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From WTO to APEC: Lessons Learned from the Battle of Seattle

1999 anti-WTO protesters marching in Seattle.

In November of 1999, more than 50,000 protesters, environmentalists, and demonstrators, met with rubber bullets and tear gas, amassed in the streets of Seattle as they fought to shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference. 24 years later, a similarly diverse and like-minded coalition of organizations, alliances, and labor groups known as PNW People Over Profit (POP) are preparing a peoples’ -summit in Seattle to oppose senior officials meetings of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in July and August of 2023. What lessons have been learned from the anti-WTO protests of 1999, and how can they be applied today?

Through sit-ins, marches, teach-ins, and other civil disobedience, the tens of thousands of protesters were able to successfully cancel the WTO's opening ceremony and several of their affiliated events in late 1999. Later known as the Battle of Seattle, these protests were some of the first major international mobilizations of the antiglobalization movement, amplifying still-relevant issues of inflation, exportation of jobs, human rights atrocities of neoliberalism, and exploitation from free trade agreements.

PNW POP recently screened a viewing of This is What Democracy Looks Like, a documentary on the Seattle protests. Audience members were able to break out into groups, discuss similarities between WTO and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and have questions answered by a panel.

The documentary provided a historical archive on the protests and the justifications and thoughts from protesters at the time. One such protester maintained "I will absolutely never be the same again… I’ve never seen this before. I’ve never seen people stand up like this before. And I’m gonna take this home and it’s gonna keep me going for a long time. It’s really opened my eyes to some amazing possibilities.”'

These same possibilities were realized again in 2020 as the spread of covid-19 spiraled into a pandemic, but also witnessed the rise of the BLM movement and consequent protests in the wake of police brutality against Black people. In June 2020, 60,000 people mobilized in the Silent March of Seattle. Even in the struggle against the failures of the US for-profit healthcare system in a pandemic and the racist brutality of the police institution, hundreds of thousands of people across the country still mobilized to take a stand against the injustices and killings Black and brown people have long faced.

Both the WTO and BLM protests were able to unite masses of people together under common grievances– globalization, racism and police brutality– and fight against the very systems that continue to keep them down. But what happened to all of those people? It can't be denied that police crackdowns on protests and organizers have created a lasting impact on peoples movements today. 20 years later, we still have to oppose this violent state oppression. The oppressive state will always do its due diligence in trying to squash entire movements of the poor and working class people– as seen in institutional policies like Biden's Countering Domestic Terrorism (CDT) program, whitewashed as "progressive" while really using millions of dollars to silence the voices of anyone daring to speak out against their government.

It is imperative to not only remember the history of the people's protests, but to actively carry on their legacy in continuing to fight against oppressive systems and institutions that seek profit over people. There will be another opportunity to continue this legacy of people power from WTO, from BLM: just as the WTO protests were able to interrupt the conference, we too must oppose the APEC ministerial meetings held in Seattle this summer.

As another witness said in This Is What Democracy Looks Like, we must "figure out how to work with groups that are in struggle and have been in struggle… and not, like, say 'Come follow us, oh gee we’re finally awake.'” We cannot afford to work in silos. We must unite the workers, the poor, the exploited, and the common person against the narrowest target: the states and governments that attend APEC to figure out how to divide the world amongst themselves.

APEC creates a space where world leaders gather to collectively and secretively strategize ways to exploit the world's resources and the labor of workers for maximum profit, in the name of “Free Trade”. As those in power gather to unashamedly violate the rights of workers and indigenous people the world over, so too must we organize in response to raise our collective voice against such blatant violations. No to APEC! No to War!

To get involved with the work being done by the PNW POP coalition, the organizers encourage participating in the upcoming APEC counter-summit in Seattle on July 29-30, representing the people's response to the neoliberal schemes of the APEC conference. More information can be found here


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