Reloaded...Battle of Seattle 1999-2019

By Ruben Solis Garcia

Ruben is a longtime organizer and movement leader based in the Southwest and U.S. South. Ruben founded the Southwest Workers' Union in San Antonio and the University sin Fronteras.

It has been twenty years since the Battle of Seattle where the peoples actions shut down the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in late November and early December of 1999. Little did we know how much the world would change in the coming two decades. What has happened in the last 20 years?

I. First hearing about it

It was in the summer that I got an email and read a call to action in Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting held in late November and early December 1999. I was the co-chair or co-coordinator of the Border Justice Campaign (BJC) of the Southwest Network for Environmental & Economic Justice. I was not sure who was making the call to action and so it seemed a far and distant to respond at first. I checked it out with several local movement people and they confirmed the action and that it seemed directed by young white anarchists, environmentalist, and other non-governmental organizations (NGO’s).

II. Convincing SNEEJ and EJ networks

Convincing the Southwest Network for Environmental & Economic Justice (SNEEJ) and its coordinating council (I was a member of the coordinating council) was not easy since the perception was that Seattle was dominated by rich white environmentalists/ecologists so folks were questioning whether or not to go. I contacted Centro de la Raza in Seattle and LELO (Labor Organization), and they helped by committing to provide local support and solidarity. Tom Goldtooth from the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) supported the mobilizing to protest at the WTO Seattle actions and providing the needed weight for the SNEEJ coordinating council to agree to mobilize and participate in the actions of Seattle. The ‘Road to Seattle’ was on!

III. Logistics and mobilization

SNEEJ and it’s Border Justice Campaign (BJC) including SWOP from Albuquerque were first in launching a movement confronting environmental racism and doing so by organizing on both sides of the US-Mexico borders. The frontline struggle was around the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the maquiladora (assembly plants) industry on the Mexico side of the border under a fabricated name of ‘twin plants’. The maquiladora industry paid low wages with intense speed in the lines of production and then they spew all their contaminants, pollutions and toxic waste by dumping it in the Rio Grande River. The maquiladora industry migrated thousands of workers from throughout Mexico to the border region, a region that did not have the infra structure to support such rapid growth and social services needed by the incoming families.

IV. The Crew

A group of representatives of the SNEEJ were selected to go to Seattle including, Richard Moore, Cipriana Jurado, Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez, Che Lopez, Joaquin Lujan, Robbie Rodriguez, Jeanne Gauna, Geri Almanza, Jose Matus, Teresa, Jose Bravo, Roberto Roibal, Aquilina Soriano, and Ruben Solis. The group stayed at a local hotel and set up office and communications from Centro De La Raza with Roberto Maestas. Maestas was director of the Centro de la Raza. Juan Jose Bocanegra was also a great local resource person and movement organizer, as was the organization LELO, a local workers and trade union organization.

V. The Situational Moment

After the liberation movements of the 1960-70’s and the COINTELPRO infiltration and repression of these movements, it became necessary to go from organizing the liberation front and organizations, to organizing at the committee level to the community level and their frontline struggles. So we went from liberation organizations, mostly political parties, to organizing more horizontally in the form of social movements. It multiplied the struggle to include more communities and issue-based organizing. A change of era had taken place in 1980 with the implosion of most of the liberation movements and organizations. The Republican revolution was on. The new situational analysis called for mass movement.

The results of focusing the organizing via social movements implied mass organizing as the main strategy of the times. The globalization of capital brought the globalization of struggles in these mass world movements. The new challenge was that social movement organizations organized in parallel tracks that is not uniting in effective networks or alliance. Building networks and alliances and intersectionality between issues and organizations became the prevalent strategy. 1999 and the Battle of Seattle was important because it marked the moment where we defined global mass movements as south-to-south, against the global north. It became obvious that south-to-south organizing and unity called for a world (social) forum of the grassroots movements across the globe. The political debate on globalization centered on looking at it only through an economist lens. Our experience fighting NAFTA informed us that globalization was much more than economics, and that we as poor people of color and Indigenous nations would be first impacted by the globalization, and therefore we were the experts on it.

We were convinced that capitalism and its expansionism in the neoliberal plans had to be stopped and we had to find a ‘just transition’ model to move from extraction capitalism to sustainable economy and environment. The principle of just transition was that the transition in the economy should not be paid by the workers as in many industries that moved to off shore production in other countries. The cost of the closures at Levi’s was paid off the backs of the workers. A just transition would have funded new occupational training and education that supports sustainable production and economy. To systemically transform fossil fuels to clean energy should not be paid by the energy workers but a just transition program should be implemented to move workers to other parts of the economy or new job training and education.

And what is the mass movement organizing (era)?

This era was marked by the Battle of Seattle and confirmed in events that happened in that immediate future in the year 2000 the Y2K scare, and in 2001, the 9-11 attacks. We can look back and package these events - Seattle, Y2K and 9-11 - into a sequence of events defining the next century, the 21st century. The anti-globalization movement started fighting NAFTA and FTAA, CAFTA, and other globalizations agreements, and landed in Seattle to globalize the struggle against globalized capitalism and imperialism. It was the first chapter in a narrative history and political development that has been a fast moving train in the past 20 years.

