Is 'Taking it to the Streets' Worth the
Bruises, Tear Gas and Arrests?
By Mark Engler, AlterNet
Posted on September 29, 2008, Printed on September 29, 2008
Nine years after the World Trade Organization came to
Seattle, a new feature film sets out to dramatize the
historic protests that the institution's meetings
provoked. The issue that "Battle in Seattle" filmmaker
Stuart Townsend seeks to raise, as he recently stated,
is "(what it takes) to create real and meaningful change."
The question is notoriously difficult. In the film,
characters like Martin Henderson's Jay, a veteran
environmental campaigner driven by a tragedy
experienced on a past logging campaign, and Michelle
Rodriguez's Lou, a hard-bitten animal rights activist,
debate the effectiveness of protest. Even as they take
to Seattle's streets, staring down armor-clad cops
(Woody Harrelson, Channing Tatum) commanded by a
tormented and indecisive mayor (Ray Liotta), they
wonder whether their actions can have an impact.
Generally speaking, the response of many Americans is
to dismiss protests out of hand, arguing that
demonstrators are just blowing off steam and won't make
a difference. But if any case can be held as a
counter-example, Seattle is it.
The 1999 mobilization against the World Trade
Organization has never been free from criticism. As
Andre 3000's character in the movie quips, even the
label "Battle in Seattle" makes the protests sound less
like a serious political event and more "like a monster
truck rally." While the demonstrations were still
playing out and police were busy arresting some 600
people, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman issued
his now-famous edict stating that deluded activists
were just "looking for their 1960s fix." This type of
disregard has continued with the release of the film. A
review in the Seattle Weekly dismissively asked,
"Remind me again what those demonstrations against the
WTO actually accomplished."
While cynicism comes cheap, those concerned about
global poverty, sweatshop labor, outsourced jobs and
threats to the environment can witness remarkable
changes on the international scene. Today, trade talks
at the WTO are in shambles, sister institutions such as
the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are now
shriveled versions of their once-imposing selves, and
the ideology of neoliberal corporate globalization is
under intense fire, with mainstream economists
defecting from its ranks and entire regions such as
Latin America in outright revolt. As global justice
advocates have long argued, the forces that created
these changes "did not start in Seattle." Yet few trade
observers would deny that the week of protest late in
the last millennium marked a critical turning point.
What Happened in Seattle?
"Battle in Seattle" accurately depicts the mainstream
media as being overwhelmingly focused on the smashed
windows of Starbucks and Niketown -- property
destruction carried out by a small minority of
protesters. In the past two decades, the editorial
boards of major U.S. newspapers have been more dogged
than even many pro-corporate legislators in pushing the
"free trade" agenda. Yet, remarkably, acknowledgement
of the WTO protests' impact on globalization politics
could be found even in their pages. Shortly after the
event, the Los Angeles Times wrote, "On the
teargas-shrouded streets of Seattle, the unruly forces
of democracy collided with the elite world of trade
policy. And when the meeting ended in failure ... the
elitists had lost and the debate had changed forever."
Seattle was supposed to be a moment of crowning
achievement for corporate globalization. Big-business
sponsors of the Seattle Ministerial (donors of $75,000
or more included Procter & Gamble, Microsoft,
Weyerhaeuser, Boeing and GM) invested millions to make
it a showcase of "New Economy" grandeur. Any student of
public relations could see that the debacle they
experienced instead could hardly be less desirable for
advancing their agenda.
Rarely do protesters have the satisfaction of achieving
their immediate goals, especially when their stated
aims are as grandiose as shutting down a major trade
meeting. Yet the direct action in Seattle did just that
on its first day, with activists chained around the
conference center forcing the WTO to cancel its opening ceremonies.
By the end of the week, negotiations had collapsed
altogether. Trade representatives from the global
South, emboldened by the push from civil society,
launched their own revolt from within the conference.
Jumping between scenes of street protest and depictions
of the ministers' trade debate, Townsend's film
illustrates this inside-outside dynamic. Dialogue at
one point in the movie for actor Isaach De Bankole, who
plays an African trade minister, is pulled almost
verbatim from a real statement released that week by
Organization of African Unity. The ministers railed
against "being marginalized and generally excluded on
issues of vital importance for our peoples and their future."
The demands of the developing countries' governments
were not always the same as those of the outside
protesters. However, the diverse forces agreed on some
key points. Expressing his disgust for how the WTO
negotiations had been conducted, Sir Shridath Ramphal,
the chief Caribbean negotiator, argued, "This should
not be a game about enhancing corporate profits. This
should not be a time when big countries, strong
countries, the world's wealthiest countries, are
setting about a process designed to enrich themselves."
