The WTO Effect

By Josh Feit November 24, 2009


[This article was originally published yesterday afternoon.

The 10-year anniversary of the WTO conference and mass protest that shook Seattle and the world is next week. To understand the significance of those historic days in Seattle, PubliCola asked current UW history PhD student (and frequent PubliCola commenter) Trevor Griffey, who participated in the protests as a 24-year-old when he was still temping for Muzak,  to share his thoughts.

Trevor ended up submitting this  fantastic article about the long-term chilling impacts that the WTO protests have had on your civil liberties.]


The WTO Effect

by Trevor Griffey

Before one shot of tear gas was fired, before one masked anarchist smashed a bank window, before barricades went up in the usually boring streets of downtown Seattle’s shopping district, without any violence or property damage whatsoever, non-violent protests against the World Trade Organization on the morning of November 30, 1999 had already won the “Battle of Seattle.”

That victory set in motion two major developments—a new kind of social movement organizing, and new political strategies for containing that organizing.

The first was the development of what came to be called the global justice movement. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the WTO protests, Seattle+10 will be telling this part of the story during the weekend of November 27-29, 2009. There will be a live broadcast by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! at Town Hall; screenings of the new Yes Men film at Northwest Film Forum; a series of panel discussions at Seattle University among the parade of events. There will also be a screening of the documentary film, This is What Democracy Looks Like, and discussion afterward on December 3, 2009.

But I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about something else. I want to talk about the darker legacy of the WTO protests, the second major change they set in motion. I’d like to talk about what people in power, not social justice activists, learned from the WTO protests. And how and why the WTO became a turning point for the increased militarization of public space during the last ten years.


To the degree that people even use the word Seattle to evoke anything other than grunge rock, Microsoft, or Starbucks, it is as shorthand for the WTO protests. Around the world, among the left and those interested in international politics, “Seattle” is often referred to as the official birth of the global justice movement (or fair trade movement—or, as its opponents call it, the anti-globalization movement).

Certainly, the protests ignited spirited debates over neoliberal globalization that had been long overdue. But those debates also set off a reaction by those in power. There’s a reason not one single global trade meeting or major political event has been seriously disrupted since the WTO was blocked from meeting in Seattle: People in power—the world’s governments, and in particular their police forces—decided that they would change the law to ensure that it would never happen again.

To understand why the world’s leaders were so freaked out by what happened in Seattle, you first have to clear away all the mythology about there having been an anarchist “riot” in Seattle. There wasn’t.

By 8am, November 30, 1999, as the sun rose on a cold and drizzly Seattle day, activists had completely circled the convention center and various downtown hotels. Some people “locked down” in intersections to prevent traffic from moving in and out at strategic points. And many others—like me— simply joined friends and linked arms and played a strange kind of red rover that prevented anyone in a suit without press credentials from coming or going.

Downtown Seattle was a liberated zone. It was probably the closest I will ever come to experiencing what felt like a revolution— when government has lost control of a space, and you, not the fear of the police, determine your ethics and your identity (Matt Stadler wrote a beautiful meditation on this experience for the Stranger and sometimes I wonder if it’s that pure loss of control that most freaked out police the world over.

Despite the support of police from regional law enforcement agencies, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) was understaffed and, inexplicably, almost totally unprepared for the WTO protests. It had lost before police ever fired a shot of tear gas. Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper’s career was over, and so was Mayor Paul Schell’s— they just didn’t know it yet. Or maybe they did, and they just didn’t admit it.


Everything that followed that day was payback, not policing. And pretty much most of the policing of subsequent global justice movement protests since that time has been one long act of payback for those few hours when the Seattle police were not in control.

Let me explain. There are laws on the books that allow police to remove people from obstructing meetings and traffic. When people intentionally violate those laws, they know they are risking arrest for the sake of higher principles. The SPD was too short-staffed to enforce the law. Police couldn’t barricade all the hotels and convention centers to keep activists from freely coming in, while at the same time arresting all the people who had blocked entry into those buildings and cut off street traffic.

So the police decided to bust heads. They started with the people who locked down in intersections, then went for the people who blocked building entries. Instead of arresting people, police simply dropped tear gas, pepper sprayed activists in the face, and hit them with batons and shields to move them out of the way.

Not arresting the people you beat up tends to produce a crowd of angry people. A few anarchists— wearing black hoodies and scarves around their faces— responded to the police assault by breaking a few windows. They also started spray-painting words of encouragement like “we’re winning” on buildings downtown, or put anarchist symbols on retail outlets and stranded limousines. Their real crime was to actively demonstrate that police had lost control. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people downtown simply moved away from buildings they had blocked, back into the streets.

