Editor’s Note: This month is the 20th anniversary of the WTO Riots in Seattle, for which the author was a participant and played an active role as Seattle City Councilmember in shaping and reviewing the epochal events.
The freedom to dissent was tested as the US closed out the twentieth century with a demonstration that grabbed the world’s attention. Forty thousand citizens marched through Seattle’s downtown on November 30, 1999, to protest a meeting of the World Trade Organization Ministerial (WTO.)
Having decided to hold its third biannual meeting in the US, more than 40 cities competed to host it. Seattle beat out the others by promising to spend over $9 million, almost twice as much as the nearest bid from Honolulu. The City Council wasn’t asked to approve the offer because the Seattle Host Organization, consisting of membership from the region’s major corporations and chaired by Microsoft’s Bill Gates, promised to pick up the tab, although they ended contributing far less.
This was to be the most important trade conference ever held in the US. The newly formed WTO was assuming powers that far outstripped its predecessors. In particular it would not only continue to regulate the trade of manufactured goods, but services, intellectual property, and agriculture would be added.
More importantly, it would have the authority to require the elimination of local labor standards and environmental protections if they violated trade agreements. It was a wet dream for corporate leaders bent on expanding trade opportunities, and a nightmare for those defending worker rights and the environment.
Without firing a shot, the world was seeing the formation of a new international power. The context for Seattle’s WTO meeting was set, and it would not happen without vocal and visible dissent from those affected.
To publicize our city council’s concerns with the WTO, I sponsored, and the council unanimously passed, resolution number 29926 in April, expressing the council’s ability to regulate and pass laws regarding environmental protection and fair labor practices within its jurisdiction and that it opposed international agreements that could restrict that ability. It was a small attempt to support those opposing WTO’s growing power.
Just as delegates from the 130 countries and the several thousand media correspondents were preparing to attend, so were citizen activists. I met with Mike Dolan from Public Citizen, a Ralph Nader-initiated organization, in the spring of 1999 to discuss how to create an open environment in which citizens could be heard. Dolan was building community support by acquiring venues to accommodate a huge number of open educational meetings.
Meanwhile another organization from San Francisco, the International Forum on Globalization, organized two-day teach-in the pristine downtown Benaroya Symphony Hall. Each day more than 2,500 attendees packed the hall to listen to an analysis of how WTO was reshaping the world around profits not human needs.
Opposition to the WTO came from three groupings distinguished by their tactics and objectives. By far the largest one was a precedent-setting alliance between organized labor and environmental groups, referred to as the “Teamsters and Turtles” coalition. (Hundreds of protestors appeared in sea turtle costumes to protest WTO’s rules harming sea life.) Labor leaders, for their part, wanted any new WTO trade agreement to set minimum labor standards in factories around the world, so as not to drag down labor agreements in the US.
Although the alliance members tussled over whether saving jobs or the environment was more important, they recognized that they faced a common fate of being sacrificed on the altar-of-trade if they didn’t ultimately shrink WTO’s authority. Their tactic was to organize and lead tens of thousands of demonstrators in a permitted march into downtown. I participated, walking alongside AFL-CIO President Sweeny and Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and a number of other labor and Congressional leaders who were present.
The second group, numbering perhaps a thousand, came together under an umbrella group, the Direct Action Network (DAN), whose publicized objective was to use non-violent civil disobedience (calling for no property destruction) to stop the WTO from meeting. Their long-term goal was to create a mass movement to challenge global capital, “making radical change and social revolution.” Their actions evolved from independent affinity groups that had been training for months on their tactics.
The DAN members arrived downtown hours before the mass march was to arrive. By forming large circles of protestors with arms interlocked with duct tape or bicycle locks, they successfully blocked major intersections. Delegates were unable to enter the Washington State Convention & Trade Center while buses and cars were suddenly diverted around the downtown retail core to avoid the protestors.
The third and smallest group, numbering a hundred at most, consisted of militant anarchists, referred to the black block. They systematically blockaded streets with newspaper boxes and smashed the windows of retail outlets owned by exploitive corporations. They also reached the downtown core before the mass march.
The media showered this militant group with attention while ignoring the anti-WTO forums. Throwing a garbage can through a store window certainly is more eye-catching than a snapshot of a room full of people listening to a lecture. But I couldn’t help but ask, which is better suited for building a lasting informed social movement for change?
