Seattle Was A Riot
What really happened on the streets at last week's wild WTO protests
By Jason Gay
DECEMBER 13, 1999: Seattle should have seen it coming. The protests, the anarchy, the tear gas, the rubber bullets (okay, pellets), the vandalism, the graffiti, the gridlock, the freaks, the thugs, the good guys, the bad guys, the danger, the passion, the anger, the arrests, the circus.
The signs were there. Last week's tumultuous World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle -- which began last Tuesday, November 30, with protests and riots and ended in failure last Friday, when trade ministers were unable to set an agenda for future talks -- hit America like a sucker punch, but the showdown (and the potential for trouble) had long been anticipated in left-leaning activist circles. For months labor leaders, environmentalists, and human-rights groups had been hyping the conference as an unprecedented opportunity to protest the pace of economic globalization and the politics of free trade. If you had a beef about anything from trade tariffs to netted sea turtles to Starbucks, Seattle was going to be the place to be.
So if you woke up Wednesday and flicked on the news and wondered what the hell was going on in Seattle with all those hippies and anarchists, and the cops in the black Star Wars-type uniforms, you did have fair warning.
Now, of course, everyone's on notice. No matter what you think about free trade and globalization, no matter whether you think those protesters have a point, have half a point, or are just plain wrong -- at least you're aware that a vocal contingent of your fellow Americans considers the global trade system to be flawed and in desperate need of a serious tune-up. Buoyed by what occurred on the streets of Seattle, they're not giving up now. If anything, they're just getting started.
It's two days after Thanksgiving, and you'd expect most of the people in economy class to be unbuttoning their pants, napping, and cherishing the memory of Grandma's pumpkin pie. Instead, everyone's eating specially prepared vegetarian plane food and reading the Nation.
This is going to be the Super Bowl of protests, we've been told. A historic collection of activists of nearly every bent and cause, coming to the Pacific Northwest to challenge the WTO -- an amorphous, somewhat mysterious collection of trade ministers from 135 countries, including the US. The ministers are coming to Seattle to try to develop a game plan for future trade talks. The activists are scheduled for teach-ins, marches, parties, and protests.
Beyond that, who knows? There has never been a WTO meeting on American soil. All we know is that in its four-year history, the WTO has become a colossal bogeyman for everyone feeling a little angst about the global economy. By and large, this angst is not irrational, and it's not knee-jerk protectionism. Critics are worried that the WTO values corporate commerce over democracy, and that it tramples on environmental, labor, and human-rights issues because it has the authority to junk local standards and protections it views as "barriers" to free trade. (For example, WTO members used the organization to challenge Massachusetts's "Burma Law," a statute discouraging state-government purchases from a country infamous for human-rights abuses.)
Reformers think that the WTO, which has been chastised for being too secretive, can be improved by opening more of its meetings to critics, and by promoting a trade system that is both fair and free. Some reformers want to get rid of it, however, and start anew. "A global system of enforceable rules is being created where corporations have all the rights, governments have all the obligations, and democracy is left behind in the dust," barks my Citizen's Guide to the World Trade Organization, a handbook published by a collection of fair-trade activist groups.
Not everyone going to Seattle has a specific beef with the WTO, however. It seems people are also heading to the meeting to protest a development that can best be described as "global corporatization." Call it the Gap effect: some protesters believe that the unchecked growth of large corporations has homogenized their culture, wiping out small businesses as well as ethnic and economic diversity. Cities are all starting to look the same, they worry. Eventually, they fear, so will countries.
Our plane arrives late Saturday night. The next day, Sunday, sets a record high for temperature -- 59 degrees. People flock downtown, and local stores hum with business. A few places are even looking to cash in on the anti-WTO sentiment. One store sells ponchos reading THE PROTEST OF THE CENTURY. Another sells cotton shirts that say, MY TRADE MINISTER WENT TO SEATTLE AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT. On the marquee at the Lusty Lady, one of the many adult movie theaters in downtown Seattle: The Nude World Order and WT Ohhhhh!
But most people just call it the Turtle March. That's because in addition to two thousand or so people marching in regular dress, two hundred or so are marching in elaborate sea-turtle costumes. Why? To draw attention to the fact that the WTO struck down a US prohibition on shrimp caught from boats using nets that also have been shown to catch endangered sea turtles.
