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READ: WTO Resistance

Thousands descended on Seattle, Washington in November 1999 to protest the pro-globalization goals of World Trade Organization. What’s wrong with globalization? It depends on who you ask.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What is the WTO?
  2. Who were the groups that came to protest, and why were so many different people against the WTO?
  3. What is the WTO’s main goal?
  4. What did the N30 group list as their main goals?
  5. What were the results of the protests?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Based on this article and other things you have learned about resistance in this course, do you think violent or non-violent protest is more effective?
  2. How were anti-globalization movements like N30 and J8 different from and how were they similar to the reform movements of the long nineteenth century?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

WTO Resistance

A photograph of a protest scene. A line of cops in full riot gear, wearing shields and holding batons face a line of protestors.
By Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
Thousands descended on Seattle, Washington in November 1999 to protest the pro-globalization goals of World Trade Organization. What's wrong with globalization? It depends on whom you ask.


In late November and early December of 1999, thousands converged on downtown Seattle, Washington. The city was flooded with people from different parts of the world, and with different points of view, about the World Trade Organization (WTO). One thing most agreed on was that it was time to challenge the effects of increased globalization, in particular increased global trade. The occasion was the WTO's Ministerial1 Conference. Some were there simply to attend it, and others came to protest various aspects of the organization and its policies. On the protest side, most were peaceful demonstrators who took to the streets to express their concern that increasing global trade would hurt labor unions, the environment, and developing nations.2 Many held signs that criticized the WTO, and some dressed as sea turtles as a way to call out the impact globalization has on the environment. Lastly, there were others in this large group of people who used more disruptive techniques such as vandalism to criticize multinational corporations. Denis Cooper, a participant in these protests, described how many people felt: "I really realized how connecting it was when I saw all those people…I mean, before, and I want to say before it turned violent, it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen in my life…we all, hundreds of thousands of people, banded together for this one issue. And we all held one thing in our hearts, and that was the WTO had to go. And then the next day when all those people got arrested and they had us in the jails, I really realized how many separate issues I was dealing with here."
A photograph shows a man, wearing a handmade sea turtle helmet, is surrounded by other protestors carrying signs.
Protesters with signs and a man dressed as a sea turtle at the WTO Ministerial Conference, Seattle, 29 November 1999. From the Seattle Municipal Archives, CC BY 2.0.
You may remember from earlier readings that the WTO is a primary institution of international trade and economic globalization. According to the WTO website, "The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the only global international organization dealing with the rules of trade between nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world's trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. The goal is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible." All of that sounds pretty reasonable, so why would so many groups be against it?
In order to fully answer this question, we have to think about the perspectives of the different people protesting the WTO. They were a loose alliance of numerous groups, many with competing strategies and ideologies. Some were nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—non-profit, voluntary citizens' groups—who wanted the WTO to institute labor and environmental regulations and fair trade practices. Others wanted to do away with the WTO altogether. In contrast, a number of developing countries expressed anti-imperial and even nationalistic sentiments to criticize the WTO. On the fringes, there were anarchists who had a mix of goals. But they mainly wanted to destroy what they called neo-liberal ideologies and increasing globalization. So how did all of these varied, somewhat conflicting interests come together over a few days in Seattle to disrupt the WTO meeting that was being held there?

Organizers, participants, and protesters

The WTO Ministerial Conference planned to meet in November 1999 in Seattle to fulfill part of the WTO goals of regular meetings regarding global trade negotiations. It was the third meeting of its kind since the formation of the WTO in 1995. The organization's main goal was to get rid of obstacles that limited free trade in a capitalist world economy. Environmental regulations and workers' rights were considered obstacles. Also, tariffs were targeted as a hindrance to free trade, even though some countries felt tariffs were needed to protect their economies from having to compete with goods imported from other countries.
A crowd of protestors holding signs. One sign reads “WTO Destroys Forests”.
WTO protesters on 7th Avenue, Seattle, 1999. From the Seattle Municipal Archives, CC BY 2.0.
The WTO was trying to resolve a number of disputes that had been brewing. Member nations were called upon to submit proposals on various topics including agriculture, labor, and environmental issues. The organization also asked for input from developing countries to understand the impact of global free trade practices on these nations. Over 200 proposals were submitted to the WTO and then compiled into a report. However, the WTO did not effectively address many of the concerns from all of the groups that submitted reports. From the perspective of developing countries as well as many of the nongovernmental organizations, it looked like the WTO wanted only to eliminate the obstacles to free trade, despite the consequences. These groups believed that the WTO wanted to end regulations, even if the regulations were intended to protect the environment, support workers' rights, or help developing nations compete in a global market. The protesters also felt that the WTO was favoring proposals for free trade submitted by industrialized nations such as the United States, the European Union, and Japan. The WTO was criticized for dismissing the concerns of nations that were not as industrialized or wealthy.
Outside of the inner workings of the WTO, both lobbyists and protesters wanted changes. Some were mainline NGOs such as the European American Business Council and the Fair Trade Center. In addition, there were labor unions like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Environmental groups like the Sierra Club, and student groups that included United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) also weighed in. Among and between these groups were some protesters who embraced anarchist strategies. That is to say, they opposed large-scale organization and government in any form, and believed in bringing it down through confrontational and sometimes violent tactics. There were a wide range of groups overall, but all were either opposed to certain WTO policies or believed that the organization should be outright abolished.

