WTO Seattle Riots | The Canadian Encyclopedia


WTO Seattle Riots

It was a remarkable, and perhaps prophetic, closing chapter to the millennium.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on December 13, 1999

WTO Seattle Riots

It was a remarkable, and perhaps prophetic, closing chapter to the millennium. For four intense days last week, the city of Seattle was under siege: the air burned by the acrid scents of tear gas and pepper spray, the rain-slicked streets patrolled by hundreds of police in black riot gear, the air echoing with the rhythmic chants of peaceful protesters and the ugly sound of vandals smashing windows. Thousands of marchers were choked by gas and bruised by rubber bullets; almost 600 were arrested. Just before U.S. President Bill Clinton arrived in the city late Tuesday, authorities declared a civil emergency, called in the National Guard and imposed a daily curfew covering 37 square kilometres of the downtown core from 7 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. Police threatened to arrest anyone not on legitimate business, and cleared the streets by firing countless canisters of tear gas. Yet perhaps the oddest aspect of the surreal strife in the home city of Starbucks and Microsoft was the protesters' target: the droning meetings of a once-obscure international trade grouping.

Nearly five years ago, when the 135-member World Trade Organization was formed, such scenes would have been unthinkable: for most people, the words global trade brought a thick glaze to the eyes. The convention in Seattle of trench-coated, wire-rimmed trade mandarins from around the world was intended to quietly set the agenda for the new Millennium Round of trade talks beginning in early 2000. Instead, it turned into a brawl, both outside - and inside. At the end, ironically, it was not the protesters that caused the meeting to break up in disarray. Deep-rooted conflicts among the delegates themselves over the arcane but explosive details of agriculture policy, "anti-dumping" curbs, trade in services, and environmental and labour standards led to a collapse in the talks. After arguing late into the final night, negotiators left Seattle on Saturday with no agenda, no final declaration and no date for a new meeting. Demonstrators outside were exultant. "It's the beginning of the end for the WTO," they chanted to the throb of drums.

Well, hardly. The trade talks will eventually pick up again in Geneva, and the tough international bargaining will begin anew. Yet the melee in the streets, dubbed "The Battle in Seattle," ensured that any further movement towards trade liberalization will be scrutinized by the public in a way it has never been before. The WTO, with its binding rules and decisions made in secret, may well have to change its methods, something Clinton alluded to in a speech: "A lot of people who are peacefully protesting here in the best American tradition are protesting in part because the interests they represent have never been allowed inside the deliberations of the world trading system." Opposition to the arcane workings of the WTO has brought together farmers and human-rights advocates, environmentalists and labour organizations, students and steelworkers. "The energy that has coalesced in Seattle will move around the world," U.S. consumer advocate Ralph Nader jubilantly told 2,000 rallying protesters on Thursday.

It was apparent weeks ago that something significant and shattering was going to happen in Seattle. Protesters from hundreds of grassroots organizations made no secret of their intention to converge on the city to shut down the WTO meetings. They each had their own concerns: some about poor labour conditions in developing countries, some about the environment, some about genetically engineered food, many about the spreading power of transnational corporations. The protesters claimed that since the WTO is able to make binding trade decisions in an atmosphere of secrecy - such as ruling against France's desire to ban North American hormone-laced beef or Canada's attempt to shore up domestic magazines - it has become a de facto world government with little accountability. Grassroots dissident groups, such as the San Francisco-based Ruckus Society, spread the message about the WTO to local Seattle campuses, and held workshops on civil disobedience.

More orthodox groups such as the Canadian Labour Congress and the nationalist Council of Canadians made plans to participate in an organized union march led by the AFL-CIO, not to reject the idea of global trade but to try to reform it. They had been invigorated by their ability three years ago to rouse public concern over the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment, ensuring its death. "People are concerned that the WTO is an undemocratic organization," explained Steve Staples, a Vancouver organizer with the COC who helped bring 41 busloads of Canadians from Vancouver to join the labour march. "Its powers are so far-reaching over governments that we are seeing our ability to create the society we want being undermined." That sense of the WTO as a malevolent unseen hand in modern life was shared by many of the 50,000 protesters who descended on Seattle.