The turtle costumes are made from sturdy cardboard and feature elaborately painted shells, underbellies, and masks. It took volunteers about three months to make the costumes, says Ben White of the Animal Welfare Institute, who helmed the effort. "We finally finished the last costume around 11 p.m. last night," White says.
The turtles make for an amusing sight. As the march passes through downtown Seattle, halting traffic at a number of intersections, some drivers step out of their cars, angry at first, but they crack up when they see the reptilian parade. It's not an especially rowdy group. The only disturbance comes when a group of kids scale a parked city bus and unfurl a banner reading VEGAN RESISTANCE.
On Monday afternoon, Bove, a small, barrel-chested man with a thick brown mustache and a green barn jacket, holds an impromptu press conference outside a McDonald's in downtown Seattle. The crush of photographers and TV cameras around him is astounding. Battling the long lenses and boom mikes, his handlers (he has handlers!) push him through the crowd to a small table on the sidewalk, where he is furnished with a plastic glass filled with red wine and a hefty hunk of Roquefort cheese (snubbing the US tax, Bove and his people allegedly smuggled 100 pounds of Roquefort into the country for WTO week). A cameraman violently pushes his way past me, and I have to dip my head and put my hand up to avoid getting clocked. He turns to me and says: "Get your fucking hand off my camera. I'm working here!"
The rally is held at Mercer Arena, a medium-sized indoor stadium near Seattle's most famous landmark, the Space Needle. Outside the arena entrance, a pair of volunteers hand out American flags. A security guard stands watch for suspicious types. (For the record, the Working Families rally is the only place in Seattle where I have my bag searched.)
The inside of the arena feels like a GOP convention hall. There are elaborate balloon arrangements and red, white, and blue decorations everywhere. A PA system cranks patriotic-sounding brass-band music. One thing is missing, however:
Almost no one's here. The arena could fit a couple thousand, easily, but there are fewer than 50 folks in attendance, and, from the looks of it, no working families -- just a handful of local pols and businessmen in suits, some old vets in shiny softball jackets, and a bunch of college-Republican-type volunteers. You'd find more people at your average junior-high wrestling match.
It feels kind of embarrassing, to be honest, sort of like arriving at a party and finding just the host and some untouched chips and salsa. The speakers -- a gaggle of local GOP chieftains including former congressman turned Christian Coalition honcho Randy Tate -- try to save face by completely ignoring the fact that no one's here. We're told that free trade is essential to making America great. We're told it's crucial not only for economic development, but also for the promotion of Democratic values and -- here's the real hook, folks -- Christianity. Without free trade, someone actually asks, how are we supposed to give Bibles to the Chinese?
"Our case [for] free trade is much, much less about money, and much, much more about morality," says Tate. A scattering of applause tickles the arena, and evaporates.
On Monday night, a few thousand union members hook up with an interfaith march to Seattle's Exhibition Center -- a concrete bunker next door to the Kingdome, where the NFL's Seahawks play. The plan: to walk down to the Exhibition Center, where the WTO delegates are gathered for a black-tie dinner, and link arms around the entire facility in a show of solidarity. The reason: to draw attention to the issue of Third World debt, which protesters want richer nations such as the US to forgive.
The march was scheduled to begin around 6:30, but the interfaith folks (who are coming from a service at a local church) are late, so the labor people are hanging out on a street corner a couple blocks from the Kingdome. A light rain is falling. Some of the union people stand in their ponchos and smoke butts. A few pass the time in the nearby Swannie's Sports Bar. And a few pick fights with a bullhorn-toting Jesus freak holding a sign telling us all to REPENT! (Among the parties the man's handmade sign asks to repent: FORNICATORS, LESBOS, BUDDHISTS, HINDUS, SODOMITES, LIARS, CATHOLICS, GOD HATERS, PSYCHICS, UNSUBMISSIVE WIVES, HARE KRISHNAS, PSYCHOLOGISTS, REBELLIOUS CHILDREN, and NON-SPANKING PARENTS.)
