I’ve been scanning old pictures from my big box of disorganized photo envelopes, and decided that the first priority would be the photos I took of the WTO protests during their meeting in Seattle in late November/early December 1999. I lived just across the freeway from the convention center at the time, so a lot of the disturbance was iin places I normally walked through on a daily basis. When I looked up the article for the event on Wikipedia, I was struck by how off the account there seemed compared to how I remembered things. The broken windows, anarchists, that’s what people remember. And I probably contribute to that when the main story I tell from that week is about tear gas and riot cops in front of my apartment building. But a lot of other things happened, and it was really an interesting (if infuriating and sometimes scary) thing to experience.
There was a big union sponsored protest march the first day, and afterward people encircled the convention center, trying to disrupt the WTO talks by making it hard to get inside. I think by early afternoon when I started taking pictures, the police were already using pepper spray and tear gas to try to break up the line.
I don’t remember thinking anything was getting too out of hand while I was down there. There was grafitti, overturned dumpsters, but the police were watching, so it seemed okay, if chaotic. I went home when it started to get too dark to take pictures. Afterward on the evening news it was broken windows, more tear gas, more pepper spray, everyone getting aggressive, the police forcing everyone who was still downtown up Capitol Hill and past my front door. Was it that night or the one after I spent at a friend’s apartment because I didn’t want to find out whether things were calming down or getting worse?
The next day they declared a “No protest zone”, called in the National Guard, and replaced the ring of protesters with riot cops. It didn’t stop people from going downtown, of course. A lot of people who didn’t care that much about the WTO but were offended by the new restrictions (the mayor banned gas masks in addition to the limits on activity downtown) came out to protest that. And all of the reports of broken things and violence attracted a certain number of wannabe hooligans.
Everyone who was still downtown after dark was pushed out and up Capitol Hill again the second day. It was ugly. People in my neighborhood were angry at the cops for treating us like a dumping ground and assuming anyone still outside was causing trouble. I let my curiousity get the better of me, went out to see what was happening, and ended up in the middle of the community college campus lawn when riot cops circled the block and started lobbing stun and pepper spray grenades into the middle to break up the crowd. We couldn’t see which way to go, making it hard to follow their directions and get out of there. The friend I was with and I ran blindly down the hill, and across the street to another friend’s apartment where we stuck our heads under the faucet until our eyes were clear again.
I think this was the night with the police standoff, riot cops on one side and a group of angry neighbors (including a city council member) on the other. It continued on for hours.
The thing that sticks most in my head is how angry I was with the city and the police for not planning how to handle potential problems in a reasonable way. They were unprepared for the sheer number of people on the streets, for the need to separate troublemakers from peaceful bystanders, and seemed completely indifferent to the idea that their heavy-handed approached to crowd control was harmful to anyone who lived or worked in the areas affected. Downtown businesses were furious to be practically shut down for a whole week during the Christmas shopping season.
There’s never going to be another event like this in Seattle. Not at the convention center, which straddles I-5, not anywhere near downtown, stricken by traffic jams even on a good day. Too risky in the “post 9/11 world”. I think the WTO has been changed by it too. To go with the protests, there was a big push from NGOs working on behalf of poorer countries many people feared would be overwhelmed by demands for trade arrangements favorable to the developed world. It seems to be coming out better than I expected. The organization has been deadlocked over agricultural issues for the last couple of years, because developing countries stepped up and asked for changes that would benefit them as well.