Paul Reynolds: The Battle of Seattle

A city under civil emergency (December 2, 1999) 

In December 1999, the World Trade Organization met in Seattle, Washington.  The WTO was confronted by a grass-roots protest against globalization, by people concerned about the policies of the World Bank and the WTO, which they felt kept millions in poverty world-wide and promoted U.S. commercial interests above social and environmental considerations.

            An American city - and one which prides itself on its liberal lifestyle - is under a state of "civil emergency", with a night curfew in the downtown area around the Convention Centre where the WTO delegates meet.    The concrete bunker that is the Centre is guarded day and night by riot police and the national guard.

            The streets around are almost deserted of ordinary people. Roadblocks control the entry points.

            Under his emergency powers, Mayor Paul Schell -- a white-haired former businessman who once himself demonstrated against the Vietnam war -- has a "no protest" zone.

            The shops are boarded up. The restaurants are closed. Even the Starbucks Coffee houses, symbol of Seattle's way of life, are shut up.      One of them was trashed the other night, right across the road from the Westin hotel where President Clinton has been staying, closely guarded of course. This is Fort Seattle.

            Perhaps America, and the rest of the world, have woken up to the deep feelings of people who do object to some of the ways of world trade.

            Free trade, many economists say, has increased prosperity, but trade and trade alone, we were being told in Seattle all week, is not enough.

            Even in the midst of its stupendous economic boom (in which Microsoft, based near Seattle has led the way), America has learned an old lesson  that man does not live by bread alone.

            It started early on Tuesday morning. I joined the first group of protestors as they set off from near the Pike Place market, a favourite of tourists and locals, as the first dawn light was coming and the rain had already come.

            Mike Saltz, an activist for the Chiapas Indians of Mexico, was a typical - and peaceful - protestor. For him the WTO represents the corporate and globalised world which tramples on the rights of indigenous people.            But among the crowd, with its varied and colourful banners, were some black figures in anoraks and face masks. These folk, many of them from an Oregon-based anarchist group, had their own agenda, as we would see as the day unfolded.

            As the crowds converged around the Convention Centre, I was surprised to see how close the police had let them come.

            It was obvious early on that the hotels the delegates were staying in were now cut off. So was the nearby Paramount Theatre where the formal opening ceremonies and speeches were due to take place.

            They never did. Demonstrators surrounded the theatre and the event was abandoned.

            The police decided to act. They had to clear a way into the Centre for the delegates. They wheeled up an armoured car which acted all week as their command vehicle, with fearsome looking riot police in space-age gear riding shot gun on the sides.

            A warning was given. The more fearful of the crowd withdrew, but the front ranks sat down in the road.

            The police tactics then became clear. They did not engage in mass arrests; they used large amounts of CS gas instead.

            They also fired stun grenades which go off with a tremendous flash and noise. Rubber bullets were another weapon in their arsenal. So were hand held canisters of pepper spray.

            Against such force, the protestors had little to offer. One or two cans of Coca Cola were lobbed at police ineffectively. But nobody I saw attacked any police officer.             Then the black anoraked anarchists came into play.

            The police were tied down, unable to get through the thick crowds, by now hugely increased by the arrival of American trade unionists.

            So the masked figures roamed the downtown area, blocking traffic, shouting their slogans, spraying walls and windows with their graffiti and trying -- and in some cases succeeding -- in smashing windows of the elegant shops which are in the heart of Seattle. . . .

            To be fair to the crowd though, most did not engage in this attack and in fact most of the coffee house was undamaged.          

            The aim of most protestors was not to be violent but to be effective. And they were. Seattle will be remembered now for more than Boeing, Bill Gates, Starbucks and Frasier.         

            The inevitable post mortems took place. The police admitted they underestimated the challenge to order, despite explicit declarations of intent from protesting groups that they wanted to shut the WTO down.      

            President Clinton said that those who came to protest peacefully were welcome. Those who came to be violent were not. He declared his sympathy for those who felt the WTO too remote, too elitist.    

            At a meeting on Thursday morning at the Seattle Community College, protest leaders complained bitterly about the "police riot", as they called it.

            Two doctors who had organised medical teams to support those affected by tear gas (water to wash the eyes is very effective), said that medical teams had not been spared by police.

            There was an air of bitterness in the hall - and then the word went out that another march was on for later in the morning.

            As I walked back to the Centre, I passed the police cordon, waiting in an uneasy city centre.

Question: What does this event have in common with others we've studied?