As November 30, 1999 approached, public officials had recognized there would be thousands of protestors. Even President Bill Clinton told the workers at a Harley Davidson factory before heading to Seattle, “Every group in the world with an ax to grind is going to Seattle. I told them all, I wanted them to come…. I want everybody to get this all out of their system…”
Mayor Paul Schell, a former war protestor himself, said Seattle would welcome all who came to protest peacefully against WTO. And I got the City Council, through a resolution, to request that the Mayor help accommodate all visitors arriving for the Ministerial, by encouraging “…organizations who are serving demonstrators coming to our community to explore opportunities to ensure adequate lodgings and home stays.” It was going to be needed; Mike Dolan informed me that there were 750 Accredited Non-Governmental Organizations actively recruiting people to attend the WTO ministerial.
I had attended a number of meetings between our police leadership and leaders of the mainstream protestor groups, to see if they could agree on how to proceed with the demonstrations. Representatives from both sides were cautious and the meetings were inconclusive. The reality was that dissent would be taking many forms and no amount of volunteer parade marshals could keep folks walking in a straight line down the road.
There was anger in the air that the city did not take into account. Our police showed pictures to the councilmembers of what happened 16 months earlier at the WTO’s second ministerial conference in Geneva, Switzerland. Five thousand protestors gathered there, firebombing three autos and damaging other cars and stores. The Seattle police were scared but the mainstream protest leaders assured them they would lead a peaceful march.
As I walked down First Avenue with thousands other protestors from the huge AFL-CIO rally held about a mile north of downtown, I felt that we would show the world how much opposition there was to WTO’s plans. At the front of the march were labor leaders and Congressmembers.
When we reached the retail core, we were to proceed to a gathering spot and not continue to the Convention Center; however, some protestors emerged from the march and encouraged us to veer towards it. Confusion reigned and the march splintered into smaller streams of protestors.
Meanwhile the DAN group blocked the main intersections and the black block faction attacked Starbuck and Nike stores, spraying graffiti on the windows that had not been smashed.
Perhaps stunned by the violence and not prepared for a strategic response, the police initially failed to intervene with those smashing windows. The parade’s monitors took up protective positions outside some of the retail stores, fearing that the plate glass windows being shattered by handkerchief-masked anarchists would overshadow their own orderly protesting.
Even as the police began using tear gas to break up DAN’s circles to allow the WTO delegates to enter the Convention Center, a couple of blocks away other protestors, many in costumes, chanted, waved signs, and danced in the streets. David Solnit, one of DAN’s organizers, described the scene as a festival of resistance, from which the labor leaders and congressional representatives quietly slipped away.
With the situation was deemed dangerous for the upcoming visit of President Clinton, Mayor Schell declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew on most of downtown starting at 7 pm. The police moved into the crowds in late afternoon using pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets to end the demonstrations and property damage.
Several hundred protestors were pushed up into the dense residential Capitol Hill neighborhood just east of the Convention Center. Not confident of securing downtown for the next day, Mayor Schell issued another emergency order establishing a “no protest zone” in 25 blocks of downtown.
Governor Gary Locke called in the National Guard, so that by daylight on Wednesday, troops lined its perimeter. Police then used tear gas to disperse any crowds. More than 500 people, including downtown residents and employees leaving work, were jailed that day for not clearing out from the heart of downtown Seattle. In the evening, a smaller contingency of protestors returned to shout and throw debris at the police, who responded with concussion grenades and large quantities of tear gas, fearing they would be overrun. The fire fighters’ union refused a request to turn their fire hoses on the protestors.
Although accusations were repeated in the media that firebombs and bags of urine were thrown at the officers, later investigations revealed that to be false. Wednesday evening, the protestors and the police were once again in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, infuriating residents, as their main retail street became a battleground.
Having lived on Capitol Hill for 25 years I walked the familiar streets talking to both police officers and protestors in a vain attempt to lower the level of hostility. There was no room for any rational dialogue in an atmosphere filled with fear and pepper gas. On Thursday, the President left and both the police and the protestors ratcheted down their confrontations while the WTO meeting petered out.
Did the massive and confrontational expression of citizen dissent achieve its objective? The massive outpouring of protesters did play the most visible role in stopping the WTO from reaching a new trade agreement. However, it was also widely acknowledged that intense divisions among its delegates also contributed to that failure.
It remains as the only one of nine WTO meetings held up to 2013 that did not issue a Ministerial Declaration, perhaps because it was the only one that experienced massive citizen opposition. Other WTO Ministerials were held in places that did not allow or severely restricted demonstrations, like Dubai and Singapore, or were held in difficult places to reach with few accommodations like Cancun. Those that were held in Geneva never saw as many protestors as appeared in Seattle.
