New Book Explores the Seattle WTO Riots


This oral history, One Week to Change the World: An Oral History of the 1999 WTO Protests, is essentially a collage of interviews with a rotating cast of characters from all sides of the WTO issue. The author, DW Gibson, is invisible, simply editing and arranging the interviews without commentary. (Other Gibson books include 14 Miles: Building the Border Wall and Not Working: People Talk about Losing a Job.)

We hear from WTO delegates; city, state, and federal officials involved in planning the WTO meeting and arranging security for and response to the upcoming protest/riot; organizers for nearly all of the protest groups who descended on Seattle; and a Wall Street Journal reporter who managed to get herself embedded with the leaders of the main protest groups.

The WSJ reporter, Helene Cooper, provides some of the book’s most informative and entertaining material. “Seattle was probably the best reporting week of my life ever because I knew all the different sides,” she tells Gibson. “I could get wherever I needed to be. They [various protest leaders] would go, ‘Oh, there’s Helene!’ And they would let me through because they looked at me as theirs.” 

One snippet from Cooper, which speaks to the widespread assumption that the demonstrations would be no big deal: “I kept writing these stories and my editors were like, ‘These stories!’ They loved them. But they would make fun of me too: ‘There goes Helene off again, writing about her crazy environmentalists training to swarm the WTO.’… Everybody in the newsroom was like, ‘Ooh! Are they going to call them the Seattle Seven?’”

On the eve of the protest, she had a better understanding of what was about to happen than anyone on any side of the fiasco.

This book by Gibson undoubtedly seemed like a great idea at the time, particularly given the remarkable number of people DW Gibson was able to interview. It gets off to a tremendously promising start. Almost instantly upon beginning to read (and largely due to Gibson’s skillful selection and editing of his interview material), you have a thorough understanding of the arguments from both the pro- and anti- sides of the WTO issue, and particularly of what animated the protestors. 

The first 115 pages—entitled “Before”—are fascinating. There is no end of detail about planning from both the protestor and establishment sides, with particular emphasis on how surprisingly well-organized the protest organizers were in their planning, and how surprisingly disorganized the Seattle establishment was. 

You learn how the WTO’s selection of Seattle as a venue created a perfect storm of protest opportunity—a function of the city’s topography and of the liberalism (at the time, unique in the country) of the state’s Gov. Gary Locke, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, city council, and police chief – all of whom were sympathetic to the rights of protestors in general and to the ideals of these particular protestors. According to one of the organizers, John Nichols, “The people who decided to locate the WTO in Seattle made a terrible geographical mistake. Downtown is sort of a punch bowl. You’ve got the hills coming down, and then you’ve got that center of the city there. By its nature, it’s actually a very small area in which protests were going to occur and  [the WTO convention] itself was going to occur.”

The goal of the protestors was not simply to protest but to actually shut down the WTO proceedings—a goal, it is worth noting, that protest organizers openly discussed in advance with local law enforcement. Given that goal, the combination of local government’s sympathy and naïveté with the protest-friendly terrain conferred almost infinite advantage on the protestors. Furthermore, disparate as the various protest organizations were, they were remarkably well coordinated—to a degree I don’t believe has ever been properly appreciated until the publication of this book.

The result was most WTO delegates were unable to get from their hotel rooms to the meetings in the downtown Convention Center, and the meetings were effectively shut down. In the process, downtown Seattle devolved into utter chaos, with the police outnumbered and overrun and a great deal of property damaged and looted.

There are a lot of entertaining quotes in this book. My favorite example is one of Gov. Gary Locke’s: “I got a call from Madeleine Albright. She used some very X-rated words and said, ‘What kind of city do you have here?’—expletive deleted, expletive deleted. She said she was a prisoner in her hotel room. She could not get into the convention center to hold the proceedings.”

I’ll forever treasure visions of a wildly cursing Madeline Albright.

I spent November 30 (the first day of the riots) wading through them, shocked and awed, dodging tear gas clouds, and amazed at the minimal police presence. The police were like raisins in a huge, rising wad of dough. 

I was particularly interested in the reflections of government and law-enforcement officials with whom I was familiar: Gov. Locke; Deputy Mayor Maud Daudon; Laurie Brown, special assistant to Mayor Schell; King County Sheriff Dave Reichert; Seattle police chief Norm Stamper; assistant police chief Ed Joiner; and city councilman Nick Licata. Their contributions go a long way toward explaining why Seattle was so unprepared for what happened. (To be fair, no city could have properly prepared for an invasion on this scale—some 50,000 demonstrators.) 

