What Was the Battle of Seattle?

Mary McMahon

The Battle of Seattle was a series of protests which took place during the World Trade Organization's (WTO) Ministerial Conference in 1999. The event marked a major resurgence in the American protest movement, which had been declining in the wake of the turbulent 1960s, and it also alerted the rest of the world to a growing anti-globalization movement. Thanks to tightened security in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States, protests on the level of the Battle of Seattle were not seen again in America.

Seattle police eventually used riot control methods in the "Battle of Seattle".
Seattle police eventually used riot control methods in the "Battle of Seattle".

The events of the Battle of Seattle were interesting from a number of perspectives. Seattle, the host city for the conference, is famous for having extremely liberal politics, and when protesters initially began to apply for permits, the city did not anticipate major problems. However, on 30 November, radical groups started to descend upon Seattle with the specific goal of blocking the streets surrounding the Conference, making it impossible for delegates to get inside, and the nature of the protests began to shift.

Many protesters were arrested in the "Battle of Seattle".
Many protesters were arrested in the "Battle of Seattle".

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Peaceful marches and small organized non-violent civil disobedience had been expected by the city of Seattle, but violent protesters were not anticipated. The Seattle police were not well equipped to handle the situation, and the protesting quickly got out of control, turning into rioting. Cars were overturned and set on fire, protesters violently resisted the police, and the streets of Seattle became quite dangerous. Some peaceful protesters tried to get involved, attempting to subdue the violent element, and the Seattle police ultimately turned to riot control agents like tear gas, rubber bullets, and mace to calm the crowds, arresting over 600 protesters. In 2007, many of those arrested participated in a legal case which yielded a one million dollar (US) settlement.

Riot control tactics like spraying mace, was eventually used to calm the crowd.
Riot control tactics like spraying mace, was eventually used to calm the crowd.

Seattle was heavily criticized for not better handling the Battle of Seattle, and the global media began broadcasting more information about the protests than about the WTO summit. The anti-globalization movement essentially entered the mainstream during the Battle of Seattle, thanks to extensive media coverage. Prior to the Battle of Seattle, the international community was largely unaware of a large anti-globalization movement within the United States; afterwards, “anti-globalization” became a common topic in American and foreign news. The events of the Battle of Seattle also focused attention on international anti-globalization movements, including indigenous movements in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa.

At least 40,000 protesters were present at the Battle of Seattle, and many media sources agreed that this was a low estimate. Later protests at World Bank/IMF meetings and political conventions in the United States had equally large numbers, but the protesters tended be less focused, addressing multiple issues, rather than just global economic policy. Such protests also tended to be less violent, in part thanks to increased security measures designed to prevent another Battle of Seattle and to address concerns about terrorism.

The so-called "Battle of Seattle" in the late 1990s marked a resurgence in the American protest movement.
The so-called "Battle of Seattle" in the late 1990s marked a resurgence in the American protest movement.

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