By Chris Dixon, September 2009
“Depends! Does anyone need some Depends?!” shouted the woman holding a plastic shopping bag. Hastily, a few people scrambled over to her. “They only cost a dollar,” she explained while distributing the Depends brand adult diapers. Confronted with a few quizzical looks, she clarified, “You know, for lockdowns.” Slowly, I understood: people who are locked together in blockades for hours at a time can’t take time out for bathroom breaks. With diapers, that’s not a problem.
It was the evening of Monday, November 29. Around us in a crowded warehouse, activists were making last-minute preparations, busily assembling first aid kits, painting puppets, holding small meetings, and welding odd-looking metal fixtures. We were in what was already well-known as “420” or “the Denny Space”—the official welcome and workshop center for those of us preparing to shut down the Seattle Ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO), from November 30 to December 3. Formerly a dance club—complete with a bar, blackened ballroom, and industrial-size kitchen—the building at 420 East Denny Way near downtown Seattle was well-fitted to be a radical convergence space. And on November 20, with $1,000 in rent, a two-week lease, and some stark redecoration, it became a hatching ground for some of the largest and most effective protests in recent US history.
On that evening, as I sat at 420, the far-reaching success yet to come was difficult to foresee. For most folks across the US, the WTO was barely a blip on the evening news, another lost acronym in an alphabet soup of free trade agreements. Even for many people in Seattle, the WTO simply meant worse traffic and a larger police presence.
Who could have guessed the scale of what was about to happen?
Tom Hayden, ‘60s radical turned California State Senator, perhaps captured the fundamental shift best. Pausing in the midst of his strolls through throngs of protesters in downtown Seattle on November 30, he pointed out to a Seattle Times reporter: “Certainly the WTO, which was unknown in this country yesterday, is going to be a household word now—a bad one.”
How did this come to pass? Indeed, how does one go about shutting down a major international trade meeting and launching a public debate about some of the very underpinnings of contemporary capitalism? When our culture is quick to remind us that the sixties are over, the left is dead, kids these days are jaded and cynical, and this thing called “globalization” is as natural and inevitable as gravity, where did the incredible success in Seattle come from? Answering these questions takes us on an intense journey, one that we can best understand from ground level—with a mix of tear gas, nightly meetings, and contagious exhilaration running through the streets.
A view from the ground means no safe pretense of “objectivity.” Instead, it means looking out from amidst the police brutality, the marches, the graffiti, and the protesters. This is my view—that of one organizer, participant, and observer of what went down in Seattle in late November and early December 1999. In other words, this is a retrospective, an attempt to document and make sense out of what happened.
The Road to Seattle
In late January of 1999, Seattle was announced as the choice for the WTO’s “Millennium Round.” By February, word was making its way through international activist circles. Many in the Pacific Northwest pointed to it as an unprecedented opportunity for protest, since the Seattle Ministerial was the first international trade meeting of its kind to be held in the US. Some of us had joined thousands of others in Vancouver, British Columbia, during November of 1997 to protest the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit as it sought to “open up” trade in the global Southeast. In Seattle, we saw the possibility of the APEC protests multiplied by one hundred.
By springtime, opponents and proponents alike were speaking about “the road to Seattle.” In fact, the road to Seattle had many lanes and multiple routes. For corporate boosters like Pat Davis, president of the Washington Council on International Trade and one of the original supporters for bringing the WTO, it was about erecting the “Seattle Host Organization,” raising funds from corporate sponsors, insuring the cooperation of public officials, and orchestrating a warm welcome. This road was fairly smooth—generously lubricated with both money and power.
For activists of all stripes, the road to Seattle was a far more difficult trek. Effective protests are rarely planned overnight; rather, they come out of patient, dedicated, and often-frustrating organizing efforts. Seattle was no different. Each activist organization faced an exhausting array of constant concerns, sharp debates, and endless planning sessions. How can we craft coalitions without watering down our politics? How can we get the word out about what we’re organizing in Seattle? How can we effectively shut down the World Trade Organization? How can we make sure that our phones get answered? These questions and more plagued countless meetings, and without hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate backing, underpaid, unpaid, and just plain tired activists had to rely on continuous grassroots educating, organizing, fundraising, and volunteer hours simply to stay afloat.
Even among progressive organizations there were different roads to Seattle. First and foremost, there was the People for Fair Trade/Network Opposed to the WTO (PFFT), a group initiated in the spring of 1999. Launched with the assistance of Ralph Nader’s organization, Public Citizen, PFFT drew together a broad umbrella of consumer advocacy groups, environmentalists, human rights activists, and many others. PFFT set the stage for much of what went down in the religious communities, on the college campuses, in the educational forums, and on the evening news of Seattle.
Another road to Seattle was articulated by the Labor Movement, which originally coined the phrase “protest of the century” to describe its anticipated demonstrations. Speaking of Labor with a capital “L” is a little inaccurate, though, because it wasn’t entirely united—not in the months leading up to the WTO and not in the streets of Seattle. On one hand, the American Federation of Labor and other established unions wanted a foot in the door of the WTO. As Teamsters president James Hoffa put it, “We will have a place at the table of the WTO or we will shut it down.” On the other hand, more radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World, as well as some rank and file unionists, tied the WTO to larger, more systemic problems. For instance, steelworker John Goodman stated, “We all face the same problem and that is corporate greed.” Regardless of some divisions, however, Labor easily mobilized the largest numbers, bringing some 30,000–40,000 people to flood the streets on Tuesday, November 30.
