The Battle of Seattle
Report from the WTO "War Zone"
Revolutionary Worker #1034, December 12, 1999
Seattle, December 4 Headlines in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer read "Summit Ends in Failure." It had been a really bad week for the imperialist powers--especially the United States. But for the tens of thousands of people who came to Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting--and for people all over the world--the week was remarkably productive.
Going into the WTO meeting--which was hyped as the "largest trade conference" ever held in the U.S.--the U.S. government had big plans. Their agenda for the summit was aimed to increase the control of U.S. capitalist interests over agriculture in the oppressed countries, increase domination of U.S. agricultural sales around the world, and expand the penetration of U.S. telecommunication and financial services industries into other international markets. According to the New York Times President Clinton hoped that "carefully choreographed street protests" could be used to support his agenda for the meeting--and enhance his image as a "free trader with a social conscience."
But, after five stormy days, as international delegates packed up their stuff and headed home, it was clear that the whole conference had been a disaster--an international embarrassment for President Clinton, the U.S. government and their predatory financial institutions.
The determined actions of the masses--especially the creative protests of the youth--disrupted the meeting--causing cancellation of the opening session. Together the people in the streets indicted the WTO and imperialist globalization in the eyes of the world--forcing the ugly business of the WTO into the public eye. The brutal realities of American democracy flashed around the world in the images of protesters tear-gassed by riot police and national guard troops patrolling downtown Seattle. And as the remaining raggedy sessions of the meeting ground to a close--with downtown Seattle under military occupation--contradictions surfaced between the developing countries and the big powers. No agreements were signed.
"I think we've done a lot," one protester, just released from jail, told the RW. "Free trade in Third World countries is forced down on them by military regimes and military actions. And that has been reflected this week in Seattle--where the WTO has been forced down our throats by military oppression and military action.... We showed them we're not going to back down, we're not going to give up. They can gas us, they can shoot us with rubber bullets, they can pepper-spray us, they can beat us, they can rush us with horses. We're just gonna keep on coming and keep on coming. They can put us in jail, and we're still not gonna lie down."
THE BATTLE OF SEATTLE
On November 30, 50,000 people from around the country and the world poured into the streets of downtown Seattle in protest. The streets became an amazing festival of defiance, color, music, theater, and celebration. Longshore workers of the ILWU shut down the Port of Seattle--joined in work stoppages by longshore workers at all west coast ports. While 25,000 union workers rallied against the WTO at the Memorial Center, the area surrounding the Convention Center, site of the WTO meeting, was completely occupied by demonstrators. Withstanding tear gas, police billy clubs, pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and armies of riot police, the courageous protesters formed street blockades and battled for key intersections.
Slated to begin at 10 a.m., the WTO opening session was canceled. Delegates had to make their way through streets filled with demonstrators--only to be met by more demonstrators blockading the streets and hotel entrances a block away from the conference site. According to the Seattle Times, by 12:30 on November 30 there were only 500 delegates present out of 3,000 expected. Even U.S. Trade representative Charlene Barshevsky and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright couldn't get into the meeting.
The Seattle P-I reported that for much of the day protesters "faced down outnumbered police on streets littered with the refuse of chaos--protest signs, spent tear-gas canisters and broken glass."
By 4:30 in the afternoon, police launched massive tear-gas attacks to clear the streets, forcing most people from the downtown core. But street skirmishes continued into the night.
Seattle Mayor Paul Schell instituted a "state of emergency" in downtown for the night, and two units of National Guard troops were ordered in by the governor. This type of virtual martial law hasn't been instituted in Seattle since World War 2, when it was used to make racist sweeps against any Japanese people on the streets.
On December 1 authorities declared a police-state "no protest zone" in a large section of downtown where anyone protesting would be arrested.
The TV media quoted city and police officials to create a story of a restrained police force who lost control to a "handful of violent anarchists" who had nothing to do with a peaceful and legal AFL-CIO march. The authorities worked hard to drive a wedge between the trade union workers and the masses of youth to justify the repressive measures. But thousands of people had witnessed the police initiate the violence against the protesters--to clear the streets by any means necessary.
With President Clinton scheduled to arrive on December 1 to address the WTO, police officials promised a more "aggressive" response. SPD forces were beefed up with hundreds of national guard troops, state police, King County police, and police from surrounding cities.
