Rioters Disrupt World Trade Organization Meetings

The protests against the World Trade Organization in late 1999 were some of the most raucous seen in the United States since the 1970’s. The spectacle of battles between police and protesters broadcast on national television brought the issues surrounding free trade into America’s living rooms.

Summary of Event

The World Trade Organization (WTO) was the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1994) (GATT), which ended in 1995. The nominal role of the WTO is to coordinate trade among member nations. Critics of the organization, including many developing nations and groups advocating for labor and the environment, argue that the WTO is organized so that it favors the rich nations and those corporations that make those nations their base. Organizing against the WTO began in the early 1990’s. The group 50 Years Is Enough 50 Years Is Enough[Fifty Years Is Enough] began sending out mailings to labor and environmental organizations notifying them of the upcoming transition from the GATT protocol to a new trading arrangement under the WTO. These mailings included information regarding the nature of GATT and the projected differences between GATT and the WTO. Over the course of the decade, and after labor and grassroots groups began to see the effects of the passage of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement North American Free Trade Agreement (1993) (NAFTA), interest in organizing against the WTO and other international economic agreements began to grow. Trade agreements
Riots;World Trade Organization meetings
World Trade Organization;opposition
[kw]Rioters Disrupt World Trade Organization Meetings (Nov. 30, 1999)
[kw]World Trade Organization Meetings, Rioters Disrupt (Nov. 30, 1999)
[kw]Organization Meetings, Rioters Disrupt World Trade (Nov. 30, 1999)
[kw]Meetings, Rioters Disrupt World Trade Organization (Nov. 30, 1999)
Riots;World Trade Organization meetings
World Trade Organization;opposition
[g]North America;Nov. 30, 1999: Rioters Disrupt World Trade Organization Meetings[10540]
[g]United States;Nov. 30, 1999: Rioters Disrupt World Trade Organization Meetings[10540]
[c]Business and labor;Nov. 30, 1999: Rioters Disrupt World Trade Organization Meetings[10540]
[c]Trade and commerce;Nov. 30, 1999: Rioters Disrupt World Trade Organization Meetings[10540]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 30, 1999: Rioters Disrupt World Trade Organization Meetings[10540]
Locke, Gary
Moore, Mike
Schell, Paul

On February 18, 1999, Washington governor Gary Locke and Seattle mayor Paul Schell held a press conference announcing that Seattle would be host to the Third WTO Ministerial Conference. On March 20, the first Seattle meeting of those planning to protest the conference was held. Over the course of the next eight months, there would be several more meetings, teach-ins, and other public events discussing the WTO and the protests against it. The organizing meetings for the Seattle protest were replicated in cities around the country and world. The scheduled dates of the ministerial meetings were November 29 through December 4.

On November 26, Governor Locke offered to send Washington National Guard troops to supplement the Seattle police during the meetings and protests. The first protests took place on the afternoon and evening of November 29. On the following day, known as N30, protesters would attempt to shut down the meetings.

Early in the morning of November 30, protesters started to gather at numerous sites around the area of Seattle where the meetings were being held. One of the largest groups left from the campus of Seattle Center Community College and began marching downtown. Some protesters sat in the streets in groups of several hundred. Others locked their arms and blocked streets and other routes leading to the meetings. Sometime after 8:00 a.m., police began firing tear gas at protesters who were blocking the intersections. As word spread to other groups of protesters, police in other areas of the city began attempting to clear the streets in their area. Protesters refused to move, and the antagonism between police and protesters grew. Meanwhile, thousands of protesters were marching from the University of Washington campus toward the downtown area. A couple dozen protesters dressed in black tossed newspaper racks through windows of stores owned by companies known for their use of sweatshop labor and other exploitative labor practices, which many believe to be encouraged by the WTO. Protesters also blocked delegates from attending a meeting at Seattle’s Paramount Theater. Police responded by using tear gas.