Given that less powerful countries had typically been
bullied into compliance at trade ministerials, this was
highly unusual stuff. Yet it would become increasingly
normal. Seattle launched a series of setbacks for the
WTO and, to this day, the institution has yet to
recover. Efforts to expand the reach of the WTO have
repeatedly failed, and the overtly unilateralist Bush
White House has been even less effective than the
"cooperative" Clinton administration at getting its way
This past summer, analyst Walden Bello dubbed the
current round of WTO talks the "Dracula Round" because
it lives in an undead state. No matter how many times
elites try to revive the round, it seems destined to
suffer a new death -- as it did most recently in late
July. Other agreements, such as the Free Trade Area of
the Americas, which aimed to extend NAFTA throughout
the hemisphere and which drew protests in places like
Quebec City and Miami, have since been abandoned altogether.
"We Care Too"
The altered fate of the WTO is itself very significant.
But this is only part of a wider series of
transformations that the global justice protests of the
Seattle era helped to usher in. Toward the end of
"Battle in Seattle," Andre 3000's character, an
activist who spends a decent part of the film dressed
as a sea turtle, makes a key point: "A week ago nobody
knew what the WTO was," he says. "Now ... they still
don't know what it is. But at least they know it's bad."
The Seattle protests launched thousands of
conversations about what type of global society we want
to live in. While they have often been depicted as
mindless rioters, activists were able to push their
message through. A poll published in Business Week in
late December 1999 showed that 52 percent of
respondents were sympathetic with the protesters,
compared with 39 percent who were not. Seventy-two
percent agreed that the United States should
"strengthen labor, environmental and endangered species
protection standards" in international treaties, while
only 21 percent disagreed.
A wave of increased sympathy and awareness dramatically
changed the climate for longtime campaigners. People
who had been quietly laboring in obscurity for years
suddenly found themselves amid a huge surge of popular
energy, resources and legitimacy. Obviously, the
majority of Americans did not drop everything to become
trade experts. But an impressive number, especially on
college campuses and in union halls, did take time to
learn more -- about sweatshops and corporate power,
about global access to water and the need for local
food systems, about the connection between job loss at
home and exploitation abroad.
With the protests that took place in the wake of
Seattle, finance ministers who had grown accustomed to
meeting in secretive sessions behind closed doors were
suddenly forced to defend their positions before the
public. Often, official spokespeople hardly offered a
defense of WTO, IMF and World Bank policies at all.
Instead they spent most of their time trying to
convince audiences that they, too, cared about poverty.
In particular, the elites who gather annually in the
Swiss Alps for the exclusive World Economic Forum
became obsessed with branding themselves as defenders
of the world's poor. The Washington Post noted of the
2002 forum, "The titles of workshops read like
headlines from the Nation: 'Understanding Global
Anger,' 'Bridging the Digital Divide' and 'The Politics of Apology.'"
Joseph Stiglitz, a former chief economist of the World
Bank who was purged after he outspokenly criticized the
IMF, perhaps most clearly described the remarkable
shift in elite discussion that has taken place since
global justice protests first captured the media
spotlight. In a 2006 book, he wrote:
I have been going to the annual meetings (in Davos,
Switzerland) for many years and had always heard
globalization spoken of with great enthusiasm. What was
fascinating ... was the speed at which views had
shifted (by 2004). ... This change is emblematic of the
massive change in thinking about globalization that has
taken place in the last five years all around the
world. In the 1990s, the discussion at Davos had been
about the virtues of opening international markets. By
the early years of the millennium, it centered on
poverty reduction, human rights and the need for fairer
Of course, much of the shift at Davos is just talk. But
the wider political changes go far beyond rhetoric. As
Stiglitz noted, "Even the IMF now agrees that capital
market liberalization has contributed neither to growth
nor to stability." Grassroots activity has translated
into concrete change on other levels as well. Even some
critics of the global justice movement have noted that
activists have scored a number of significant policy
victories. In a September 2000 editorial titled "Angry
and Effective," the Economist reported that the movement
... already has changed things -- and not just the
cocktail schedule for the upcoming meetings. Protests
... succeeded in scuttling the (Organisation for
Economic Co-operation and Development's) planned
Multilateral Agreement on Investment in 1998; then came
the greater victory in Seattle, where the hoped-for
launch of global trade talks was aborted. ... This has
dramatically increased the influence of mainstream
NGOs, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and Oxfam.
... Assaulted by unruly protesters, firms and
governments are suddenly eager to do business with the
respectable face of dissent.
Various combinations of "respectable" negotiators and
"unruly" dissidents have forced shifts on a wide range
of issues. It is not glamorous work to trace the
issue-by-issue changes that activists have eked out --
whether it's compelling multinational pharmaceutical
companies to drop intellectual property lawsuits
against African governments seeking to provide
affordable AIDS drugs for their citizens, or creating a
congressional ban on World Bank loans that impose user
fees on basic health care and education for the poor,
or persuading administrators at more than 140 colleges
to make their institutions take part in the
anti-sweatshop Worker Rights Consortium. Yet these
changes affect many lives.
