Twenty years ago Saturday, Seattle stepped onto the world stage. The show didn’t go as planned.
Local officials and civic boosters had pursued hosting honors for the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial meetings, hoping to showcase Seattle’s arrival as a world-class city to 5,000 delegates and 3,000 journalists, as well as President Bill Clinton.
What they hadn’t adequately prepared for — despite warnings — was the determination of 50,000 protesters from across North America to disrupt the international trade-rule enforcer they blamed for trampling environmental standards, worker protections and rights of developing nations.
The chaotic week that ensued remains unmatched in Seattle to this day. Protesters downtown surrounded the convention center and the Sheraton, locking arms or chaining themselves together to control key intersections and block WTO delegates. They succeeded in shutting down the Nov. 30 opening ceremonies, and kept Secretary of State Madeleine Albright trapped in her hotel.
Embarrassed local officials fought to clear the streets, declaring a curfew, a state of emergency and a 50-block “no protest zone.” Police in riot gear fired tear gas and nonlethal projectiles, pushing demonstrators out of downtown and up to Capitol Hill, where neighborhood bystanders were enveloped by the mayhem. More than 500 people were arrested.
On the 20th anniversary of the demonstrations — which activists plan to commemorate this week with a series of public events — the week dubbed “Battle of Seattle” still echoes, if somewhat faintly, through local politics, policing and even global trade regulations.
“It was a really important people’s victory,” recalls Heather Day, executive director of the Community Alliance for Global Justice, an organization she co-founded with other WTO demonstration organizers.
Day, who in 1999 worked with an El Salvador solidarity group, remembers the week as a “festival of resistance” where hard-hat unionists teamed with environmentalists in sea turtle costumes, “sending the message that business as usual is not acceptable.”
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, bounced between the demonstrations and inside the WTO conference. She said the outside protests emboldened WTO delegates from developing nations who were already critical of the effects of trade rules.
“It was a combination of streets and suites,” said Wallach. “I saw how the bravery of people literally putting their bodies in front of power affected the outcome of not just that particular week’s negotiation, but the arc of these sets of rules of the global economy, and the eventual day of reckoning.”
Naturally, Seattle officials who dealt with the backlash don’t look back so fondly, and the handling of the event has been held up as a debacle for other cities to avoid.
The political fallout led to the ouster of then-Mayor Paul Schell, who finished third in the primary during his 2001 reelection campaign.
“It was Seattle at its most naive and immature,” recalls Cliff Traisman, who worked as a Schell aide and political adviser. “No one took it at the level of seriousness that they would today.”
At the time, Schell, who died in 2014, and other decision makers “felt we could host something that volatile and do it ‘the Seattle way’ and that being kinder and gentler would result in a peaceful conference, when there was huge unrest about what the WTO was about,” Traisman said.
While most demonstrations during the five days were peaceful, well-publicized acts of vandalism flared as police lost control of downtown. Some protesters overturned trash cans and burned debris, while black-clad anarchists smashed windows and seized a partially vacant building a block from a police precinct.
Police Chief Norm Stamper, who retired in the wake of the battle, says he believed at the time police were prepared, noting thousands of hours of training they’d received in the run-up to the event, but acknowledges “in the end, we were not ready.”
Stamper now regrets authorizing the use of tear gas and pepper spray to clear peaceful protesters from downtown intersections. “The bottom line, I do believe, was my failure to veto a decision to use chemical agents. These are fellow Americans who had exercised their First Amendment rights,” he said.
Twenty years on, the relevance of the Battle of Seattle has faded for some.
Nicole Grant, executive secretary-treasurer of MLK Labor, the central body of labor organizations in King County, said WTO “was galvanizing for the people who participated.”
But Grant said for many union organizers and activists, the event was way before their time. More recent mass demonstrations, such as immigrant-rights rallies in 2006 and the 2017 Women’s March, have greater relevance to many, she said. (In Seattle, the 2017 Womxn’s March drew at least 100,000 — more than double the 1999 WTO protests.)
Still, Grant says, the 1999 WTO demonstrations remain notable because they marked a turning point in an era of global trade protest. “It might seem quaint now, but ‘now’ stands on the shoulders of ‘then,’ ” she said.
Hillary Haden, executive director of the Washington Fair Trade Coalition, was 7 years old then. But her organization grew out of the coalitions formed during the demonstrations.
“I think the alliances that were built around the WTO protests are still important,” said Haden, about the bond forged between labor organizations and environmentalists — a “blue-green alliance” that has continued.
Former Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata said lasting changes included adjustments to police training. The city passed an ordinance to require police to wear name tags at all times, in response to citizen complaints of excessive force. “I would say that there were some structural changes and there was a recognition that police enforcement had to be cognizant of individual rights of protesters,” he said.
The city drew up policies for greater scrutiny of big events that could carry major costs. “We don’t need to hold a conference here to show that we’re a world-class city. If anything, we need somebody to put a brake on it,” Licata said, referring to side effects of Seattle’s explosive growth.
But Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, says the city is more poised than ever to lure big national events, pointing to increased hotel inventory, mass-transit options and the ongoing expansion of the Washington State Convention Center.
“We want those events in Seattle. They are great for the tax base and for small business,” Scholes said. But, he added, “how those are managed is really important,” saying the city’s police force has not kept pace with its population growth.
For any leaders weighing the pros and cons of hosting international events — especially if they’re trade related, Traisman recalled what Clinton laughingly told Schell when the two met at Boeing Field as clashes between police and demonstrators continued: “Mayor, be careful what you wish for.”
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