The protests

Therefore, a combination of disorganization and competing interests within the WTO as well as protests from outside the WTO led to two days of peaceful protests, violent clashes, and hundreds of arrests in Seattle from November 30 to December 1, 1999. The people trying to organize these diverse protest groups found it near impossible to address everyone's goals and desires. Some groups didn't want to march with others because their goals were too different. Other groups wanted to wreak havoc on the area through violent anti-globalization and anti-corporate protests. Most wanted to band together to form a collective voice that could express, non-violently, what they wanted from the WTO.
Organized protests have occurred throughout history. The Women's October March stood up against the king during the French Revolution; Gandhi organized protests against imperial governments in India. Many protested the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and we often see marches and protests to support the rights of women, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color. Also, this event in Seattle was by no means the first organized protest against a global organization. In the late 1980s there were organized protests in Berlin against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and another in Paris in 1989 against the backdrop of the G7 Summit.3 Protesters once again took to the street in Madrid in 1994 to demonstrate against the IMF and World Bank. Anti-globalization protests were organized on an international scale in June 1999. Known as the J8, protesters met in an array of cities including London, England; Eugene, Oregon; and Cologne, Germany to rally against the policies that were being discussed at the G8 Summit.
The Seattle protests, also known as N30 in reference to the date of November 30, were as diverse and complicated as other anti-globalization efforts, if not more so. Here is a summary of the various goals we've discussed, but bear in mind these were prioritized differently by different groups:
  • Get multinational corporations and the WTO to help reform labor practices in developing nations.
  • Protect the environment from the negative effects caused by global trade.
  • Stop ignoring developing nations while favoring policies put forth by the U.S., the European Union, and Japan.
In many ways, the concerns of the protesters outside mirrored the discussions that were supposed to be happening inside at the WTO Ministerial Conference. Their goals—though also not universally agreed upon—could be summarized like this:
  • Give developing nations a say in new trade regulations being proposed.
  • Hear the concerns some nations have regarding environmental and labor issues.
  • Reduce trade regulations and restrictions in order to increase the profits of international corporations.
While the protesters are referred to as anti-globalists, it's not like they want to shut down global trade and the movement of goods and people. Rather, they are usually concerned with corporate greed, fair labor practices, and environmental protection. Those who were advocating for an end to the WTO and promoting violence through anarchist tactics were often on the fringes of the protest groups. However, it was their actions that gained the most media attention. Many broke windows and vandalized property at businesses, generally global chains such as Starbucks and Nike.
In general, most protests seek to call attention to a problem by causing disruption, but not violence. Despite the violent acts at the N30 protest, things began peacefully. Thousands of people took to the streets to block entryways to the Washington State Convention Center, where the WTO Ministerial Conference was held. The idea was to prevent enough conference attendees from getting to the meetings to get the meeting canceled. They achieved this goal, but that other goal of a non-violent protest became harder to manage. The anarchists encouraged confrontational tactics and vandalism, and the police responded by launching tear gas and firing rubber bullets at all protesters, not just the violent ones. The Seattle Police seemed unprepared for the scale and size of the event. In the end the Seattle mayor had to declare martial law, call in the National Guard, and hundreds of protesters (both violent and peaceful) were arrested. Numerous people would later sue the city of Seattle for wrongful arrest and city officials were forced to pay over $200,000 to those who won their cases.
A photograph shows a police officer in full riot gear, flanked by several others, directly pepper-spraying several kneeling, peaceful protestors. The protestors are covering their faces and two of them are holding up peace signs with their hands despite being attacked.
Seattle police pepper spray WTO protesters, 30 November 1999. By Steve Kaiser, CC BY-SA 2.0.


The story of the Seattle protests was not exactly new, but it did seem to usher forth a new era in mass organization against economic globalization. The protesters also brought the issue to the attention of the media and generated publicity for their causes. New international networks were forged between protest groups that began to work together to achieve their goals of free and fair trade practices. There are continued organized protests at many of the meetings of the WTO, IMF, World Bank, and at government summits such as the G-7.
Author bio
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, World History, and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the past ten years at the high school level. In addition, she has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and U.S. History curriculums.

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