On December 1, thousands of youth and others actively defied the "no protest" zone. Hundreds linked up with a steelworkers rally and then marched into downtown. They were set upon by police whether inside or outside of the official zone--the boundaries of which seemed to change as necessary to justify busting people. Many chanted "peaceful protest" and sat down in the streets. At least 500 were arrested. Cops tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed protesters and anybody they thought was a protester.
The battle continued again into the night in the Capitol Hill area with a Festival of Defiance to burn the American flag and other hated symbols of oppression--called by Vietnam Veterans Against the War Anti-Imperialist (VVAW-AI). For hours, a thousand people paraded up and down Broadway, the main drag of the Capitol Hill district. Then suddenly the police attacked. Police indiscriminately tear-gassed the entire neighborhood--beating people, pepper-spraying and firing rubber bullets and concussion grenades. Residents described the scene as a war zone. Neighborhood people poured out of their houses, outraged over the relentless police gas attack. One man yelled at police, "Don't you have any churches to burn?"
By the night of December 1, the TV media was filled with stories and images of people who had been violently gassed, sprayed and hit with rubber bullets. One film clip showed cops kicking a man in the groin who was walking away from them and then pepper-spraying him. Many activists told stories of people, trapped in alleys, savagely beaten by police, and others shot point blank in the face with rubber bullets. The December 2 Seattle P-I featured a story of one of their reporters who was slammed to the ground, pepper-sprayed, and arrested despite showing police reporter credentials.
Many of the hundreds arrested were held at the Sand Point Navy Base, a special mass incarceration center set up by the police for the protest. Resistance continued inside and outside this center. Many youth refused to give their names and demanded to be released together. Three busloads of arrestees refused to leave the city bus they were transported in. They chanted and sang and conducted long distance phone interviews with national news media on their cellphones--for 14 hours without food or water--until police brutally dragged them off.
The morning of December 2, the Direct Action Network, which had mobilized many of the youth, joined with other groups such as People for Fair Trade, to hold a public meeting of hundreds to denounce and expose the police state. Many people told stories of police brutality. One steelworker said, "I've never seen a more disgusting and obscene use of police brutality against a steelworker march with our brothers in the environmental and human rights movements."
As protesters mounted a 24-hour blockade of the jails, the ACLU announced they would take the City of Seattle to court over the imposition of the no protest zone on the grounds it was a violation of the right to assemble, free speech, and due process. A King County judge ruled that all arrested people must have access to a lawyer within eight hours.
President Clinton upheld the police-state measures, condemned the "violent" protesters and tried to distance them from the "peaceful" AFL-CIO march. As Clinton made speeches about his sympathy with the aims of trade union groups and environmentalists and the right of peaceful protest, riot police rampaged against peaceful protests just blocks away.
Due to widespread anger at the police brutality, the city backed off some of their more overt police attacks, but the state of emergency and night curfew remained in place. Mayor Schell and Police Chief Stamper held a news conference, attempting damage control. Trying to divide the protesters, the authorities targeted anyone dressed in black with black masks, and announced they were conducting a manhunt for the "anarchists" who trashed businesses.
It was very important for the activists to reject these terms from the most violent system on the face of the planet. Some activists closed ranks and refused to be distanced, but this was a sharp point of debate. The slogan, "destroying property is not violence," became popular and controversial. One young activist at the Direct Action Network headquarters told the RW, "I feel like the people who were writing on buildings and breaking windows and stuff are really getting a bad name and are being called really violent, even by people in this movement and by other activists and I feel like that's really misdirected. If we look at it, they weren't really being violent. They were breaking property, yeah, but what were the people who own that property doing, and what were the police doing, and where is the violence really coming from? Any movement that wants people to compromise their feelings about capitalism--about what's going on--isn't going to be a movement that's going to cause real change."
On Saturday the victory for the masses was just sinking in. Protests continued at the King County jail. And protesters announced they would not leave until all the arrested were released. Three people were charged with felonies arising from the November 30 protests and the city promised more felony charges.
The RCP in Seattle is demanding that all protesters be released and defended.