When the Seattle police established security lines at intersections to secure downtown block by block, they turned an amorphous crowd of confused onlookers and angry and exhilarated activists into enemies of the state. From that moment on, anyone without WTO credentials lost their rights to public space. The First Amendment was abridged and limps along to this day.


In the meantime, Madeleine Albright was stuck in a penthouse in the Westin fuming. Her security detail had never seen anything like what was going on outside, and wouldn’t let her leave the hotel. The first day of the WTO meeting was canceled.

Under pressure from the secret service and national politicians, Seattle police set out to clear the entire downtown of protesters. This maybe, maybe, seemed like a smart idea when there were only a few thousand protesters. But by the time the SPD had reserves of tear gas and pepper spray flown in from Wyoming, the people who had engaged in direct action during the morning were joined by a march of almost 50,000 people who were coming from an AFL-CIO rally at Seattle Center. They had a permit to march, and now they were being attacked for simply being downtown.

Mayor Schell, grasping for straws to salvage his career, and needing to rationalize his clumsy police riot, declared that all of downtown Seattle would a “no protest zone.” The no protest zone provided cover for more than just having the SPD spend the rest of the day filling downtown with tear gas. For the rest of the week, it gave cops license to refuse entry to downtown of any person wearing political buttons or carrying signs.

Since no sweeping ban like that can possibly be enforced evenly, the effect of the decree was to give police maximum discretion to detain or harass anyone they thought might be a “protester”— a new legal category for people who lacked full citizenship rights. It probably wasn’t surprising that, given this discretion, Seattle Police even ended up racially profiling black City Council member Richard McIver and yanking him out of his car.

Is it any surprise that, once established, the no protest zone’s boundaries seemed to blur? Police did not stop pushing people out of downtown the night of November 30. For the two nights that followed, police chased the people they “dispersed” into the adjacent Capitol Hill neighborhood, pissing off all sorts of innocent people who never stepped foot downtown, then kicking the crap out of people they pissed off under the pretense that they were protesters. (This was most poignantly captured by TV footage of the poor man who, after told by King County Sheriff’s deputy Vanderwalker to clear the street, responded by saying “but I live here”— to which deputy Vanderwalker responded by shooting him with a beanbag gun and kicking him in the groin)

But people who were not there, and who were not sympathetic with the WTO protests, remember a different story. TV and newspaper images of broken windows and spray paint downtown, of bonfires and black-clad anarchists, replaced narrative reporting with a spectacle of chaos.

These images—taken out of context— made police seem like heroes trying to re-establish law and order and put down an anarchist riot. The chain of events that led to the police riot was erased, and the actions of a few dozen or maybe hundred anarchists— who police were incapable of arresting anyway— was used as a pretense to grant police the benefit of the doubt with any crowd control techniques they deemed necessary. As it turned out, that benefit of the doubt proved to be almost limitless.

By the next day, the backlash against the WTO protests was already taking effect, and a new mythology about the evils of “Eugene anarchists” and the “black bloc” was taking hold. On December 1, police arrested of hundreds of people who defied the no protest zone at Westlake Center, which after all was a public park. That same day, the Seattle Times headline about the world-historic events the previous day read, in big bold letters: “Shoppers Barred in Retail Core.”


So, who cares what the media says? The real question is: Could this police riot possibly be legal? Sadly, yes. And here is where things get really weird.

Sure there were lots of lawsuits against the City by people who claimed their rights were violated— including by the people who faced mass arrest for defying the no-protest zone. But these were civil suits for damages, and most settled out-of-court for money. Overall, it was a small price to pay for suspending the Constitution.The Seattle ACLU, however, challenged the no-protest zone on constitutional grounds. It argued that the abrogation of people’s first amendment rights in so general a way couldn’t possibly be legal. The abuses the ACLU documented as part of its litigation were obviously civil rights violations.

But in 2001, the ACLU lost. The federal courts, invoking a law originally intended to create a safe buffer zone from protests around clinics that provide abortions, decided that it was reasonable as well as constitutional to preemptively declare 25 blocks— basically the entire downtown— a “no protest zone.” Judge Rothstein wrote that “Free speech must sometimes bend to public safety.” I still can’t believe how far it was bent.

The ruling in the ACLU case made possible a major shift in crowd control already underway as a response to the WTO protests.

Even while the ACLU case wound its way through the court system, police around the country studied and learned from what happened in Seattle. They began to use preemptive arrests to remove protest leaders from the streets and sow fear of infiltration among activists. They preemptively seized puppets, signs, tripods, and other materials from protesters— claiming they might be used as weapons in the days ahead. They had busses ready for mass arrests, and bought all sorts of riot gear they were excited to use.

