Seattle was a riot
What really happened
on the streets at last week's wild WTO protests
by Jason Gay
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
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 27 -- All the ponytails and Patagonia on the plane ride to
Seattle are a dead giveaway. Something big is brewing.
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
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
The first big, honest-to-goodness protest of WTO week occurs on Monday
afternoon. Sponsored by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, it's
called the "Make Trade Clean, Green, and Fair!" march and rally.
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
If there's a celebrity in Seattle this week, it's Jose (pronounced JO-sie)
Bove, a French farmer who became a folk hero of sorts when he began protesting
the US's decision to place huge tariffs on certain imported foodstuffs in
retaliation for European prohibitions on hormone-treated beef. Bove, who milks
goats to make Roquefort cheese, was so incensed that he started leading rallies
outside European McDonald's, and is now a huge deal overseas, I'm told.
Wherever he goes, he's trailed by an international coterie of reporters and
cameras. Kind of like Ricky Martin, in an
if-Ricky-Martin-was-a-French-goat-farmer sort of way.
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!"
Not everyone's mad, of course. After the turtle march, I attend a pro-WTO rally
with the slogan "Working Families for Free Trade." Co-sponsored by the local
Republicans and the Christian Coalition, the rally was organized, according to
a brochure, to address concerns that "outside protesters unrepresentative of
mainstream Seattle would portray Puget Sound as unfriendly to trade."
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,
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
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.
Labor has a massive presence in Seattle, too, because unions are worried that
free trade will send more US jobs overseas to countries with lower pay scales.
This makes for an unlikely scene: tough-ass union folk protesting alongside
hippies and tweedy environmental types. It's kind of like a high-school caste
system turned upside down.
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
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."
Also on Monday night: the People's Gala, a pep rally for WTO protesters at the
Key Arena, where the Supersonics play.
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.
Late Sunday evening, a handful of self-professed anarchists break into a vacant
building in downtown Seattle and announce that they will occupy it as squatters
for all of WTO week. I visit the squat late Monday night, after the People's
Gala. It's a gray, drab three-story building, located just a block away from,
of all places, the Seattle Police Department.
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
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
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
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
"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.
Tuesday begins (surprise!) cold and wet. Protesters start gathering in the
darkness just before dawn at two places: Seattle Central Community College and
Victor Steinbrueck Park, which is located on the city's downtown waterfront,
near the famous Pike Place fish and vegetable market.
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.' "
Meanwhile, the police are watching. There are more than 500 police officers on
the scene, most them arranged around the outskirts of the Washington Trade and
Convention Center, where the majority of WTO events are scheduled to take
place. Almost all of these officers are decked head to toe in black riot gear
-- helmets and gas masks and baseball-catcher-style knee pads and arm pads and
chest protectors -- and carry crowd-dispersal weapons such as pepper spray,
tear gas, and rubber-pellet guns. At one intersection, a group mans a small
armored vehicle nicknamed the "Peacemaker."
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.
Later, the world will watch television footage of the hell-raising in Seattle.
The kids in the black ski masks and bandannas kicking in windows at the Gap.
The young rebels spray-painting the bronze Bugs Bunny outside the Warner Bros.
store. Those little cherubs looting coffee at a Starbucks. If the shots of the
cops flinging tear gas into the crowd don't convince you that Seattle is out of
control, this live-on-tape wanton destruction probably will.
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
More chaos comes with darkness Tuesday. By now, the majority of protesters are
heading back home, and only the die-hards are hanging around. Police, suddenly
emboldened, begin sweeping back into the city and clearing the area --
President Clinton is due to arrive in Seattle at midnight, and Washington is
demanding the return of order. Mayor Schell announces a 7 p.m. curfew in
the downtown and the imminent arrival of the National Guard, the latter a
decision he publicly laments. "This administration had people who marched in
the '60s," he says. "The last thing I wanted was to be mayor of a city that
called in the National Guard."
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
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.
The battle in Seattle will be remembered for many things. Some people, of
course, will remember it for the tear gas and the mass arrests. For others --
especially the downtown business owners -- the battle will be remembered for
its destructiveness. Many WTO delegates, no doubt, will remember it for their
own failure to agree on a free-trade plan -- a breakdown that apparently
occurred after developing countries, worried that the US was shoving its agenda
down the throats of other member nations, loudly protested President Clinton's
efforts to raise labor standards worldwide.
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.
Jason Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.