Previously, I’d had no idea how much confusion and disagreement raged through Seattle city administration before and during the demonstrations; and I’d certainly had no idea how much anguished soul-searching went on in the aftermath. Hearing their voices now, you can’t help but feel tremendously sympathetic.

It is hard to imagine that this book would be of much interest to anyone outside of Seattle. My interest was largely a function of my own experience with the riots and my familiarity with so many of the government figures. And eventually, once you finish the “Beginning,” the book—aside from the interviews with local officials—grows gradually duller even to this reader, who slogged through much of it wearily wondering if it would ever end. The editing and selection skills so noteworthy early on seem to have abandoned Gibson halfway through.

Even the interesting material later in the book is drowned out largely by post-riot finger-pointing, with most fingers pointed at people who can’t (or won’t) speak for themselves. Reichert, Brown, Daudon, and various others heap blame on Mayors Schell, who—being deceased—is not heard from and seems unfairly treated. Protest organizers point fingers at the small band of anarchists (interviews with whom were apparently unobtainable) who destroyed property and garnered the most media attention. Everyone points figures at the “media” for devoting too much attention to the anarchists…and on and on and on. It gets tiresome. 

Given the scale of the riots, the number of participants and the degree of their passion (to say nothing of their thorough, coordinated planning) it is hard to believe that any amount of foresight and preparation could have brought about much improvement in the outcome. 

The only people who seem uninterested in finding someone else to blame are Locke, who comes across as the wisest and most clear-headed of the interview subjects, and Police Chief Norm Stamper, who points the finger resolutely at himself. (Stamper and county sheriff Reichert provide antiphonal takes on the riots.) The latter half of the book devolves into a cacophony rather than a chorus—of self-righteousness and self-importance on the part of the protestors, aspersions cast (mostly at Mayor Schell) by government and law-enforcement officials, occasional bursts of insight, and confusing and pointless discussions about whether or not the protests were a “success.” 

After the National Guard is called in, by Locke, late on the first day of the demonstrations, and the streets cleared, the book loses its hold on the reader. But that first half, for this Seattleite, makes an invaluable contribution to an understanding of that amazing, unforgettable, and previously incomprehensible debacle. 

Fred Moody
Fred Moody
Fred Moody, who wrote articles for Seattle Weekly and other publications as well as books, now lives on Bainbridge Island.


  1. I was there in a march, that started at Seattle Center and ended when it reached downtown where there was already an incredible mass of people. Members of a number of trade unions, environmentalists, sea turtle costumes. Wikipedia says 40,000 people.

    Picture that, if you can, 40,000 people of all sorts in the streets downtown, in disagreement with global policy.

    The “black bloc” … maybe 200?

    Sure, it was a “riot.” Plus something else, courtesy of 39,800.

  2. Any mention of the classic photo of some jerk kicking in a storefront window to destroy capitalism…

    …wearing $200 plus (in the 90’s no less) Nikes? Sort of really said it all in one picture.

  3. Sorry Seattle hosted the conference. The actions by anarchists became the focus, rather than opposition to the WTO. It felt to me that our city was tossed aside like garbage by people not from Seattle that came to cause a problem. I am all for civil protest, but not destruction.

  4. I live and work on the Eastside, so I wasn’t in the chaos. I do remember having to reassure clients elsewhere in the country that the materials they were sending us wouldn’t be affected by the riots, because the airport is south of Downtown Seattle and the shipping companies would deliver to us via I-405, which doesn’t touch the Seattle city limits.

    Seattle hosted a mayors’ conference some time after the riot. One mayor told reporters that he felt bad for Paul Schell because those rioters would’ve descended upon whichever city hosted the WTO, and we were the unlucky city. Perhaps only huge cities like New York or Chicago, where they’re used to important events and the police are more hardened, could’ve pulled it off.

    I also remember how Seattle sat at the cultural zeitgeist in the 1990s, with tech, grunge, “Frasier”, the Kemp/Payton Sonics and “Singles” making the city world-known. Those humbling riots marked the end of that heyday for the city, in the penultimate month of the decade.


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