Press play. A phalanx of riot-geared cops marches westward on Pike. Black padded gloves and body armor, helmets with chin straps and transparent visors cantilevered in their open position like wings of insects preparing to take flight. Helmets that hold faces in. Faces that hold emotions in. A Latino cop with a thick mustache staring straight ahead. A ruddy-faced cop with a blond mustache staring straight ahead. A black cop with a delicately sculpted mustache staring straight ahead. None of them, presumably, fantasizing about what it might be like to be portrayed by Woody Harrelson in an indie film.
Sixteen years ago street protests in downtown Seattle brought the World Trade Organization conference to a standstill. Delegates, politicians, and business leaders from around the world faced activists who’d organized via the pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-YouTube Internet. The Seattle Police Department responded to the civil disobedience, peaceful protest, and vandalism with rubber bullets, tear gas, batons, and pepper spray. Representatives of various NGOs and coalitions would deem these confrontations a success. The media’s talking heads called the conference a failure, an embarrassment to the powers that be, with the most sensational clips broadcast worldwide via that quaint old filter of television. Bill Clinton was in town, riding out the postcoital months of his second term. I like to imagine him in a penthouse suite at the Westin, gazing down at the golden arches below, longing to procure a Filet-O-Fish.
Before long the WTO riots would be pimped out as the backdrop of a forgettable Charlize Theron and Woody Harrelson movie that was filmed in Vancouver because—oh the irony—filming in Vancouver is cheaper, taxwise and laborwise, than filming in Seattle. The cinematic memory of these pivotal days, in the end, succumbed to the same market forces against which so many had rallied in the first place.
In 1999, I worked in customer service at Amazon, on the third floor of the Decatur building on Sixth between Pike and Pine, across the street from Niketown and Planet Hollywood. I skipped out of work for most of November 29 and 30, more interested in witnessing this conflict of globalization than perpetuating it. I choked on pepper spray, got momentarily blinded by tear gas, witnessed arrests and vandalism and moments of sublime comedy. I had recently purchased a video camera and captured over two hours of footage. Then I put the tapes away for a decade and a half.
Over the years I’ve tried and failed at least a dozen times to write essays and fictionalized accounts of the riots. Part of this has to do with self-imposed pressure to assume the correct points of view of a progressive Seattleite. To be honest, and perhaps to my discredit, the political dimensions of the riots aren’t nearly as compelling as the riots as a sociological spectacle. Calling the events “the riots” nudges one toward thinking in dichotomies: righteous/unruly protestors versus fascistic/upstanding cops, order versus anarchy, vandals versus commerce. I’m more interested in social psychology, and what the countless subtle gestures and glances I witnessed communicate about people in conflict.
Finally, a novel I’ve been working on for about five years forced my hand. I wrote myself into a corner by making sure the book would culminate in Seattle in December of 1999. I pulled the tapes and camcorder out of storage, not even sure if this clunky piece of technology manufactured by Sharp would still work. Luckily it did, and I found myself back on the streets of Seattle before 9/11, before W, before social media, before Obama, Snowden, and drones.
Morning, November 29, 1999, Seventh and Pike. The corner that is nowadays occupied by the Cheesecake Factory is under construction, and the convention center hasn’t yet been augmented by its view-obliterating sky bridge. What will become the Regal 16 theater is now a Cineplex Odeon. The Russell Crowe anti–tobacco industry movie The Insider is playing. Several clumps of activists, cops, and unaffiliated observers like me are gathered on the corners simultaneously waiting for something to happen and becoming the thing that is happening. A group of orthodox Jewish protestors sing the Passover chart topper “Dayenu,” interspersing the choruses with cheerful pleas for social justice. The song is about feeling fortunate, expressing to god, in so many words, that his blessings from here on out are all gravy. Everyone behaves, pretty much. A cop on horseback keeps the perimeter in check. A bearded man in a stocking cap addresses the cop, “Why are you protecting the big corporations? We just want to be heard!” News crews from the local affiliates stand around projecting the vibe of responsible adults doing serious things amid irresponsible hippies making a nuisance of themselves. A newspaper seller of an ethnicity I can’t quite pin down hawks that morning’s edition of the Post-Intelligencer like so: “Geeeeet your delly pepper, P-eye! P-eye!”