Yet another road to Seattle was launched through a series of telephone conference calls and email collaborations among grassroots groups from LA to British Columbia beginning in June. Some of the activists involved in this long-distance coordination initiated a face-to-face meeting in Seattle in mid-July with people from several northwest cities. I was one among them. In August, these overlapping efforts merged and we decided to call ourselves the Direct Action Network Against Corporate Globalization (DAN). This group started out primarily as a loose conglomeration of peace activists, anarchists, environmentalists, international solidarity groups, and unaffiliated radicals all interested in street theater and/or direct action during the WTO. Many came from Art and Revolution collectives up and down the West Coast with enthusiasm for injecting brilliant art into radical politics.
DAN eventually evolved into a more structured coalition, bringing together groups like the National Lawyers Guild, Rainforest Action Network, Animal Welfare Institute, and Mexico Solidarity Network, among others. The shared intent became, in the words of our call for mass action, “to physically and creatively shut down the WTO.” That is, we weren’t interested in drab, routine, and largely symbolic arrests to protest the WTO, and we didn’t want to reform it or just “make our voices heard”; we wanted to nonviolently intervene, to stop the Ministerial meetings with art and living, breathing human bodies. As events unfolded in the streets during the WTO, DAN came to wield some of the most clout.
At the international level, Peoples’ Global Action (PGA) paved a complementary road to Seattle. Founded in 1998 at a Zapatista-initiated “Encuentro” with 400 representatives of grassroots movements from 71 countries (many of them in the global South), PGA developed as a worldwide network of mass movements resisting corporate globalization and the WTO. PGA also uncompromisingly called for “nonviolent civil disobedience” and “local alternatives by local people.” And at its second annual conference in Banglore, India in August of 1999, PGA endorsed global actions in solidarity with the protests in Seattle on November 30.
In addition, PGA sent a group to—quite literally—travel the road to Seattle. The PGA caravan embarked from the East Coast in late October with a busload of activists from all over the world. Along the way to Seattle, they stopped in over twenty cities, “trying to communicate the impacts of globalization on our communities,” as one participant, Sanjay Mangala Gopal of India, described it. Once in Seattle, the PGA caravan members were prepared to walk their talk. As Israeli activist Ronnie Arman, another participant, said: “We are going to risk arrest even though we know the severe consequences.”
Each of the roads and routes to Seattle encountered unique strains and difficulties, but each converged in a similar spot. Indeed, that was a distinct part of the magic and power of what happened in the streets. Of course, on the way, there were some highlights.
Escalating the Confrontation
On November 16, twenty-seven activists walked into the WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland posing as students on a guided tour. With remarkable precision, several chained themselves across the front doorway while others dropped a banner from the roof. Meanwhile, one inside faxed a communiqué from an occupied office and another uploaded live digital video footage of the action in progress onto the web.
The Geneva action, which became ironically known as “Squat WTO,” was intended to kick off resistance in Seattle and around the world. And it did. A few days later, DAN began a nine-day Direct Action and Street Theater Convergence out of the 420 space. The purpose of the Convergence was to train activists from across the globe for nonviolent direct action on the morning of November 30 (the day of Bill Clinton’s planned welcome address to start the WTO Ministerial) and the subsequent time that many would spend in jail. The Convergence also provided a time and space for people to develop artwork of all kinds—from giant puppets of human heads to block-printed banners and signs to choreographed dance and theater pieces for the streets.
All in all, perhaps a couple thousand people participated in the Convergence at one time or another, a few coming from as far away as Taiwan and France. For many, the most important part was getting a grasp on the structure of the planned direct actions on November 30, and the legal strategy for those who were arrested.
The structure of actions on November 30 was based on “affinity groups” of five to fifteen people each, who would determine their own creative plans for physically blockading intersections around the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, where the WTO would be meeting. Each affinity group appointed a spokesperson who coordinated with others in nightly spokescouncil meetings and then reported back to their fellow members. Many affinity groups also agreed to work with each other in “clusters,” which took responsibility for sets of intersections. Some clusters shouldered particularly ambitious projects. For instance, the cluster known as the “Flaming Dildos” volunteered to shut down the area next to the interstate highway running underneath the Convention Center.
The parallel legal strategy was based on the assumption that large numbers of activists would be arrested on the morning of November 30. With this expectation, DAN recommended that arrestees use “jail and court solidarity” tactics to get equal treatment and possibly get charges lowered or dropped for everyone. Chief among these tactics was arrestees refusing to give names when being processed. If need be, hundreds of jailed activists could also refuse to move or comply with other orders, clogging the legal system with their efforts. While people organized on the inside, the DAN legal team, coordinated by veteran activist and attorney Katya Komisarek, would apply sustained legal pressure on the outside.
