Battle in Seattle, 10 years after

One change since 1999, we're talking about Teabaggers, not sea turtles.
Crosscut archive image.

Washington, D.C., teabag protest in September

One change since 1999, we're talking about Teabaggers, not sea turtles.

With the 10th anniversary of the "Battle in Seattle" coming up Nov. 30, expect a lot of stories about WTO. The Seattle Times, for example, is already asking you to send in your memories of 1999.

Coverage will include "then-and-now" looks at how the world has and hasn't changed. One interesting trend: The protest tactics developed by the left in the 1960s and practiced by anti-globalization protesters in the 1990s are emulated and echoed in the Obama era by the American right wing. We've gone from "turtles and Teamsters" to "Teabaggers."

One thing about the WTO protests: They were driven by the left, but they also were embraced, if more quietly, by the far right. Pat Buchanan was in town for WTO along with Eugene anarchists. The far right has long been anti-NAFTA, anti-World Bank, anti-Wall Street, and anti-surrendering sovereignty to international organizations, from the IMF to the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. The more mainstream manifestations are Buchanan, Ron Paul, and Ross Perot.

Globalization lost its center-stage moment with the 9-11 attacks. Protests in Seattle and Genoa gave way to World Trade Center terrorism and hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the Great Recession has revived economic anxieties, and breathed some life into longtime critics of the globalized, corporate financial system. Anger about the Wall Street bank bailout is found both on the right and left, but the great middle is more concerned with seeing their 401(k)s and retirement funds restored to vitality, or that "growth" be revived to create jobs. Fundamental reform has been back-burnered; discussion of alternative economic systems is still off the radar and pundit panels. President Obama is as much a corporatist as President Clinton was during WTO when Gov. Gary Locke (now Obama's secretary of commerce) sent in the National Guard to help clear Seattle's streets to enable the president to make his meetings.

So who today is dressing up in costumes, waving crazy signs, engineering sit-ins at the nation's Capitol and marching on Washington? Who's reading and organizing according to the principles of lefty guru Saul Alinsky? Who has learned the importance of gaining media attention with provocative signs and visuals, and passive resistance? Who is afflicting the comfortable?

It's the Teabaggers. Earlier this month, they protested health care reform with Rep. Michele Bachmann, while an anti-abortion splinter group conducted a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi's congressional office, tearing up copies of the health care reform bill and being dragged out by the cops (the arrested included a Catholic priest, shades of the Berrigan Brothers). This is the kind of direct action and civil disobedience that is vintage let, from the civil rights movement to anti-Vietnam war protests to WTO.

Conservatives used to disdain such protests, disruptions and outbursts, shrieking "get a job" to the hippies who filled the streets. Now, they themselves have taken to the streets and have the full backing of a cable network, FOX News, whose commentators and newscasters enjoy whipping up a frenzy. Most of the tut-tutting is from liberals.

Some of the protest anger is genuine, some of it ginned up populism by anti-tax corporate interests. And like most mad-as-hell movements, it's not necessarily a coherent whole. At WTO, some protested globalization, some raged against the Illuminati. Every mass movement has its Da Vinci Code cast of characters. Teabag protests are made up of angry anti-tax activists, but there are also loons who compare Medicare-style reform to the Holocaust. Anyone who liked the WTO or anti-Iraq protests should be able to appreciate the theater of passion and overstatement. A protest is not a cogent argument, it's a media event.

It's not clear how far the Teabaggers will go. Such movements sometimes provide cover for more radical causes and elements. WTO's peaceful protesters were used as cover for more violent behavior by anarchists. The left worries the far right's activism will lead to political assassination or a new Oklahoma City-type attack.

But as we saw at Fort Hood and Columbine, attacks can occur even without cover of a larger movement. There are always crazies among us. But the anti-gloablization movement, while it smashed Starbucks windows, did not resort to assassination after WTO. Loud angry protests do not necessarily to lead to greater violence. That said, extreme politics can always inspire sick assassins (see Leon Czolgosz, Sirhan Sirhan, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth). But such threats are long a part of our politics, right, left, and in the Twilight Zone.

The urge, even the need, to take to the streets is ongoing. Just like the Boston Tea Party actions of 1773 that give the Teabaggers their inspiration, no one has a monopoly in fighting perceived tyranny. Today, there is a WTO sea turtle costume in the Museum of History and Industry. Someday, it might hang next to a Teabagger costume, companions in American tradition.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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