It’s fitting that Seattle’s most iconic and (in some circles) most notorious protest, the 1999 WTO demonstrations, closed the curtain on the twentieth century and marched the city into the twenty-first. The grievances and hopes of the tens of thousands of people who turned out in the streets in that moment foreshadowed the public debates that have since defined American politics.
The World Trade Organization, established in 1995, is in many ways the embodiment of Clinton-era economic principles: Deregulate trade in order to boost the global economy. The WTO possesses broad powers to pressure its 164 member countries to undo any regulations that hinder trade. For instance, in 1998, the organization proclaimed that the U.S. had violated trade law by banning shrimp imported from countries that failed to protect endangered sea turtles (which are often killed in shrimp nets). Labor leaders, farmers, and social justice and immigrant groups feared that new trade deals would, in similar fashion, undermine human rights and workforce standards. So, in 1999, when Seattle won the dubious honor of hosting the next WTO meeting, the vast and sometimes discordant Left formed a united front.
The so-called Battle in Seattle opened on November 29 with Teamsters union members marching alongside environmental activists dressed in blue sea-turtle costumes, carrying signs bearing the words “Teamsters and Turtles United at Last!” It continued for five days, like a carnival, with drummers, larger-than-life puppets, singing, dance performances, and aggressive efforts to shut down the WTO meeting. Demonstrators locked themselves to metal pipes and concrete blocks as an effort to halt traffic and obstruct negotiators in transit. Police deployed tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion bombs against protesters and made hundreds of arrests (many of them illegal). A handful of activists clad in black smashed windows at prominent businesses as numerous others tried to stop them. Meanwhile, inside the conference center, WTO negotiations fell into disarray.
In the years since, the meaning of these events—whether they were grand chaos or great victory—is often disputed. But the ideas they helped plant in the public consciousness, about who should benefit from trade and economic growth, formed the backdrop of both the Occupy movement and the 2016 election. “It was a popular rebellion against this notion that world trade has to serve corporations,” says labor organizer Jonathan Rosenblum. In Seattle, the camaraderie built then among grassroots organizations has never faded: It helped pave the way, Rosenblum says, when he became campaign director, more than a decade later, for the fight that won the city of SeaTac the $15-per-hour minimum wage.
2003: Seattleites march against the invasion of Iraq
On February 15, 2003, tens of thousands marched from Seattle Center to the ID to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Part of a worldwide day of protest, the large turnout was one of many marches, vigils, and actions held by the anti-war movement that began organizing in Seattle neighborhood groups after 9/11.