The Battle in Seattle: WTO
SEATTLE, WA - It was billed as the Protest of the Century
and indeed it was (at least in this country). A hundred thousand activists from
around the globe representing every imaginable cause and every walk of life
converged on Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization (WTO) when they met
here at the end of November 1999.
The WTO is an international group created in 1995 by countries that had entered into the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs (GATT). Its purpose is to resolve conflicts between member countries when one nation believes another has created a barrier preventing free trade between the two. A law can be construed as a "trade barrier" if it bans processes rather than products. The WTO is likely to strike down (or already has) laws including those against products created in sweatshops, fur products from animals caught in steel-jaw leghold traps, genetically engineered products, "dolphin-safe tuna" laws, and many more.
Basically any member country passing a law which is even slightly more protective (of the environment, animals or people) than the laws of another member countries is opening itself up to the charge of having created a trade barrier - and thus having that law struck down by the WTO. The sad truth of the matter is that the WTO is designed to protect corporate financial interests above all else. This represents a threat to activists from virtually every cause: environmentalists, animal advocates, consumer rights groups, labor unions, health and safety groups, human rights and virtually any other group of people who care about anything other than the profits of large corporations.
WTO trade talks were set to get underway in Seattle November 30. Thousands began marching before the sun even came up and protested throughout the day in the face of riot cops, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, billy clubs, nerve gas, concussion grenades and anything else the cops could find to torture non-violent activists. Downtown Seattle was completely shut down and the WTO's morning session was canceled because delegates could not get into the area.
By the time the various processions reached the Convention Center, 13 key intersections had been blockaded by people locked down with a variety of devices including dozens and dozens of lock boxes and a tripod. While blockaders remained solid in their positions, the streets filled with protesters expressing their anger over globalization. The energy inspired by SO MANY people united by this common goal to shut down the WTO was remarkable.
At one point, the storm trooper clad riot police decided to move in and clear an intersection. They started indiscriminately spraying tear gas and firing rubber bullets into the crowd as they advanced (along with their mini-tank "urban assault" vehicles) pushing the protest lines back. Almost immediately was heard the sounds of breaking glass, and spray paint began appearing all around town.
Reports indicate that a "mob" of 50 - 200 anarchists responded to police aggression by taking the protest to another level, gathering into a "black block" and physically attacking the property of large, corporate giants such as McDonald's, Niketown, The Gap and Nordstrom. Hundreds of windows were smashed, slogans spray painted, and some stores were allegedly looted over a span of several hours.
Meanwhile, the police continued their acts of violence and aggression against the peaceful protestors. Tear gas hung heavily over the downtown area in thick clouds. Concussion grenades blasted all around. Mounted cops charged through crowds frightening the horses and indiscriminately pepper spraying anyone in the vicinity (including the horses). People were brutally attacked and beaten, run over with motorcycles, shot with rubber bullets and/or pepper sprayed at point blank range. The cops were completely out of control.
After federal officials applied pressure to local politicians, the National Guard was called in and the scene became even more savage. The world watched in horror as live images were broadcast of locked down protesters engulfed in clouds of tear gas, troops recklessly lobbing tear gas canisters and concussion grenades into crowds and innocent people being beaten with absolutely no provocation.
At 7pm a curfew was imposed and protesters were eventually pushed out of downtown and into the residential neighborhood Capitol Hill, where residents were exposed to tear gas, pepper spray and sheer terror as their community was taken over by fascist police. The chaos played out well into the night while those who were downtown (or nearby) after the curfew were arrested.
The following day, December 1 began with several marches, but this time the cops wouldn't let the processions even come close to the downtown area. One march was cut off about 15 blocks away from the Convention Center. About 75 arrests were made at this point when activists refused to disperse. Eventually, thousands found their way into downtown Seattle where they continued to protest. Several hundred people were rounded up and arrested for no apparent reason, yet marches, protests and sporadic autonomous actions took place throughout the day.
That evening, a small crowd gathered on Capitol Hill to burn American flags and other items symbolizing corporate dominance and globalization. The small protest eventually swelled to a spontaneous, several thousand-person march that shut down Broadway for hours. The riot cops and National Guard showed up and surrounded the crowd without warning or provocation and tossed tear gas bombs and concussion grenades into the crowds.
With panic and terror, people literally ran for their lives not knowing how far these dangerously reckless thugs would go. Innocent people were attacked and threatened, but the activists wouldn't back down. They stood their ground and were joined by thousands of local residents who were angry that their neighborhood was being gassed and terrorized for the second night in a row.
Citizens took to the streets and stood up to the cops through round after round of tear gas and concussion grenades. Politicians who'd seen the pandemonium on the news joined in and attempted to negotiate with the police to end the violence (to no avail).
By the end of the night, undercover police had combed the streets and made several more arrests for violation of the gas mask "law" that had been declared the day before as well as an assortment of other bogus charges.
The effects of the weeklong protest have yet to be completely determined. Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper resigned in the face of public outrage over the incompetent handling of the protests. Many residents also called for the resignation of Seattle's mayor, who has stated that he will neither step down from his post nor seek re-election.
The police officer who was caught on video kicking a local Seattle man in the groin then firing a beanbag gun into his chest from only a couple of feet away has received his punishment - suspension for a whole two days. He will also be taken off all SWAT duties and must go through "retraining on the proper use of force."
Policing the protests cost Seattle nearly 14 million dollars and the cost of prosecuting those arrested (and providing public defenders) has yet to be tallied. Of course that number will not be as high as it would have been if all those arrested were actually being prosecuted. City Attorney Mark Sidran has stated that about 442 cases against protesters were dropped because they were "unprovable." Can you say "false arrest?"
What could become the biggest part of the cost for Seattle's hosting of the WTO has yet to be assessed though. As of January 25th the city was facing 27 different damage claims (one as high as $68 million). Those filing for damages include protestors beaten and abused by police, local citizens and shoppers gassed, shot with rubber bullets, shoved, kicked and otherwise harassed, and local retailers losing approximately $17 million in sales revenue and $2.5 million in damages from activists trashing their stores. Suffice it to say, Seattle will not be hosting a meeting such as this again anytime soon!
In addition to deterring other cities thinking about hosting this type of meeting, the week of protests also educated the public about the World Trade Organization and fostered alliances between incredibly diverse interest groups. In Seattle, animal advocates joined forces with labor activists and environmentalists and, for a moment, brought the WTO to its knees. But this is just the beginning. The WTO is still alive and kicking and our work will not be done until this unfair barrier to compassion and common sense is itself destroyed. Together, we can finish off the WTO. Remember, the people united will never be defeated!
For further background and news coverage of the Battle in Seattle on the web, check out: http://www.infoshop.org/no2wto.html
What you can do
Contact the U.S. negotiators directly and urge them to back out of the WTO:
Vice President Al Gore
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Washington, DC 20500
Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
600 17th St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20508
Fax: (202) 395-4549
Also contact your senators and congressional representative and demand to know what they're doing to help put an end to the WTO! To find out who represents you in the senate and house, check out: http://www.vote-smart.org
» WTO: The Siege in Seattle - No Compromise
» ACME Collective Communique - No Compromise