Protests in advance of the WTO conference in Seattle continue on November 28, 1999.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 10/15/2009
  • Essay 2138

On Sunday, November 28, 1999, as trade officials from 135 member countries begin arriving in Seattle for the Third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO), two anti-WTO demonstrations bring several hundred protestors to downtown Seattle. Street performers rally outside Starbucks, Old Navy, and the Gap to protest the WTO's enforcement of free trade rules that they claim favor corporate interests over those of workers and the environment, while farmers plant a tree as they demand that the WTO "keep its hands off agriculture." WTO Director-General Mike Moore addresses some of the organization's fiercest critics with a speech to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which is meeting in Seattle in advance of the conference. In the evening squatters take over an empty building at 9th Avenue and Virginia Street, announcing they will use it to house protestors and advocate for the homeless.

The WTO's Seattle conference, held from November 30 to December 3, 1999, was planned to produce a declaration by the trade ministers of the member countries agreeing on the issues and agenda for a new round of negotiations aimed at further promoting "free trade."  Supporters of free trade argued that eliminating protective tariffs and other regulations that restricted international trade promoted economic growth and helped create jobs and reduce poverty. However, growing numbers of environmentalists, farmers, union members, human rights advocates, and activists for other causes saw free trade and the WTO as harmful to society. Opponents had numerous different, and at times conflicting, reasons for their opposition, but many were particularly angered by WTO decisions penalizing countries whose laws -- including a U.S. prohibition on imports of shrimp caught with methods that killed endangered sea turtles and a European Union ban on importation of beef from cattle raised on bovine growth hormone -- were deemed to violate trade agreements.  

Growing Protests

Organizers worked for months to plan a wide range of opposition events, from discussions and symposia to permitted marches and rallies to non-violent direct action intended to "shut down" the meeting.  Demonstrators did not wait for the WTO to arrive.  On Friday, November 26, 1999, the day after Thanksgiving, three different groups of 50 or so anti-WTO protestors marched through downtown, and some entered the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, the planned site of the conference.  Protests continued on Saturday, November 27, as two women, supported by a crowd of 150 demonstrators, rappelled down a wall overlooking Interstate 5, where they hung a banner opposing the WTO. The climbers and a third demonstrator were arrested and some of the supporters marched to the King County Jail to protest the arrests.

Demonstrations grew larger on Sunday, November 28, although they did not come close to matching the 50,000 or more who were expected to, and did, jam downtown streets on November 30.  Indeed, the biggest crowds in Seattle that Sunday had nothing to do with the WTO -- they came to watch the Seattle Marathon that morning and the Seahawks football game in the afternoon.

The largest WTO protest on Sunday was a parade and street theater organized by the direct action group People's Global Action. Performers, drummers, kazoo players, and other protestors gathered at Seattle Central Community College on Capitol Hill and marched to the Gap store nearby on Broadway Avenue. The approximately 500 protestors then paraded downtown to protest in front of another Gap, Old Navy, and Starbucks. Police barricaded each store with their bicycles and there was no property destruction and no arrests. Protestors explained that they targeted large corporations which, aided by WTO policies, exploited foreign workers through inadequate pay and the use of sweatshops and child labor.

"Hands Off Agriculture"

A separate demonstration brought small farmers and their supporters from France, Mexico, Japan, Thailand, and other countries, as well as the United States, to Victor Steinbrueck Park at the north end of the Pike Place Market. There they planted a dogwood tree and made two demands: for the WTO to "keep its hands off agriculture" and for everyone to "support small and family farms" (Slivka and Dizon).  The star of the farmers' demonstration was French sheep farmer Jose Bove, who gained notoriety earlier in the year when he led the destruction of a French McDonald's restaurant to protest the WTO's ruling that allowed the U.S. to impose punitive high tariffs on Roquefort cheese and other European imports in response to the European ban on beef raised on growth hormone. Other speakers objected to the increase in large corporate farms, which they accused of driving family farms out of business, and inisted that the WTO and trade rules should not set agriculture policy.

Unions joined environmentalists and farmers as prominent critics of the WTO but although individual union members participated in the day's demonstrations, there were no union-organized rallies or marches on Sunday. Instead, a gathering of international union leaders heard from WTO head Mike Moore at the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions meeting at the Bell Harbor Conference Center on the downtown waterfront. Moore touted data that he said showed that increasing U.S. exports boosted economic growth and claimed that "trade is the ally of working people, not their enemy" (Nyhan). However, union leaders made it clear that they wanted the WTO to include labor standards, such as protection of the right to organize and restrictions on child labor, into WTO agreements.

On Sunday evening, homeless advocates and other activists occupied an abandoned building on Virginia Avenue. The squatters said they would provide housing for WTO protestors while demanding action on behalf of poor people around the world and the homeless in Seattle. Police did not make arrests or attempt to physically evict the squatters, but they did have all utility service to the building shut off.

Scheduled Events

In addition to street demonstrations and marches, groups opposed to the WTO organized a wide variety forums, discussions, and other events to promote and disseminate their positions.  According to The Seattle Times, events scheduled for Sunday, November 28, included the following: 

  • Action/street theater camp (training and preparation for nonviolent protest) sponsored by People's Global Action at 420 East Denny Way.
  • Drop-in space for student activists beginning at 8:00 a.m. at Seattle Central Community College.
  • 1999 People's Assembly at 10:00 a.m. sponsored by Sentenaryo ng Bayan at the Filipino Community Center.
  • Wealth and income disparity discussion at 10:00 a.m. sponsored by United for a Fair Economy at the Musician's Club.
  • Building the People's Movement at 10:00 a.m. sponsored by the Alliance for Democracy at the Labor Temple.
  • Alternatives to Corporate Globalization conference at 1:00 p.m. sponsored by Alliance for Democracy at the Labor Temple.
  • International Women Workers Forum at 2:00 p.m. sponsored by the Labor and Employment Law Office at the Lesbian Resource Center.
  • WTO and the Global War System at 2:30 p.m. sponsored by the Northwest Disarmament Coalition at Plymouth Congregational Church.
  • WTO for Beginners at 3:00 p.m. sponsored by United for a Fair Economy at the Musicians Club.
  • Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) benefit at 7:30 p.m. at The Rendezvous.


Judd Slivka and Kristin Dizon, "WTO Activists Take Control of Vacant Building," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 29, 1999, p. A-1; Paul Nyhan, "Head of WTO Extends Hand to Labor Leaders," Ibid., November 29, 1999, p. A-1; "WTO in Seattle," The Seattle Times, November 28, 1999, p. E-2; "The Seattle Police Department After Action Report," Seattle Police Department website accessed October 14, 2009 (, pp. 34-35;, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "WTO Meeting and Protests in Seattle" (by Kit Oldham) (accessed October 14, 2009). 
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.

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