There are two fundamental misconceptions surrounding the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle ten years ago this week. One is that the protests represented a "riot" and that the majority of protesters were violent. The second is that the protests were counter-productive and actually hurt the cause of reform that would benefit poor countries trying to have their voices heard. Both of these are wrong and, in fact, are just the opposite.
Many of those who went to Seattle did intend to shut down the proceedings, which they did nonviolently by creating blockades and locking themselves together to make it difficult for them to be removed. Others were there to draw attention to how WTO policies hurt workers domestically, while others were highlighting the injustice internationally and wanted to support the delegates from the Global South. There were other organizations, such as the Black Bloc, whose intent was to destroy property of those companies believed responsible (such as Nike) for exploiting workers around the world. There was a great diversity of people and approaches that came together in opposition to the WTO and not all of them agreed with one another. However, as a result of the tumult, delegates from the world's poorest countries felt emboldened to reject the policies that they'd been opposed to but felt little ability to resist.
According to anthropologist Marc Edelman in the current issue of Dialectical Anthropology:
The commonality of views and objectives between the anti-WTO demonstrators, on the one hand, and many developing-country WTO delegations, on the other hand, was ultimately the most significant ingredient in the success of the N30 protests and the failure of the Millennium Round of trade negotiations. Certainly the demonstrators physically prevented many delegates from reaching the meeting site and police violence against peaceful protestors cast the WTO in an unfavorable light. But more importantly, developing-country delegates felt empowered and validated by the viewpoints and activities of the protestors and decided, in many cases, that scuttling the negotiations would be the best outcome, especially given the arrogance and intransigence of the more powerful players in the WTO. The voices and actions of the protestors from the Global South played a major role in influencing these developing-country delegates, something which would have been far more difficult, and most likely impossible, if the "street heat" had come only from masses of disaffected white Americans.
Of the 135 member nations, more than 100 countries in the WTO are classified as "developing." Many of these nations were furious at how the wealthy members were dictating the terms of financial agreements behind closed doors and were restricting the transparency of the proceedings.
According to Inter Press Service during the 1999 WTO Ministerial:
Barshefsky riled Third World delegates by saying that, if consensus on draft proposals for a ministerial declaration were not reached, then she would resort to "a more exclusive process to achieve a final outcome."
This infuriated the poor countries and a number of delegates railed against the US official's "dictatorial tendencies." . . .
"All the real business is conducted in closed consultations," said the former Commonwealth chairman and Guyanese foreign minister.
Access to those sessions, known as "green rooms", was limited to members invited or endorsed by Barshefsky and Moore. The meetings were held at undisclosed locations and delegates from poor countries complained that it remained unclear which members had been consulted on what.
Many of these concerns were longstanding. However, without the global focus that the protests provided, the delegates from the world's poorest countries would likely have continued to be ignored. Today many poor nations are stating that a similar process is being enacted in regards to climate change policies. The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen may turn out to be as much of a rallying call for organizations worldwide as the WTO Ministerial was ten years ago. However, the arguments that the protesters at the WTO in Seattle were uniformly violent or that they were spoiled white kids who were standing in the way of institutional reform are clearly flawed. The policies that were being implemented at that time affected so many people, in so many various ways, that the differences between environmentalists and labor unions, American students and Korean farmers or rabble rousers and WTO delegates were erased. In that moment people came together to initiate the first shot in a struggle that continues to this day.
Edelman, M. (2009). Peasant-farmer movements, third world peoples, and the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, 1999 Dialectical Anthropology, 33 (2), 109-128 DOI: 10.1007/s10624-009-9109-6
I used to think that those who committed violence against persons and (some) property back in the '60s & '70s set back the work the rest of us were doing to stop the war against Vietnam.
Then the memoirs of Nixon's aides came out, and we learned that the only thing which stopped Tricky Dick from nuking Hanoi was the fear of a major backlash within the US. We (the anti-war movement) thought we had failed; instead we saved millions of lives.
Now I still cringe when "Black Bloc" types smash windows and throw rocks at cops, and worry about the presence of provocateurs, but I just can't criticize so unequivocally any more.