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20 Years After Battle of Seattle, Activists Reflect on Historic WTO Protests

The protests went on for five days and resulted in 600 arrests and in the eventual collapse of the talks.

Twenty years ago this week, tens of thousands of activists gathered in Seattle to shut down a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization. Grassroots organizers successfully blocked world leaders, government trade ministers and corporate executives from meeting to sign a global trade deal that many called deeply undemocratic, harmful to workers’ rights, the environment and Indigenous people globally. On November 30, 1999, activists formed a human chain around the Seattle convention center and shut down the city’s downtown. Police responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the mostly peaceful crowd. The protests went on for five days and resulted in 600 arrests and in the eventual collapse of the talks, as well as the resignation of Seattle’s police chief. The protests were documented in the film “This is What Democracy Looks Like.” Democracy Now! was in the streets of Seattle 20 years ago. During one live broadcast we spoke to two leading critics of the WTO: Indian physicist and activist Vandana Shiva and Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, who join us on the show today.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m Juan González. Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world. Today we spend the hour looking back at the Battle of Seattle.

PROTESTER: When labor and students and environmentalists and human rights activists stand together, we can and did shut down the WTO!

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Twenty years ago this week, tens of thousands of activists gathered in Seattle, Washington, to shut down a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization. Grassroots organizers successfully blocked world leaders, government trade ministers and corporate executives from meeting to sign a global trade deal that many called deeply undemocratic and harmful to workers’ rights, the environment and indigenous people globally. On November 30th, 1999, those activists formed a human chain around the Seattle convention center and shut down the city’s downtown.

AMY GOODMAN: Police responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the mostly peaceful crowd. The protests went on for five days, resulted in over 600 arrests and the eventual collapse of the talks, as well as the resignation of Seattle’s police chief. The protests were documented in the film This is What Democracy Looks Like.

PROTESTER: You’ve got people here from all over. You’ve got labor, you’ve got environmentalists, you’ve got teachers, you’ve got children, you’ve got coalitions between people of color and mainstream white Americans. You’ve got middle-class, you’ve got working poor, you’ve got poor. You’ve got everybody out here because this hurts people. This is bad for people. It’s bad for our jobs here. It’s bad for the people over there.

AMY GOODMAN: In the documentary This is What Democracy Looks Like, organizers Hop Hopkins and Rice Baker-Yeboah talked about the brutality protesters faced in the streets of Seattle.

RICE BAKERYEBOAH: There was so much fear coming out of Tuesday. I mean, we had been shot at. We had been gassed. People had been beaten and shot. People didn’t expect that going into Tuesday. And people had to recommit themselves and reaffirm their position.

HOP HOPKINS: That night we ended up meeting up on the corner of Broadway and John and decided about what we could do the next day. The next day we’d meet up at 6:30 at Denny Park and then we’d try to take back the city.

PROTESTERS: [inaudible singing and chanting]

HOP HOPKINS: We started to weave our way through the route roadblocks that they had set up, and I looked around and I could see people were afraid. And at that point, I said, you know, “That’s really not fear in your gut or in your throat; that’s really your first taste of freedom.”

PROTESTERS: [inaudible singing and chanting]

HOP HOPKINS: People were coming out of nowhere. I mean, it was like a scene from that Michael Jackson video “Thriller.” People were like coming out of manholes. People were coming out of cars. So we went from like 50 people to like 100 people to like 150 people to like 300 people. And then just the numbers just kept growing. I don’t know where all these people came from. And I think the cops were totally surprised by that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Democracy Now! was in the streets of Seattle 20 years ago doing two hours of daily broadcasting. During one broadcast, we spoke to two of the leading critics of the WTO, the Indian physicist and activist Vandana Shiva and Lori Wallach of Public Citizen.

LORI WALLACH: The WTO constrains every country government about literally the level of food safety it can provide its public, or whether or not poor farmers can have access to seeds, whether or not workers can be safe from asbestos.

VANDANA SHIVA: Actually, the secrecy through which WTO was born is apparent in the fact that most parliaments had no idea what was the content of this treaty until months after it had been ratified and signed in Marrakesh. The WTO wrote the rules, it sits in judgment about implementation of the rules and it writes the inquisition.

