by Susan Fried (words and photos)
It’s been twenty years since I photographed some of the events surrounding the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Seattle in November 1999. Lots of people who remember it at all, think of it as the “Battle in Seattle,” or the WTO riots,but my memories are of a mostly-peaceful protest attended by over 40 thousand people that thought like me; that believed in livable wages, safe working conditions, and protecting the environment. It was one of the most empowering events of my life. There were people representing labor, the environment, farmers, NGO’s, student and religious groups–all there to speak out against an organization that they believed had too much control over everyday people’s lives. They believed that–as one of the chants the protestors used–said, “Another World is Possible.”
I had been working as a photographer for The Skanner News for about 2 years at that point, and I was able to get press credentials, which gave me better access to some of the events and a reason to be there beyond my own personal interest. I was there to cover an important moment in Seattle history, and I was really excited for the opportunity.
On the evening of November 29th, 1999, thousands of activists gathered at Key Arena to hear from left wing champions like filmmaker Michael Moore, 60s radical Tom Hayden, progressive political activist and writer Jim Hightower, and hear music from bands like the Laura Love Band. There was media from all over the world there. The place was electric with possibilities. Maybe the thousands of people gathered in Seattle really could make a difference.
On November 30th, the day the WTO Conference was to officially kick-off, I went to Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center for a rally sponsored by the Teamsters and other unions. Both the stadium seats and the field were covered with people. I photographed union members, people against the harvesting of fur, people representing indigenous communities, and out-of-town politicians like Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, and the late Senator Paul Wellstone. After the rally thousands of people peacefully marched down 5th Avenue to Downtown Seattle, where they joined up with other groups. Things began to go bad after a few anarchists broke windows in downtown, and the police reacted by using tear gas–of course that’s what the media concentrated on and what many people remember.
The WTO Protests changed how people think about Seattle. It is viewed as an anti-corporate town, despite having three of the world’s largest corporations, (Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft) in its midst. The recent come-from-behind victory of socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant is evidence that even as Seattle absorbs an influx of tech workers, and the gentrification of its neighborhoods, it still retains some of its progressive ideals.
I have probably been to a 100 more protests since the events in 1999, but nothing taught me more about the importance of solidarity than the people who organized against the World Trade Organization. They believed that by combining forces they could change the world.
Twenty years later there are protests happening in countries around the world over many of the same things that we were fighting against back then.. Were the WTO protests against globalization and unfettered capitalism a success? They successfully shut down the conference in Seattle in 1999, but twenty years later there’s still a lot left to be done, and I still believe “another World is possible.”