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Twenty years ago, more than 50,000 activists took to the streets in Seattle at the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations to protest global trade talks intended to rewrite the rules of the global economy. The protests famously brought “Teamsters and turtles” together, as well as family farmers, faith communities, development organizations and others who challenged proposed trade rules that favored corporations over workers, farmers and our environments. Those outside protests were matched by heightened tensions inside the negotiating center, especially from developing country delegations angered by closed door talks among wealthier countries, particularly the U.S. and EU, that ignored their demands for trade rules that favor development.

IATP was active both inside and outside the talks. Our involvement grew out of our founder Mark Ritchie’s initial concerns in the mid-1980s over the outsize role of global economic forces in U.S. agriculture policy and the ways that fed a devastating farm crisis. We focused initially on uncovering those the cryptic rules and proposals emerging at the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which later evolved into the WTO, disseminating leaked text as well as analyses of why farmers and workers in the global South and North should care.

In the months leading up to the Seattle WTO ministerial, IATP coordinated with food and farm groups worldwide to maximize attendance and conducted trainings on the central message and key arguments of the protest. IATP also produced a newsletter, "The Road to Seattle," that highlighted events, meetings, forums and other planning activities during the lead up to the ministerial. As part of our reflection on the anniversary of the Seattle events, we looked back at that analysis and how it evolved over the years. We have compiled the documents of that time in a new portal on our website available here.

We also reached out to several former IATP staff who were in Seattle then. Sophia Murphy, a long-time IATP advisor and a lead author of much of our work on agricultural dumping, now works at the International Institute for Sustainable Development. She was inside the convention center for the Seattle talks. She commented that:

Seattle for me was about the Africa Group being the first to say no to just agreeing to what the U.S. and EU were cooking up. I thought the riots were dramatic, but it felt a bit unreal. My husband called me from Minneapolis, and he asked me anxiously if I was okay. I said, “Yes – the hills are steep in Seattle and I am out of breath but fine. Why?” He said, “Because the TV coverage shows riot police, tear gas and mass arrests.” I had not really taken in the scale of it from inside the convention center, though I had seen the protests, of course, and we knew the talks were cancelled that day as many delegates were trapped in their hotels. Mostly I was trying to make sure the talks did not advance, and we were walking the corridors in the convention center, looking for leaked documents and supporting the resistance among government officials.

It did feel like history in the making. It convinced me that the global South representing all of the U.S. as pro trade and pro globalization was way too simplified. And that the U.S. delegation in Geneva insisting on more liberalization was deeply hypocritical, given the resistance at home. It showed me that resistance matters – inside and outside. The protests showed that trade mattered to people, or at least that it was affecting things that mattered to people, and that trade deserved to be better understood.  

IATP staff were also on the outside. We organized an International Media Center located next door to the convention center. We also coordinated efforts with farmers organizations from the global South and North. Karen Lehman, a former IATP staff person and current director of Fresh Taste in Chicago, accompanied French farm leader José Bové at the Seattle events. She commented:

There was so much going on outside the official talks. It was all so astonishing, the ways people converged to amplify each other’s voices and to protect each other in crowds. I heard from people close to delegations from the global South that the demonstrations in the streets, and the fact that they were taking place in the U.S., helped give the delegates from the South courage to say no to U.S. demands.

José Bové was the leader of the French farmers movement that emerged around the U.S.-EU trade dispute over the EU’s prohibition on imports of hormone beef. He famously dismantled a McDonalds in France in protest. But years before that, he became involved in a campaign in which 100,000 people camped out on sheep pastures to prevent land being converted into a bombing range. He stayed on, producing Roquefort cheese, and along the way Roquefort became a symbol of resistance to industrial agriculture. He brought 400 pounds of that cheese to Seattle, along with a team of journalists and cameramen.

On Environment Day of the Seattle events, he participated in a protest action with wine and that Roquefort cheese in front of a McDonalds organized by Global Exchange and others. The crowd was a massive press of people in turtle costumes in which some tension began to simmer with anarchist protesters. José climbed on top of a van to focus people’s attention on the important work at hand. Later, in the convention center, he grabbed a mic abandoned by an official speaker who had been heckled by protesters to address the crowd. We helped to amplify his message and others, connecting them with journalists to help tell the story of the impacts of free trade on farmers.

We will be in Seattle again this weekend for the 20th anniversary of those events to consider the lessons of the past and their implications for the present. The importance of starting from the world we want and demanding the trade rules that can make that happen (or at least stay out of the way) is as relevant today as it was then.

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