchecked corporate greed is not an inherent good, and in fact could kill us all (c.f. climate change).
But no protest organizers were planning, or even dreaming, of solving all those problems. The goal was to flag these policies, then (but not now) broadly supported by elected Democrats and Republicans alike, as contested terrain. The organizers actually accomplished far more – and far more than any other similar US protest I’m aware of in the last 40 years (at least). And in the wake of what we’ve seen in the last ten years, and especially the last year, it’s pretty hard any more to argue the basic point of the protesters, that radical deregulation was dangerous and wrong.
But since some teenagers were rowdy, and a few windows got broken (to be replaced three days later), and Seattle’s reputation as a World Class City ™ was besmirched, don’t expect any local civic or media leaders to give credit where rightfully due this week, just as they didn’t in 1999. They were wrong. We were right, and a lot of people (mostly in other countries) are alive today because we took to the streets in 1999.
Connelly has one thing right:
Someday, a band of moderates should march from Seattle Central Community College down to Westlake Mall, chanting as they go: “Hey, hey, Ho, ho, futile protest has to go.”
I don’t share Joel’s lifelong fetish for political “moderates” (whatever the hell that means), but I am really tired of futile protests. He just picked the worst possible example.