WTO: A report from the scene

Your probably saw and heard about the protests at this month's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. We share with you this firsthand account of the event.

by Daniel Evans


December 1, 1999

  t's the day after the tear gas hit the streets (and apparently it's still flying tonight). But tear gas isn't the real issue. It's what 29,900 people from around the world came to Seattle for: to peacefully protest the exclusionary, antilabor and anti-environmental standards that the World Trade Organization has stood behind up to this point. I might have my numbers wrong, maybe there were only 15,000 demonstrators (I haven't heard any official reports yet, so I'm just going off of expected turnout numbers). But in any case, the cause of violence lays in the actions of punks and thugs. The power and emotion of this experience will never be forgotten, yet I feel it is mixed bittersweet. The message we sent that morning and afternoon has been tainted by those looking for an opportunity to inflict damage.


Tuesday morning


We (my compadres in Duvall) were parked in Seattle's Capitol Hill District at 9:45 in the morning. We decided to make our way to Denny St., a main artery to the Space Needle. As we approached the intersection with Denny, the noise became incredible. Drums, whistles, and above all the chant, "HEY HEY, HO HO, THE WTO HAS GOT TO GO...". Our party of five quickly joined 1,000+ students from the University of Washington. We had simultaneously reached the intersection with their lead banner carriers. This was only the beginning of an amazing series of synchronistic events for our group of five. The spirits were high here, as we marched and marched and marched. Faces, shirts, pants and signs were painted in various "No to the WTO!" themes. "HUMAN NEED NOT HUMAN GREED", "WORLD THEFT ORGANIZATION." Our numbers began to swell as smaller, organized groups joined in, just like ours had. The sky has now cleared and there's a beautiful rainbow over Seattle.

Approaching the Needle, I was struck by how multicultural this whole affair had become. A very loud Latino student movement had just joined us, and now we were in the midst of hundreds of people, practicing Falon Gong, an outlawed (in China) exercise similar to Tai Chi. Further down were contingents of folk from Laos, Vietnam, Tibet. The tears began streaming down my face when I saw many of them carrying posters of their missing relatives, victims of voicing their own opinions.

This march ended near Memorial Stadium, where the AFL-CIO were holding their own rally. Various student leaders spoke over microphones in the parklike amphitheater we were in. Messages of thanks, for acting as global watch dogs, started sounding the same after a while, so my compadres and I went over to Memorial Stadium.

As we entered, we were greeted with stickers that said: If the WTO doesn't work for working families, then it doesn't work! There were well over 5,000 people there when we arrived, probably close to ten. Various labor leaders were being projected onto a large screen as they spoke. The atmosphere here was less raucous than the student crowd, but the anger was deep, a smoldering that seemed controlled within each speaker that spoke, and every blue collar worker that I looked at. It was amazing to look around the stadium: here were the AFL-CIO, United Steel Workers, the Green Party, Humane Society, and Organic Farmers of America ("Don't Pinch My Organic Tomatoes"). The Humane Society was carrying a giant sea turtle balloon, and each member was wearing a shell on their backs (A recent WTO decision: the US must open their markets to countries that don't mind killing this endangered species as they go about their shrimp collecting business).

An exhilarated hush fell over the crowd as Vandana Shiva, an intellectual leader from India, took the stage. She talked to us of the poor working conditions in other countries, calling them nothing but slavery. In our push to globalize the economy, we overlook the child slavery, the sex slavery, that is happening in underdeveloped countries. She only spoke for a few minutes; her main act that day was partnering with Raph Nader in a debate on globalization of world economies.

This rally in Memorial stadium was to be the beginning point of the legal march through downtown Seattle, just skirting the convention center where the WTO conference was being held. We were anxious to march, and the stream of speakers seemed endless. It is here where we sealed our fate. Our ire (and curiosity) was sufficient for us to decide to join the blockading of WTO delegates inside the Paramount Hotel, which is right next to the Convention Center.

The streets were empty of cars as we took our direct route to downtown. Groups of demonstrators milled about, waiting for the march to begin. As we got closer to Pike St., one passerby warned us, "Be careful." Blocks ahead was a throng of people. At this point, the smashed windows and anarchy graffiti showed up. A whole block before the throng began, jewelry stores, a bank, the Nike outlet, and especially Starbucks, had some sort of exterior damage. This was all from yesterday.