Just before dawn last Tuesday, a crowd of several thousand, including grain farmer Terry Boehm of Allan, Sask., arrived at Victor Steinbrueck Park just north of Seattle's Pike Place Market to begin a march to the WTO convention site. "The WTO is allowing corporations to operate with greater impunity, and governments are giving up their ability to regulate," Boehm said, explaining why he joined in. "It has all sorts of unpleasant effects for farmers and Third World countries." The rain was gentle and the mood was festive. Some people were dressed in sea turtle costumes to express dismay about a WTO ruling that countered U.S. efforts to protect the species. There were marchers carrying cardboard puppets and a lot of banners: "China out of Tibet," for instance, a reference to China's imminent inclusion in the WTO.

The crowd marched southeast towards the Seattle Convention Center where the WTO meetings were taking place. By 9:30 a.m., they had successfully blocked most of the streets surrounding the centre, preventing delegates from getting to the meeting, pushing them at times and blocking their path. Organizers of the WTO realized they would have to delay the opening session. Some delegates tried to maintain good humour as they were being held hostage by the crowd. Huan Chin from Taiwan smilingly told protesters in halting English that "free expression is good." The finance minister of the Bahamas, William Allen, refused to brave the crowd and hid behind the glass door of his hotel. "I'm not sure I understand these protesters," he said. "World trade expands jobs and means higher incomes. They would benefit from that." Canada's trade minister, Pierre Pettigrew, had to scale a small wall and clamber over flower pots to get into the convention centre. Ottawa's ambassador to the Geneva-based WTO, Sergio Marchi, did not make it into the building at all.

Police believed they had prepared for the protests - even watching film footage of the 1994 Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver as a guide - but they were not successful that morning at keeping protesters at bay and protecting WTO delegates. "We've won The Battle in Seattle," gloated protester Ted Blaszak of Portland, Ore.

Around 10:30 a.m. on Pike Street at Sixth Avenue, where the protesters had placed a giant nylon dolphin across the street, police began to take their first extreme action, sending up volumes of pepper spray and tear gas. Soon, the air over the downtown was filled with noxious fumes. The demonstrators had their own team of medics, who poured water into eyes and daubed faces with gauze. Meanwhile, at the Seattle Center in the north of the city, organized labour, human-rights groups, environmentalists and other non-governmental agencies gathered for the AFL-CIO march. The COC's Maude Barlow was there, as was Canadian Labour Congress president Ken Georgetti. "We should expand trade," he told Maclean's, "but only if it improves the life and living standards of people around the world." In the crowd, too, was former B.C. premier Glen Clark, who was attending sessions sponsored by Microsoft and Boeing. "There is a real backlash against globalization," Clark said. "People are starting to question the genuflecting at the altar of the free market." Just behind Clark was an oversized green condom with a message from Greenpeace: "Practice Safe Trade."

The union march, 38,000 strong, headed downtown. Some of the walkers ended up joining the grassroots protesters and for some time the scene in the inner city was less tense. But vandals - wearing black and calling themselves anarchists - began to operate among the crowd. The Nike Town store was smothered by graffiti and three windows were smashed. Protesters tried to stop the vandals while maintaining their vigil around the convention centre, but the police continued to gas the crowd. "There was a small group breaking the law, but most of us out here are regular people with social consciences who are peacefully protesting," said Denis Moynihan, a member of the Direct Action Network. "The police displayed excessive force."

By Wednesday, authorities had declared a civil emergency. An eerie hush settled on the downtown as police stopped people, requested credentials and blocked roads, particularly around the Westin Hotel where Clinton was staying. "The police are going to be the ones in charge," said King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, "not the demonstrators." Yet people unconnected with the protest were being arrested, including Vancouver radio reporter Ted Field and Victor Menotti of the International Forum on Globalization, a San Francisco think-tank, who was attending WTO meetings. Seattle resembled Belfast during its violent era: stores boarded up, National Guard troops everywhere, dressed in camouflage and armed with truncheons, and few pedestrians despite the normally busy Christmas season.

Still, delegates were able to get safely into the convention centre and begin the process of thrashing through a series of divisive issues: agricultural subsidies, biotechnology, and the feeling on the part of developing countries that they had not received promised benefits after the last round of trade talks in 1994 Uruguay Round. "This is like an enormous poker game," explained David Runnalls, president of the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development, a nonprofit group concerned with environmental, social and economic issues. "Nobody is going to give into anything unless it's all on the table and you can see what kind of deal you can get."