Let’s pause the tape to observe that we all tend to go about our business expecting the world to operate according to plan, pretty much. Once in a while a bus doesn’t show up on time or an unexpected phone call comes through, a loved one ends up in the hospital, a strange charge appears on a bank statement—but for the most part we stumble through our days confident that the underlying machinery of civilization is well oiled and will continue to bark its marketing campaigns at us. We all buy into these collective agreements because we haven’t figured out a better way to live that’s actually doable. Or maybe we’re just too timid to embrace the revolutions that we secretly know are required of us.
The core assumptions of civilization’s operating system were what allowed the WTO conference to happen in the first place. But these architects of globalism revealed a cultural and technological blind spot. They failed to appreciate the consequences of their policies on real people, not to mention the ecosystem. And they didn’t understand just how quickly the Internet could facilitate social organization. The activists who shut down the WTO conference made no secret of their preparations, but you had to be paying attention to chat rooms to know about them. The machinery of globalization choked in Seattle because it neglected to understand the transformative power of the most globalizing technology the world has ever known.
On the corner of Sixth and Pike on this cloudy November morning a defiant spirit stirs under the surface of our acceptance of business as usual. At this point, it would seem that none of the activists straining against the borders of the designated protest area actually believe that their chant of Hey hey, ho ho, WTO has got to go is anything but wishful thinking at best. Of course the conference is going to happen. Of course trade agreements are going to get hammered out. And yet.
There’s been a bomb scare. I hold my camera up high and attempt to zoom in on a spokeswoman ringed by journalists and their microphones. I catch bits of her statement: “…a delay to the…credible security threat…let our team secure the…”
Hey hey! Ho ho! The WTO has got to go! Hey hey! Ho ho! The WTO has got to go!
“Geeeeeet your delly pepper, P-eye! P-eye!”
The news people appear perturbed, put out, concerned, but their expressions look increasingly like mock indignation. At their core, they live for this shit. But they seem to want to communicate to the perplexed delegates from Kenya and France and Japan, who wear lanyards and ID cards, that they’re on the same side, the side of order and lawfulness and exclusive access to important people. Their salaries trickle down from companies that stand to profit by what happens tomorrow in the conference rooms of the convention center. And yet the medium they steward demands of them the kind of video and audio that grabs eyeballs and makes those eyeballs stick around long enough to absorb the ads for the companies with factories in Southeast Asia, where workers are paid the kinds of bullshit wages no American would tolerate. One of them throws me a look for daring to aim my video camera at her. Oh lady. Just wait till you see what we’ll be able to do with our phones in eight years.
When I raise my head or video camera a few degrees, I see office workers taking in the growing spectacle from second- and third-floor conference rooms above the ground-level retail. There’s a box-seats quality to these corporate perches. Like a bunch of us are down here in the socioeconomic gladiatorial pits, battling for the entertainment of Emperor Greenspan. I wave at some of my Amazon colleagues who watch from the windows of the Decatur building. We should all be answering emails from customers, but what’s unfolding on these streets seduces us with the promise of history in the making. A chant of solidarity rises up from those around me who’ve also noticed they’re being watched: Out of the cubicles! Into the streets! Out of the cubicles! Into the streets!
A half dozen riot cops take a stand in front of Niketown, belts bristling with nylon zip-tie restraints, batons drawn, face guards down. Attempts at impassivity. One cop who seems to be in charge tries to direct the flow of activists, saying, “You gotta stay back, I can’t let you get up behind my officers. Let’s keep a reasonable distance, folks. Reasonable distance.”
Another chant: Whose streets? OUR streets! Whose streets? OUR streets!
What’s truly beautiful and intoxicating is the sight of people reclaiming a geography we all assume belongs to cars. There’s a woman dressed as a butterfly speaking French. Homemade percussion instruments go klank, bong, klank-klank bong. There’s no traffic in downtown Seattle except for the traffic generated by running, marching, and strolling feet heading in every direction. There isn’t one march but multiple marches, parades of thick-necked union representatives, black-clad anarchist drill teams, office drone dorks with video cameras, coalescing and intersecting throughout the grid. I make my way to Westlake Park, where the holiday carousel rotates riderlessly, overshadowed by amusements that now encompass dozens of city blocks.
