Awaiting the WTO delegates will be a sea of protesters, ranging from labor unionists to Marxist environmentalists to anarchists. Tens of thousands of activists from the United States and abroad are expected to descend on the city to condemn the WTO's role in promoting economic globalization -- and to decry what they see as the trampling of worker rights and the environment.
And these activists aren't just going to march downtown and wave a few banners. Seattle's WTO summit is shaping up to be the Super Bowl of progressive rabble-rousing: Activists want to block highways, take over tunnels and chain themselves to doorways. The AFL-CIO has rented the Kingdome -- seating capacity 65,000-plus -- for a rally. Other activists plan to infiltrate WTO meetings, parade puppets through the streets, sing songs and maybe even throw a few whipped-cream pies.
The short-term goal: a clever brand of chaos. The long-term goal: to change attitudes about globalization and fair trade.
"It's a historic confrontation between civil society and corporate rule," said Michael Dolan, an organizer with Public Citizen, Ralph Nader's Washington, DC-based consumer group.
Efficient and dangerous
What makes the WTO such a target? Essentially, its role in promoting globalized trade. The 4-year-old organization, which has 134 member countries, acts as a forum for conducting international trade negotiations, administering trade agreements, reviewing national trade policies and settling disputes.
Because the governments of member nations (and, of course, multinational corporations) want to make international commerce more efficient, the organization has streamlined, and in some cases eliminated, many trade barriers and regulations to allow for a freer flow of imports and exports.
Proponents argue that by boosting business, the WTO's trade-friendly policies have lowered unemployment and raised standards of living in many countries, including the United States.
But critics say that the resulting "corporate globalism" sacrifices local regulatory control, dangerously weakening protections for workers and the environment. As an example, they point out that the WTO opposes local trade bans on nations accused of human-rights abuses.
"Governments are meeting at the behest of corporate bureaucrats," said Denis Moynihan, a Jamaica Plain labor activist. "The WTO represents a further attempt to consolidate corporate power on a global scale -- to expand the style of actions like NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement)."
Adding to the Seattle buzz is the WTO's guest list. In addition to President Bill Clinton, the summit is expected to attract trade ministers from nearly every corner of the earth. Even Fidel Castro -- whose country doesn't belong to the WTO -- is rumored to be coming.
And since big business has a major stake in the WTO's agenda, there will be a substantial corporate presence. Much of the five-day event is being underwritten by Washington state corporate kingpins such as Boeing and Microsoft; Bill Gates is on the city's host committee.
A movement is born
Those names only get activists more excited. "Seattle could be the birthplace of a mass movement against corporate globalism in the U.S.," said Mike Prokosch, an organizer with the Boston office of the labor-activist group United for a Fair Economy.
"The WTO meeting gives us an opportunity to pull together all the labor activists, food-safety groups, consumers, students, immigrants -- everyone."
From the first, the WTO has been a lightning rod for protest, particularly in Europe and in developing countries such as India, where globalization has caused rapid change.
Hearing this, you have to wonder what the WTO was thinking when it selected Seattle as the site for this year's meeting. Though the Puget Sound region does have deep ties to international commerce (one in four local jobs is tied to either importing or exporting), it's also knee-deep in well-networked activists, many of whom are veterans of lengthy disputes with the timber industry, among other things. It's a bus trip away from the progressive hotbeds of Vancouver, Portland, Eugene and San Francisco.
"I think it's incredible for [the WTO] to have chosen this place," said John Sellers, the coordinator of the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society, which teaches non-violent protest techniques to activist groups. "I'm hoping that they've made a huge blunder here, and by stepping onto our home court, we can thump them pretty good."
Shut it down
And the protesters are in training. Last month, the Ruckus Society hosted a week-long boot camp specifically for WTO-summit protesters at a 20-acre organic farm in Washington. Called the Globalize This! Action Camp, the event drew more than 100 activists and featured speeches, strategy sessions and physical drills in preparation.
The idea is to create so much disruption in so many places around Seattle that it will throw the WTO meeting into disorder -- or, better yet, shut it down completely.
For activists, a lot is on the line. Some organizers believe that if the protest goes successfully, it could trigger a rebirth of progressive activism in this country, especially around the issues of labor and corporate greed. Prior to the summit, traveling caravans are crisscrossing the country, stopping in cities and holding teach-ins on the WTO and the globalized economy.
"This is much larger than the WTO," said Ruckus Society coordinator Sellers. "The WTO has afforded us this incredible opportunity and hung its ass out for us, but this is also about the corpo-tocracy that is going into the last untouched places on this planet and threatening the last indigenous communities."
"This is just the beginning of this movement," agreed Mike Prokosch of United for a Fair Economy. "We have a lot of catching up to do, but we're gaining."