As the new century kicked off, so did in 2001 World Social Forum (Brazil). In 2003. the Roots Cause coalition marched in Miami against FTAA. In Cancun, the anti WTO protests by campesinos from the world over. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, migrant mega marches. In 2006, the Southeast Social Forum and Border Social Forum. In 2007, US Social Forum I in Atlanta, Georgia. And US Social Forum II in Detroit, Michigan in 2010. There was the Occupy movement in 2012 and Black Lives Matter mobilizations and protests in dozens of cities fighting police repression and brutality in 2014. The strategies and tactics of organizing the global struggle and local organizing have all changed and transformed into mass organizing strategies of major importance, specifically the social movement assembly or peoples movement assembly.

As a result of the Battle of Seattle, and the critical moment that it played in the global arena, Global Justice became an overriding issue and strategy for the struggle. From the local to the global and then back locally. Not top down but bottom up approach and principles. Circular rather than vertical and all inclusive. The organizing focus locally leans more towards organizing collectives than particular committees, working groups rather than staff, networks, alliances, and broad based movements like climate justice.

Today, we are witnessing world wide peoples movements in Lebanon Iraq, Hong Kong, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Puerto Rico, where massive protests mobilizations have been organized. Heads of governments have come down as a result of the massive protests and the demands of the peoples movement. But we also see a rise in hard right wing dictatorships in Latin America and other countries. The right wing violence, organizing and mobilizations has increased sharply. The right is armed and dangerous. We also see the Climate Justice strike and marches by young people taking place all over the world. Indeed, twenty years later we fully understand what mass organizing and mobilizing looks like and the impacts capable of making systemic change.

VI. The Street Battle

SNEEJ, IEN and the EJ movement had a late start to get mobilized to Seattle to fight the WTO. The big NGOs and others had blocked off hotels, reserved rooms and invited movement people to serve as panelists and speakers for their forum to be held at thew same hotel. The AFL/CIO had a hotel, the Steelworkers had another hotel, the ecologists had several hotels reserved, and each had their set of panelists and speakers for their forums held at the hotels, and then there was the street. We were on the street!

The streets were held by the people from DAN (Direct Action Network) working and coordinating the closure and blocking entrances and streets preventing the ministers from reaching the center where their meeting was to take place. We formed a block of people together with SNEEJ and the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), plus the local organizations LELO and the filipino movement. The anarchist block was a mix of young people, including the Black block. Then there was the state - the police and all of its apparatuses and weapons. In fact our block of POC and Indigenous people marched in the only non-permitted march.

On the second day, the police surrounded a large group of protestors and arrested 600-700 people that afternoon and were taken to the King County jail, and we the protestors surrounded the county jail blocking all entry and exits, with both the incoming shift and the outgoing shift locked inside the jail. Negotiations were underway. But we did not move. We were surrounded by police and helicopters flying above, and they seemed ready to attack any minute. Our group was unloading at Pikes Place market parking, and saw the assembled police militarized force marching up the street to meet the protestors. They would march in formation and thump their batons on the grounds to make a powerful noise, and then shoot a volley of tear gas grenades, and other projectiles including smoke, chemicals and sounds grenades. We were about to get caught in their pincer movement, but took a side street and backtracked to Pikes Place market parking and got in the van and jetted out of there. We had to go through a check point since the police were establishing a cordon of control to then move in on all the protestors and arrest them. We got out luckily, because I knew the area and the streets from having lived there before. It was a day of full street battles. That night the police were turned around and forced to retreat to the bridge leading to Capitol Hill by the residents and protestors. The system threw everything they could at the protestors to stop them and yet it was a victory in the streets. It marked a new strategy and tactics to war against dissent by the state. For example, the police arrested people before the actions as a so-called preventative measure!

VII. The Vanguard at Closing March

By the end of the three days of action or more, the people of color and especially the Indigenous block moved to the front of the closing march as we had won the space to be there! A young man in black stopped by me and said, “You are being used by the organizers by putting you up front as Indigenous and People of Color.” I responded, “We won the space, make no mistake about it. We carved the space from struggle in the last few days.” I told him environmental racism is real even among the white left and liberals. “We don't get anything for free, my brother,” I finished saying.

VIII. Results and Impacts

Some of the tangible results of the progress and creation of new knowledge and practices for mass organizing that came out of Seattle:

a) South to South convergence and networking

b) COP 6 on climate change

c) Grassroots Global Justice Alliance

d) Social Forum process (World; Americas, US, SE and Border Social Forum)

e) World Social Forum (Brazil)

f) Social Forum of the Americas

h) South X Southwest Experiment exchange

i) SE Social Forum

j) Border Social Forum

k) Protect Mother Earth conferences

l) US Social Forum I & II (Atlanta and Detroit)

m) Cancun protest of WTO

n) International (US-Mexico) bridge(s) closures and occupations 2001-2005

o) Southern Movement Assembly

p) Emancipatory Paradigms (Cuba)

q) Just Transition Alliance

r) University Sin Fronteras