If the current political narrative pits Donald Trump's "real Americans" against the "global elites," in the waning days of the 20th century it was just the reverse. Organized opposition to global "free trade" agreements was overwhelmingly a province of the left (though with a diverse sprinkling of various small-scale traditionalists). Anti-globalization protesters suffered intense police repression and were treated as misfits, oddballs or at best an inscrutable coalition of disparate groups — although polls showed they enjoyed public support. If that earlier, pro-democracy anti-globalist movement had been listened to and engaged with by elites, we might not be facing the kind of much darker anti-globalist backlash we’re seeing today.
Exhibit A was the legendary Battle in Seattle, during which 30,000 to 50,000 protesters shut down the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle from Nov. 30 through Dec. 3, 1999. While a wide range of different organizations were involved — more than 300 overall — spearheaded by the Direct Action Network, the signature convergence was that of “Teamsters and turtles,” as the alliance of labor and environmental activists dubbed itself. DAN’s message was simple:
We are planning a large-scale, well-organized, high-visibility action to SHUT DOWN the World Trade Organization on Tuesday, November 30. The World Trade Organization has no right to make undemocratic, unaccountable, destructive decisions about our lives, our communities, and the earth. We will nonviolently and creatively block them from meeting.
That’s exactly what they did -- with an added twist from the out-of-control police response that generated massive chaos and a welter of false and misleading narratives.
There were solidarity actions across the globe, with thousands of participants in the Narmada Valley and in Karnataka in India, in the Philippines, Portugal, Pakistan, Turkey, Korea, Canada, other American cities and elsewhere. In France, 75,000 people marched in 80 different cities. It was, in short, a global anti-globalist movement — a movement on behalf of bottom-up democratic self-determination, for all people everywhere.
Major protests mounted by that movement in the next several months included the A16 demonstrations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington in April of 2000, two protests in Canada in June (against the Organization of American States in Windsor, Ontario, and the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary), the R2K protests at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia from July 31 to Aug. 3, and the D2K protests at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles from Aug. 14 to 17 — the last two in conjunction with a broader array of groups typically involved in domestic issue protests. Each case saw an evolving pattern of police repression and violence, justified and supported by misleading elite media coverage.
As I noted in a long-form overview at the time, tactics used included:
- widespread police brutality
- mass false arrest
- brutal treatment after arrest
- broad zones -- up to 50 city blocks -- declared off-limits for free speech
- literature and political artwork confiscated and destroyed
- police raids against organizing centers to intimidate participants, confiscate property and shut down operations
- personal property stolen and destroyed
- peaceful protests deliberately misrepresented as violence or terrorism in order to discredit them and discourage others from participating
- false claims misrepresenting innocent objects as weapons or bombs
- harassment and intimidation of activists during pre-demonstration organizing
- detention, jailing and/or deportation of targeted individual activists while engaged in no overt political action
- charging extraordinarily high bail — up to $1 million for seven misdemeanors for one organizer, Ruckus Society executive director John Sellars in Philadelphia
- filing absurd charges — in Philadelphia, more than 70 people arrested inside a puppet-making warehouse space were charged with obstructing traffic
- using sealed indictments to hide this dirty war on the Constitution from public view
All these things actually happened. They were not the stuff of Alex Jones-style fantasies. They were documented at the time by independent journalists, as well as local reporters, ACLU lawyers and others. They informed a major lawsuit and sweeping police practices reform in Washington, and even led to an apology by Seattle police chief Norm Stamper in his book "Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing."
Despite all the repression and bad press, there was far more sympathy with the goals expressed than elites were prepared to admit. In Monthly Review, economist William K. Tabb observed:
It is clear that the demonstrators have the support of mainstream, working-class Americans. Perhaps the most interesting post-Seattle commentary is the Harris Poll, which confirms what other surveys have shown: that a majority of Americans (52 percent in the poll) were sympathetic to the concerns of the demonstrators. “Echoing the anti-business themes that ran through the sound bites and across the banners there, the BW-Harris poll also found that most Americans believe that business now has too much power.” While Business Week claimed it “a puzzling anomaly” that, in the greatest period of wealth creation in U.S. history, so many people could be “living in another era,” it also quoted a Princeton economist who pointed out that “[i]n the real world, people are still living from paycheck to paycheck” and “[t]he tremendous wealth creation has by and large gone to the people at the top.”