At 10:00 a.m., a large group of union members and other workers organized by the AFL-CIO AFL-CIO[Aflcio] began a rally at the University of Washington’s Memorial Stadium. Meanwhile, police, using tear gas and harsher tactics, attempted to clear the streets around the downtown area. At noon, the labor rally began its march toward downtown. U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright and other officials were unable to leave their hotels because of the protests, and the opening ceremony of the Third WTO Ministerial Conference at the Seattle Convention Center was canceled. By 3:00 p.m., the police had run out of tear gas and about fifty thousand protesters were gathered in the the downtown business section of Seattle. Employers began to close their shops and offices and send their employees home. Many of those released from work early joined the protests. At 4:30 p.m., Mayor Schell declared a state of emergency and asked for assistance from the National Guard.

Demonstrators chant slogans and wave signs on the streets of downtown Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The police were joined by National Guard troops and three hundred state troopers. These forces began a charge up Pine Street in an attempt to disperse protesters. The protesters retreated into the Capitol Hill neighborhood, where police continued to lob tear gas and concussion grenades. The police actions upset many of the neighborhood’s residents, who then helped protesters escape the police and joined in the protests.

The third day of the meetings and protests began with U.S. president Bill Clinton arriving in town and a command to police to arrest all of the protesters. The mayor had ordered a ban on all protests in the city the previous night. National Guard troops were posted at most downtown intersections, and police began to make arrests. By the end of the day, nearly eight hundred people had been arrested, and battles between police and protesters in the Capitol Hill District continued into the evening.

The fourth day was relatively calm. Many downtown stores remained closed, and police maintained their presence in areas considered trouble spots. Two protests took place. One ended with a large number of protesters marching to Seattle’s city hall, where they demanded that those protesters detained at the King County Jail be released. The authorities responded by locking down city hall and sending more police to the area. Meanwhile, lawyers were attempting to make contact with those in jail. Protesters blocked the jail for three to four hours.

The final day of the meetings went by with little incident. Hundreds of protesters remained outside the jail, hoping to get their fellow protesters released. U.S. trade representative Charlene Barshefsky and WTO director-general Mike Moore announced a suspension of the Seattle round of WTO talks, citing their need to consult with the 135 members to try to bridge the remaining differences, many of which concerned those raised by the protesters.


The protests in Seattle must be seen in the context of the worldwide economic globalization whose effects were beginning to be felt by workers in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. American workers, in particular, were facing the erosion of wages, benefits, and even their jobs in the face of world competition. At the same time, trade agreements that were once made in secret became part of the world’s general knowledge and part of the average citizen’s political discussion. After Seattle, meetings of government and corporate heads routinely attracted protest. Such protests served to expand the discussions in the meetings to include labor practices and environmental effects of the decisions made. While casting a spotlight on the impact of WTO decisions on workers, the Seattle protest also had the backfire effect of isolating the protesters from future WTO meetings. After Seattle, authorities used large barriers to surround the meeting areas to keep protesters out, even placing whole parts of the host cities off-limits to protesters. Riots;World Trade Organization meetings
World Trade Organization;opposition

Further Reading

  • Gallagher, Peter. The First Ten Years of the WTO: 1995-2005. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Gallagher was commissioned by the WTO to provide this history of the organization’s first ten years. Offers plentiful details regarding the WTO’s internal debates and their outcomes.
  • January, Brendan. Globalize It! The Stories of the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and Those Who Protest. Brookfield, Conn.: Twenty-First Century Books, 2003. Aimed at a high school audience, this book provides a brief, objective summary of the issues surrounding the WTO, introducing the players on both sides of the debate. Presents a sketch of the protests in Seattle in 1999.
  • Klein, Naomi, and Debra Levy. Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate. New York: Picador, 2002. Klein is a journalist who has sympathetically covered the antiglobalization movement. This book discusses the issues, the nature of the protests and the police response, and the politics of the movement—all from Klein’s insider perspective.

North American Free Trade Agreement

General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade