Act: Inspiration

The Battle of Seattle: Shutting Empire Down and Planting the Seeds of Change

December 2, 2019

Twenty years ago, November, marked a turning point in my life that still echoes in me today. I was 20 years old and coming off one of my best years ever. I had joined with friends and created a nonprofit organization to plant and save seeds. We called it Planting Earth Activation. It was our solution to restoring the world. For the first time I felt real purpose and like I had a clear path in life. It was the year 1999 and it felt as though society were at a crossroads. Our group decided to take a road trip through the Pacific Northwest to meet with friends doing similar work, explore forests and rivers, and learn from old-time seed savers of this region. The last stop on our journey was City of Seattle where the World Trade Organization (WTO) was about to meet along with a large mobilization of protesters. I was entering into the unknown, and on the other side I would be changed forever…

I knew little about the World Trade Organization upon arrival, but I would quickly come to understand why we (and 80,000 others) descended on Seattle to shut these meetings down. It turns out that the WTO (along with other trade agreements like NAFTA, FTAA, TRIPS, GATTS) had developed trade policies that cemented corporate rights over environmental and human rights. Governments ensnared in WTO agreements couldn’t make policies to protect their workers or environments. To do so could result in corporations suing these governments for “potential” loss of profits. With these terms, WTO agreements meant the end of true democracy and the sharp rise of corporate empire. For agriculture, these trade agreements pushed unproven and dangerous technologies like genetically modified organisms which would increase the use of chemical applications on the land. They favored large business and would push out small farm operations to a growing industrial-chemical-agricultural model.

The first day of actions was scary, humbling, and ultimately hopeful. As I would learn by the end of the day, it takes courage and a willingness to risk everything to change the world. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. My mother took me to protests as a kid and I imagined these WTO actions would be similar – a big march, speakers – symbolic. What I experienced this day was much more, it was direct action with a clear goal in mind– shut down the WTO. Disrupt the business of empire with the creative power of an organized citizen-uprising.

We met up with a contingent of folks from our community who also traveled to protest the WTO. There were about 20 of us. The first actions we took part in started at the break of dawn on November 30th, 1999; the goal was to blockade every entrance into the convention center before world trade delegates arrived. When we reached the actions that morning, activists had already occupied many entrances into the convention center. We were on the south side and already a half dozen tripods were setup. Each cluster of metal poles had an activist hanging in the center. At that height (around 15 feet tall) a drop to the ground could cause injury. These tripods had shut a whole intersection down by themselves. I couldn’t believe what I saw next. A chain of hundreds of people was forming around a park and across two roads. This was our chance to help. My friends and I joined the human chain linking arms with courageous people; linking arms in solidarity with ecosystems and worker communities.

A blend of emotions coursed within me.

Fear. Fear of being attacked by police. Fear of getting arrested and what could happen while being detained. Fear of friends and folks in the streets getting injured. But something greater than fear enveloped me. We were in this together. People from all over the planet were here to fight for each other, to protect the waters of this world, to protect sacred lands and cultures. If we acted together, we could win. It was time to hold my ground.

For an hour or so we maintained this blockade without incident, though we knew battles were raging all over town; Helicopters buzzed overhead, sirens wailed, and explosions carried to our ears from across the city. I began to realize just how massive a mobilization this had become. Activists had begun to shut down every entrance into the meeting center. Delegates trying to get to World Trade Organization talks couldn’t make it to the meetings. Civil society was winning.

And then a moment happened that would change my life forever.

Still linked with friends, we saw a large police presence come down the street.  The group of police formed into a phalanx (V formation) moving toward one of the roads our human chain was blocking. In response, people began to fill in the street, linking arms in rows multiple lines deep across the road to shore up our wall. My heart pounded as I heard a dispersal order given over a loudspeaker. Seconds later the police phalanx advanced into the human wall with batons raised. Fear paralyzed me, but then we broke arms and ran to support our comrades. To my horror, the police officers had advanced into the crowd swinging their truncheons and smashing people with shields. There was screaming and chaos everywhere.

We arrived too late.

A bus of delegates had already driven through the gap the police had made through the wall of protesters. Running onto the scene I saw an image that is still seared into my mind. Laying on the ground, face full of blood, was an elderly woman. She must’ve been in her 70’s or 80’s and she couldn’t move. Street medics had arrived and were helping her. Up until that point, I never would have imagined that cops would beat an elderly woman for blockading a road. My shock quickly turned to rage. I felt layers of my privileged world view shatter. That moment galvanized me deep into the global justice movement which would take me around the world in the coming years.

Later that day (in yet another action), I had another revelation. I looked around at the people in the street with me. Walking shoulder to shoulder was every kind of person. Some dressed in suits and others in work jeans and yet others with spiked hair and wearing all black. Farmers, teachers, steel workers, business owners, students, a full diversity of races and genders, we were all there; butterflies and turtle puppets weaving throughout; a complete representation of our diverse and beautiful planet. And then…The streets erupted with explosions, followed by canisters of teargas raining down upon us…A profound thought hit me—law enforcement was acting like a militia force to protect the interests of the global corporate elite (lawmakers, CEO’s, shareholders). The police were there to protect the powerful people vying for control of the world’s food and water supplies, mineral deposits, and oil reserves. The police were an army for the rich.

Back that night at the Convergence Center (a place organized for activists) we shared stories about the day’s experience. We heard about the battles and the teargas, concussion grenades, flash grenades, beatings, rubber bullets, and horse charges that had all been deployed by police officers that day. But none of that could stop the power of a well-organized civil disobedience. The Direct Action Network (DAN) had meticulously organized these actions for months and the efforts were paying off. Numerous blockades had held for hours (some all day). People cemented themselves into 55-gallon drums. Others locked together into metal lockboxes, while others chained themselves to doorways; all the while delegates trying to get to the WTO conference couldn’t make it to the meetings.

Later, we would get word the WTO talks had failed. It was a victory for civil society that would be sounded across the planet. We shut down one of the most powerful institutions in the world for a day. But we couldn’t celebrate just yet. The meetings would resume the next day and when they did… we would be ready.

The Convergence Center was a hive of activity all through the night. One area was set aside for medics and dozens of activists were getting treated for a variety of wounds. People were formed into circles having organizing meetings; artists were making banners, and my group of twenty or so gathered to decompress and plan our own action for the next day.

The seed of an idea had sprouted amongst us. Many of the friends with me were farmers, seed savers, herbalists, and people who live close to the land. It dawned on us that the knowledge we carried had relevance at this mobilization. The WTO was pushing trade policies that would incentivize the privatization of water. We were water catchment designers and stewards. We know how to develop regenerative and resilient water systems for communities. The WTO policies protect intellectual property rights of large agriculture corporations. With these policies, companies like Monsanto can genetically engineer new crops that they “own“. In this way these companies could biologically colonize countries around the globe, destroying the livelihood of subsistence farmers. We were a community of seed savers and food growers. We not only carried the ancient wisdom of these crafts, we carried literal seeds as well.

We planned an action that would highlight the solutions to the big agriculture model. We would show that the alternatives are regionally based communities growing their own food and seed and catching their own water. We were going to bring seeds to the front line— guerilla garden style. Tomorrow we would join in resistance to Empire and at the same time, we would engage in the joyful work of restoring ecosystems. It was time to plant the seeds of change. We quickly got to creating our own banner for the action. It read:

“Yesterday we Shut Down the Evil Empire, Today We Plant the Seeds of Change”

I began the second morning of actions feeling both hopeful and fearful about what the day might bring. The plans for our guerrilla garden action was coming together and that afternoon we joined the Steelworkers march. These men and women from the steel industry had been losing their jobs for years and thousands more livelihoods were at risk. Multinational corporations (bolstered by world trade agreements) took manufacturing out of America in search of cheap labor and lenient environmental standards. It was another death blow to communities of hard-working intelligent people. My grasp of workers struggles was deepening. I was starting to understand the massive ramifications of the corporate control of our economy, our means of production, and our governments. After the Steelworkers speeches came to an end, we all marched into the city. We were thousands strong and unified together.

Our action group had grown to over 50 by the time we joined the march. We had gathered as much seed and planting material as we could find. We were equipped with potatoes, garlic, winter grains, and varieties of greens (all crops we could plant at that time of year).  Our message was strong, we must create our own sovereign and sustainable communities. We cannot rely on governments and corporations to provide the basic needs of life. Food security, water security, and the right to live and work in dignity were all on the chopping block during these WTO meetings, but we had a solution.

When the time was right, our banner flying high, we broke free from the Steelworkers march towards our action site. As we split off,  I looked back and was surprised to see our numbers had swelled to over a hundred strong. We arrived at the site for our first garden action—an open lot near downtown— and like a swarm of bees, we covered the land with our good work. We planted potatoes and garlic in patches. We broadcast seeds over bare earth and a chant rose up from our force of land tenders and soon, we were all chanting together:

“The only way to stop the greed is plant, plant, plant.”

“The only way to stop the greed is plant, plant, plant.”

A surge of hope fed my soul. I was still raw from my experiences of the previous day. The police brutality in the streets. The tens of thousands of people descending on a city to shut down the World Trade Organization meetings. And WE had done that. And now. Now we were planting the seeds of a different kind of trade. A different kind of economy. One built on the mutual trust of nature and human. An interdependent relationship woven with seeds and soil, water and sweat. One founded on the ecological processes of life, not the profit margins of an economic system of death. We built gardens and we healed the land that week. We sang and linked arms and we shut down empire together. We cried, we planted, and we stood our ground for a thriving world; and the seeds of change took root.

Erik Ohlsen

Erik Ohlsen is a licensed contractor, Founder and owner of Permaculture Artisans (Ecological farm and landscape company) in Sonoma County, California.

Tags: anti-globalization, building resilient societies, new economy, rebuilding resilient food and water systems, seed-saving, social change, social movements