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November 15, 2000

Scholars and sea turtles: WTO History Project chronicles awakening of a global protest movement

The tear gas and barricades are long gone from the streets of Seattle, but the history of the World Trade Organization protests nearly one year ago is only starting to be written.

To preserve the raw material for future generations, the University of Washington’s WTO History Project has collected more than a dozen boxes of protest paraphernalia, including turtle costumes, pamphlets, home videos, picket signs ? even a map used to plan the shutdown of downtown Seattle.

Equally important are the more than 100 personal interviews being conducted with activists, organizers and participants, many of which have already been transcribed, indexed and posted on the project’s Internet site. And more first-hand accounts and memorabilia continue to be solicited.

“Too many of the histories written of strikes and social movements tend to be biased, for no other reason than that only certain types of material are available,” said Margaret Levi, the UW’s Bacharach Professor of International Studies. “By making all of this easily accessible, we can help make sure that future historians and analysts have as complete a picture as possible of the Seattle protests against the WTO.”

The WTO History Project is a joint project of the UW Center for Communication and Civic Engagement, the UW Libraries’ Manuscripts, Special Collections and University Archives division, and the Center for Labor Studies.

Jeremy Simer, one of the history project’s founders and a WTO protest organizer, said the material offers insight into the makings of a movement.

“Some people, even activists, have the mistaken notion that this just happened spontaneously and magically,” Simer said, “when in fact the size and spirit of the protest was the result of thousands of hours of organizing.”

Some of the interviews describe frictions among different factions, such as between those seeking to reform world trade and the more radical “abolitionists.” Other accounts detail step-by-step coalition building among labor, environmentalist and student groups. Still others portray personal journeys, like that of a young woman whose involvement deepened from casual protest to committed activism as summer turned to fall.

“The distinctive thing is that it’s from a first-hand perspective, with an emphasis on the raw materials” said Gillian Murphy, the project coordinator and a graduate student in sociology, who has been assisted by several undergraduates.

The Web portion will soon be fully operational, Murphy said, with interviews, photos, videos and other material indexed and searchable, and with a way for visitors to leave testimonies of their own WTO experiences.

“History,” Murphy said, “is not normally written by protesters.”
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For more information, contact Murphy at (206) 685-1504 or http://www.wtohistory.org.