All this began in 2000, starting with the IMF/World Bank protests in April, then continuing with protests at the Democratic and Republican national conventions. And by 2003 these various tactics were pulled together into a highly militarized, confrontational approach to crowd control that activists began to refer to as the “Miami model”— named after the crowd control strategies developed to suppress protests of the FTAA in 2003.

Once the legality of the “no protest zone” was established, police around the country took the blunt instrument introduced in Seattle as an emergency measure and refined it into a routine form of policing. If there were certain areas where first amendment rights no longer applied, so the reasoning went, then they were defined in relation to places where the first amendment still existed. Ergo, if you created a “free speech zone”—a sort of First Amendment equivalent of Vietnam's “Strategic Hamlet” —all of the sudden you could deny any and all permits for protests and rallies outside that zone. And without a permit, anyone who failed to disperse was basically violating what police considered “the law.”

(Strategic Hamlets were used by the U.S. army in Vietnam as a form of counter-insurgency policing. By placing rural populations in concentration-camp like "hamlets," the US military treated the rest of the countryside outside those hamlets to be "free fire zones", and the people in those zones as insurgents)

Et voila! The crude and poorly thought out methods of the police riot during the WTO protests had been institutionalized. Outside “free speech zones,” police claimed carte blanche to arrest people at their discretion, or simply assault people for being in public space. These strategies evolved in fits and starts, and did not really become solidified until the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 2004 in Boston and New York City resepctivley.

[Josh covered the NYC protests in the context of the WTO fallout, and also reported on the Seattle-based Infernal Noise Brigade, who were arrested at the scene.]

The “free speech zone” at the DNC in Boston that year showed the extremes to which the policing logic could go: Under subway tracks, ringed with barbed wire fence, miles from the convention, it was basically an outdoor prison.

The irony, of course, is that after a series of “carnivals of resistance” at various global trade meetings in 2000 and 2001, most activists were already critical of street protests as an end in themselves, and saw little utility in giving the police license to kick their asses with impunity.

And September 11 complicated matters. The 2001 World Bank protests in Washington DC were canceled in part because the possibility that direct action might be conflated with domestic terrorism. The carnival of resistance era pretty much came to a close in the united states.

Internationally, The global justice movement reorganized itself through participation in massive social forums in Porto Allegre, Brazil; the creation of regional social forums; and a decentralized shift toward community organizing that could maintain different forms of international solidarity.

Protests obviously continued, including at the WTO meeting in Cancun in 2003, but they were means to larger ends.

As for the global justice movement in Seattle, police harassment intensified throughout 2000 and 2001 to the point that most activists found it counter-productive to try to use street protests as a primary form of activism. Invariably such protests devolved into media stories about the the anarchists—even if none of the protesters were anarchists at all. The question of whether people deemed “protesters” had free speech rights at all came to dwarf what they had to say.

How bad did it get in Seattle before most activists acceded to the permitting process whereby they have to register with the police beforehand to use their First Amendment rights? At an un-permitted Reclaim the Streets event in Seattle in August, 2001 that brought out about 200 people who wanted to hold a street party at an undisclosed location, about 170 cops were assigned to crowd control. Police restricted marchers to sidewalks, and corralled them with bicycles and horses to keep them out of intersections as soon as walk signals flashed red. People who managed to break free and actually jaywalk— including a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty— were not just ticketed, but arrested, and whisked off in a van for processing to be released an hour or two later.

A friend of mine who resisted arrest for jaywalking ended up being jailed for the night for obstruction of justice. Showing the degree to which the general public became tired of even hearing about police violation of civil liberties, Robert Jamieson at the Seattle PI, who wasn’t even there, wrote that the people at the Reclaim the Streets event got what they deserved, and were “knuckleheads.” [I wrote about Reclaim the Streets for Seattle Weekly at the time.]

The War on Terror also deepened collaboration between local police forces, homeland security, and the military. It transformed discussions about peaceful protest into a language of social war, and increased the weapons at the police’s disposal to wage that war. Now, instead of protesters facing mere local or regional police forces, the full power of an increasingly integrated surveillance and police system is being brought against the First amendment rights of everyone in civil society.

The proliferation of fusion centers— which coordinate the sharing of information between local law enforcement agencies and federal Homeland Security and even military agencies—is an indication of this growing approach to treating local police functions as part of an integrated "national security" strategy. Here in Seattle, the police department participates in a fusion center located at the federal building downtown, and it seems that some of the Fort Lewis Army staff recently caught spying on Olympia activists have also been participating in local fusion centers.