Outside, I bump into a group of electrical workers from Lynn, Massachusetts. The group is led by Steve "Fuzzy" Herrick, a big, bear-like guy who tells me that 15 union people from the North Shore made the trip with him to Seattle. Most of them work for General Electric, he says. They took their own vacation time and paid their own way to the West Coast, Herrick says, because they're tired of seeing good local jobs move out of the country. For some of them, this is the first time they've ever been involved in a big political protest. "For us, this is all about justice," Herrick says. "That's why we're doing it."
This is pretty much a by-the-numbers political gathering: speeches, music, speeches, speeches, a few more speeches, music, etc. It's kind of dull overall, but at least the hippies in the crowd really dig the music (by the rootsy Laura Love Band and Spearhead), and they spin wildly in the back of the arena like I haven't seen hippies spin since Jerry died.
The gala is MC'd by Mike Dolan, an activist with Public Citizen, Ralph Nader's DC-based consumer group. Dolan introduces brief rants from everyone from ex-Dead Kennedy frontman Jello Biafra to Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone to Seattle mayor Paul Schell, who tells the crowd, "Be tough on your issues, but be gentle on my town." (D'oh!)
Also in attendance at the gala are Body Shop owner Anita Roddick and California state senator and famous '60s activist Tom Hayden. Hayden, I'll assume, has a special perspective on corporate globalist takeover, given that his ex-wife, Jane Fonda, is now Mrs. Ted Turner. And he's giving this gala some old-school cred. Mike Dolan, who's pretty fired up by this point, introduces Hayden by saying, "Tom Hayden is in da house!" which strikes me as perhaps the single goofiest thing I've heard anyone say, ever.
There's a teenage guard posted outside the squat, and I ask him if I can go inside to take a look around. He turns and says something to somebody through a mail slot in the front door. A few minutes later, a kid with a bandanna over his mouth pops his head out through a second-floor window. He asks where I'm from, and after I tell him, he tells me to tie my media credentials to a string, which he drops from the window.
After my credentials are reviewed and reeled back down to me, the front door opens, and I'm allowed to enter. Inside, there are a couple more guards (all with bandannas) protecting a small stairway, which is lit by candles. I show these guys some more identification -- a driver's license, a press identification card, a health-care card. One of the guards nods and says, "Okay, come with me."
The top of the stairway is blocked by a huge piece of wood, which is reinforced by a series of two-by-fours. To enter the squat, it turns out, you have to get on your hands and knees and slide on your belly through a small crawl space. This is to prevent a crew of police from storming the building, the guard explains.
When I squish under and finally get inside, the guard -- who introduces himself as "007" -- is a little apologetic. "Sorry about all the hassle," he says. "It's just that we have to be cautious, with the cops and all."
Aside from a few candlelit corners and glowing orange cigarette ends, it is pitch-dark inside. 007, who's now in Bob Vila mode, offers me the full tour. The squat was formerly an artist's studio, he says, using a pen flashlight to point out the tall ceilings, plank floors, and giant windows. There are three floors, the top two of which are being used for sleeping space, 007 says.
We walk into a room and hear a commotion and whispering above our heads in a loft space. 007 chuckles.
"Anarchist lovers," he says.
We go back upstairs and into the building's main gathering area, a large room with a wooden stage and a decent view of downtown Seattle. There are about a dozen men and women, huddled in small groups, passing around food and cigarettes. Most of them look to be in their late teens and early 20s, and many are decked in anarcho-punker fashion musts: patched black jeans and combat boots, hooded sweatshirts, wool caps, and, of course, bandannas.
007, who is dressed in jeans, boots, and a denim jacket with spikes and a variety of patches and scribblings on it, takes a seat on the stage. He has curly brown hair and bright brown eyes; he looks as if he could be in high school. Actually, he should be in high school. 007 tells me he is 16 years old and recently has been living in Portland, Oregon, where he takes classes at a community college and mans his own pirate radio station. "I love pirate radio," he says.
007 says the squat had been planned for some time. The building had been broken into and surveyed by a couple of kids in advance, he says, and on Sunday, 007 and two others got inside and claimed the building for WTO week. Within a couple of hours, he says, police shut off the water and power.
