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The Battle of Seattle 10 Years Later: Organizers Reflect on 1999 Shutdown of WTO Talks and the Birth of a Movement

StoryNovember 30, 2009
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Ten years ago, on November 30, 1999, tens of thousands of people from across the country and the world shut down the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle. Police responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Hundreds were arrested. On this tenth anniversary, we speak with two organizers of the protests: David Solnit, co-author of The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle, and Ananda Tan of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, it’s been ten years since the infamous Battle of Seattle. On November 30th, 1999, tens of thousands of activists from across the country and around the world prevented delegates from attending the global trade talks by forming a human chain around the Seattle convention center and shutting down the city’s downtown. Police responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the mostly peaceful crowd. The protests resulted in 600 arrests and in the eventual collapse of the talks, as well as the resignation of Seattle’s police chief. It was a watershed moment for the movement against corporate globalization, and Democracy Now! was there broadcasting live.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, on this tenth anniversary of the historic protest in Seattle, we’re joined by three guests. On the phone, Norm Stamper — yes, the former police chief of Seattle and author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing.

We’re also joined by longtime activist David Solnit. He’s joining us from San Francisco, though he was in Seattle. He was one of the Direct Action Network organizers in Seattle ten years ago and co-author, with his sister Rebecca Solnit, of The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle, published by AK Press, out this week.

Also, Ananda Tan joins us, the North America coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. He led a group of 4,000 Canadian workers to the protest in Seattle in 1999. Both David Solnit and Ananda Tan are part of the Mobilization for Climate Justice Coalition that’s organizing demonstrations and civil disobedience in nine cities across the country today on this tenth anniversary.

We welcome you all. David Solnit, let’s begin with you. Describe ten years ago.

DAVID SOLNIT: Ten years ago was amazing. We had several thousand people organized through the Direct Action Network who decided to shut down what we considered the most undemocratic institution on the planet, the WTO, marching out 7:00 a.m., pre-dawn, setting up blockades around the city. And what was amazing is that within a few hours, the people of Seattle spontaneously joined us, so that very soon you were linking arms, keeping delegates out of the WTO, and shutting it down with people who had never been involved in any organization before, and then backed up by the People’s Assembly, by organized labor breaking through the AFL security folks and joining us. And so, by the end of the afternoon, they had to — by midday, they had to cancel activities.

And then, the sad part was the Seattle police, by 10:00 a.m., opened fire with chemical weapons, tear gas, concussion grenades, armored vehicles. But people held tight, shutting it down from dawn to dusk. And at the same time, there were actions across the planet. The longshore workers had shut down every port up and down the West Coast.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And David Solnit, I remember very well, as if it was yesterday, being both out in the streets covering your protest, and with Democracy Now!, with the New York Daily News, but then going back inside to the convention center as the delegates didn’t know what to do. They were totally stunned, because they couldn’t get enough people inside even to get a meeting together. And so it dragged on for hours and hours with many of the delegates just standing around trying to figure out what to do. The impact of the surprise of this on both the governments of many countries in the world as well as the organizers of the WTO, could you talk about that?

DAVID SOLNIT: Well, the action itself wasn’t a surprise. It was very public that thousands of people were going to try and nonviolently shut down the World Trade Organization. I think what the surprise to the world was — and we’re in a very similar moment this week in the lead-up to Copenhagen — is that Americans broke ranks from their government and actually stood up for democracy, for human rights, and for the things we need in our lives. And that was the surprise.

AMY GOODMAN: Ananda Tan, talk about the organizing you did ten years ago and the significance of the workers out on the streets in Seattle?

ANANDA TAN: Well, Amy, ten years ago was sort of a culmination of a decade of organizing for us in western Canada. It was really a combination of various movements recognizing that the corporate rule over our forests and our forest-dependent communities was really leading to the destruction of community health and stability. And I worked mainly with the forest worker organizing, and there’s a few hundred of us who joined the Canadian Labor Congress and other trade unionists from around North America on the streets. And for us, it was really a first realization, or a wide realization, that our cause to prevent corporations from robbing our forests and our communities was linked to the fight of peasants from India and fisherfolk around the world who are trying to protect their natural resources, peasants trying to protect their seeds. And so, it was really a coming together of various movements.