Take just one demand: debt relief. For decades,
countries whose people suffer tremendous deprivation
have been forced to send billions of dollars to
Washington in payment for past debts -- many of which
were accumulated by dictators overthrown years ago.
Debt relief advocates were among the thousands who
joined the Seattle mobilization, and they saw their
cause quickly gain mainstream respectability in the
altered climate that followed. In 2005, the world's
wealthiest countries agreed to a breakthrough debt
cancellation agreement that, while imperfect, shifted
roughly $1 billion per year in resources back to the global South.
In early 2007, Imani Countess, national coordinator of
the American Friends Service Committee Africa Program,
noted that the impact of the deal has been profound:
In Ghana, the money saved is being used for basic
infrastructure, including rural feeder roads, as well
as increased expenditure on education and health care.
In Burundi, elimination of school fees in 2005 allowed
an additional 300,000 children to enroll.
In Zambia, since March 31, 2006, free basic health care
has been provided for all (along with) a pledge to
recruit 800 medical personnel and slightly over 4,000 teachers.
In Cameroon, (the government made) a pledge to recruit
some 30,000 new teachers by the year 2015 and to
construct some 1,000 health facilities within the next six years.
"They won the verbal and policy battle," said Gary
Hufbauer, a "pro-globalization" economist at the
Institute for International Economics in 2002, speaking
of the groups that have organized major globalization
protests. "They did shift policy. Are they happy that
they shifted it enough? No, they're not ever going to
be totally happy, because they're always pushing."
A Crisis of Legitimacy
In its review of "Battle in Seattle," the Hollywood
industry publication Variety notes that "the post-9/11
war on terror did a great deal to bury (the) momentum"
of the global justice movement. This idea has become a
well-worn trope; however, it is only partially true. In
the wake of 9/11, activists did shift attention to
opposing the Bush administration's invasion and
occupation of Iraq. But, especially in the global
South, protesters combined a condemnation of U.S.
militarism with a critique of "Washington Consensus"
economic policies. In the post-Seattle era, these
polices have faced a crisis of legitimacy throughout much of the world.
Privatization, deregulation and corporate market access
have failed to reduce inequality or create sustained
growth in developing countries. This has led an
increasing number of mainstream economists, Stiglitz
most prominent among them, to question some of the most
cherished tenets of neoliberal "free trade" economics.
Not only are the intellectual foundations of neoliberal
doctrine under assault, the supposed beneficiaries of
these economic prescriptions are now walking away.
Throughout Latin America, waves of popular opposition
to Washington Consensus policies have forced
conservative governments from power. In election after
election since the turn of the millennium, the people
have put left-of-center leaders in office.
The Asian financial crisis, which occurred shortly
before Seattle, and the collapse of Argentina's
economy, which took place shortly afterward, starkly
illustrated the risks of linking a country's future to
the whims of international financial speculators. Those
Asian countries hammered in 1997 and 1998 have now
stockpiled massive currency reserves so that the White
House and the IMF will not be able to dictate their
economic policies in the future. Similarly, Latin
American nations have paid off IMF loans early to
escape the institution's control.
The result has been swift and decisive. In 2004, the
IMF's loan portfolio was roughly $100 billion. Today it
has fallen to around $10 billion, rendering the
institution almost impotent. As economist Mark Weisbrot
noted, "the IMF's loss of influence is probably the
most important change in the international financial
system in more than half a century."
Currently, the United States is experiencing its own
crisis of deregulation and financial gambling. We are
now afforded the rare sight of Sen. John McCain
blasting "Wall Street greed" and accusing financiers of
"(treating) the American economy like a casino."
Meanwhile, Sen. Barack Obama decries the removal of
government oversight on markets and the doctrine of
trickle-down prosperity as "an economic philosophy that
has completely failed." In each case, their words might
have been plucked from Seattle's teach-ins and protest signs.
Townsend's film ends with the admonition that "the
battle continues." The struggle in the coming years
will be to compel those in power to transform
campaign-trail rhetoric into a real rejection of
corporate globalization. The White House would still
like to pass ever-newer "free trade" agreements. And
the WTO, while bruised and battered, has not been
eliminated entirely. Because its original mandate is
still intact, the institution has considerable power in
dictating the terms of economic development in much of
the world. Opposing this will require continued grassroots pressure.
On a broader level, huge challenges of global poverty,
inequality, militarism and environmental degradation
remain. Few, if any, participants in the 1999
mobilization believed that a single demonstration would
eliminate these problems in one tidy swoop, and I very
much doubt that anyone involved with the "Battle in
Seattle" thinks a single film will solve them, either.
But the coming fight will be easier if the spirit that
drove those protests animates a new surge of citizen
activism in the post-Bush era.
Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, is a
senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author
of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the
Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached
via the Web site DemocracyUprising.com
(c) 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.