Finally, to the throng. Here we were, people everywhere, not marching, but just standing and watching. There were folks climbing buildings, hanging banners. People standing on the "Walk/Don't Walk" light. Drumming, singing, chanting. These were everyday people.

It soon became apparent why there was no marching: there was nowhere to go but back, or up a side street. There was a line of police, in full riot gear, just a little way up on 2 sides of this intersection. Between the crowds and the police were seated demonstrators, the effective blockade, five to ten rows thick. Behind everyone was the Convention Center.

Sour, somber faces looked out at us behind plastic shields. After a while, you got used to it, and refocused your energy on the goings-on in the crowds. Chinese men wearing "NO Agri-business in China" bandanas. A group of brightly dressed dancers and musicians (Korean, I think) did impromptu performances throughout the crowd. The scene here was stable. A fellow with a radio called out: "8th and Seneca, 8th and Seneca. There's a hole, delegates are getting through!"


2:20 PM


We never made it to 8th and Seneca. As we veered away from this major blockade, looking for side streets that weren't lined off by riot police (they all were), we inexplicably found ourselves in the middle of the march that had left from Memorial Stadium. Our progress was slow until we found a route that led us to another corner of the Paramount Hotel. Michael Moore of "Roger and Me" fame was there by the entrance, looking just smashing in a NY baseball hat. We continued on.

Suddenly, there was a commotion. Three cars were trying to leave a small parking lot on the side of the Paramount. The cars were flanked by beefy looking men and women in trench coats with receiver jacks in their ears. A crowd of about 200 quickly swarmed the lot and blocked the entrance. It was quite eerie, looking into the windows of these minivans. The stares of the delegates mirrored the blank looks to be found on those of the riot police. People were very polite to the security and the cops that came onto the scene to protect the delegates. We were gently, but firmly saying, "Today you will not go to your conference. Think about why we are here".

The vans backed down into the lot and through a small gate in a boarded-up fence, and disappeared from view. I climbed up the fence for a peek and watched the delegates get out of the vans and grab their briefcases. A small swarm rounded a fence corner, where it was possible to see through, and began a "SHAME ON YOU!" chant. After a few minutes of fence sitting, I was shocked to alertness when the delegates began putting on gas masks. I was incredulous. Were the police going to gas us, so the delegates could get through?


2:40 PM


Several things happened rapidly. Fifteen more riot police showed up, with 5 of them on horses festooned in the equine equivalent of riot gear: face plates of plastic and a black armored shell that ran down the head, between the eyes. I was almost surprised not to see black armored leggings, like their human counterparts were wearing. We tore up a shirt amongst us, wet it, and got ready our probably ineffectual tear gas protection.

The next 15 minutes were tense. A stare down. Who was going to move first? Well the demonstrators, certainly weren't. Most people were sitting down, blocking the lot entrance. Then one enlightened soul began chanting "WE'RE NOT VIOLENT, HOW ABOUT YOU?!" This quickly caught on (and was filmed by Channel 7 news). Other chants: "THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING" and "THERE IS NO POWER LIKE THE POWER OF PEOPLE AND THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE CAN'T BE STOPPED." This seemed to diffuse the whole atmosphere.


2:56 PM

  The horses and the extra police and the delegates have gone back in. A rapidly shrinking group of demonstrators chat amicably with the remaining police officers, and food is offered but not taken. Some of the officers joke back with the demonstrators, and suddenly every one of them is acting human. We meant no violence, we showed no violence. My compadres and I leave an interesting debate on global commerce in search of the immediate needs of a bathroom.


4:00 PM

On the way to the bus depot, some of our eyes, noses, and throats begin to burn. It's unmistakable: our original point of blockade has been tear gassed. We could only guess that property damage was going on, and the word on the street, of people approaching us, searching for fresh air, confirms this. I see someone toss a spewing can of beer, missing a police officer, and we cut out. We find bathrooms at the bus depot, and listened to the TV reports. It's sickening. Coming off the high of successful civil disobedience, we're told by the news, "How disheartening it is to see all of Seattle's lights and ribbons ruined for the Holiday Shopping Season." Vapid reporting such as this soon gives way to the reports that things are beginning to get quite out of hand. It is time to leave.

So, yes, there were thousands and thousands of people acting with dignity. NPR did some pretty good reporting on this. What are people hearing in the mainstream media? I have good pictures too.

With peace, Daniel.

Daniel Evans, devansstarflower.org. For a commentary on the WTO, see Observations from the Edge.