Besides nonviolent direct action and legal trainings, the Convergence also provided a space for funneling out-of-town activists into local resistance to the WTO, which was building in intensity. In fact, starting on November 21 with a colorful and festive neighborhood procession, Seattle saw almost daily protests and other visible actions. For example, the following day, November 22, corporate watchdog Global Exchange brought a few hundred protesters to the heart of downtown to demonstrate against the use of sweatshop labor by the Gap. Unexpectedly, as marchers reached Gap subsidiary Old Navy, two climbers rappelled off of the roof, unfurling a banner that read, “SWEATSHOPS: ‘FREE TRADE’ OR CORPORATE SLAVERY?” As the climbers and their support person were arrested by police, protesters engaged in conversations with passersby who turned out to be “generally supportive,” according to Gray Air, one of many present. Throughout the week, Seattle residents would be largely sympathetic even if they did not participate in protests.
By November 27, two days before the WTO Ministerial, the tally of actions was mounting. In the middle of the night, activists had placed a fake front page on 25,000 issues of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, satirizing its coverage of the WTO. A rally on the University of Washington campus marched the full length of a main avenue, occupying key intersections with guerrilla theater. A large squad of anti-corporate cheerleaders dressed in red mini-skirts crashed the annual Bon Marche parade through downtown Seattle. A critical mass bike ride, inflated to 400 anti-auto activists, rode down main streets, and eventually opened the doors of the Convention Center, riding straight through. Two courageous young women scaled a retaining wall next to Interstate 5 with a “SHUT DOWN THE WTO” banner, while one of their mothers shouted words of encouragement. Just by the looks of it, the WTO was in for a public relations nightmare.
Early on in the Convergence, Bay Area activist David Solnit had promised, “What you are going to see during the WTO is the largest use of street theater in history.” In truth, we began to see this days before the actual Ministerial meetings began. On November 28, in the largest procession yet in the week, over 1,000 people paraded through Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Throughout, there were clowns, stilt walkers, giant puppets, marching bands, “radikal cheerleaders,” and anarchist dance troupes. Even the steelworkers, who led the march, carried colorful, hand-painted pictures of snakes overlaid by the words “DON’T TRADE ON ME.”
Later in the day, several hundred of us paraded into downtown for an impromptu protest at the Gap. Led by a white van equipped with loudspeakers, which blasted techno music and frequent interludes about the wages of Gap sweatshop workers in Saipan, we managed to occupy a major shopping area. Meanwhile, in the surrounding blocks, police on horseback prepared for riot control and an armored personnel carrier sped by. Although no major confrontations happened, the pieces for what would be an historic event were visibly in place: masses of exuberant protesters and a fully militarized police force.
N29: A Beginning
Monday, November 29 was the unofficial beginning to the WTO Ministerial, although no actual meetings occurred. Instead, delegates began settling into town and the WTO invited “accredited” nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for a day-long symposium. Later, the Seattle Host Organization treated WTO delegates to an opening reception and gala.
If the WTO was trying to be low-key, though, activists weren’t. The night before, over seventy-five squatters occupied an abandoned building just one block from the downtown police station. As one squatter, Cat, explained, “This form of nonviolent direct action is not about just saying No! It is about saying Yes! and creating a real alternative. We are turning this into activist housing during the WTO and hope to keep it as housing for the homeless once we are gone.” And indeed, they were able to hold the building until the end of the WTO.
Meanwhile, Seattle commuters started their work week in sight of 5 members of the Rainforest Action Network dangling from a 170-foot crane with an enormous banner that read “Democracy” and “WTO” with arrows pointing in opposite directions.
In the streets, 240 animal rights activists and environmentalists costumed themselves as sea turtles (protected under the US Endangered Species Act—which the WTO has all but voided). Originally part of a Sierra Club march, they and nearly 2,000 others roamed downtown, eventually stopping to join French farmer José Bové in a protest at McDonalds. Bové, famous for bulldozing a McDonalds under construction in France, spoke about the importance of family farms in sight of two black-masked protesters climbing on top of a bus with a “VEGAN RESISTANCE” banner. Truly, the day was full of juxtapositions.
The solemn end came that evening with a “human chain to end Third World debt.” Led by an interfaith coalition, nearly 5,000 people marched to encircle the site of the WTO’s opening gala 7 times over. With chants and drumbeats, protesters persevered in the pouring rain, calling for the powerful member nations of the WTO to cancel the debt of the world’s poorest countries.
N30: “Shut It Down!”
Tuesday, November 30—known internationally as “N30”—was a day of competing images in Seattle. On one hand, there was the power and diversity of countless people taking over the streets. On the other, there was the tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and brute force of the Seattle police. And somewhere in it all there were a few broken windows.
As I walked downtown with my affinity group at 6 am, actions were already underway. Workers were calling in sick, students weren’t going to school, and some affinity groups were secretively setting up their blockades. Even cab drivers were engaged in a work stoppage. A week before, while discussing the WTO, Ingrid Chapman, a student activist at the University of Washington, had asserted: “This is our future.” On Tuesday, she obviously wasn’t the only one concerned about reclaiming the future from corporate globalization.
DAN had organized two public meeting locations on opposite sides of downtown at 7 am. On my way to one, I saw that police cars were present on every block. Suddenly, I stumbled into a flurry of flashing lights and watched as two women pushing a shopping cart with a puppet in it were surrounded by police officers. When asked, the police explained that the two would not identify themselves or admit that the shopping cart was theirs. After enough of a crowd grew to watch, though, the women were released—minus the shopping cart and the U-locks they were carrying with them.
