This article is intended as a follow-up to last month's "Act Globally."

Report From the Battle of Seattle

by Mary Wildfire

December 1999


I flew to the Emerald City with Vivian Stockman and acted globally for one glorious and amazing week. To begin with, I want to correct an impression you may have if you watched coverage of the "Seattle Riots" on television. There was a period on Tuesday afternoon in which about 30 black-clad, self-styled anarchists (and maybe a few agents provocateurs?) sprayed graffiti on walls and broke a lot of store windows. The police did not interfere, instead allowing the media to shoot reels of footage of this vandalism -- universally, if somewhat inaccurately, referred to as "violence."

I don't know what you saw, but on local TV we saw a solid hour of this footage that night, not even interrupted by commercials(!) Oh, yes, there was also a single, one-second shot of the 40,000 or so peaceful, mostly union marchers. The vandalism footage was replayed on subsequent days, although the acts were not repeated.

To understand what happened in Seattle, you have to know that there was a third group which has received little mention. Numbering between 500 and 5000, these were the people who engaged in nonviolent direct action. Reasoning that the WTO delegates would move forward with their undemocratic and destructive agenda no matter how many people marched or how eloquent their speeches, this group attempted to block all entrances to the convention center where the delegates were to meet. The activists, mostly young people, locked their arms in tubes and chained themselves across the roads. Other people sat or stood in the roads and directed traffic away. At one intersection, an enterprising group dragged sections of chainlink Rent-a-Fence across the road. Soon mounted police in riot gear appeared.

Their cutters were not adequate to the chain, and for an hour or two there was a standoff. Delegates began appearing on foot, but were denied access. The opening ceremony was postponed and then canceled. Sometime before noon police opened up with pepper spray and tear gas and rubber bullets. They pushed the crowds from intersection to intersection but arrested very few. A neighbor who'd had army training in the fifties had told me that tear gas sinks so I climbed to the sixth floor of a parking garage where I was above it and had a good view as well. That evening the mayor declared a state of civil emergency, called in national guard units and state cops for the next day, and declared a fifty-block section of downtown a "No Protest Zone."

The next day, Wednesday, was stark, almost eerie. Probably because the President was in town, because on Thursday after he'd left the police thinned out, pulled back, and relaxed. On Wednesday, we were first told on TV that anyone in the "No Constitution Zone" (as we called it) who didn't have a WTO pass or a workplace there could be arrested. Possession of a gasmask was made a felony. Every intersection had a battalion of Guard units or other cops in their Star Wars regalia. We heard stories of people being attacked with tear gas or pepper spray without warning or provocation. Vivian, who had left the church where we were attending a conference on biotechnology, was told she could not return (she found another route). It was a good and informative conference, but I was often distracted by the sights out the window. Once I saw a phalanx of the robo-cops march past the intersection that was visible, followed by about 25 motorcycles with flashing blue lights, followed by half a dozen identical black vans with flashing lights, in the midst of which were a couple of black limousines. Perhaps it was the President; in any case, I thought it a good visual metaphor for the WTO: wealth, power and privilege surrounded by the armed might necessary to protect them from a people imagining themselves to have democratic rights. The fact that I was watching it from a church only reinforced the feeling of being in a police state. I doubt that WTO will ever again attempt to meet in a city which can't engage in preventive arrests and the use of real bullets; nor, after Seattle's experience, will any such city want to host them.

The above-mentioned conference was one of at least 45. Most were held in churches. Some focused on the effects of WTO-style globalization on farmers, consumers, health, militarization, labor rights, the environment, or on women's issues. Vivian and I attended one teach-in organized by the International Forum on Globalization Friday evening and all day Saturday that covered just about all of this, and featured speakers from the US, England, France, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Thailand, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Ghana, Nigeria, The Philippines, India, Ladakh (wherever that is) and Brazil. IFG also sponsored a debate Tuesday evening which would have been an excellent opportunity for any media interested in covering the issues. Not surprisingly, I've yet to read or hear any mention of it. Ralph Nader, Vandana Shiva and John Cavanaugh stood off Jagdish Bhagwati, David Aaron of the US Commerce Department and Scott Miller of Proctor & Gamble. There were four or five fundraiser/concert/parties. The best one we attended was put on by the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, which grew out of a pact between the Earth First environmentalists angered by Maxxam Corporation's moves to clear-cut the Headwaters redwood forest, and steelworkers with union beefs with the same company. There was free organically and locally grown food followed by some clever, funny, tightly executed skits and some excellent music. Jim Hightower spoke, but I was more impressed somehow by the unscheduled speech of a veteran of Tianenmen Square, now living in exile in France. He spoke no English, but a French union guy translated his words, about the abuse of Chinese union people and the need for international solidarity with them.

The two mountaineers in the audience, of course, were thinking sad thoughts about the absence of an alliance between environmentalists and UMWA at home -- but, maybe someday.

So clearly Seattle was about a whole lot more than "rioting." But I don't think I've yet conveyed the most important thing that happened there. One book I read talked about the need for "globalization-from-below" to counter WTO-style, oligarchic globalization-from-above. Perhaps this globalization-from-below had already sprouted before Seattle, but it burst into bloom there. Most of the marchers and conference attendees where white, unfortunately, in contrast to the wonderful ethnic diversity we saw on the streets and buses. But there were a few people of color, and a smattering of people from every part of the world. And there were little old Republican-looking ladies, young hippie types with dreadlocks and pierced eyebrows, middle-aged construction workers, and Asians concerned about freedom for Tibet and Taiwan because China is probably about to be admitted to WTO. There were even the Seattle Lesbian Avengers, marching topless (no, it wasn't warm enough for that) with words written on their bodies (one had "Better naked than Nike" on her back) and, this being the West Coast, no one was perturbed.

Friday evening we heard the wonderful news that WTO was breaking up without having agreed to anything. No documents were signed; they hadn't even managed to have a decent party. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had flown in to address the convention and returned to D.C. without having done so. Not all of this failure to advance the New World Order can be attributed to the protesters. The delegates had arrived with deep divisions, and the third-world delegates were tired of the habit of the most powerful nations meeting privately to work out details and then presenting a finished document to the peons. In the past they'd been pressured or bribed into signing. Apparently the first-world people were more arrogant than ever and this time the little countries' reps had had enough. I like to think that the sound of thousands of demonstrators in the streets helped stiffen their resolve. How ironic that we of the rich world depended on those third world delegates to represent our interests. How ironic that leadership in opposing the reckless movement toward biopiracy and the patenting of life is coming from Africa. The most regressive country on this issue, the one whose citizens are eating 90% of the bioengineered crops because other peoples all over the world are successfully refusing them, is the US.

We flew home feeling like we'd slain a monster. But we hadn't really; we only stopped its advance and knocked it down. Now we must call in the wolves of justice to finish it off while it's down, or it will just get up and devise a more cunning strategy. I predict that within a week or two, we will see the start of a massive PR offensive, nearly all of it covert and very professionally done. We must now do three things: Fight in the media battleground; move our consumption patterns toward the local and the simple; and, conversely, move our communications patterns further toward the global. It will take all the world's people working together to protect our biological and cultural diversity, moving toward that universal sister-and-brotherhood that Vivian and I got one wild, sweet taste of in Seattle.


Mary Wildfire is involved in environmental issues on the state level in West Virginia, but feels that international issues are often more important and that social justice issues tie in with environmental ones. She also feels that the international solidarity felt in Seattle was tremendously exciting, and overdue. She'd like to work in/with Latin America, but has no money to travel and is only halfway to fluency in Spanish.

Mary Wildfire can be reached at