Supporters of WTO and those critical of the protestors accused political leaders of inviting trouble when they encouraged citizens to Seattle to demonstrate their opposition. They ignored the basic principle of our American democracy, a strong faith in the right to assemble and protest.
Seattle, known as a tolerant city, was portrayed as naïve in expecting things to go peacefully. Perhaps, but more importantly, the City was not prepared for massive demonstrations. Review reports issued from the ACLU, the Police Department, and the City Council all concluded that our police force was not properly trained for crowd control or for moving in quickly to isolate those destroying property.
While both DAN members and the police agreed in advance that their members would be arrested peacefully, the police relied on teargas and pepper spray to accomplish that task, which needlessly affected all those nearby. Perhaps the worse example of police response was their pursuit of protestors up to Capitol Hill where uninvolved residents, business owners, and shoppers found themselves breathing in teargas or even arrested for being in the wrong spot while the police rounded up protestors. Those actions and the Mayor’s enactment of a no-protest zone treated many citizens as criminals.
Eight years later in January 2007, a federal jury found that the city had violated protesters’ Fourth Amendment constitutional rights by arresting them without probable cause or hard evidence. Although the Council passed the Mayor’s emergency declarations, I and Councilmembers Peter Steinbrueck and Richard Conlin voted against it.
After the WTO meeting ended, the city council held two public hearings to allow citizens to air their grievances. The first evening went from 4 pm to 1 am and the second one took almost as long, with over 300 people testifying. Their complaints were similar to the emails I received; a few blamed the protestors for all the trouble but most were critical of the police response.
“Mr. Licata, they are smashing up downtown, you’re personally responsible, since you supported them.”
“You welcomed the protestors, in Seattle 52 years, it’s become a sewer, why aren’t you in Westlake to quite these people down. Why wasn’t City prepared for anarchists? You expect taxpayers to pay for all this? I’d fine them, make them clean it up, and then cut their nuts off.”
“Yesterday Police let hooligans get away with too much. Today people with legitimate protests are being mistreated. Disgusted with situation.”
“I’m upset about Police actions downtown, throwing tear gas canisters at peaceful protestors all day; I’m a resident and taxpayer, and got a mouthful of it. I’m outraged that Police we pay to protect us would do this.”
“I was impartial about events before, but seeing what Mayor and SPD have done is wrong and illegal, going way too far, I hope there are repercussions for Mayor and the Police Department.”
“The Police action on Capitol Hill last night was like a military action, it was indiscriminate, no reason for it. Whoever authorized it should be fired.”
Police Chief Norm Stamper resigned soon after the protestors and the WTO delegates had left town. Later he said using tear gas was wrong and that there was a need to move away from paramilitary tactics in policing. In part owing to the WTO events, Mayor Schell lost his next election in 2001, failing to get past the primary.
The City Council formed a special WTO Accountability Review Committee, which convened three independent citizen panels and had staff review more than 14,000 documents accompanied by interviews with key individuals.
The Council then passed three separate pieces of legislation. The first (Ordinance 120096) required every SPD peace officer to wear a nametag on the outermost layer of the peace officer’s uniform, since many accusations of police abuse could not be traced to any specific officer. The second (Resolution 30340) implemented a new process notifying the Council of any solicitation of major events and allowed them to formally review any requests made of the City. This would allow the City Council an opportunity to have a public process, if necessary, for evaluating the impact of a controversial gathering. Lastly, the procedures used to declare and/or terminate a civil emergency were modified to allow greater council control over how long an emergency declaration would remain in force.
The WTO meeting came to be known at the Battle in Seattle. Were the protests a legitimate expression of concern for our citizens wanting to protect their jobs and quality of life? Or as critics charged, were the protestors just hooligans and anarchists’ intent on destroying our civil society?
Observations from both the police and the media noted that the latter group made up less than a half percent of all who protested. Despite the critics who charged that Seattle’s reputation had been irreversibly damaged, overall holiday sales rose 6 percent in 1999 and Seattle has gone on to become one of the most economic prosperous cities in the country, while still promoting strong labor protection laws and environmental regulations.
All parties agreed that the public suddenly became aware of the WTO and its growing international power. Despite the media’s attention on the vandalizing of property, a month later, in January 2000, a Business Week opinion poll found that 52 percent of Americans sympathized with the WTO protestors in Seattle.
What had been buried in the back pages of the business section had now emerged as an important topic of debate within our democracy. The massive turn out by thousands of protestors in Seattle proved the effectiveness of citizens exercising their right to publicly and forcefully dissent and thereby to alter the course of their democracy when it threatens their livelihood and quality of life.