But no matter. The squat is brimming with business. There are about 70 people here tonight, but the building could easily accommodate a couple hundred, 007 says. Those who wish to spend the night have to agree to a few things -- specifically, not to bring hard drugs or weapons inside. Those who stay a while are asked either to help contribute to the building's maintenance or to serve guard duty.
Real anarchy, 007 tells me, isn't about throwing rocks at cops. It's about projects like the squat -- removing power from individuals and returning it to the people. "Anarchy is really about community and equality," he says. "It's really more about equality and human rights than it is about any sort of anti-government philosophy."
I ask 007 if he thinks there's going to be trouble at tomorrow's protests. For some time, there has been talk that anarchists from Eugene, Oregon -- who were involved in a mini-riot with police earlier this year in that city -- will cause similar disruptions in Seattle. 007 (who says he was in Eugene and blames police for starting the trouble) says he isn't sure. He insists that he wants tomorrow to be "peaceful and non-violent," but even so, he's not sure he agrees with the conventional, non-confrontational approach taken by mainstream activists.
"The cops tell them [mainstream protesters] to take a left turn, they take a left turn," 007 says. "Personally, as an anarchist, I can't believe in that."
I'm not sure if anyone from the squat got involved in Tuesday's trouble, the shots of which were beamed around the world. At the end of WTO week, the anarchists abandon the squat without incident. 007 is not so lucky, apparently. On Friday, I hear a rumor that he's been arrested, though it's not clear why.
What's so refreshing about the plans for Tuesday's "direct action" protest is how atypical they are. It's not one of those let's-all-meet-in-one-place-and-listen-to-the-speeches kind of deals, which may have worked in the '60s but have gotten pretty tame by now. Instead of herding thousands of people into a single gathering, organizers break people up into smaller bunches -- called "affinity groups" -- and disperse them to more than a dozen downtown intersections.
Once downtown, protesters are told to arrange themselves into human chains, blocking off the intersections from foot and vehicle traffic. The idea is effectively to shut down the WTO by making it impossible for delegates to get from their hotels to events, including this morning's opening ceremonies at the downtown Paramount Theatre.
And that's precisely what happens. One by one, delegates try to make their way to the opening ceremonies, only to be met by crowds of protesters blockading the streets, arms attached. When the delegates try to dart down an alley or back into their hotels, the human chain widens, and the protesters block off those entrances, too. It's kind of like urban musical chairs, and the delegates can't find a place to sit.
I hang out at one intersection for a half-hour or so, and in that period, the protesters block about 10 people from entering the WTO opening ceremonies. Many of the delegates smile and try peacefully to negotiate their way past the human chains, but the protesters smile back, and refuse to let them pass. A few attempt forcibly to push through, but they, too, are repelled.
It's pretty amazing to watch this all unfold. Within an hour or so, the protesters have built human chains within every major downtown intersection and outside almost all of the downtown hotels. At one intersection, an affinity group drives up in a white van, pulls out a set of speakers, and cranks techno music. Someone starts juggling firesticks. An impromptu rave ensues.
Standing in this mix is Andrea Wunninghoff, a 22-year-old Seattle resident. Wunninghoff is here at the protests with her five-year-old son, Noah, who is currently fast asleep, his blond head cradled on Wunninghoff's shoulder.
"I've been waking him up and explaining the protest to him," Wunninghoff says. "I have to sign, because he's deaf."
Wunninghoff says she wants her son to witness history.
"Someone said to me, 'Shame on you for bringing him here,' she says. "So I pointed at his sneakers and said, 'You know, someone only two years older than him made these shoes.' "
It's easy to see that a situation's developing. The protesters are everywhere; the delegates are shut out of their meetings; many of them, including the US representative to the WTO, Charlene Barshefsky, can't even get out of their hotels. What's more, the big protest -- the labor march, with more than 30,000 people -- hasn't even started yet. It's not even nine o'clock in the morning, and authorities are losing control of the city.
Soon after, the tear gas comes. It's a surreal moment. When gassing first occurs, I'm standing about 100 yards from the intersection, and people near me pause and stare momentarily, as if they're not sure whether it's gas or a stray, low-flying cloud. It's almost as if the crowd is saying to itself: That didn't just happen in America in 1999, did it?