This should not have come as news. The dangers of neoliberal globalization and its unanticipated consequences had been noted by two top Business Week authors, chief economist Bill Wolman and Anne Colamosca in their 1997 book, "The Judas Economy: The Triumph of Capital and the Betrayal of Work," which warned that globalization’s pernicious effects on blue-collar workers was inevitably starting to impact white-collar workers as well.
That same year, in "Has Globalization Gone Too Far?," economist Dani Rodrik argued that the growing fissure between globalization’s winners and losers threatened the winners as well, writing that “social disintegration is not a spectator sport ― those on the sidelines also get splashed with mud from the field. Ultimately, the deepening of social fissures can harm all."
Two years before that, in the bestseller "Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World," Benjamin Barber made a similar argument in a higher octave: Unfettered neoliberal globalization feeds into its extreme opposite in tribal forms of ethno-nationalism and religious fundamentalism. These weren’t the only warning voices. That's just a prominent sample to show that outsider critics weren’t the only ones raising serious concerns. Yet the warnings were still overwhelmingly ignored.
Everything about that earlier anti-globalist movement was strikingly at odds with the anti-globalism of today — except for the difficulty the elite media had in comprehending them, which was similar, but far more profound. There were no deep-pocket oligarchs behind the anti-globalization movement of 2000, for one thing; it was profoundly democratic, based on open, consensus-based decision making. And it was aligned with oppressed people around the world, rather than demonizing them.
It was also intensely issue-focused and reality-based, rather than relying on fantasies, fake news and conspiracy theories. It was rooted in decades of previous protests. There were hundreds of “IMF riots” against austerity in dozens of countries across the global South, beginning in 1976. And there was counter-organizing in the developed world highlighted via “The Other Economic Summit,” first organized to counter the 1984 G7 meeting in London — on the basis of which protesters challenged a wide range of specific policies and practices.
Not only were the protesters well-informed, they created their own media, centered around the online Indymedia platform, involving hundreds, even thousands of audio and video correspondents and documentarians, as well as print and online reporters. (At the DNC in August alone, more than 1,000 independent media producers registered with Indymedia's parent group, meaning they actually outnumbered the officially credentialed media.) Protesters also created or participated in highly informed counter-events, continuing the tradition of “The Other Economic Summit.” At the RNC and DNC, they took part in “shadow conventions” organized by Arianna Huffington, which brought them into contact with a broad array of people dissatisfied with the dominant political options of the time.
Yet throughout this whole period, the content of their concerns was repeatedly dismissed or disparaged in the elite media. Anti-globalization protests were met by a rapidly evolving police response that combined repression of basic democratic rights with manipulative, propagandistic media relations. The vast majority of peaceful protesters were repeatedly attacked and provoked, while small numbers who acted out were often allowed to spread chaos, giving police a retroactive excuse for repressive violence.
Much of what happened in Seattle was documented in an ACLU report, “Out of Control: Seattle's Flawed Response to Protests Against the World Trade Organization.” On the first day, Nov. 30, mass police violence started at 10:04 a.m., when they began firing tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets at protesters. The first signs of vandalism did not occur until 11:20, when about 30 people dressed in black were videotaped by a local TV crew breaking windows and overturning newspaper boxes for “about an hour, undisturbed by police.” [Emphasis added.] They represented about 0.1 percent of all the protesters in Seattle that day.
The ACLU sharply criticized the misuse of three principle police weapons — tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets, all used indiscriminately. But the media painted a drastically different picture — of protesters, not police, being violently out of control. Once that media misinformation was out, the mayor and police took maximum advantage of it, declaring a state of emergency, ordering a curfew and creating a 25-square-block "no protest zone" in downtown Seattle. The ACLU noted that this "suppression of free speech was not needed to protect security, nor could the ‘no protest zone’ have accomplished that aim.” The actions violated two key constitutional principles — that any free speech restrictions be as narrow as possible, and that they be "content-neutral."
The next day, the ACLU timeline noted that “Signs, leaflets, and cell phones are confiscated, and bags searched without warrants,” thus violating the Fourth Amendment as well as the First. There were also arrests outside the “no protest zone,” and prolonged confrontations that night, not just with demonstrators but with residents of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, who apparently resented police turning their neighborhood into a war zone.
