Remember the Battle of Seattle!

Ten years ago I was in Seattle for the now famous showdown between activists and the World Trade Organization. Those were good times: we stayed downtown at the youth hostel (since converted to high end condos), ate in and around Pike Place Market, and attended an excellent two-day teach-in put on by the International Forum on Globalization. The air was relatively festive – even the local strip club, The Lusty Lady, got into the act, with its marquee reading: Welcome to the W-T-Ooooooooohhh.

My wife and I were official delegates from our respective organizations (CCPA and Oxfam), so we got to go inside the Convention centre and mill about, though we did not stay long because it was pretty dull in there. We got official delagate shwag, all of which is long gone save for an umbrella that I still use to this day; emblazoned on a globe printed on the underside is “Seattle Round”, the WTO round that never was.

Then the fun really started, as direct action activists chained themselves together outside the entrance delaying the talks for a day. The teargas started to fly, a few windows were broken, the streets took on the character of a war zone. We went up to the stadium near Seattle Centre where we met up with our Vancouver friends who had come down by bus that day. There was a rally and then a march to downtown, to the periphery of where the real action was, before it turned back. We stayed downtown and meandered around the streetscape, popping back into the youth hostel occasionally for news updates.

More events for activists ensued around town, and we met many great people. A highlight for me was seeing Bill Clinton’s motorcade blast by, straight from the airport and headed to the negotiations. He waved out the window just like any other day; it was like he had not been briefed on the situation at street level. But in the end he rose to the occasion and gave a nod of support to the protesters.

The Battle of Seattle delayed the launch of a new round of trade negotiations for almost two years. In truth, the talks broke down more because of North-South issues inside the negotiations, although Southern country reps felt bolstered by what was happening outside. But in the aftermath of 9/11, in a kingdom far away from protesters, the richer countries arm-twisted the smaller weaker ones into signing on to launch the Doha Round.

On the other hand, those North-South issues have not gone away. After a big push toward the Cancun Ministerial in 2003, Southern countries held their ground, and the talks collapsed. They remain so to this day, although periodic efforts have been made to revive them.

The action has shifted instead to climate change negotiations, and the onset of Copenhagen. Perhaps Copenhagen will provide the context that rallies activists around the world together, like their predecessors did in Seattle. And perhaps those sentiments will lead Southern countries, again being pressured by the North to make new commitments while the richer countries dawdle, to be strong in support of a legally binding treaty. Already the African nations walked out of a pre-Copenhagen conference in Barcelona.

So here’s to bringing the spirit of Seattle to Copenhagen!

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