1999 – Battle of Seattle shuts down WTO

On 30 November 1999, 5000 activists did the unthinkable and shut down the biggest business meeting in the world, the World Trade Organization’s summit in Seattle. A year prior to the action, the World Trade Organization was barely known let alone understood, but creative campaigning not only forever put the dangers of corporate globalisation in the public mind, it also strengthened Southern country governments to stand up against unjust trade policies.

In 1994, the World Trade Organization was founded to deal with negotiations on trade, and quickly emerged as the principal mechanism for corporations to deregulate economies in order to maximise profit and minimise control of their activities. The organization was barely known though when Seattle was announced as the venue for the 1999 meeting.

A number of organisers  from across a spectrum of single-issue silos, including labour, environmental, human rights and others, decided that they would team up and target the summit. Running caravans across the country to educate and train activists in direct action, they mobilised thousands of people, reformists and radicals, to Seattle to confront the WTO as a symbolic target of the juggernaut of undemocratic global corporate power.

In the early dawn of the first day of the summit, scores of trained affinity groups organized into thirteen “clusters” and captured the key intersections around the Seattle Convention Center in a massive nonviolent blockade. Deploying civil disobedience tactics of blockading key entrances and intersections along with turning the streets into a giant street party (with bands, dancers, puppeteers), they stopped WTO delegates from getting to the conference. Seattle police unleashed a torrent of tear gas and pepper spray to crack the blockade, but were overcome as 50,000 labor marchers defied their own marshals and reinforced the shutdown.

Inside the conference, delegates from country in the Global South were emboldened and refused to sign onto key areas of planned deregulation. The summit collapsed and there has been only slow progress at the WTO level ever since (although the dangers moved to bilateral and regional trade agreements).

The impact of Seattle though was long-lasting. It launched the global justice movement in the Global North and showed that a people’s victory against global capital was possible.