Elsewhere, two other activists carrying pieces of a tripod, a large teepee-like structure for blocking roads, were detained by police and eventually arrested. Separately, both were interrogated, one pepper-sprayed and the other strapped to a chair and threatened with rape. Later, they were released with no charges. It was becoming strikingly apparent that the police weren’t pulling any punches.
Protesters gathering at both meeting sites grew from the hundreds to the thousands by 7:30 am when they began lively processions toward downtown Seattle. In the drizzly early-morning dawn, there was more brilliant color in the crowds than in the entire drab cityscape that surrounded us. Looking around, there was a group of activist Santa Clauses; many returning sea turtles; a sprinkling of expert stilt-walkers; a jubilant squad of radikal cheerleaders; an indescribable number of puppets; an anarchist marching band, complete with matching pink gas masks; and hordes of regular-looking folks, ranging from steelworkers to yuppies.
As the processions neared police lines around the Convention Center, some affinity groups deployed blockades while others were already in progress. By the time marchers had circled the nearly twenty-block circumference, every single intersection, alleyway, and hotel entrance was blocked by nonviolent protesters. Some simply sat across roads with arms linked. Others locked their arms inside pieces of pipe known as “lockboxes,” creating an impervious human wall. Still others used a combination of U-locks and bike cables to chain their necks together. One affinity group successfully set up a tripod with a protester sitting at the top and others locked to the base. By far, the most unique blockade, though, was created by a cluster that carried in a large wooden platform underpinned by metal pipes. Once set down in an intersection, activists locked their arms into each of the pipes and others sat in a circle around them.
Confronted with these immobile human blockades and thousands of their supporters, the police were visibly tense. Interestingly, Bill Clinton had canceled his welcome address a few days before—perhaps anticipating its failure. The official opening of the WTO Ministerial was still scheduled for WTO delegates, yet, as mid-morning approached, they were unable to make it into the Convention Center. Some stopped to speak with protesters. Others simply tried to push their way through.
By 10 am, the police were preparing to create a corridor for “safe entry.” They choose an intersection with a fairly simple blockade, gave a quick warning, lobbed in some tear gas canisters, and shot a volley of rubber bullets. The few protesters who remained were dragged away and arrested, many of them pepper-sprayed in the process. At a few other intersections, police resorted to more blunt force, beating nonviolent activists with two-foot long batons in order to motivate them to move.
Despite police efforts, the WTO was effectively shut down. Indeed, as Assistant Police Chief Ed Joiner would later flatly admit, “The police strategy failed.” Word quickly made its way through the crowds that the morning session had been canceled and that the only people inside the Convention Center were the press. The following day, the Seattle Times would report that, throughout Tuesday morning, “US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky were holed up in the Westin Hotel. Federal law-enforcement officials said the streets of Seattle were too dangerous for them to travel the few blocks to the opening ceremonies.”
Around 11 am, crowds of protesters swelled with the arrival of the People’s Assembly march, made up of activists from the global South, and student walkout marches from nearby colleges and high schools. By that point, roughly 10,000 people had the Convention Center surrounded.
Although police continued to shoot cans of tear gas and steady streams of rubber bullets, most locked-down activists began to relax. We were obviously winning, with only a few arrests. Some people, like Portland labor organizer Nancy Haque, unlocked from their blockades to look at was happening in other areas around the Convention Center. When I ran into her, she summarized the scene with a smile, saying: “We own the streets of Seattle.”
Around us, some protesters had already begun decorating buildings with graffiti like “DESIRE ARMED,” “THE KIDS ARE UPSET,” and circle-A symbols. Others pushed dumpsters and newspaper boxes into intersections to reinforce existing blockades. This was an incongruous sight, for sure, combined with the shoppers still strolling in and out of nearby NikeTown.
While we were holding intersections, some 30,000–40,000 workers were gathering for a labor rally and march at Memorial Stadium, adjacent to downtown. As one organizer, Lucilene Whitesell, would later point out, this was “an unprecedented number.” They weren’t supporting strikers on a picket line; they were out on the streets showing international solidarity with workers everywhere. And by early afternoon, they were heading down Pine street, in sight of many of the blockades. Labor’s unity dissolved in the face of confrontation, though. Some workers turned away by AFL-CIO crowd marshals marched on, while others rushed through the marshals to join the thousands already sitting or standing in the roads.
In the mid-afternoon, there was a brief and welcome respite. In a remarkable pause, the platform that activists had carried in for blockading purposes was turned into a stage. On it, members from the Emma Said Dance Collective (named after anarchist Emma Goldman who once said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”) performed soothing body movements for hundreds who sat in the surrounding intersection. Slowly, a comforting tone filled the air as everyone began spontaneously humming and then singing “Amazing Grace.” It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime transformative moments—over before anyone stopped to really notice.
As the day drew on, confrontation between police and protesters intensified once again. Those of us near major blockades became more and more used to the burning sensation of tear gas, and a few angry protesters began throwing the canisters back. Like many others, I was hit with rubber bullets while retreating from an intersection. A couple of blocks away, several young men set the contents of an overturned dumpster on fire after the police chased them down the street. Meanwhile, office workers and shoppers scrambled to get past the looming clouds of tear gas, many of them pausing to have their eyes flushed by DAN medics. Throughout, crowds frequently chanted “Nonviolence!” or displayed the two-fingered peace symbol.
