Seattle's checkered history of radicalism

As we near the eighth anniversary of the WTO protests, a look at the city's reputation as a capital of protest. In reality, save for a couple of exceptions Seattle has been a sleepy capital of capitalism.
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As we near the eighth anniversary of the WTO protests, a look at the city's reputation as a capital of protest. In reality, save for a couple of exceptions Seattle has been a sleepy capital of capitalism.

Seattle is paralyzed by protest. Tens of thousands shut down the city. The mayor tries to restore order. Extra police and troops are called in. Protest leaders are arrested and civil liberties violated. Headlines around the world portray our Northwest seaport as a bastion of leftist anarchy and a threat to global capitalism.

You remember that, right?

Actually, you probably don't, unless you're in your 90s or older. Because I'm not talking about the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests of 1999, or the protests in Olympia this week, but about our first "WTO" that for decades made Seattle synonymous with labor radicalism. It was the Seattle General Strike that began in January 1919, when some 65,000 union workers shut down a busy city of 315,000 people.

It was the first strike of its kind in the U.S. and a high-risk gamble for labor. While business leaders called the strike action "Bolshevism," writer and activist Anna Louise Strong was less certain where "the iron march of labor" would lead. Writing in the pro-labor Seattle Union Record just before the strike, she exclaimed, "We are undertaking the most tremendous move ever made by labor in this country, a move which will lead – NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!"

The Seattle General Strike did not lead to socialism or a communist utopia. There were struggles and conflicts ahead, but eventually labor and industry worked out a compromise. Seattle evolved into a largely middle-class town of quiet streets inhabited by Boeing families. When Strong wondered about where her great movement would lead, I doubt she imagined the revolution dying with less of a bang than a whimper, subsumed by a town blanketed with bungalows.

Of course, as 1999 showed, Seattle's radicalism wasn't entirely dead. Or rather, our sympathy for radicalism. The dirty little secret of the infamous WTO protests is that they were mostly organized by out-of-town activists. More accurately, Seattle played indulgent host to a protest movement made up of right-wing nationalists, European socialists, angry Teamsters, black-clad anarchists, turtle-costumed environmentalists, and anti-Illuminati nut jobs, to name a few. They came from all over and turned Seattle into protest's Woodstock.

The anti-WTO activists knew our hospitality could be exploited. At a Seattle Center labor rally on the eve of WTO, filmmaker Michael Moore laughed at the choice of Seattle. "WTO in Seattle?" he cried with disbelief. "What were they thinking?" Then-mayor Paul Schell was thinking that massive protest and Christmas shopping could coexist downtown.

The next day, Nov. 30, 1999, began an updated version (a more violent one) of the events of 1919. For a few days, the world was riveted by images of rioting and protest in quiet old Seattle. They were less afraid of Bolshevism than astonished by the sight of such passions in a place known to be a major beneficiary of the policies it was protesting. Prosperity from trade in software and jet planes – what's to protest?

It's now eight years since the "Battle of Seattle." For almost a decade people have been trying to decide what the WTO legacy is. A new movie of that title is due out in December, starring Charlize Theron and Woody Harrelson. It's been described as Sleepless in Seattle with tear gas.

For a time, the name Seattle became synonymous with international resistance to unfettered free trade. In law enforcement circles, it meant "debacle," as in "we don't want another Seattle." A few years ago, the 1960s radical Tom Hayden, the former Mr. Jane Fonda, suggested the city erect a monument to the WTO protests as a reflection of the city's "progressive heart."

But in the first decade of the 21st century, we're fatter on global trade and investment. We're building more skyscrapers, and New York and foreign investors are buying up downtown. Last May, a study found that King County has more than 68,000 millionaires. The top one third of residents is prosperous; the rest of us can't afford to buy a house.

And then there's the "convergence center" on Capitol Hill, where the colorful WTO protests were planned and coordinated. A good place for a commemorative plaque, perhaps. But today it's a monument of another sort: It's an urban dog lounge.

Just as 1919 has faded from popular memory, I think the radicalism of 1999 is only a heart murmur.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.