But in the end, the poker game had to be folded. At 9:30 p.m. on Friday, over three hours past the deadline they had set, delegates conceded failure. Developing nation representatives from Africa and the Caribbean left the meeting in a hostile mood, saying they had been bullied by U.S. officials who were pushing for internationally recognized labour standards and more openness in WTO deliberations. They saw the United States demand for better wages and conditions as disguised protectionism, designed to blunt their competitive advantage of lower labour costs. The issue had intensified when Clinton went beyond the U.S. position and directly supported sanctions against WTO members who violate International Labour Organization rules. "He threw a bomb into the discussions," Sylvia Ostry, a research fellow with the Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto, told Maclean's TV. "He's shown incredible arrogance." Canada was much less adamant about imposing such standards.

European delegates also left feeling angry at U.S. attempts to strong-arm them into severely cutting agricultural subsidies, which they believe protect farmers and rural communities. "The Americans tried to impose their agenda on the Europeans and the Japanese and it was that pressure that made the talks collapse," said Runnalls. He believes in retrospect that the talks - which had no agenda from the outset due to earlier disagreements - were bound to fail. "There was a mess with the U.S. trying to boss everybody around, the Europeans divided and the developing countries fed up with the way the big guys operated, holding secret meetings and making deals on the side," he said. Trade Minister Pettigrew, however, said he remains optimistic: "This is not a failure. We made progress. These progresses are locked in. They will be the basis for further work."

Thursday morning, after Clinton left, the city calmed somewhat and volunteers began to clean up debris and wash graffiti from buildings. Runnalls hoped the protests would not derail continuing efforts towards trade liberalization. "I fear a backlash from ordinary citizens," he said. "High trade barriers are what led to the Great Depression." Other Canadian non-governmental participants worried that the focus on the street battles took attention away from such serious issues as human rights, social programs and labour protection. "Most of us here say we are in favour of expanded trade, but we're not in favour of a set of rules to help transnational corporations," said Warren Allmand, a former Liberal cabinet minister. Almost everyone, however, believed the week had heightened public awareness of the issues at stake. "This has been a key moment," said Peter Bleyer, executive director of the Council of Canadians. "The fact that it's at the end of the millennium gives it a sense of political momentum." Undoubtedly, The Battle in Seattle will remain in the public consciousness long after the sting of tear gas has faded away.



Based in Geneva, the World Trade Organization was first proposed by then-Canadian Trade Minister John Crosbie in April, 1990, and following extensive international negotiations, came into being on Jan. 1, 1995, as a more powerful successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. That seminal pact, created in 1947 as a sister to the Bretton Woods agreements that created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, was designed to reduce international trade barriers. Since then, total global trade in goods has jumped to $5.3 trillion from $58 billion, and the WTO's 22,500 pages of agreements regulate commerce among 135 countries.


A key difference between the GATT system and the WTO is that the new organization decides trade disputes with mandatory rulings, while GATT decisions could be blocked, since they required the consent of all members. The guiding principle for WTO accords is so-called national treatment, which requires member nations to regulate imported goods in the same way as domestic goods. The types of commerce covered have been steadily expanded in the eight rounds of negotiations since the formation of GATT, including the so-called Uruguay Round, which agreed to form the WTO. Last week's meeting in Seattle failed to start up a ninth round, but sooner or later, negotiators will return to issues such as agriculture and trade in services, which the Uruguay Round had already placed on the table.


WTO rulings have forced countries to change domestic laws, including environmental measures in the United States and legislation designed to protect culture in Canada. Many demonstrators in Seattle focused on how a WTO ruling overturned a U.S. ban on the sale of Asian shrimp whose catch endangers sea turtles. Washington is now adopting new rules. Canadian publishers are still assessing the impact of this year's Canada-U.S. magazine agreement made in the wake of a WTO ruling striking down restrictions on U.S. publications entering the Canadian advertising market. The WTO's defenders, however, argue that the gains from free trade around the world far outweigh the losses - especially in a high-exporting nation like Canada.

Maclean's December 13, 1999