Months before, DAN and affiliated organizations all agreed to a set of action agreements that prohibited “violence—physical or verbal” and “property destruction” for the duration of the Tuesday action. We collectively developed these in order to pull together large enough numbers to shut down the WTO and to maintain some level of public support. However, not everyone in the streets had agreed to abide by them. Since mid-morning, after police tear-gassing had begun, a group of black-clad and masked activists had been carefully busting windows at select corporate targets, including Nike, the Gap, and Bank of America. Using what they called “black bloc” formations, they stuck together and avoided police confrontations. As one black bloc collective later wrote in a communiqué, “When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights. At the same time, we exorcise that set of violent and destructive social relationships which has been imbued in almost everything around us.”
It’s important not to exaggerate. For the most part, property destruction was fairly localized. Many media reports described a city of Seattle completely devastated when, in reality, mainly corporate stores in the heart of downtown suffered damage. And in truth, only a few people actually engaged in substantial property damage.
Still, these actions sparked intense controversy in the following days. Labor leaders and other prominent organizers denounced those “rogue elements” who had “run amok,” in the words of the World Trade Observer, a newspaper put out by a coalition of mainstream environmental and consumer groups. Protesters on the streets expressed their outrage as well. For example, Catherine Ahern was quoted by the Seattle Times: “I am so disappointed how this turned out. We had weeks of training how to do this peaceful…. Our message is not going to get out and I’m so mad.” Others warned of the dangers of equating minor damage to buildings with countless acts of police brutality. The Independent Media Center’s Lansing Scott wrote, “If we are going to condemn violence, let’s be clear about who is doing what to whom, and keep things in perspective.” Still other activists questioned the property destruction, not so much on philosophical grounds but tactically. Without any clear consensus, however, this was, and remains, a striking point of contention.
Back on the streets, the police were clearly agitated. As the afternoon turned into evening, rumor spread that Seattle Mayor Paul Schell had declared martial law. In fact, he had declared a “civil emergency” and set a curfew for 7 pm to 7:30 am in the downtown area. ”Many activists who were still locked down began to discuss leaving” as they saw that they could come back for another day of blockades on Wednesday.
Just as the largest blockade was calmly preparing to leave, though, the police opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets. In addition, they added a new weapon: concussion grenades, small projectiles that hit the ground with a bright, booming explosion. In the face of this attack and pursuit by the police, scared protesters stampeded and splintered, many heading out of downtown. Several dozen fled toward the Independent Media Center, a small storefront resource for alternative journalists, only to be chased, sprayed with liquid tear gas, and then blockaded inside.
As many scrambled to get away from the tear gas and concussion grenades in other parts of downtown, the police hounded the remaining crowd of protesters into the nearby Capitol Hill neighborhood. There, residents and activists alike were tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed by police through several hours of repeated standoffs and assaults.
By the end of Tuesday, sixty-eight people were in jail, and many others had suffered the consequences of police repression. The DAN welcome center was turned into an emergency clinic for protesters with severe pepper spray burns and dangerous cases of tear gas inhalation. For all of it, though, we had successfully shut down the WTO. The Seattle Times quoted one of the last WTO delegates to leave on Tuesday afternoon: “That’s one for the bad guys.”
Presumably, we were the bad guys.
Wednesday morning greeted Seattle with protesters marching into downtown once again, as the “civil emergency” curfew was supposedly lifted at 7:30am. This time, however, they were quickly intercepted by riot police who commanded that they stop. While some held their ground and were arrested, others continued to march, outflanking police for over an hour as their numbers grew into the hundreds. Finally, as the march took a break in Westlake Park and welcomed more protestors, police surrounded the park. Police then separated people into those who wanted to be arrested and those who didn’t. Then, all of them—“arrestables” and “non-arrestables” alike, including members of the DAN legal team—were arrested and dragged onto buses. A crowd of hundreds loudly supported them from behind police lines.
National Public Radio reported almost sardonically, “The police reclaimed the streets.” A protester’s sign was more blunt: “Welcome to 1984.”
Under Seattle Mayor Paul Schell’s orders, and with the help of some 400 National Guard troops, the police were actually occupying a sometimes 25-, sometimes 50-block area (depending on what you were doing and who you asked) of downtown with the Convention Center right in the middle. Entering that area without a “legitimate reason” (i.e., being a WTO delegate, law enforcement officer, resident, or office worker), became punishable by fines and jail time. In short, Schell had created a “protest-free zone.” Civil libertarians angrily called it a “constitution-free zone.”
At every opportunity, Schell enthusiastically reminded reporters and onlookers of his activist roots protesting the Vietnam War. And in the same breath, he declared it illegal to sell or be in possession of a gas mask, essentially signing a death sentence for asthmatic protesters.
The full weight of Schell’s declarations wasn’t fully apparent until later in the afternoon, however. As countless individual protesters were turned away from downtown by riot police, some 2,000 gathered outside of the protest-free zone for a short march and rally with the steelworkers. Most of us assumed that as long as we stayed with law-abiding union folks, we wouldn’t be attacked by the police. And we still held onto that hope as we joined more militant trade unionists in a spontaneous march from the rally site toward downtown.