The November 30 protest was an incredibly inspiring and exhilarating experience. In the early morning, 5,000 people organized by the Direct Action Network flowed into downtown. Near the Convention Center at 7th and Pine, a drum corps dressed in green and black called the Infernal Noise Brigade marched in steps while hip hop music blared from a van. An affinity group of people in Santa Claus outfits held signs saying "Buy, buy, buy." Dressed as butterflies and sea turtles, environmentalists exposed how WTO rules against environmental protections in fishing and other industries threatened endangered species. One youth told the RW, "The root of the problem is capitalism. I think the question that should be asked is where did the WTO come from? It's capitalism. And I hope this will just waken people up to the fact that capitalism is the source, and they'll become more aware of it and start resisting more than just single issues--like sweatshops and sea turtles--and see that it's a global system of oppression."
The Convention Center was ringed by buses and riot police. In front of the Sheraton hotel, where many WTO delegates were staying, youth had linked arms blocking delegates from leaving to go to the meeting. At 6th and Union protesters had linked themselves with chains inside PVC pipe connected to a platform to block the intersection. On 5th Avenue youth blocked a huge black limo in the intersection, closing off the street. A man in a business suit tried to convince the driver to abandon the car saying, "If you just get out of the car and leave it there, imagine what a hero you would be."
A youth sitting in front of a cop car was busted, and people moved in to block the cops. Riot police looking like Ninja turtles in body armor moved in and tried to push the crowd back. In a scene reminiscent of Chicago '68, youth began chanting, "The whole world is watching." Finally the cop car got away and SWAT pigs moved into the intersection, displaying automatic weapons. Pointing to the SWAT weapons, a Black Vietnam vet yelled, "That ain't no fuckin riot gun--that's a war gun!"
At the corner of 6th and University a giant whale balloon blocked the street. People chanted "Ain't no power like the power of the people because the power of the people don't stop." Suddenly police pepper-sprayed a group of people who sat down in the street, and from the other side of the intersection cops began tear-gassing the crowd. Some youth threw whatever they could get their hands on at the cops. People dispersed, many choking and crying from the gas, then moved right back in. This scene was repeated over and over throughout the day, as people resisted clouds of tear gas and contested every key intersection. Newspaper boxes and dumpsters were moved into the streets. A youth told us, "This is great that all these people are here and they're blocking the intersection. They're staying and staying put even though a lot of folks could be scared they're staying put and we're not gonna move."
About noon time you could look up and down every street and see thousands of people in every direction. A powerful contingent of 300 to 400 from the People's Assembly (PA), initiated by the Filipino group Bayan-USA, marched into this scene. The People's Assembly had been meeting for two days--drawing together international delegates from many nations to expose imperialist globalization and develop solidarity between their various struggles. Now they were bringing their experience into the streets. At the front of the PA contingent were Korean drummers. There were contingents from the Philippines, Filipino communities throughout North America, representatives from Africa, Japan and Latin America, the RCP, and many other progressive and anti-imperialist people.
At one intersection blocked by youth connected by PVC pipe, hundreds cheered the People's Assembly. Rallying at the Westlake Center, speakers from the PA included peasant leader Rafael Mariano representing the Peasant Movement of the Philippines; William Hinton, the author who wrote Fanshen; and others. A representative of the Filipino women's organization Gabriella spoke. "The peoples of the neo-colonies and the colonies of U.S. imperialism are here, cuz this is payback time. For centuries, U.S. imperialism has caused the death and destruction of the women, the children, the men, the families, the communities in the Philippines, in the Third World, in the southern countries. We are here, right here in the belly of the beast to say `Down with U.S. imperialism'! We say Junk WTO! We say this is enough!" The Seattle spokesperson for the RCP told the crowd, "We need a revolution in this country. I think a lot of people know that. Think what it would mean to the people of the Third World if we knock these dogs on their asses, if we take our chains and knock 'em upside their heads, if we are their gravediggers and put 'em under. Those pre-historic, dinosauristic, outmoded, backward, upside down, inside out ghosts of the past have got to go!"
Tens of thousands of labor marchers, environmentalists, fair trade people, students, middle class people, religious folks and others marched into the area where tens of thousands were already gathered. Cheers rose as the labor march announced the protests had shut down the WTO. One white middle class woman told the RW, "I'm proud of my people here and everyone who's come here from all over the world. So I thank everyone. I feel the WTO is wrong, it's evil, and it's just going to lead us into this widening gap between rich and poor--and I think that's not what the people want... Everybody's here--you have young people, older people, church people, radicals. People from all different groups, and they all have one thing in common--they care about other people and the planet."