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! broadcasting live from Seattle.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Vandana Shiva and Lori Wallach on Democracy Now! With Juan González and I on November 29th, 1999, during our live broadcast from the basement of Seattle’s First United Methodist Church during the WTO protests. Well, they are joining us again today. Lori Wallach is with us from Washington, D.C., and Vandana Shiva is joining us from Rome, Italy. Welcome back both to Democracy Now! Lori, let’s begin with you. You were in the streets of Seattle 20 years ago. Can you explain why, what was happening, and then take us through to today?

LORI WALLACH: Well, the WTO had announced it was having its ministerial in the U.S. and we knew it was critical for people around the world to see, with protest against WTO in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, that in the U.S. also, we didn’t want this one-size-fits-all corporate rule. And so as soon as we heard it was Seattle, we started organizing. We opened an office in Seattle in March of 1999. And the goal was both to stop the planned WTO expansion and also to signal to the whole world the U.S. was in this fight with everyone else. We needed different rules for the global economy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Vandana Shiva, few people in the world had even heard of the WTO at that time, even in the activist community. Tell us how you came to be in Seattle in November of 1999.

VANDANA SHIVA: I was in Seattle as part of the IFG, the International Forum on Globalization, which brought together all of us who were questioning GATT, which was the precursor of the WTO before the Marrakesh agreement was signed. I was fighting GATT because of the corporations who mentioned GATT first in a meeting in 1987 in Geneva and in a resort outside Geneva. And they were talking about patenting seeds and life. They were talking about an international treaty which would make it a requirement for all countries to patent seeds and would make it illegal for farmers to save seeds, and that this free-trade agreement is what they were going to work on. And they talked about five corporations controlling food and health by the year 2000.

That conversation of 1987 started me on the path of saving seed, working with my government to not allow patenting of seed, working with our ambassadors to not allow TRIPS to be designed like Monsanto had designed it where they said we were the patient, diagnostician and physician all in one. But because I come from India–to colonize the country, East India Company was created. The first free-trade agreement was not NAFTA or WTO; the first free-trade agreement was imposed on India by the East India Company, 716 [sp]. So we were very familiar with the use of so-called free trade for corporate rule. And having become free after famine killed 60 million people, we didn’t want to be re-colonized again.

And I am so happy that for that period, our former prime minister, our former GATT ambassador, joined us as the Peoples Campaign Against WTO and we passed laws in that window that defended the sovereign entity of the seed, the sovereign entity of farms. But as the corporate rule continued, the monopoly on seeds continued, we have lost 400,000 farmers to suicide because of debt. Permanently a billion people are hungry. And when you introduce the protests going on in Chile and Colombia and other parts of the world, I actually see the process of today in every part of the world as a continuation of the fight against neoliberalism, a fight against austerity, a fight against the permanence of structural adjustment, which is what free trade is about.

It has given us the control of four giants, Poison Cartel, over our seed and our food. It has given us the billionaires. Bill Gates is a child of WTO. He got rules written so he wouldn’t have to pay taxes in transporter transfer, which is why software was outsourced to India. Jeff Bezos shipping goods around paying no taxes anymore. These trillionaires are children of the WTO rules.

And even then, we said, “Our world is not for sale.” We said, “We are writing other rules.” Movements have written other rules. Another world is possible. We are making it. But the brutality and limitless greed of the handful of corporations and billionaires is now really reaching ecocidal and genocidal limits. So 20 years after Seattle, we need to make a commitment that in the next 10 years, we’ve really got to change those rules and get rid of the rule of billionaires.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Michael Moore, the Oscar-winning filmmaker — didn’t win an Oscar at the time — speaking to a reporter in the middle of a crowd during the WTO demonstrations.

MICHAEL MOORE: The beautiful thing of this is, this really wasn’t organized by any leader. It wasn’t organized by any group. All right? It was organized by Monsanto. It was organized by Exxon and General Motors and Microsoft and all the other greedy bastards who have spent the last two decades trying to make as much money as they can at the expense of everybody here.