We were hardly a threatening bunch, mainly made up of older union activists, students, and even parents with their kids. Yet, over two blocks from the no protest zone, we were assaulted by a mob of police who tossed in multiple tear gas canisters and concussion grenades without warning. This wasn’t the regular tear gas that we had grown used to the day before—we would later learn that the police had switched to “military-grade.” The results were obvious. As the march scattered into several groups of a couple hundred people each, many older people collapsed. One man went into shock; a young woman passed out, landing on her face and fracturing her jaw in three places, after a canister exploded at her feet; and an older woman was hit in the face with a rubber bullet and temporarily blinded in one eye. The lines between protesters and downtown shoppers blurred as everyone tried to escape.
Still, the police relentlessly chased the scattered groups of protesters. At Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market, some activists sat down to try to de-escalate the situation. Nearby, police reacted by pepper-spraying medics, shoppers, and marchers alike. One particularly panicky officer pointed a rubber bullet gun directly at a protester’s head, less than five feet away.
As some activists sought medical attention, others simply fled. In the distance, more riot police amassed. A couple of hours later, these would be the police who chased a remaining splinter of nearly 300 protesters away from the protest-free zone, assuring them that they could continue their march if they went North—only to be fully corralled by “Peacekeepers,” cynically-named armored police vehicles. According to one of the few witnesses who escaped, David Taylor, once the marchers were completely surrounded, the police threw in tear gas and commanded everyone to “get on the ground” or else face more tear gas. Then, over two-thirds were arrested—the remainder spared because the police ran out of buses to transport arrestees.
The following day, Kirk Murphy, a physician who treated many of the worst casualties, described police actions candidly: “What I have seen yesterday is the behavior consistent with someone who is insane.”
And the insanity continued into the evening when, for the second night in a row, police pursued protesters into Capitol Hill. Helicopters with searchlights circled overhead while sirens screamed late into the night, punctuated by the regular sound of tear gas shots. This time, though, residents were even more furious at the military-like invasion, shouting at police to leave their neighborhood. A County Councilmember even came out to try to ease the confrontation. In the end, everyone—residents, protesters, idle onlookers, and even the Councilmember—were tear-gassed.
On the other side of town, at Sand Point Naval Base—which one jailed protester, Hank Tallman, would later characterize as “bondage summer camp”—seven busloads of arrested protesters refused to get off to be processed. Going for over thirteen hours without food, water, or bathroom facilities, they demanded to see their lawyers from the DAN legal team. By the middle of the night, they had all been dragged off, some pepper-sprayed.
Activist Jamie Ehrke would later tell how most arrestees remained undaunted, singing as they had learned in legal trainings, “I am going to remain silent/uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh/I want to see a lawyer/oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah.” Throughout the following days, though, frustrated police and guards would ruthlessly terrorize jailed activists who tried to maintain solidarity. Just as one example among many, countless people were pepper-sprayed while in their cells when they refused to move. According to Tallman, some guards even used a technique known as “fire in the hole”: pepper-spraying a protester in the face and then wrapping a blanket around the person’s head.
What was happening inside and outside jails had merged. Weeks before, DAN organizer Stephanie Guilloud had perceptively warned, “Look at what happens to public space in Seattle” during the WTO. What was occupied democratically on Tuesday was aggressively retaken on Wednesday. The events of December 1 had shown that public space is always a site of struggle between ordinary people and state authorities. And because the authorities can deploy overwhelming force, they can often control public space.
Of course, the police called their actions “crowd control.” But, as one protester, Brian Wehrle, clarified, “it’s also class control.” WTO delegates had complete freedom of movement while the rest of Seattle was barred from the heart of the city. Power was the ticket to mobility.
By the close of the day, the score was clear: if we had won ever-so-briefly on Tuesday, the police had won on Wednesday. However, they had lost in the eyes of the media and, more importantly, the residents of Seattle. As I walked out of downtown that evening, people were gathered in bars and cafés watching live footage on TV of riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets into protesters. Standing outside of one storefront, I overheard some downtown office workers talking about the “craziness” of Schell’s declarations. Meanwhile, many shopkeepers had put up signs in their windows, like “WTO, GO HOME” or “We support peaceful protesters.”
D2: “This Is What Democracy Looks Like!”
Thursday, December 2, was notably lighter than previous days. Perhaps the sun shining had something to do with it, or perhaps it was because the police, obviously concerned about their public image, kept a lower profile.
Activists continued to persevere. Starting from Capitol Hill, over 2,000 people marched toward downtown. It was, by far, the most colorful procession since Tuesday morning. Indeed, it was more like a parade than a protest. Marchers carried signs, flags, banners, towering skeleton puppets, and a giant human head flanked by two large hands connected with painted banner-sleeves. Like many of the protesters, the human head was gagged in order to visually communicate the effects of Mayor Schell’s declarations. Offering further comment, one marcher’s sign read: “THIS IS A FREE PROTEST ZONE.”
As I caught up with the march, a song wafted through the crowd: “We have come too far/We won’t turn around/We’ll flood the streets with justice/We are freedom bound.” In counterpoint, others chanted, “This is what democracy looks like!” Together, the song and chant provided an aural backdrop that reinforced our collective sense of power.
