Remembering WTO Seattle by Janet Thomas


December 5, 2015 by islandersvoice1


Janet Thomas has lived and worked on San Juan Island for more than twenty years. Her books include: “The Battle in Seattle–The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations” and “Day Breaks Over Dharamsala–A Memoir of Life Lost and Found”.

Remembering WTO Seattle—Sea Turtles, the Smithsonian, and the San Juan Islands by Janet Thomas

“If I could go back in time, I would make the World Trade Organization (WTO) heed the concerns of the Seattle protesters. They were not silly. They were right. –Noah Smith, assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, in The Atlantic, January 6, 2014.

Climate change summit talks in Paris, the anniversary of WTO Seattle on November 30, 1999, a sea turtle in the Smithsonian Institute, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the end of the world as we know it—all, in one way or another, rising on the shores of the San Juan Islands.

The sea turtles that roamed the streets of WTO Seattle on November 30 became the icon of the movement and were designed by artist and long-time San Juan islander, Bryn Barnard, in response to a request from fellow-islander, Ben White. Ben, who died too soon in 2005, was a longtime animal-rights and environmental activist who knew the political value of personifying the issues. He raided the recycling center on San Juan Island and drove home with stacks of cardboard-that-would-become-turtles piled on top of his car. The costumes were built and subsequently worn by islanders who took to the streets of WTO Seattle.

Ben White’s inspiration came from a long-ago encounter with a dolphin. “I felt regarded,” he said.  It fueled his lifetime of political engagement that became international in scope. He co-founded the Cetacean Freedom Network and worked for the Animal Welfare Institute where he was the institute’s representative to the International Whaling Commission and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. He documented illegal whaling off the Soviet Union and the killing of harp seals in Newfoundland. He worked to stop the capture of dolphins, the use of fur by the fashion industry, and the logging of old-growth forests. He scaled New York skyscrapers to hang anti-fur banners and cut underwater dolphin-holding nets in Japan. He started a Church of the Earth and sang “Amazing Grace” to the orca and dolphins in captivity at Marine World in California. He also founded the Green Party in San Juan County. “The democrats don’t get it,” he told me. “Too much insularity.”

Ben brought the sea turtle issue to the streets of WTO Seattle because the WTO had overturned the U.S. ban on the sale of shrimp caught using nets that trapped, and subsequently drowned, sea turtles. Saving the turtles meant using a net with a turtle exclusion device, a TED. (No relationship to TED talks.) Some countries didn’t want the additional expense for their shrimp industry so they protested the U.S. decision, and they were upheld by the WTO.  On the streets of Seattle, the turtles defied the reductionism of acronyms as well as any potential acrimony. In their way they humanized the animal rights issue and linked us to our own complicity in the destruction of the oceans. In 2001, after a long legal battle, the U.S. ban finally prevailed in the WTO. The sea turtles got a break.

Ben’s turtles debuted en masse during the WTO week of infamy in which the world was presented with a burning garbage can, militarized police, an “anarchist” or two, and complete obfuscation of information that might have saved us all from the mess we are in. Activists came from around the world to protest the growing corporate control that was effectively turning a cold shoulder to humanity and the planet. There were familiar names in the crowd: Ralph Nader, Paul Hawken, Anita Roddick, founder of Body Shop, Sierra Club director, Carl Pope, Teamster president, Jimmy Hoffa Jr., and radio personality, Jim Hightower were just a few U.S. notables on the scene. Vandana Shiva came from India; Jose Bove came from France, and Michael Moore came from Flint, Michigan. It was a week in which civil society took the helm, charted the course, and steered the way toward a landscape in which life is the answer and profit-at-all-cost is in question.

The confluence of people on the streets of WTO Seattle was nothing short of stunning. The international nature of the demonstrators-farmers, union groups, human rights and environmental activists, scientists, scholars, indigenous peoples—represented every part of the planet. It was a week of global populism at-large; a rising tide of inspiration.  But very few of the issues were addressed by the corporate media. One Seattle TV station went so far as to announce they would not interview any of the demonstrators because “all they wanted was attention.”

You had to be there. If you weren’t, it was a week of shame, a shocking example of violence and mayhem, a blight on Seattle’s shining reputation, a disgrace. Over and over and over, the world was exposed to the same loop of burning trash can, black-masked marauders, and a couple of broken window panes. The media called it a desecration of Christmas. A joke.

What wasn’t a joke were the thousands of people packed into workshops over the weekend before N30, the tens of thousands who circled the now-deceased Kingdome in support of Third World debt relief, the thousands who sat in non-violent protest in intersections, in front of hotels, at the convention center, the thousands who crowded into forums about genetically modified foods, logging and mining practices, energy resources, labor issues, human rights, animal right.  They all addressed the reasons why we are now in the midst of a movement for Climate Change and why we don’t need the newest trade deal on the block, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP.

The truth is, that no matter what is agreed to in Paris, there is a good chance the TPP can overrule any well-meaning decisions. This is the hard, cold and brutal truth of international trade agreements.  They are developed in secret; they are agreed upon without democratic participation of citizens, and they override local, state and national laws. Trade agreements serve the exploiters on the planet. They are the reason why those who live in the countries in the world with the richest resources have the least access to those resources. They are the reason that farmers all over the world are forced to raise “cash” crops instead of food for their families and their communities. They are the reason there is so little accountability for the corporate desiccation of the planet. Corporate collusion has enveloped our entire planet into a commodity for consumption by the rich and privileged architects of global greed. This is what the participants in WTO Seattle knew, and this is why the corporate media did not report the real stories beyond that pathetic burning garbage can. The real stories go back a long time—ask any Native American.

For more than three decades Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network has advocated for environmental and economic justice. He went to Paris to participate in the Climate Change talks and was recently the recipient of the Gandhi Peace Award.  He was also on the streets of WTO Seattle on November 30. He closed the Indigenous Forum at the WTO with a passionate talk about the importance of waking up to corporate exploitation. “It’s about control,” he said. “From controlling and mining of the land, mining our bodies, mining our minds, mining life itself.”

There are symbols galore—a WTO Turtle from San Juan Island in the Smithsonian Institute, thousands of pairs of shoes empty in Paris, Occupy slogans for every occasion, and those harmless sounding acronyms for brutal trade agreements. We are an environmental and humanitarian trainwreck riding the rails of military might right into the deep pockets of global and unaccountable corporate interests. No stone of global injustice must be left unturned if we are to turn the tide on behalf of humankind. Every activist matters. Every voice counts. Every choice makes a difference.


One thought on “Remembering WTO Seattle by Janet Thomas

  1. Ann White says:

    Thank you Janet! Ann, Julia and Ben White


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