I make my way unimpeded into Pacific Place, where I take in the view of Sixth Ave from the sky bridge that connects this schmancy new mall to Nordstrom’s flagship store. The amassed humanity is spectacular, a growing crowd of thousands with voices and drums and gigantic puppets and banners. Here and there stand a formation of police in matte black who seem to be observing the same respectful distances they’re asking for. For now anyway. There’s Muzak playing in Pacific Place of the cheery holiday variety. The glittery yuletide backdrop of Seattle has begun to appear somewhat demented in contrast to the anticorporate festivities playing out on the sidewalks. Shoppers pause to take in the spectacle. Some rascally liberals with time on their hands are being indulged for a while here, folks, nothing new to see. Let’s just let the hippies bang their pots and pans, and tomorrow the people in charge can get down to the real business of making the world turn. That seems to be the prevailing mood of the clucking shoppers around me, anyway.
The morning of November 30, 1999, is drizzly and gray, the kind of weather that makes coffee taste better. The asphalt is slick. The sky is waking up. The intersection shared by Niketown, the FAO Schwarz teddy bear sculpture, and the Sheraton Hotel is alive with activists. They’ve constructed a plywood platform smack in the middle of everything. A young black man addresses the assembled through a megaphone in singsong: “Oh-ho. No-oh. WTO’s gotta go-ho.” Dense clumps of caffeinated activists bang rhythms on water cooler jugs that would otherwise keep office workers hydrated. Dozens of mini marches have begun to coalesce, crossing one another, mingling, pooling. A banner: FARMERS NOT FACTORIES. The bullhorn voice again: “Stop. Drop. The people gonna rise to the top.” Delegates power through coffee and pancakes in the window booths of Pike Street Cafe (today’s Daily Grill) as if they occupy a to-scale diorama and are performing according to the script of a visionary and experimental dramaturge. People still play their assigned roles but strain harder at the pretense.
“Geeeeet your delly pepper, P-eye! P-eye!”
I’m sad to see that Juan, the Cuban refugee who usually sets up shop on the corner of Pine and Sixth to inform passers-by of the Seattle Police Department’s communist sympathies, is missing from the milieu today. In his place is novelty yellow police tape wrapped around the newspaper boxes proclaiming “UNSEEN CRIMES.” The boom-clacka-lacka, boom-clacka-lacka of anarchist percussion instruments. A human tide sweeps me, filming, toward Westlake. Little pop-pop-pops as paint bombs splatter the display windows of the Fourth Avenue Gap. A whistle: tweee, tweee, tweee, then a jagged ripping noise as a man in a black rain slicker tears a corrugated plastic advertisement off the side of a bus outside Borders bookstore. The grinning holiday cheer of the retail landscape rubs against demonstrators demanding humane working conditions in the factories of Asia. A police siren. An anarchy symbol spray-painted on the side of an Airborne Express van. Dozens of rhythmically gifted anarchists march and stomp and drill-team their way past the Sharper Image. Ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t STOP! A banner: STEELWORKERS FOR FAIR LABOR PRACTICES. A gang of a half dozen or so people dressed as Santa Claus rove ho-ho-ho-ing through the demonstrations, an absurd cadre of seasonally apropos St. Nicks delivering maniacal good cheer. Ho! Ho! Hooooo!
In the intersection of Sixth and Union shiver a dozen protesters, all watched over by riot cops in Darth Vader–esque rain cloaks. A cop with a bullhorn orders the group to disperse. People before profits! People before profits! Video cameras zoom in on faces. A red-faced woman of about 20, her arms linked to men on either side of her, trembles on asphalt. People before profits! People before profits! A cop aims pepper spray from a canister into the face of the red-complected sitting woman. The volume knob on everything gets cranked to max. No violence! No violence! Don’t break the chain! No violence! Santas scream. There’s an armored Hummer parked at the intersection’s east side. More riot cops with batons. Pop-pop-pop. “Holy shit, rubber bullets!” Howls. A twentysomething Asian guy: “Everybody calm the fuck down! Do not throw shit at the cops! I repeat, do not throw shit at the cops! You’re escalating the situation!” Thick, ropy white sprays of cayenne pepper directed at chanting faces. The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! Crack, hiss, a cloud is born. The pepper spray chases the chants back into throats. The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The wasabi fog propels Santas, amateur documentarians, a young lady dressed as Wonder Woman, and frenzied coughing narrators conveying the melee into their flip phones down Sixth Ave toward the convention center, toward the drums and voices and sirens ping-ponging off the canyon walls of a retail core that’s flush with dot-com millions.
Several randomly aimed shots later I’m on the corner of Fifth and Pike, outside Banana Republic where a police car is escorting delegates through the crowd. A cop in his uniform blues with his back against the passenger door of the car pushes people away with his baton and shouts warnings to let the vehicle pass. A nearby trombonist provides a one-man soundtrack. Whaah whaaaaah wah.