Along the way, motorcycle police directed traffic as we flashed peace signs at them. At one intersection, a protester pointedly asked, “This is way more fun, isn’t it?” Almost unconsciously, an officer responded, “Uh-huh.”
Of course, the riot police were still there—just not so visibly. As our march joined a rally led by small farmers next to Pike Place Market, someone mentioned that police vans full of ready and waiting armored officers were just up around the block, out of sight but not out of mind.
Following the rally, marchers split into two processions—one heading to protest at multinational agribusiness company Cargill and another aiming toward major WTO sponsor and timber corporation Weyerhaeuser. The vast majority—upwards of 2,000—followed the latter, briefly stopping at Weyerhaeuser’s Seattle headquarters to hang banners and shout some chants, and then moving to the county jail, where many of the nearly 500 arrested protesters were being held.
As we arrived, riot police blocked off the nearby freeway entrance, fearing that we would occupy the interstate. Our focus, however, was on the people inside. Someone held a hand-written cardboard sign: “FREE THE SEATTLE 500, JAIL THE FORTUNE 500.” Marching around, we could see prisoners pressed up against cell windows and raising fists. Hank Tallman, in jail at the time, later said that, in his one phone call, the DAN legal team had mentioned the 2,000 outside. “I turned to the rest of the prisoners in the cell block and yelled,” he said. “They were all cheering.” Outside, we began to hold hands to encircle the building. Others gathered near the front and we soon heard that an affinity group had physically blockaded the main entrance. Tension was mounting, with many of us preparing for tear gas, but the police maintained only a light presence.
Within an hour, the blockading affinity group announced their demands: unconditional freedom for all nonviolent protesters and a public apology from the city of Seattle. Those of us who were willing to risk arrest began joining the others at the entrance, overflowing into the sidewalk and onto the street. Still, the police stuck to the periphery. We appeared to be in a protracted standoff, and patiently we waited.
As the sun set, a representative from the DAN legal team announced that they had been negotiating with city officials who had granted a concession: if we ended the blockade, they would allow pairs of DAN lawyers and paralegals (in other words, organizers) to consult with groups of jailed protesters. Many present grumbled, saying that the city was only allowing prisoners the rights already owed to them. The affinity group that had sparked the action, however, urged us to exit the blockade with them. And slowly but surely, protesters began to march home.
Earlier in the day, Texas populist and humorist Jim Hightower had characterized the week of WTO protests as an “unscheduled outbreak of democracy.” From beginning to end, that’s exactly what Thursday was about. After day-long public criticism of the police actions on Capitol Hill, Mayor Schell had dropped his enforced curfew and trimmed his no protest zone. Meanwhile, activists outside the county jail had successfully pressured reluctant public officials into negotiations. We were getting a taste of real democracy motivated, as it always is, by popular collective action.
By Friday, most WTO protesters were dragging. After a week of running from riot police, inhaling tear gas, and enduring constant sleep deprivation, many were looking for a sense of closure, as well as more news about the 500 still in jail.
As a final mass action for the week, the County Labor Council organized a rally and march from the local labor temple. Altogether, several thousand people wound their way through downtown with shouts of encouragement from construction workers, motorists, and other passersby.
At the conclusion of the march, a large group of protesters—now including many Seattle residents who were simply pissed off at Mayor Schell’s declarations—turned back toward downtown. As the spontaneous march approached police lines, minor confrontations erupted, and protesters argued about whether we should focus on the WTO or those who were in jail. In the end, there was no resolution, with the march breaking in half: one group went to the jail and another remained in sight of the Convention Center.
Once at the jail, several hundred gathered to try to sort out what we could do for those still inside. To chants of “let them go!”, DAN legal team coordinator Katya Komisarek reported that many arrested protesters were being brutalized and separated from each other. In addition, some weren’t getting the food and medical treatment that they needed.
From there, the rest of the day was an exercise in direct democracy as protester Skip Spitzer volunteered to facilitate a meeting of the hundreds present. Twenty-three people presented proposals for how best to force the city to negotiate with our legal team, and then we promptly split into smaller groups to discuss them. Each group reached a consensus on what it favored and then sent a spokesperson to hammer it out with some twenty other spokespeople. Within two hours, we had an action plan to occupy the main entrance of the jail until all the protesters were released; to invite the rest of Seattle to join us; to demand that the Mayor, County Executive, and City Attorney negotiate with us; and to insist on proper medical care and food for those inside the jail. From there, we began making preparations for a long stay into the bone-chilling night.
While we were making our decisions at the jail, the other half of our march had chosen to blockade the Westin Hotel, where many WTO delegates were staying. An affinity group of eight people U-locked themselves to the main entrances while hundreds of others occupied the road and sidewalk in front. Police kept their distance, however.
As both groups hunkered down, news leaked from the Convention Center that the WTO Ministerial had ended—with no agreement on a new round of meetings. Earlier that morning, the African delegation had booed the US Trade Representative as she walked into a plenary session. And as the day came to a close, a coalition of delegates from over seventy countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia had stubbornly refused to sign onto an agenda in which they saw they had little voice. Of course, the WTO wasn’t dead, but it was severely stalled. The next day, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s bold headline put it tersely: “Summit ends in failure.” Our efforts had contributed, some delegates would later admit, by costing the Ministerial nearly two full days of meeting time.
