The city's WTO riots marked a turning point from a decade of expansive ideals to an era of just hoping we get by.
Seattle was the hot ticket, the cool place — everybody wanted to come here. Even the WTO.
Snagging the convention of the World Trade Organization, with more than 5,000 trade delegates from 134 countries, and some 3,000 journalists, capped a long run of successes in the late 1990s for a city that seemingly could do no wrong.
“We had it all,” said Pat Davis, the Seattle Port commissioner who helped invite the WTO here. “We were in the middle of boom times; everyone said, ‘Sure, why not, Seattle is a Pacific Northwest gateway. We will put Seattle on the map.’
“And we did.”
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But not quite as she and other city boosters intended. There were to be no headlines about Seattle as the Geneva of the Pacific — the misty-eyed aspiration of then-Mayor Paul Schell.
What we got instead was the largest street protest against free trade ever to take place on American soil — a tear-gassed free-for-all that drew about 50,000 demonstrators from all over North America and police from across the region in a clash that continued for days on the streets of downtown Seattle.
It all started peacefully enough. And nobody was killed. But for many, those final days of November 1999 toppled Seattle from a high point of civic confidence this city hasn’t felt since.
To police and other authorities watching us from near and far, Seattle virtually overnight became the “how-not-to” model for pulling off a world-class event.
Asked today if the city would take on another WTO-scale event, Davis said she doubted it.
“I don’t know whether Seattleites would be willing to risk it again.”
The convention drew protesters of every stripe, from greens targeting trade rules that undercut environmental protections to labor activists opposing tariff restrictions. The Geneva-based WTO, making rules for global trade, was demonized easily as a faceless, anti-democratic tool of corporate greed. And the demonstrators did not disappoint.
They marched in sea-turtle costumes, formed human blockades, sat cross-legged by the hundreds in intersections and chained themselves to scaffolding with bicycle locks.
“The day was this big milieu of amazing puppets, dancers in the street; there was just so much going on that was awe-inspiring and overwhelming,” remembered Logan Price, of Vashon Island, who started the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 30, by sitting in a downtown intersection and ended it getting tear-gassed by police.
Protesters succeeded that morning in their goal of at least temporarily shutting the conference down. As Seattle police struggled for control of the streets, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright fumed, stuck in her hotel.
It was a weird and even frightening experience, being shooed from the rain-slick cobbles of Pike Place Market by cops on horses or pursued down alleys by deputies in riot gear who were tossing exploding grenades of rubber pellets.
By the time it was all over, police had made more than 500 arrests.
Learning the hard way
The protest-free zones put up these days around political conventions and other major civic events come from lessons learned when Seattle gave demonstrators the run of the place — then tried to control the crowds.
Norm Stamper, chief of police at the time, resigned less than a week after the convention, amid lashing criticism.
The department learned from its WTO experience not to bother with mass arrests, which crushed the justice system under paperwork and processing.
And the department hopes to never be caught so unprepared again, said assistant Seattle police chief Jim Pugel, who was captain in charge of the department’s response on the street at the time.
“There hadn’t been anything like this,” said Pugel, who added that if he’d sought restrictions ahead of time on the right of demonstrators to freely assemble, no judge would have agreed. “They’d say, ‘based on what?’ ” There was no model then for what unfolded.
And Seattle was a place prone to let events play out. This is a tolerant town.
Before police turned the tide, demonstrators literally were eating the department’s lunch — sack lunches to be precise, stolen out of a supply truck, relegating hungry officers to energy bars.
Change of outlook
In some ways, we’ve been a city looking for a square meal ever since.
We went from a decade of expansive ideals to a place where people just want their snow plowed. A city convulsed with concern 10 years ago about global issues today seems more worried about just getting by, plugging budget holes and hanging on to jobs.
The WTO conference was just one piece of that. The times also changed.
Seattle’s dot-com bust, the global economic recession and, more than anything, the trauma of 9/11 and eight years of war have made the swaggering 1990s seem a distant dream.
Back then, in May 1996, Newsweek magazine had Michael Kinsley, founding editor of the online magazine Slate, on the cover, holding a salmon and wearing a yellow slicker, with the headline “Seattle Reigns.” After all, we had better coffee, better jobs, better karma.
Boeing added 6,700 new jobs that year alone, helping Washington enjoy the fastest growth rate in manufacturing jobs — remember those? — anywhere in the country.
Now Boeing is headed south in more ways than one. Starbucks is selling instant coffee. Washington Mutual is history. Even Oklahoma City looked better than Seattle to the Sonics.
Lorraine McConaghy, historian at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry, says no one should be surprised by any of it. The boom times were bound to bust; that’s been Seattle’s story since Henry Yesler cranked up his mill.
And even when times were good, we were bound to find some way to complain about it.
“People here have always disagreed with the prevailing sentiment,” McConaghy notes. “That’s allowed. And I don’t know that it’s unique to our area; it’s part of the American DNA.”
McConaghy remembers nonetheless struggling to explain it all to the significant others on tour at the museum while their partners were over at the WTO.
First there was the museum’s quilt exhibit, clearly a bust when the Europeans wanted to see tapestries. “It was, ‘What are these tatty rags?’ ” McConaghy said. “Then they were afraid to get back on their bus; they were afraid to be in our streets.”
Sure, we drew Madeleine Albright to Seattle. But she was barricaded in her hotel by demonstrators.
“We finally had the long limos,” said David Brewster, editor of Crosscut.com, an online regional news site based in Seattle.
“But they were stuck. And now they are never coming back.”