That disbelief ends abruptly, however, when people start running. If you've ever been in the thick of a large crowd when part of it suddenly panics and starts to sprint en masse, then you know it's extremely difficult not to panic and start to sprint yourself, too. Even though people all around are shouting, "Walk! Don't run!" my one thought is: PleaseGodLordJesusDon'tLetMeFallAndGetTrampled. Looking around, I can tell that a lot of people around me are having that very same thought.
When the crowd finally slows, reports start coming from the front lines: They gassed people for no reason! They're firing rubber bullets at people sitting down! They're shooting pepper spray! They're heading this way! All the enthusiasm of earlier this morning, with the human chains and the bumbling delegates, is wiped away. If people didn't realize it before, they know now: this is some serious shit.
"I started choking," says one protester, Gordan Rowan, a 25-year-old from Seattle, who absorbed a direct hit. "I couldn't breathe. It seemed like shit was coming out of every pore in my body." (Asked if police warned them first, Rowan says: "Oh yeah, they gave us plenty of warnings.")
Later, I wander smack-dab into a tear-gas cloud myself. I'm rounding a corner near the Sheraton when I start to feel a sore-throat-like sensation and my nasal passages begin to burn; my eyes, too, begin to close and tear. But I'm lucky; this is the mildest of doses, and the effects wear off within minutes.
Over the course of the next two days, almost everyone who wanders into Seattle's downtown will feel the effects of tear gas. Many of them will be protesters, but some of them will be people who have nothing to do with the WTO, pro or con. Eventually, it becomes an insider joke, a status symbol: Hey man, how many times did you get gassed today?
In the early stages of Tuesday, however, this isn't so funny. Prior to the gassing, this was a loud, clamorous activist event, but it was peaceful. With gas, it becomes something different. Gas may help disperse the crowd and allow police to take back parts of the city, but it appears to set in motion a chain of events from which Seattle will not soon recover.
But, truth be told, the ugly stuff doesn't start to happen until after the tear-gassing. Prior to that, a few people scattered graffiti here and there -- NIKE SUCKS, FREE MUMIA, etc. -- on a handful of downtown walls and alleys, but that was it. Maybe it's just bad timing, but the real mayhem doesn't pick up until police begin turning on the non-violent protesters.
Maybe that's because the police commit a strategic blunder. Because they opt to position themselves between the convention center and the front lines of protest, they can no longer monitor what's happening elsewhere in the crowd. The police have cut themselves off and essentially have handed protesters the keys to the city. (Seattle police chief Norman Stamper will admit as much, telling reporters that "There were those who were saying they should shut down the city of Seattle, and they managed to do that." A week later, Stamper will resign under pressure.)
Without police around, what results is a kind of lawless society in Seattle's downtown. Seizing the opportunity, small packs of kids -- some anarchists, some not; some with their faces obscured by masks and bandannas, some not -- begin freely roaming the business district. It's not more than 40 or 50 people, but they're wildly effective. They smash windows with hammers, wrenches, and crowbars; others use metal newspaper boxes or dumpsters to do the job.
Huge stretches of downtown windows are splintered into shards. On one block near the convention center, I watch a group of kids trash a queue of police cars -- kicking in windows and taillights, slitting tires, spray-painting the metallic-blue exteriors. Someone writes WE WIN on a police-car hood. Others tag their names and the "A" anarchy symbol on the car doors and instruct their friends to take photographs. Fifty yards away, a line of police in riot gear stand watching all of this, unable to move in. Left to defend the area are other protesters, who try to intervene and stop these bands of kids from wreaking havoc. Some are successful in persuading the lawbreakers to move on. Most are not.
Some of the vandalism, no doubt, is the work of opportunistic thugs who simply seize the moment to go and raise hell. (At one point, I watch a group of high-school kids criticizing some anarchists for smashing up a McDonald's. "C'mon," one kid pleads. "Can't you go hit the Eddie Bauer?") But look a little closer, and it's not as random as you might think. You start to notice a kind of method to some of this madness -- a premeditated, organized strategy. By and large, corporate-owned stores bear the brunt of the damage. Small businesses, for the most part, are left alone.
