Looking Back at the 1999 Seattle Protest of the WTO

In the past weeks, I’ve been closely watching the situation in Ferguson, Missouri and now in Hong Kong on Twitter and the news. Coincidentally, I found some old photos I took from the 1999 WTO protest here in Seattle, and wanted to share them for comparison. It’s interesting how some things have changed (communication, technology) and how some things remain the same (protests and efforts to contain them).

I was in my college years then, and was an idealistic, politically-active young man. Years have passed, and Buddhism, parenting and my experiences in Hanoi, Vietnam1 have tempered this over time, but it’s interesting to look back and remember my life 15 years ago. At the time, I was living not far from the local university, and when the protests started, I decided to take the bus downtown and see for myself. I only had a cheap, portable camera, so these photos are low-quality, but since no one had camera-phones back then, I hope they prove useful for history.

I grew up in the Seattle area, but I was surprised when I arrived downtown; it looked so different. All the major downtown streets were shutdown, and you saw lots of protestors like this:

WTO protest sign

Also, the police had come out in force to block access to the meeting:

WTO police line 3

By the time I arrived, the violence had already ended. However, things were very tense. At one point, I was with a crowd at 5th avenue, between Pike and Union and I remember we were standing face to face with the police here:

Sitting at the police line

We sat down (I took this photo while sitting), starting humming some song (I forget what), and trying to convince the police to join us. They were unfazed, and eventually I left and started looking around elsewhere.

Eventually I ran into these guys, the Anarchists:

Anarchists at WTO protest

The one woman on the left spotted me, so I didn’t stay long.2 But they were getting ready to do more protests. You can see their handiwork here:

WTO Anarchist vandalism

Again, I wandered around for a while. I think this is Pine Avenue facing south, again blocked by the police:

Police Line

Midday, there was a large parade that went through and I remember seeing many, many different political groups marching together: trade unions, environmentalists, feminists, socialists, etc. I even saw a parade girls who were protesting topless and wearing body-paint. This wasn’t nearly as exciting as you might think. 😛

By afternoon, things started to die down for a while. There was a lot of heckling of the police, who didn’t push people out of downtown until evening,3 but neither side really moved. You could hear Bob Marley music playing at one street corner, Anarchists wandering around, curious people like myself, and some very strange “fringe people” in general. One strange guy kept making crow-cawing noises at the police. I couldn’t figure out why he was doing that, and I didn’t like his vibe. Anyhow, after hours of this, people were getting tired or bored. Somehow I managed to miss the violence both in the morning and evening, so I have no interesting pictures.

However, I hope that readers will find comparisons between now and then interesting. You can see the rest of the album here.

So, was it worth it?

For me, it was my first and only experience with a mass-protest like that. I was definitely opposed to the WTO, and free trade, and I still am because I feel it’s hurting smaller businesses and small farmers. The NY Times has a good, balanced article from 2013 on the subject. Lenin’s work Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism was written 98 years ago, but still remains eerily true of the world economy now:

As long as capitalism remains what it is, surplus capital will be utilised not for the purpose of raising the standard of living of the masses in a given country, for this would mean a decline in profits for the capitalists, but for the purpose of increasing profits by exporting capital abroad to the backward countries. In these backward countries profits are usually high, for capital is scarce, the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap. The export of capital is made possible by a number of backward countries having already been drawn into world capitalist intercourse; main railways have either been or are being built in those countries, elementary conditions for industrial development have been created, etc.

On the other hand, I also feel that change is inevitable, and sometimes change is pretty painful. For example, when the automobile was invented, the horse and carriage industry probably suffered greatly. However, the concentration of power and risk of exploitation is definitely a cause for concern 15 years ago, and it still is today, and will probably remain that way 200, 500 or 1,000 years from now when we are all dead and are bones are dust.

Thus, it is an ever-present struggle: to assert the needs of the people and restore balance where needed. The key is to remember why we do it. If we do it out of rage or anger, we pay the price in the long-run. If we do it for the betterment of younger-generations and the community, then people will be benefit.

At least, that’s my opinion. Opinions are like noses: everyone has one. 🙂

1 I am often reminded of a quote from the TV Show, Babylon 5, where the character G’kar warns his people not to overthrow a dictator and setup another one. I am unable to find the quote though, alas.

2 I’ve never been a confrontational person. Some might say I am a bit of a coward. 🙂

3 I had left by this time. Walking around downtown all day made me tired and hungry, and I think my wife was getting worried about me. No great revolutionary, am I.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

6 thoughts on “Looking Back at the 1999 Seattle Protest of the WTO”

  1. Thanks for this piece Doug! Interestingly, i’ve found myself looking up stuff about the Battle in Seattle in recent days. (I rewatched If A Tree Falls, and it features a lot of stuff about the Eugene anarchist community). I’m actually trying to find good books/documentaries on the subject.

    I pretty much agree with a lot of your stance. The system is definitely broken, and it needs to be fixed. But how and why we fix it, is the key point.

    Great photos!

    Like

  2. my favorite is the holiday card somebody made of one of the police officers in full riot gear in front of one department stores (Nordstorms, or Westlake Mall, i forget), “Happy Holidays”

    Like

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