The marchers coming down from Capitol Hill the morning of Nov. 30, 1999, were so vast in number it was eerie. Their heads and signs and banners filled Pine and Pike streets from sidewalk to sidewalk as far as the eye could see up the hill, yet, as they neared downtown, their voices emitted barely a murmur.
Sometime after 8 o'clock, the front line of marchers on both streets stopped at a predetermined point: the east side of Boren Avenue, just one block on Pine from the Paramount Theatre and one block on Pike from the Convention Center, where the delegates of the World Trade Organization were to meet.
A full block below them on Pike Street, at the eastern tip of the convention center grounds, a small group of police officers were just starting to put on their gear. They mounted horses and sat staring up the street for a time before realizing something was odd: the protesters were holding the line, not them. So, 30 minutes later, the police moved their line up to Boren.
That was the start of the WTO demonstrations: planning and self-control, a hushed anticipation that would become a day of chanting, singing, drumming and dancing. What the mainstream media reported on, of course, was the tear gas and the broken windows, which came in that order, not the other way around: First the police gassed non-violent sit-ins, then the crowbars came out.
The real history and the joy, the awe, of that many people being in the streets that day and the days after with a single, overarching message -- that citizens can fight corporate power -- lives on for WTO protest organizers and activists. Many of them will return to Seattle this week to mark the 10th anniversary of the protests in The People's Summit, a two-day activist training conference that begins Friday night with an appearance by "Democracy Now!" host Amy Goodman at Town Hall.
The event will include some of the labor organizers, environmentalists and art activists who helped turn out 80,000 people during the WTO meetings in Seattle. Whether it was the protesters outside who actually shut down the trade talks on Nov. 30 or, as some observers argue, a refusal inside by delegates from developing countries to agree to the demands of the U.S. and Europe, the demonstrations, says Alli Chagi-Starr, had the intended effect and remain a watershed in activist and world history.
"It was a marker for us personally and individually as well as globally," says Chagi-Starr, co-founder with David Solnit of Art and Revolution, a group that crisscrossed the nation for various demonstrations prior to the WTO and led events on how to use performance and art -- including giant puppets -- to revitalize political protest.
"We talk about before Seattle and after Seattle," she says. "It was an enormous victory that put the U.S. on the map for the global south.... It gave hope to the people of India and third-world... countries that had been left out [by sending a message that] there are people in the United States who aren't completely asleep."
In the summer of 1999, Art and Revolution created a 30-minute "road show" on the WTO that it took up and down the West Coast to colleges, farmers' markets and radio stations. The show used puppets and song to warn people about the WTO and its anti-democratic effects on agriculture, environmental regulations and worker rights.
On Nov. 30, 1999, Chagi-Starr was part of a dance group that would jump out and dance in front of protesters when police were moving in. At one point, she says, a group of young people who had been rained on and pepper-sprayed asked the dancers to perform on a giant platform they had locked themselves to in the middle of a street. As they danced, someone started singing "Amazing Grace." Then 1,000 were singing it, she says, and "the police just backed off."
It's that part of the WTO protests the TV news edited out, she and others say, along with any coverage of the actual issues the protesters were raising. "The story of how art created a movement did not get told," Chagi-Starr says. That Tuesday night, "we saw the same windows get broken six times in a row [on TV] and not a piece of art or a puppet or song in sight."
"I remember being in tears," says Patti Goldman, an attorney with the law firm EarthJustice who led teach-ins on trade issues prior to the WTO coming to Seattle. "I knew no one would see the peaceful protest, the people coming together, because it was all going to be eclipsed by the violence, the police."
But the protests, Goldman says, were a success. "Their expansionist agenda has stalled," she says of the WTO.
"What we accomplished in 1999 has had a lasting effect to this day," says Heather Day, a People's Summit organizer with the Community Alliance for Global Justice. "The WTO has been unable to move its agenda forward."
Core WTO protest organizers like Chagi-Starr tried to keep up the momentum by helping organize other mass demonstrations modeled on Seattle. And WTO activists formed a myriad of groups such as the ones that will be talking at The People's Summit about the next great battle: climate change.
The problem, says state Rep. Bob Hasegawa, a former Teamsters organizer who helped bring people out to the mass labor march on the WTO's opening day, is that, 10 years later, activism is at a low ebb because people are worn out.
"I see the WTO as one of those blips at the high water mark of community organizing," says Hasegawa. "Since then, people have gotten pretty burned out, I sense."
"We're fighting a machine that has so many resources to it and people," he says, but "people really need the history. The WTO demonstrations were a huge victory.... We just haven't figured out how to do that on a sustainable basis."