For us, coming down to Seattle, we came down with a slogan of fighting the Global Free Logging Agreement, which is what we call the multilateral agreement on investments that was a key component of the WTO. And we realized that our fight was linked to those of, you know, sort of communities, millions of people around the world. And it was — perhaps my only regret is that we weren’t able to sustain it back in — returning to Canada, but we did remain inspired by the fact that many of our allies around the world were eventually able to force the derailment of key provisions like the agreement on agriculture and, well, really, a lot of the major components of the Doha round. So, yes, it was —-

AMY GOODMAN: And as we move into this ten years later, Ananda, as we move forward, the Copenhagen climate talks about to take place, how would you say the organizing from ten years ago is translating into what’s happening today?

ANANDA TAN: Well, Amy, I think what we saw in Seattle was a combination of a broad dialogue in civil society. I was part of an alliance called the Labor-Environmental Alliance, and it was the first time forest workers and environmental groups and indigenous activists got together to realize and recognize a common cause. With the climate crisis, I think we’ve learned from a lot of our lessons in various resource-based fights and come forward to realize that the fights of communities here in North America, fighting climate-destructive and climate-polluting industries, is linked to the fights of communities facing toxins in their backyards, that are communities that are really being hit hard by the economic crisis here in North America. Their cause is linked to the cause of African farmers and Asian farmers who are running into serious limits to their productivity on their farms due to the climate crisis. And so, we have a much bigger canvas. We have an opportunity to tackle the same corporations who were trying to liberalize international trade and their access to community resources around the world and are now trying to do the same, using this opportunity of the climate crisis to create markets for trading in carbon derivatives and using their existing control of energy resources to really finance their development agenda in the third world.

So I think we’re at a place where, once again, we’re faced with turning out massive numbers of people on the streets to challenge the corporate interference with international climate policy talks, but also here in the US, I think it’s critical, being in the country with the most amount of climate -— that’s producing the most climate pollution, but also ostensibly owes the most amount of carbon reparations or climate debt to communities around the world, for people to step out and start challenging these corporations that are housed here in this country, the major oil and gas companies and the banks that finance them, and all the carbon traders that are trying to make deals in this new derivatives market, to stop their interference —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: Ananda, if I can interrupt you for a second -—

ANANDA TAN: — with a fair, just global agreement.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to get David Solnit to talk a little bit about the battle that ensued over controlling the story, or the story of what happened in Seattle, the press coverage and then the movie that was done afterwards. David, if you could talk about your efforts and the subsequent battle over the story?

DAVID SOLNIT: Well, the story of shutting down the World Trade Organization and joining with people around the world and delegates from developing countries inside to derail the talks, that story is one that tells that people, when we take action and organize together, we have power, and we can make change. And that’s a story that’s terrifying to elites. So, since Seattle, they’ve attempted to subvert that story, to paint with a negative brush the tens of thousands of us in the streets of Seattle. And you’ll see before any mobilization, in places like Pittsburgh a few months ago, flat-out lies about what happened, you know, saying that the tear gas and rubber bullets was in response to something rather than being used against unarmed, nonviolent protesters. And so, this kind of a disinformation campaign has been used very widely to try and scare people away from the one way that we actually have power, which is when we organize and take direct action, as we’re going to be doing today in cities across the United States around the new WTO, which is the corporate control of carbon trading.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we’ll be heading to Copenhagen, Democracy Now!, in force, to cover Copenhagen for the two weeks of the Copenhagen climate talks. We’ll be broadcasting live there starting next Monday. David Solnit, thanks for being with us. The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle is your new book, along with your sister Rebecca. We’re sorry we couldn’t get the former police chief on, Norm Stamper. We’ll talk to him soon. And thanks to Ananda Lee Tan, North America coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

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