WTO protests in Seattle 20 years ago helped change progressive politics

Seattle police at the 1999 protests surrounding the World Trade Organization meetings.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Nancy Haque worried about the conditions in sweatshops around the world. For Lynne Dodson, it was the possibility of attacks on public education. The plight of imperiled sea turtles got Lisa Wathne.

An array of issues brought tens of thousands of protesters to Seattle 20 years ago Saturday, with one unifying theme: concern that the World Trade Organization, a then-little-known body charged with regulating international trade, threatened them all.

With their message amplified not just by their numbers, but by the response of overwhelmed police who fired tear gas and plastic bullets, the protesters delayed the WTO’s conference and raised awareness of the international trading system and its implications for the environment, labor standards and human rights.


While many of the problems they identified are unsolved two decades later, some still credit the protest with restoring a sense that mass demonstrations and civil disobedience can effect change.

Demonstrators’ criticisms of economic inequality, rapacious capitalism, environmental degradation and worker exploitation are at home in the platforms of progressive Democratic presidential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

“There was a real feeling among students in the ’90s that it doesn’t matter, that nothing we do is going to change anything,” said Dodson, a longtime teacher and labor organizer. “The WTO protests changed that.”

Officials from 135 nations gathered in Seattle for a conference intended to launch a new round of talks to reduce trade barriers, but a months-long leadership tussle within the WTO hobbled advance preparations, making it unlikely the meeting would succeed.

Seattle had lobbied to host the conference because Washington was — and still is — one of the nation’s most trade-dependent states, with Boeing planes, Microsoft software and agricultural products such as apples and cherries making up significant exports.

During more than a year of planning, the city failed to heed signs of a massive disruption, neglecting to ensure it had enough police to handle the influx of protesters.


A WTO meeting in Geneva the year before had drawn protests, and protesters surrounded and rocked a bus carrying the WTO’s new director general during an October 1999 appearance at the University of Washington.

The day before the conference, Mayor Paul Schell insisted he wanted to honor the right to protest and pleaded with the demonstrators: “Be firm in your message but be gentle with my city.”

As the conference opened on Nov. 30, 1999, thousands of demonstrators chained themselves together in downtown intersections. They locked arms outside a convention center, preventing dignitaries, including U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, from entering.

Tens of thousands of drumming and chanting steelworkers, machinists, teachers and other union members marched. Many of the union members’ jobs depended on trade, but they worried reducing trade barriers without requiring labor standards would allow companies to ship their jobs to developing countries.

To the dismay of many activists, a small number of black-clad anarchists rampaged, breaking windows, vandalizing stores with graffiti and looting a Starbucks. The start of the conference was delayed, leaving the assembled nations less time to reach agreement on key issues.

Understaffed police stood by at first, but by midmorning began using tear gas to try to disperse the protesters. With then-President Clinton due to arrive, the mayor declared a downtown curfew and no-protest zone — restrictions not seen in Seattle since World War II.


The next day, police began making mass arrests. Nearly 600 people were arrested, some of whom had nothing to do with the protests. A federal jury later ruled the city was liable for arresting protesters without probable cause, and the city settled lawsuits.

Dodson first became concerned about the WTO because she feared it might consider public funding of education to be an unfair trade practice. That didn’t materialize.

She remembers walking with her 11-year-old daughter after a WTO-related event when police reached out of their vehicle and tried to pepper-spray them. Her daughter grew up to be a labor activist.

“It radicalized her,” Dodson said. “What were they thinking when they leaned out and pepper-sprayed this little girl and her mom as they were walking down the street?”

For Haque, who worked in Portland, Ore., as a labor activist, she had become concerned about major corporations relying on sweatshop labor to make apparel and soon had other worries about the WTO.

She lay down in an intersection on a rainy morning, while others dressed as butterflies drew attention to Monsanto Corp., saying its pesticides were killing butterflies.


Haque was overwhelmed by tear gas, but she returned the next morning and blocked a sidewalk. She was arrested and spent five days in jail.

“We were anti-exploitation,” she said. “Twenty years later, I think more people are aware of the effects of the way capitalism is working, the way it’s destroying the planet and exploiting people.”

Among the most enduring images from the protest were demonstrators in sea-turtle costumes. The WTO had invalidated American restrictions that required shrimp fishermen overseas to use devices that would allow turtles to escape from nets if they wanted to sell their product in the U.S.

The WTO has always insisted that ruling was misunderstood: The U.S. lost the case not because it sought to protect the turtles, but because it helped Caribbean countries comply but didn’t do the same for Asian nations. That was discriminatory, the WTO said.

“Our number one goal was the sea turtle issue. We helped bring that to the forefront,” said Wathne, who lives in the Seattle suburb of Lake Forest Park and works for the Humane Society. “But on a personal level, it was heartening to see people who cared about so many different issues coming together.”

Such misperceptions about the organization were common, said WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell, who was in Seattle at the time. Many protesters thought they were helping people in the developing world by insisting on higher labor standards, but those countries opposed them, fearing it would hurt their competitive advantage — cheap labor — to the detriment of their economies.


After four days, the trade talks collapsed.

Afterward, the WTO took steps to better explain itself, opening its dispute resolution process, releasing documents and launching a regular forum where people could air concerns.

“A lot of important things happened as a result of Seattle, in terms of the way the organization functioned and in terms of transparency,” Rockwell said.

James Gregory, a University of Washington history professor who specializes in labor issues, said the most lingering effects of the WTO protests might be the connection of the labor and environmental movements and a reawakening of progressivism.

In Seattle, a vast campus for Amazon — a poster child for global capitalism — has emerged. But Gregory noted the city retains a strong progressive streak that has made it a national leader on workers’ rights, including a $15 minimum wage and paid leave requirements.

The legacy of the WTO protests may be partly to thank, he said.

“The electrifying images and stories built excitement among labor people and environmentalists and activists of every kind,” he said. “Had there not been that kind of clash and publicity, we wouldn’t be talking about Seattle.”

Johnson writes for the Associated Press.