One of my enduring images of WTO is a line of anarchists patiently waiting their turn to use a public rest room in a deli near ground zero. That, to me, summed up the contradictory nature of the so-called "Battle in Seattle," a phrase that previously referred to an 1856 Indian attack on the settlement that grew into our city. The World Trade Organization demonstrations of November and December 1999 gained international fame as an unexpectedly violent protest, yet even amid the black blocs of anarchists, Starbucks trashers, and Dumpster burners, the heart that beat at the center of the protests was peaceable, even civil.
WTO: Five Years After
• This Is What Failure Looks Like — Anti-globalization advocates haven't turned passion into policy. By Geov Parrish
• What Cops Learned — Why there won't be another "Seattle." By Philip Dawdy
• Where They Are Now
— The mayor, the chief, "Hippie Bitch" Forman. By Rick Anderson
• Mossback — How 9/11 trumped N30. By Knute Berger
• From the Archives — WTO before, during, and after.
Before windows were broken and the tear gas flew, the WTO protests were a celebratory gathering of the anti-globalization tribes of Middle-earth. One thing the media missed in much of their coverage was the incredible vibe that preceded violent confrontation. And even with the clashes between cops and protesters, even with much of downtown gridlocked by the tens of thousands of people engaged in civil disobedience, then-Mayor Paul Schell did get his wish, at least for a while: Holiday shopping went on. Compared with many demonstrations and celebrations before and since, including our 2001 Mardi Gras riot, we can take some pride in the fact that no one was killed and that most of the property damage done was the kind that heals fast. Civil rights and property rights were violated, but as we've learned since, it could have been much worse.
Indeed, in the shadow of 9/11, the days of 1999 seem positively innocent. Both sides in the anti-globalization debate have their dark, ugly underbellies, and the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, have made them very felt in our everyday lives.
The dark side of the anti-globalization movement is outright terrorism. The Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were monstrous atrocities. But they were also an extreme acting out of a critique against modern civilization embraced by many protesters against the so-called New World Order. Osama bin Laden's rage against the machine is something many in the movement could identify with, but in addition to hijacking planes, he successfully hijacked anti-globalist rhetoric and became Exhibit A for the dangers of tribalism in the modern age.
Yet his behavior is completely at odds with the commitment to nonviolence and the ideals of tolerance and diversity embraced by most WTO protesters. Before 9/11, many in the anti-globalization movement criticized the anarchists for giving the Seattle protests a bad name, for tainting a global message that would have been more powerful without all the broken windows. Our own Geov Parrish, a onetime, self-described anarchist himself, offered to spit in the face of John Zerzan, the Eugene anarchist theorist, for helping spoil the WTO party. And I wrote, before 9/11, of the dangers that so-called ecoterrorists posed by escalating violence in the name of environmentalism. I worried that the left was headed toward its own Oklahoma City. The events of 9/11 helped trash the legitimacy of resistance to corporate globalization by taking the critique to a hideous, murderous extreme.
The fact is, so-called Islamic fascism is globalist in its own way, representing a virulent form of religious fanaticism—call it theocratic globalism—that seeks to convert or kill us nonbelievers, including "pagan America." Even if you believe that American imperialism is partly responsible for the conditions that give rise to terrorism, any movement that tries to advance global intolerance and control, whether it's religious fundamentalism, corporate capitalism, or old-school communism, ought to be resisted and restrained.
The attacks of 9/11—and America's response to them—have also exposed the dark side of the globalist agenda. Their interests have been dramatically, if dangerously, advanced by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and by the open embrace of unilateral and pre-emptive international actions—on behalf of not just "democracy," but free markets and lower marginal tax rates. By cloaking itself in an endless War on Terrorism, by asserting the American way at gunpoint, by allowing George W. Bush to increase the size, scope, and power of government in favor of the big guys and at the expense of the little guys, the imperium has released its inner beast. The so-called neoconservatives have tapped into a strain of American arrogance that is feeding the angels of our worst nature, but in the guise of advancing our better ones. We are now beginning to see what an enormous, global government based on greed looks like.
One of the surprises of WTO was that people could get so worked up about trade policy. But "Seattle" was never about trade per se. Nor was there any particular dominant ideology among the protesters. One of my favorite signs featured the international ban symbol over the word "Illuminati." Right and left were there, turtles, Teamsters, metal workers, and people who wear metal hats while receiving transmissions from the mother ship. It was less about advancing a specific agenda and more about asserting the right to have, in essence, a "polytheistic, pluralistic" world. Writer Gore Vidal has offered the idea that the world's great monotheistic religions—the believers in the "Sky God"—have been responsible for the ruin of mankind because they set up a perpetual conflict between people who have a unique claim to the truth. The WTO focused this argument in a secular realm: It's not about religion, it's about a worldview that pits the One against the Many.
Seattle was a gathering of those who believe that my-way-or-the-highwayism is no way to run a planet. If there wasn't enough proof of that in 1999, there ought to be by now.