As noted above, Seattle’s chief of police, Norm Stamper, later apologized. Ten years later, he told Democracy Now!:
I made major mistakes leading up to that week and during that week, and all I can say is that I’m awfully sorry I didn’t do certain things and that I did do other things. Most of that is contained in my book, and I’m grateful for your mention of that book. There is a chapter entitled “Snookered in Seattle.”
But what Stamper learned went deeper than just his own mistakes:
Having said that, what was accomplished during that week was to put globalization and anti-globalization into our vocabulary and to put the whole issue on the map. I really strongly believe that the experience during that week framed a whole lot of issues that people didn’t think about at all prior to that time. And I think, as you’ve described it, we’re now reaping what we have sown in the form of unbridled globalization and unfettered free trade. And I think it’s time for all of us in this country, as we attempt to pull ourselves out of this global economic meltdown, to really take a look at what issues of social and economic justice mean within the context of globalization.
Another eight years after Stamper's moment of enlightenment, America’s elites — like elites everywhere — have yet to catch up.
Little of what actually happened at the Battle in Seattle made it into mainstream media accounts, which made it even easier for police in the demonstrations that followed to refine and intensify their repressive methods. The A-16 demonstrations in April saw a dramatic escalation in the suppression of constitutional rights: The 25-square-block "no protest zone" created in Seattle was expanded to 50 square blocks; police preemptively raided the demonstrators’ temporary headquarters, confiscating property, and conducted an illegal mass arrest of nearly 700 protesters, journalists and bystanders the day before official demonstrations were to begin.
A lawsuit covering all these violations was filed three months later by the ACLU, National Lawyers Guild and Partnership for Civil Justice. It took 10 years to resolve, but ended in a $13.7 million settlement, along with sweeping reforms to D.C. policing response in the "First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act of 2004." At the time, Washington police chief Charles Ramsey said he had "no apologies" for any conduct of his officers, and most media coverage backed him up.
While the U.S. government has sometimes attempted to suppress entire movements through harassment, intimidation and infiltration, it has rarely dared to suppress individual demonstrations on the scale of A-16, with a few notable exceptions, such as the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Much the same pattern continued to unfold over the course of the next several months. The next major protests, in Canada, saw overwhelming concentrations of police, even though the number of protesters was never expected to be more than a few thousand. A number of American activists were stopped at the border and refused entry, based on misdemeanor convictions for nonviolent protest actions. Two activists of color were caged like animals in the process of their deportation. It was an ironic way to defend the “free trade” agenda.
While a militarized police response greeted protesters at both party conventions that summer, the RNC in Philadelphia stood out for the sheer absurdity of some of the actions. Not one, but two different protest centers were raided and shut down. Both were staging centers for the creation of giant puppets, which had evolved as crucial elements of political protest theater. For movements excluded by elite media, puppets embody one of the highest forms of creative expression available to communicate to mass audiences. Giving voice to movements that feel silenced and excluded, they represent a uniquely empowering form of expression. Take them away, and people’s sense of disempowerment and frustration is bound to increase, if not boil over — which appears to be exactly what Philadelphia authorities had in mind.
As activist and writer Leslie Cagan reported at the time, 75 people arrested at the second puppet site were charged with obstructing traffic, although they were not in the street when arrested. Cagan’s report chronicles an appalling litany of police misconduct, including sleep deprivation, beatings, the use of pepper spray, the confiscation of clothing, the denial of essential medication and the denial of food, water and bathrooms. And yet, she noted, “To make matters worse, the Philadelphia police are being hailed as models of restraint by the mainstream media in Philadelphia and in signs all around town.”
This is only a small sample of how government, police and the media responded to anti-globalist activism when it was a left-wing movement, and one that enjoyed broad popular support despite how badly it was misrepresented. Protesters demanded a more transparent, more accountable and more democratic approach to global trade and economic development. Because those demands were ignored, the right-wing anti-globalist demands of today are much darker, much less coherent and much more difficult to address in any sensible way. If global elites find themselves beleaguered today, it’s a situation of their own making, because they failed to respond to an earlier and much more rational challenge. Unfortunately, it is not they who will suffer most from their failure.