As the police continued to vamp, some youth trashed big businesses and banks--covering buildings with anti-WTO and anarchist graffiti. Basic youth also began coming in to join the festival. Sharp debates broke out in the crowd between those who wanted to do property damage and others who chanted "no violence." This was sharp, but good struggle over what it will take to seriously stop what the system is doing.
Towards 5 p.m., the mayor declared the state of emergency and the police systematically launched tear gas throughout the area, finally clearing the streets after more hours of battle. But the day had clearly been carried by the masses. The Seattle PI reported, "One protester summed up the day in white paint on a bank's picture window, writing, `We win."'
"WHOSE WORLD? OUR WORLD. WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS."
Throughout the protests, this call-and-response grew to characterize the spirit of the youth and students at the WTO protest. Many of the youth mobilized during these protests were organized by the Direct Action Network (DAN), a coalition of radical environmentalists, pacifists, and direct action groups.
Youth and students poured into Seattle from all up and down the west coast, Colorado, Canada, and many points east. Among these youth there were many different views, experiences and philosophies, but a uniting desire to stop the WTO's moves against the world's people, workers, and the environment. And there is a developing love of each other and the people, and a desire for fundamental change.
One young woman active with DAN from Portland, who has been active in youth liberation and anti-police brutality issues, spoke about the new activism of the youth, "Ignorance is bliss, and knowledge is power, and if I know something about the WTO and you don't know it, I'm going to do all I can to get you to know it, and I just think it's spreading and the revolution is coming!"
The youth came together to plan and organize many of these protests and carry it off themselves. They brought with them a militant spirit and a new combativity. Many creative forms of protest were in effect. The most widely used were the linked arms blocking streets and hotels, the PVC pipe chains blocking intersections, sitting down in the streets and filling the streets with their numbers. People danced, mocked and celebrated in front of lines of riot cops. Much of the celebration was intended to show a lack of fear--to show that people wouldn't be intimidated and that the protesters represented a whole different culture, like dancing to drums.
Within the overall framework of "civil disobedience" there was at least a section of protesters with a more militant edge. People threw tear-gas canisters back at police. People threw rocks, bottles, and sticks at the police after being gassed. People threw newspaper boxes and rolled dumpsters into the street like mini-barricades. Bonfires were built a couple of times. And there was a lot of dispersal and regrouping after gas attacks. Protesters left their mark on buildings all over town.
And through it all, one of the most striking features of the protests was the daring and determination of the youth--as they kept coming back at the enforcers, despite everything that had been thrown at them. Even after the police attacks, the people kept marching right up to police lines and chanting, refusing to move, hounding the police, marching to the jail, blocking the front of the jail and buildings where delegates were housed. Solidarity in jail and on the jail busses was outstanding--and many arrested people refused to give names, calling themselves "John or Jane WTO."
The WTO ministerial meeting was scheduled to conclude Friday by 6:30 but continued into the night. Then, in a surprising turn, major media announced that the trade talks had collapsed and no new WTO agreement would be signed.
Apparently many contradictions contributed to this stunning defeat for the Clinton administration and the system. Major differences over agricultural subsidies separated the U.S. and the European Union. And the resistance in the streets heightened the contradictions within the WTO. Representatives of Third World nations openly complained that all the important talks were held behind closed doors among the delegates from the big nations.
Many delegates couldn't wait to get out of town. One delegate from Kuwait complained that he had to show his WTO ID badge just to move a couple blocks within the occupied zone, then he had to hide his badge outside the zone for fear anti-WTO protesters would confront him. A WTO observer from Switzerland who had been told by friends to take in the sights of Seattle commented, "Get around town? You've got to be kidding. I'm lucky if I can get a sandwich." As one group of delegates headed to the airport to finally escape the battle of Seattle, their bus broke down.
In the midst of holiday shopping, big business is eager to overcome the disaster and turn everything back into a commodity--to reassert the capital relations. Free bus rides, free parking and free Starbucks coffee and special events have been set up to try to get people back into downtown to "shop til you drop."
But the legacy from the defiant protests at the WTO is that the people and the earth are important--not capital--and that the masses can fight side by side to create a truly beautiful world. This will be the truth that carries the future.
NOTE: Orpheus wishes to thank all the people who helped with this article, especially Sue and Zack.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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