CROWD: [cheers]

MICHAEL MOORE: So don’t go blaming any violence or anything on anybody here. The violence is taking place in these companies that have enacted their violence against these people.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Michael Moore back in the end of November 1999. And Juan, you and I were in the streets. We were covering this for Democracy Now! I make that point — and this weekend holding a big forum at the People’s Forum called “Media in Resistance: 20 Years After Seattle” that University of Pennsylvania, your university — Rutgers — and Democracy Now! helped to sponsor. You talked about how, here you were, working for this major New York newspaper, right? The New York Daily News. But it was Democracy Now! that brought you out there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right. Because the paper didn’t want to pay my expenses to go out there and they didn’t even really know what the WTO was about. And I assured them that it was going to be a big event and that even Bill Clinton was going, so it was worthwhile covering. But —

AMY GOODMAN: He ended up having to come in the middle of the night because of the mass protests. And Madeleine Albright couldn’t get out of her hotel room, the secretary of state, because of the tear gas that was coming under her door. But if you could read your column, since The Daily News didn’t stop calling you once you got there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, well, once the protests paralyzed the whole city, then they wanted to hear as much as I could write. And this was the beginning of the column I wrote on December 1st, “A Baptism by tear gas for America’s students.” And I wrote, “A new generation of rebels came of age in America yesterday. Thousands of young people paralyzed this city’s downtown and delayed the opening ceremony of the World Trade Organization meeting in a stunning protest that harkened back to the great civil rights marches of the 1960s.”

And in another column on December 3rd, I wrote “It did not matter to these diehard kids that the city had been turned into an armed camp and was firmly under the control of an army of cops, state troopers and National Guard. They had been stunningly successful in giving a black eye to an obscure international organization and had alerted millions of Americans to the enormous power the WTO wields in the world and turned it into a household name.” As I said, most people didn’t even know about the WTO before these protests occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: Vandana Shiva, if you can explain, you came from India to be part in Seattle of the protests, but you didn’t know really the level of protest. You had already been laying a foundation with the IFG, the International Forum on Globalization, giving speeches about this. And for people to understand the WTO, the idea that a transnational organization could be used to overturn the laws of democratically elected legislatures? Say some city council didn’t want to have GMOs, wanted to have them labeled; they could be called WTO-illegal. Now you have been continuing to speak out about this since, but what difference did that seminal moment make? Were you surprised the WTO got shut down?

VANDANA SHIVA: I was not surprised because actually, it wasn’t just the protest outside. It was the Third World governments inside who were totally celebrating the ending of the bullying power of the rich countries who were working on behalf of the Monsantos to push the TRIPS Agreement — the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement. The Cargills, whose vice president was deputed to negotiate the agriculture treaty on behalf of the U.S. government. That’s what the agriculture treaty was — a Cargill agreement. And the so-called Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement was a basically Pepsi-Coke-Nestle junk food agreement forcing bad food on everyone around the world and criminalizing local, regional, national governments, which worked according to their constitutions to protect their sovereign entities and their rights.

As I mentioned, I woke up to the use of a GATT and WTO to establish seed monopolies in 1987. In India, we immediately started to mobilize, and the first very big rally was a 500,000-farmers rally to say agriculture should not be part of free trade. Those protests are still carrying on. Seattle, we planned with IFG, the teach-in, and we had been doing teach-ins in the lead-up to Seattle. We thought about 30,000 people would turn up. Thousands turned up.

And the young people on the streets would come up to me and talk to me about how they were there because of biopiracy. They were there to stop privatization of water. Each of them was there to defend our public goods. They were there to defend our commons. And everyone was speaking the chorus “Our world is not for sale.” Our world is now on the verge of destruction and extinction and climate catastrophe because those who make money out of destroying the world want to continue.

So the difference really is that those who pushed and bullied us into the WTO of the corporations now want to dismantle the WTO as a multilateral body and they want to have bilateral bullying agreements. The end result is the same. I think it is important for the workers of the United States to recognize that the unions were on the street. In Europe right now, the corporations are pitting farmers again against the environmentalists as if banning pesticides, which are killing the butterflies and birds, are — not the reason the farmers are in debt. It’s not the reason that crops are failing, not the reason that the soil is dying. It is time to stop the divide and rule that has been created again and again by the money machine and the moneymakers. And this divide and rule is right now taking very militaristic turns, very fascist turns.

So our movement of 20 years ago is now a movement to defend democracy, to defend Earth democracy. I wrote my book Earth Democracy because all these journalists would say, “Oh, the anti-globalizers know what they are against; they don’t know what they are for.” We said, “We know what we are for. That’s why we are here to defend the earth, our work, our lives, our democracy.” So I wrote Earth Democracy and I that is even more urgently the agenda for today.

