Monday, November 30, 2009

The Battle of Seattle: 10 Years Later

10 years ago today, thousands of activists gathered in Seattle, Washington to protest the meeting of the World Trade Organization. Anarchist-started riots and an over the top police response dominated the news headlines, but it seemed that this event might really change the world. Environmentalists, unions, local activists, and people from the developing world all came to Seattle to protest globalization. We wondered whether a new progressive movement had begun which would provide stiff resistance to neoliberalism.

And nothing happened.

Why did this movement die as it began? It's only 10 years ago, but for something that seemed so important at the time, virtually none of my students have even heard of it, and that includes the more activist students. This was amazing to me when I discovered it, but it makes sense. Why would they remember such an irrelevant event, even if it seemed so important at the time?

A common answer to why turtles and Teamsters alliances disappeared so quickly is 9/11. This line of thought says that September 11 and Bush's war on terror took national attention away from neoliberalism and undermined activists' ability to organize effectively, not to mention. Bush's crackdown on radicalism that created a climate of fear. I don't really buy this. I think it is a factor. But it's not as if the 2 years between Seattle and 9/11 really saw anything happening.

Another answer is that governments and international entities found ways to contain protest. The creation of so-called "free speech zones" and isolating activists into non-threatening zones while holding meetings behind tight security may play a small role, but an effective movement would find away around this, either through massive non-violent demonstrations that would rivet the world's attention, through violence (though this would have been a really bad idea), or through new organizing tactics. None of this happened. A real movement is not dependent on the ability to protest exactly where they want.

I think the far bigger problem is that there was no movement in the first place. That's why the event has quickly become irrelevant. 1990s protest events were an amalgamation of interest groups that occasionally came together. Environmentalists (and 20 different stripes of them), labor unions, food activists, indigenous activists, farmers, peoples from the developing world, and many others all came to Seattle in common cause, but that cause didn't extend beyond the confines of the city. While they might all have opposed free trade as it was defined 1999, they often had nothing in common beyond that.

There was a classic 2004 Daily Show sketch where Stephen Colbert went to the Democratic National Convention, brought activists from different movements into the same room and asked them what John Kerry should focus on first. They all chose their own movement and instantly began arguing. It was a classic piece on the disjointed Democratic Party, but is also a pretty good description of the constituent groups in Seattle.

I think we've moved beyond this a little bit. The Iraq War provided a unifying event that brought progressives of all stripes together. And I think younger people realize the mistakes of the past in building organization and community across traditional lines. The first year of the Obama Administration certainly hasn't reflected discord among progressives over what he should work on--foreign policy, health care, the economy all seem really important. This is less true of the gay rights movement, but then Obama could do real things for them quickly and hasn't to his discredit.

It'll be curious to see how historians see the Battle of Seattle. Will they see more long-term meaning than I do? Or will it seem like an isolated event of the late 90s that eventually led to very little.