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Rage Against the System: Bosses lose battle of Seattle

November 28, 2019

From the Socialist Worker archive - November 1999

“I came here to protest about the killing of turtles. I’m going home determined to turn the whole world upside down.” Amber Pattison from Denver was one of the tens of thousands of demonstrators who shook Seattle last week.

The protest has affected millions. People across the country watched in amazement the live television coverage of police firing dozens of teargas rounds in downtown Seattle.

President Clinton said he “sympathized” with protestors concerns about the World Trade Organization. But demonstrators were met with pepper spray, beatings, rubber bullets, armoured cars and billowing clouds of teargas.

As the day went on, Seattle’s mayor declared a civil emergency and a curfew. The centre of town was closed to all except the elite attending the WTO summit. The next day National Guardsmen lined the streets dressed in combat gear.

But all the repression and all the official denunciation cannot hide two crucial facts. The demonstrators won, and they won because of a unity forged between trade unionists, students environmental activists and many others.

The WTO opening ceremony was cancelled. Delegates simply could not reach it through the protest filled streets.

Canada’s Pierre Pettigrew had to be hauled into the convention centre over the flower pots to make his speech.

He should have saved his energy. There was no one there to hear him.

And in the end the negotiations collapsed. It is a huge defeat for their agenda. Seattle police chief Norm Stamper admitted, “Those who were arguing they were going to shut down the WTO were, in fact, successful today.” His men were not capable of destroying the spirit, the energy and the determination of the protesters.

The effects of last week are momentous. The WTO became a focus for many concerns - from child labour, to debt, the environment, working conditions and union rights throughout the world. The protest has shown the wider anti-capitalist mood.

The power of the protest will have shown millions that the corporations can be halted. Many more people will see that they can do something about the bitter frustration they feel after years of wage cuts, insecurity, longer hours, privatization and poverty.

Others will have seen the myths of a free country exposed on their TV screens. They will know that protest is tolerated only if it is ineffective, that dissent is permissible only if it does not question the real interests of the system.

The Battle of Seattle on November 30, 1999 is an historic turning point. It is an announcement, from the heart of the most powerful capitalist country in the world, that massive forces of resistance are just below the surface.

It is an announcement that the opening years of the new millennium will be marked by massive struggles against the barbarity of corporate rule.

Voices from Seattle

“They’re going to have to realize that we’re not going to take their crap anymore. They’re going to have to realize that you can only push people so far before we start fighting back and saying enough is enough."
Chris Unwin BC projectionists union

“If the politicians didn’t get the message it’s at their own peril. I think what you saw in Seattle was humanity walking in the streets and telling them that the next century we need to take care of people’s needs not corporate greed.”
Jim Sinclair, President of the BC federation of Labour

“When I took over as chair of the meetings, one of my colleagues from Switzerland compared me to the bandleader on the Titanic.”
Pierre Petigrew, Canadian trade minister.

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