With the word of success, occupations at the jail and the Westin turned into street parties with dancing, drumming, and singing into the late hours of the night. Reportedly, even police danced a few steps. At the hotel, protesters also used the opportunity to sing “Happy Birthday” to one among them, and then to a police officer, who admitted it was his birthday, too.
The commitment of protesters was only buoyed by the news. At least 100 stayed in each location through the night. Those at the Westin finally decided to unlock the next morning, reasoning that, if arrested, their message wouldn’t be clear and that they had already achieved most of their goals. In contrast, the occupation of the jail would continue for days, until most of the arrested protesters were released on Sunday, December 5.
On Thursday, we had learned the chant, “WTO, you’ve gotta go/The people came and stole the show.” It was no more apt than on that Friday night as WTO delegates prepared to leave town. As many commentators would later point out, thousands of us went up against one of the most powerful organizations in the world. And we won.
Postscript: What If We Could Win?
I wrote this account for Punk Planet magazine in the week immediately following the Seattle WTO protests. I was still recovering from tear gas inhalation, my ears were still ringing with the blasts of concussion grenades, and I was anxiously waiting for some friends to get out of jail. And yet I was propelled by a sense of hope and possibility that I had never experienced in my previous seven years as an activist.
At the time, all of us who had organized for the Seattle actions were trying to assess what we had done and what it all meant. In the years since, however, an unfortunate and distorted mythology has developed around the Seattle protests.
There are two kinds of myths that I think are especially counterproductive. The first is that what we did was somehow altogether new. In fact, our efforts in Seattle closely followed in the footsteps of militant movements in the global South, which have led the global revolt against neoliberalism. This started with protests against structural adjustment measures in the 1980s and came together even more coherently with the emergence of the Zapatistas in the 1990s. In addition, our strategies and tactics in Seattle—from affinity groups to direct action—importantly grew out of the histories and experiences of previous US-based movements, including labor radicalism associated with the Industrial Workers of the World, revolutionary pacifist efforts, grassroots initiatives in the Civil Rights Movement like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, various strands of feminist organizing, and the queer radicalism of groups like ACT UP. And finally, if we understand neoliberalism as a continuation of colonization and capitalism, our rebellion in Seattle was connected to a history of Indigenous resistance that is over 500 years old.
In 2001, La Convergence des luttes anti-capitalistes/the Anti-Capitalist Convergence in Montréal was busily preparing for protests at the Summit of the Americas in Québec City. They coined the slogan: “It didn’t start in Seattle…and it sure as hell isn’t going to stop with Québec.” We would do well to remember this, and to appreciate and explore histories and continuities across our movements.
The second kind of counterproductive myth is that what we did in Seattle was heroic and flawless. The reality is that we made many mistakes. As DAN organizer Stephanie Guilloud would later write, “We were not building a long-term resistance movement: we were mobilizing for a protest.” And while we were caught up in the excitement and urgency of mobilizing, it was easy to overlook the fact that we were predominantly white and middle-class. Indeed, our privileges framed our experiences in many ways. For one, few of us considered what it would mean to organize beyond the constituencies with whom we were most comfortable—largely anarchists, direct action environmentalists, and international solidarity activists. As well, many of us didn’t think about the different meanings and risks of direct action tactics among communities that are faced with police repression every day. And many of us were only beginning to think about the interconnections between global capitalism, hetero-patriarchy, racism, and other systems of domination.
As we focused on mobilizing for the WTO protests, we also didn’t think carefully enough about laying the foundations for a resilient movement grounded in diverse communities. Many of us were satisfied to stay within our limited activist networks and comfortable social scenes. As a result, we weren’t pushing ourselves to grapple with pressing questions: In what ways should we be consciously connecting our efforts to community-based struggles for justice and dignity? And how, concretely, should we be contributing to building long-term and large-scale movements? These questions continue to be some of the most important ones for us to address in our work.
Challenging the mythology doesn’t mean letting go of what we accomplished in Seattle. I still keep a photo on my wall of the graffiti that was chalked and spray-painted all over downtown Seattle on November 30: “WE ARE WINNING—DON’T FORGET.” By that point, this was hardly an exaggeration. Yet, twenty-four hours earlier, as activists were passing out Depends and making final preparations, very few were considering what it would mean to actually succeed. Like many, I assumed that the police would clear out the blockades with mass arrests on Tuesday morning and we would spend the rest of the week trying to get protesters out of jail. Instead, we did what we thought was impossible—we shut down the WTO.
Our resounding victory is the most enduring legacy of the Seattle protests. Through direct action and direct democracy, thousands of ordinary people—workers, parents, community organizers, students, activists, and many others—made history. We contributed to fundamentally shifting public discussions about globalization, economic inequality, and environmental devastation. Meanwhile, we unequivocally communicated to people across the globe that there are many in the US who refuse neoliberalism and are working to develop other worlds ruled not by profit but by values of democracy, cooperation, equality, and sustainability.
What we did in Seattle in 1999 wasn’t perfect. Movements never are. But it was an amazing victory, one that can and should still inspire us. We need to consciously celebrate it and soberly learn from it.
This piece, revised and updated from one I wrote immediately after the protests, was included in The Battle of the Story of the “Battle of Seattle” edited by David Solnit and Rebecca Solnit (Oakland: AK Press, 2009).