One year ago, world leaders gathered in Seattle for the World Trade Organization (WTO) conference. With the leaders, came approximately 50,000 demonstrators, who not only protested the global organization itself, but also large corporations charged with exploiting poor workers because of WTO regulations.
To commemorate the anniversary of the WTO protests, the Associated Students Lobby held a special screening Thursday evening in the MultiCultural Center Lounge of “This is What Democracy Looks Like.” The video is a collection of on-location footage of the demonstrations.
“Since the protests in Seattle happened one year ago [Thursday], regardless what we thought about the WTO, we thought it was important to have this screening because a lot of people in the student lobby went to the protest,” said Luniya Msuku, a junior global studies and black studies major. “Student lobby helped sponsor about 20 students to be able to go there and protest.”
On Tuesday, Nov. 30, 1999, protesters blockaded the Seattle convention center, preventing the opening sessions of the WTO’s meeting. The protests drew police who were later reinforced by the Washington State police and the National Guard. Law enforcement officers wore riot gear and attacked protesters, few of whom were violent, with pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets.
“It was frightening,” said Ryan Mehan, a junior literature major, who was in Seattle at the time of protests. “I went there because of curiosity and general interest in world politics. My interest was what could be done about these large corporations. Living in a small community anywhere, there is a tendency for big businesses to move in and take away from small business and drain money from small communities.”
The WTO was formed in January of 1995 from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) – an international organization that reduced trade barriers through multilateral negotiations. It soon proved to be a strong organization due to its ability of enforcement through trade sanctions.
Today, 125 nations comprise the organization, which regulates 90 percent of international trade. Many U.S. and worldwide WTO critics argue that the organization, which is run by unelected bureaucrats, represents a shift in power from citizens and national governments to a global authority. Dissenters cite the WTO’s ruling of certain nations’ environmental, labor and health regulations as illegal barriers to international trade as examples of the organization’s autonomy.
Under the WTO, a nation cannot discriminate against products on the basis of how they are produced – even in the case of sweatshop labor or production methods determined by the U.S. to be environmentally harmful.
Many protesters believe the demonstrations were a success “because they got the word out and educated people, especially the people who were there,” Mehan said. “It was a chain reaction because those people went back to their own communities.”
The demonstrations in Seattle were the largest protests and police crackdown since the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Students made the most part of the protests. Among them was senior art studio major, Candice Kim.
“There was a goal [by the protesters] to shut the [leaders] out physically with their bodies and form a human chain,” she said. “[The leaders] could not physically enter the building. That element of civil disobedience was really powerful. I really wanted to be a part of it and help them do that.”
Kim said the day meant more to her than 24 hours of protests.
“My life has changed forever,” she said. “And now every day the way that I live my life, I live more and more to make the world better.”