As a result, of this growing militarization of the nation's police functions, each year, new and greater weapons have been deployed against people carrying puppets and signs, riding bicycles, wearing cardboard turtle outfits or walking around topless with electrician’s tape on their nipples.


So when President Obama met with G20 leaders in Pittsburgh this year to try to hold the global economy together, it wasn’t even remarkable that protesters were barred from downtown and told to remain in some ludicrous “free speech zone” miles from the meeting. But what did make news was that protesters who defied the order were also met with sonic cannons that induce nausea, whose only previous use had been by US armed forces against Iraqi insurgents and Somali pirates. As Pittsburgh’s Police Chief told the New York Times, “Other law enforcement agencies will be watching to see how it was used… It served its purpose well.”

Locally, the Battle of Seattle is over, and the police won. Or rather, they lost for a few hours on the morning of November 30, 1999, and in response, they kicked ass in the streets for a couple years and took back City Hall. The Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG) capitalized upon the firing of Norm Stamper and election of Greg Nickels on a pandering, pro-cop platform to demand an effective end to police accountability politics.

Nickels, not long after being elected Mayor, decided to put the kibosh on the recommendations of the city’s racial profiling task force because the cops objected to it, and there hasn’t been a serious attempt by City Hall to address racial disparities in police ticketing and arrests since. Indeed I think they even stopped collecting data through which they could be held accountable for racial disparities in policing.

Heady from this success, and in a brazen act of pettiness, SPOG members held a no-confidence vote in Chief Kerlikowske after he issued a letter of reprimand to an officer who talked down to students he stopped for jaywalking. Kerlikowske, a well-meaning guy with a career to look out for, decided to back off and not cross SPOG again, or discipline any officer for excessive use of force even on the few occasions when the Office of Professional Accountability recommended it.

And in the political vacuum created by his and the Mayor's lack of leadership, much of the City Council seemed to buy into the idea that police accountability is somehow anti-cop.


Only now, with new elected officials and a decade later, is there even a real possibility to revise the backlash politics that emerged in response to the WTO protests. We need to establish a new balance between the need for “public safety” and “national security” and the need to respect the Constitution. For the last 10 years, both Democrats and Republicans, at the local and national level, have ceded too much to punitive, emotional, and ineffective policing strategies. It’s time for a recalibration of our priorities.

At the national level, it’s pretty hard to be optimistic. President Obama still retains extraordinary political capital, which is reason for hope. But Obama, the former constitutional law professor, has been much less of a civil libertarian than his supporters were led to expect he would be during his campaign for office. Not only does the nation’s integration of military and police functions continue unabated. But Obama has even remained cautious to a fault in appointing judges to fill vacancies in the federal judiciary—the whole reason that Democrats claim to be better than Republicans when their foreign policy and domestic policy overlap. So neither changes in public policy nor in the law are likely to come from any branch of the federal government but Congress. And then, only with public pressure.

At the local level, there is a bit more opportunity for change, even without public pressure. With a new Mayor, new City Attorney, and new Police Chief all coming in at roughly the same time, Seattle really has an opportunity to reestablish the importance of civil liberties as part of its approach to public safety.

First, since federal fusion centers lack proper safeguards to protect civil liberties and focus on reasonable law enforcement functions, I think a compelling argument can be made that the participation of local police in fusion centers violates Seattle’s (and dozens of other cities’) law against the city participating in government spying.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, change in political leadership provides an opportunity to address the complete political vacuum around issues of public safety that has dominated Seattle politics since the WTO. With its politically effective resistance to new accountability measures, SPOG aggressively defended its rank and file against activists—as you would expect it to do. But it was the Mayor, the City Council, the City Attorney and Police Chief's almost universal capitulation to SPOG’s defensive posturing that allowed SPOG to get away with it. It’s time for all of these officials to reassert themselves.

This begins with articulating a public safety strategy for the city that is unapologetic about the fact that excessive use of force and treating of people who assemble in public space as terrorists are ineffective forms of policing. They waste taxpayer resources, and they violate the rule of law that they claim to protect.


Trevor Griffey is a PhD Candidate in U.S. History at the University of Washington and the Project Coordinator for the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. He wrote for the Independent Media Center's street zine, Blind Spot, during the WTO protests in 1999, and worked on a similar publication for the Washington DC IMC during the April, 2000 protests against the World Bank/ IMF.

In August, 2001, he was pushed and pepper sprayed by a Seattle police lieutenant while covering Reclaim the Streets in Seattle, which resulted in his filing a complaint with the City of Seattle's Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which later rejected his complaint. He subsequently sued the City for violating his civil rights and settled out-of-court.

He wrote about police accountability and racial profiling issues for the Seattle Weekly and South Seattle Star from 2002-3

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