Twenty years ago, I was among tens of thousands of people who took to the streets of Seattle to protest the unfairness of the global economy during a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). We were scorned as violent and ridiculed as naive — but we were right.
The WTO protests took place as the economic upheavals and US manufacturing job losses of the previous two decades were intensifying — and almost exactly six years after the bipartisan approval of the NAFTA free trade agreement. An editorial in The Nation on the eve of the protests warned that, with the 2000 presidential election approaching, “the vacuum of progressive leadership” on trade could leave the field to right-winger Patrick Buchanan’s “nationalist demagogy,” allowing him to use the issue as “a perfect example of how both parties abandon workers.” In the 2016 election, the singer might have changed, but the song was the same.
That November morning in Seattle, I felt both fear and resolve as a group of friends and I chained our arms together through heavy pipes and sat down in the street, knowing that across the city hundreds of others — who like us had been trained in nonviolent civil disobedience — were doing the same in a coordinated effort to block key intersections in a wide ring around downtown and prevent the WTO from meeting.
As we held our intersection, thousands of people — including union members and environmental activists soon dubbed the alliance of Teamsters and Turtles — marched past us; some estimates put the crowd at 50,000. There were stilt-walkers, drummers, and puppeteers creating a vibrant spectacle as people sang, chanted, and carried banners proclaiming loudly that another world was both possible and necessary. The WTO was not the source of all of the world’s problems, but it became a flashpoint in the fight over an economy ruled by corporations and billionaires who raced around the world in search of cheaper labor and weaker environmental regulations — a global race to the bottom.
In the middle of downtown, a group of black-clad anarchists began smashing windows and vandalizing corporate storefronts; police in riot gear responded by firing rubber bullets, tear gas, and concussion grenades into the crowd. The television cameras swarmed, and the “Battle in Seattle” was underway — with a strict curfew, a dystopic “No Protest Zone,” the National Guard, and hundreds of arrests and injuries to follow. Debates swirled within the movement as to whether the property destruction had overshadowed our message or drawn attention to it — and given the way that the news cycle works, both were probably true.
Some commentators called us “violent,” and used the property destruction by some to try to delegitimize the message of the many. Others told us that we were naive and idealistic, that there was no alternative to unfettered capitalism — hadn’t we gotten the memo? In a column on Dec. 1, 1999, that typified this view, Thomas Friedman called us “a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions, and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix,” and advised us that instead of protesting we should use “the power of trade” to achieve our aims. Free trade, they promised, would lead to improvements in the world’s living standards, labor standards, and environment.
Two decades later, it’s clear that they were the ones being idealists. The problems that the Seattle protesters highlighted haven’t been fixed — they’ve gotten worse. The examples are numerous: the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people laboring in the supply chain of retailers like Wal-Mart; the poisoning of Flint, Mich.’s, water supply five years ago and the system’s continued disrepair; the wildfires ravaging California, while its privately run power grid collapses; the fact that three billionaires control more wealth than half of the country, with one report showing that the median net worth of Boston’s black families is $8; and on and on.
These disasters are not bugs. They are features of an economy whose primary function is to generate profits for those at the top rather than meet the needs of humanity. The market searches for efficiencies and shortcuts; real people suffer as a consequence, with the damage falling especially hard on black and brown people both in the US and around the world. Thankfully, real people also fight back. Popular movements did not begin in the streets of Seattle in 1999, but in many important ways the WTO protests were a precursor to today’s resurgent fights over economic injustice and climate change in the United States. People are fed up, and they are rising up.
In 2011, Occupy Wall Street arrived with a call to unite the 99%, after the economic recovery from the 2009 recession helped the rich but not the rest of us. Occupy dramatically shifted the conversation about inequality in our society; on its heels, fast food workers organizing through the #FightFor15 — led by many courageous workers of color — delivered a shot in the arm to the labor movement, bringing new energy and a renewed sense of mission and possibility. The 2012 Chicago Teachers’ Union’s strike was an inspiring example that was followed within a few years by teachers in West Virginia and elsewhere — including Dedham, where teachers just proved in October that a strike is only illegal if you lose.
It’s not just teachers — health care workers, telecommunications workers, grocery store workers, autoworkers, and thousands of others have walked off the job in recent years. A sick-out by air traffic controllers at key airports ended the government shutdown in early 2019. Although union density remains low, 2018 saw nearly 500,000 workers on strike in the US, the highest number since 1986, and the strike wave shows no signs of slowing down. Workers have grown more militant about the injustices they face and more confident in their power to change them, and per a recent Gallup poll, unions enjoy more popular support today than they have in almost 50 years.
Similarly, given the intensifying nature of the climate crisis, present-day environmental movements are changing both the terms of the debate and our understanding of our own power to do something about it. Until recently, climate change policy debates were often confined to market-based ideas like cap-and-trade. People were counseled that the only thing we could do was to change our individual consumer behavior — a strategy that lets industry off the hook for its dominant role in pollution (best exemplified, perhaps, by a Twitter ad campaign about measuring your personal carbon footprint launched by BP, the company responsible for the largest oceanic oil spill in world history).
Not content with these limited approaches, social movements are growing bolder in both their demands and their actions. Protests over the Keystone XL pipeline included civil disobedience; thousands of Standing Rock Water Protectors laid their bodies on the line to prevent the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 (and faced a brutal response from police and the National Guard, and later state laws that criminalized such protests). Direct action tactics by young people of the Sunrise Movement and the Global Climate Strike have pushed big picture policies like the Green New Deal into the center of the debate. These movements are smartly connecting the fight over climate change to questions of human dignity, racial justice, jobs and economic inequality, native sovereignty, and immigrant and refugee rights.
With economic inequality at record highs, and sea levels poised to be, our world is in a profound crisis. Today’s social movements are crying out that something fundamental must be done about all of it. Their renewed militancy and confrontational tactics, going beyond the boundaries of what has traditionally been considered “civil discourse,” will surely make some people uncomfortable. Good. That’s the point.
Twenty years ago, those at the top ignored and dismissed us; humanity cannot afford for them to do so any longer. Millions of ordinary people are fighting back with courage and determination, and we should join them — before it’s too late.
Chas Walker is a long-time community and labor organizer who lives in Dorchester. Follow him on Twitter @chasbwalker.