They never knew what hit them. They had assumed it would be business as usual, the way it had been for decades. Rich men gather, meet, decide the fate of the world, then return home to amass more wealth. It's the way it's always been.
On the morning of November 30, 1999, as government officials from 135 nations attempted to meet with the largest gathering ever of corporate executives, tens of thousands of average everyday working Americans shut down the city of Seattle and physically prohibited the hoped-for historic and official merger of the earth's political and business elite. I was there. I saw it first-hand. It was a sight I had never seen.
But there it was. It was a massively representive body of Americans (and Canadians and Brits and French, etc.), all of us standing there on the streets between Pine and Pike -- Teamsters and turtle-lovers, grandparents and Gap clerks, the homeless and computer geeks, high school students and Alaskans, nuns and Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., airplane mechanics and caffeinated slaves from Microsoft. A few were professional protesters, but the majority looked as if this was their first exercise in a constitutionally protected redress of grievances. There were no "leaders," no "movement," no idea of what to do except stop the World Trade Organization from holding its secret meeting.
Only the anarchists seemed organized. They even had their own anarchist marching band!
The big labor march grew so large (that's what happens when so many workers are temps), it broke into six or seven separate marches, choking off the entire downtown area of Seattle.
The beauty of all this is that it just happened. And why should anyone be surprised? After two decades of downsizing, wage stagnation, lost health benefits and the deliberate destruction of the middle class, the bubble sooner or later had to burst.
The Fortune 500 brought this on themselves. If they hadn't been so greedy, if they had been willing to share even a sliver of the pie, then maybe Seattle wouldn't have happened.
But the rich decided to take a piss on their biggest supporters -- their loyal workers, those Reagan Democrats -- and there's nothing uglier than a Teamster who voted for Nixon realizing he's been had.
It was funny watching how the media presented the Battle of Seattle ("violent protests" was the mantra), and while a McDonald's and a Starbucks had their windows broken, the truth was that 99% of the participants destroyed no property and took great pains to treat the city of Seattle with endearing respect. Seattle is, after all, the only city in the history of this country to have a general strike (the entire town refused to show up for work back in 1919).
The liberal mayor of Seattle, who at first did not want to be known as a West Coast Mayor Daley, eventually lost his cool and let his police force run amok. Tear gas and rubber bullets started flying toward the grandparents and the nuns. All civil liberties were suspended. They even had the audacity to use the term, "no protest zones." Hey, this is America, buddy! Seattle may be considered one of those groovy "Pacific Rim" cities, but that doesn't make it Singapore.
Clinton came to town on the second day. He was so badgered by the protests, he ended up committing a sin so serious, it was like he was burning his draft card all over again. He completely changed his position and called on all WTO countries to enact laws prohibiting trade with nations that use children in sweatshops and do not honor the rights of all workers to organize a union. Whoa! You see, free trade is an absolute with the WTO (e.g., trade must never be used as a tool to accomplish "social" goals). So, for Clinton to climb the space needle (or was he chased up it?) and then declare that the human rights of workers were more important than making a buck, well, this was nothing short of Paul being knocked off his horse and seeing Jesus! You could almost hear the collective seething of the hundreds of CEOs gathered in Seattle. Their boy Bill -- the politician they had bought and paid for at so many coffee klatches and Lincoln Bedroom stays --- had betrayed them. You could almost see them reaching for their Palm Pilots to look up the phone number of The Jackal.
It was a tremendous victory for everyone who lives from paycheck to paycheck. We owe a lot to those brave souls who got arrested and spent the rest of the week in jail.
This is by no means the end of Big Business. The richest 1% still own 90% of everything in this world. They will not go down without a fight.
But they have been put on notice that people from all walks of life have had their fill and will not let up until we have a fair, just, and democratic economy. This week, Seattle was the Lexington and Concord of a movement that now cannot be stopped. Mark it down, this last great, important date of the 20th century -- November 30, 1999 -- The Battle of Seattle, the day the people got tired of having to work a second job while fighting off the collection agents and decided it was time the pie was shared with the people who baked it.
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