Bang! Everybody, cop included, simultaneously flinches at the explosion. Turns out to be nothing all that physically threatening, just some sort of firecracker, but everyone is all nerves and all of a sudden two riot cops shove a rain-slickered demonstrator to the pavement and the crowd’s collective voice rises in pitch and anger and the trombone chortles a wobbly panic of sixteenth notes. Let him go! Let him go! Let him go! Let him go! The cops yank the man’s arms behind his back to apply a zip tie to cuff his wrists as the cruiser, receiving a hail of thrown objects and invective, finds an opening in the crowd and speeds up the street. Sirens, sirens, sirens. The KIRO-7 whirlybird chop-chop-chops over the grid. No violence! No violence! Landscaping grates and newspaper boxes in the middle of the street. The Santas guffaw their ho-ho-hos. Whose streets? OUR streets! THE ENVIRONMENT AND HUMAN RIGHTS ARE NOT COMMODITIES.
A queue of office workers and activists in front of Monorail Espresso patiently orders lattes. Monorail appears to be doing brisk business, especially after posting a handwritten sign reminding potential vandals that they’re independent. See’s Candies around the corner also appears unmolested, perhaps because it’s hard to square the confectioner’s grandmotherly brand with accusations of global hegemony. A man dressed as Uncle Sam toys with a globe on a string like a yo-yo. Take it over, shut it down! WTO get out of town! News spreads from bullhorn to ear to cell signal to chat room: The delegates aren’t getting to the convention center, the conference has been halted. A middle-aged couple in exercise clothes jogs down Pike toward the market all nonchalant as if there isn’t, you know, a fucking riot happening. Three guys with faces covered in black bandannas haul a Dumpster into the intersection of Fourth and Pike and light its contents on fire. AFL-CIO members in hard hats and reflective, protective outerwear power steadily through Westlake. Spray paint on the side of Banana Republic: CUBA LIBRE. Santas intersect with a cheerful group dressed as endangered sea turtles. The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! A boarded-up Starbucks has been plundered of scones. A portly tuba player meanders through the melee, playing oompah music, proving that anything, including urban unrest, is hilarious when accompanied by a tuba. Graffiti on Niketown: SLAVE LABOR. Word has it a young man wearing Jordans embodied the word ironic by climbing atop the Niketown overhang to kick down the Niketown sign letter by letter. Explosions two blocks away. SUBVERT THE CORPORATE PARADIGM, BUY LOCAL. Whose streets? A teenage girl screams that her eyes are on fire. OUR streets! A graffito near Banana Republic: WE ARE WINNING. DON’T FORGET. Paint splatters on the smashed windows of Bank of America. The clink of a tear gas canister striking pavement on Fourth Ave, trailing a skunk tail of vapor. A guy with his face shrouded in a T-shirt kicks the canister back toward the line of riot cops who tossed it, now standing behind shields with the word SHERIFF on them. Somebody shouts, “Come on! Kill someone, you assholes!”
Hold on a second, stop the tape.
This is the feeling I remember most from the WTO riots. The desire for the other side to throw the first punch in order to justify the counterpunch. A hunger for cathartic violence to expose the vapidness of a society that genuflects to quarterly earnings reports.
And yet, for the most part, neither the law nor the loyal opposition succumbed to the lure of truly tragic violence. Remember this as the legacy of the WTO riots: The streets of Seattle were not stained with blood. The police, who later that night would unfairly crack down on what was then the artist enclave of Capitol Hill, nonetheless could’ve cracked down a lot harder. It sounds like a weak argument, but consider it in hindsight from an era when we see routine evidence of deadly force, particularly against minorities, under the most bogus of pretenses. Tragically, the increased militarization of law enforcement and policing of expression is also the riots’ legacy.
Ours is a time, as Salman Rushdie and others have observed, when free expression is more aggressively discouraged and oppressed than it has been in the recent past, with many of those challenges coming from academia, the left, and that outrage stoker called social media. Revisiting that footage reminded me that free expression includes expression that makes people uncomfortable and upset, and it is our precious American right to take our expression to the streets.
The riots were a moment when thousands of passionate people who’d been excluded from globalization’s conversation insisted on standing against the tide of history while our uncertain future was obscured in a fog of tear gas. The whole world was watching Seattle, and for one day, just before the arrival of a new century’s horrors, Seattle changed the way we saw the world.