Sure enough, in an Internet posting a few days later, a group calling itself "one section of the Black Bloc on N30 [November 30] in Seattle" will claim responsibility for much of the downtown spree. They will claim that their actions were both premeditated and organized. They will acknowledge having specific targets: Niketown, the Gap, McDonald's, Starbucks, and Planet Hollywood. Most of these stores are targeted because of various alleged corporate evils. (Planet Hollywood, on the other hand, is targeted simply "for being Planet Hollywood.")
"The number of broken windows pales in comparison to the number of broken spells -- spells cast by a corporate hegemony to lull us into forgetfulness of all the violence committed in the name of private property rights and of all the potential of a society without them," the group will write. "Broken windows can be boarded up (with yet more waste of our forests) and eventually replaced, but the shattering of assumptions will hopefully persist for some time to come."
Meanwhile, there are continued skirmishes throughout the downtown. Most of them go something like this -- the police move in to a block and use a loudspeaker to order the crowd to disperse, and if the crowd does not do so, they begin lobbing tear-gas canisters and shooting concussion grenades (also known as "flash bangs," concussion grenades shoot sparks and explode in a crushingly loud bang). Some of the more ballsy protesters run up and throw or kick the tear-gas canisters back at police. A vendor on a bicycle hawks gas masks for $10 apiece.
The clashes push into the outskirts of Seattle's downtown, and later into Capitol Hill, a residential neighborhood on the city's east side. This comes as a shock to Capitol Hill residents, many of whom had nothing to do with the WTO protests and are now pissed to smell tear gas coming in through their bedroom windows (imagine a protest in downtown Boston spilling into Allston-Brighton, and you get the idea). Some residents come out on their sidewalks in their boxers to tell the police to go the hell home.
The next day, police take an even more aggressive tack, forming a perimeter around the downtown area and preventing large groups from pushing into the city's core. Undaunted, groups of non-violent protesters stage sit-ins, which are broken up, the participants arrested en masse. By the end of the day, more than 500 people are arrested. There are handfuls of skirmishes and tear-gassing incidents downtown, including one a block away from the Pike Place market, and more battles on Capitol Hill Wednesday night. It's not clear why the police insist on remaining up on the hill, when it's obvious that the reason the trouble persists is that the kids have really gotten to enjoy messing around with the cops.
It's stunning how accustomed the city has become to the siege in its midst. By Wednesday afternoon, hardly anyone in the city seems impressed (or frightened) by the swarms of riot police trotting through neighborhoods, or by an armored Peacemaker buzzing around the block. I'm having coffee in a local café Wednesday when a gaggle of protesters, faces pink from tear gas, ramble in and order lattes. A riot squad bolts past the café's window, in pursuit of something, somebody. No one acts the least bit surprised. Within 24 hours, it has all become twistedly normal.
But many who were in the streets during WTO week hope to remember Seattle for the start of a new dialogue about the global economy. "This was historic!" says Kevin Danaher, who heads Global Exchange, a human-rights-watch organization based in San Francisco. "Have you ever seen the public get concerned about a trade ministers' conference? Never! We dragged the snake out from underneath the rock."
The protesters in Seattle were not, as some have suggested, a bunch of neo-Luddites looking to close off the world from global progress (if anything, these activists were more global than anyone; this was perhaps the most internationally networked, technologically savvy mass protest to date). They did not fit any one description or cause. Some were well versed in WTO minutiae and corporate history. Some were not. Not all the people who came to Seattle had a fully articulated sense of what they were doing there.
But so what? The point is that they were there. They were people like Adam Fargason, a 19-year-old college student from the University of Alabama. I ran into Fargason on Tuesday afternoon, standing on a corner in a red Che Guevara T-shirt, nervously watching a clash between police and protesters. With tear gas rising nearby, Fargason told me that he was inspired to come to Seattle after becoming involved in anti-sweatshop activism back on campus. Recently, he said, Alabama students have held teach-ins on sweatshops, and they have pressured the university not to purchase clothing from manufacturers with histories of labor abuses.
"No one used to talk about these issues at school," Fargason said. "But now, it's really starting to take off."
And that kind of change is precisely what Seattle has wrought.
A couple years ago, no one really thought about the WTO and changes in the global economy. Now, of course, they will. The Battle in Seattle may have seemed more like the End of Days, but for the international trade debate, it looks like a beginning.
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