What we need to learn from 20 years ago is that when people wake up to the situation, and when people are determined in all their diversity, the turtles and the Teamsters can walk together to defend the rights of the Earth, and our rights. That’s the moment we are in today. We have to unite for a fight for the planet and a fight for the last person, including the last displaced person who is today’s refugee.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Lori Wallach, I wanted to ask you the impact that the protests had and how things have changed. I wanted to turn to the cover of Foreign Policy magazine in the spring of 2000, which featured you, Lori Wallach, with the headline “Why Is This Woman Smiling? Because she just beat up the WTO in Seattle, that’s why.” Of course you didn’t beat up the WTO by yourself. There were the thousands of people out there, and as Vandana Shiva has said, the Third World delegates within the assembly that were also opposed to the bullying of the West. I’m wondering if you could talk about the impact — did you think that was going to happen in November of 1999? And how has the world capitalist system adjusted to those kinds of protests since then?

LORI WALLACH: So what you wrote in your column was my personal experience, which is I was awakened by the tear gas. I sound like I did today, like I did in day five of the protests. I saw the power of direct action protests, of brave people putting themselves in the way of corporate power. And a whole generation, even the people who worked to organize, who spent a year traveling around the U.S. educating people about the WTO, doing seminars and union hall discussions, people were really, after the first day, empowered, awakened, unified in a way to see what certainly was the aspiration to shut down that meeting, to see that people power had effectively overcome the world’s most powerful corporations, and their goal of expanding the WTO’s roles even more broadly than they already were.

And the amazing outcome of that, I think, was that we had almost an enzymatic effect on what was going on in the negotiating suites. Because as Vandana said, people in developing countries had been fighting the WTO, had been hit by its effects right away, who knew what it meant and their governments and their negotiators in Geneva at the WTO had been pushing back. And they were fighting for no WTO expansion, but instead to fix the existing rules. And so seeing all of these people in the streets really had an effect on the negotiators in the suites. The developing country negotiators were largely locked out of the decision-making rooms. So they were in the Seattle Convention Center looking at the protests on TV and that combination of inside and outside maybe provided that last oomph for the negotiators from the Caribbean and Africa and Latin America who had been fighting this agenda for years to in Seattle block the WTO expansion.

But the bottom line of that story is after almost 15 years more of protest, mass protests at WTO ministerial in Cancun, in Hong Kong, in Geneva, as well as protests in many developing countries’ capitals, as well as enormous bravery of developing country negotiators in the Geneva negotiating center, WTO expansion was defeated. The people won. The agenda that was the most horrific extreme version of globalization did not come to fruition.

And we see the reverberations of that empowerment, of that experience of winning, of having an alternative of a better world and stopping that corporate power. That experience is reflected in people’s movements that have had incredible victories around the world so that even as we are living with the catastrophe of the existing WTO rules, people power stopped that expansion that would have made things even worse.

And now we basically have to fight, as Vandana said, to change the existing rules. And to some degree the WTO now is in an amazing crisis. It has never regained its legitimacy since Seattle. And on December 11th, its ability to issue its outrageous rulings against countries’ GMO policies and environmental policies and health policies and development policies will be shut down. Because at that point, the WTO’s dispute system will no longer have a quorum. There’s enough of a protest about the systems operations.

But is the WTO paying attention to this existential threat to its own survival? No. Its agenda is to again try and expand its rules, this time, to constrain governments from regulating the internet giants that are undermining our privacy and monopolizing the world. So am I thinking the WTO is going to reform? No. It is going to take a lot more people power, butt whomping, to actually get the rules we need.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, in the streets 20 years ago in Seattle, and Vandana Shiva, Indian scholar, environmental activist, physicist, food sovereignty and seed freedom advocate, alternative globalization author. You are in Rome, Italy. Usually in India. Or I should say, you’re just a world citizen, because you’re always traveling the globe. What award are you winning today, Vandana?

VANDANA SHIVA: It’s called the Minerva Award. Minerva is the goddess of knowledge, and to return to the recognition that women have knowledge.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I thank you so much for being with us, to these two women of knowledge who have joined us, Vandana Shiva and Lori Wallach. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at the movement, the independent media movement, that grew out of the Battle of Seattle. Stay with us.

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