WTO Meeting of 1999

From Academic Kids

Template:Anarchism On November 30, 1999, the World Trade Organization convened in Seattle, Washington, USA, for what was to be the launch of a new millennial round of trade negotiations. The negotiations, which were unsuccessful, were quickly overshadowed by massive and controversial street protests outside the hotels and convention center, in what became the coming-out of the anti-globalization movement in the United States. The scale of the demonstrations—even the lowest estimates put the crowd at over 40,000—dwarfed any previous demonstration against a world meeting of any of the organizations generally associated with economic globalization (e.g., the WTO, the IMF, or the World Bank).


Organizations and planning

Planning for the demonstrations began months in advance and included local, national, and internationational organizations. Among the most notable participants were national and international NGOs (especially those concerned with labor issues, the environment, and consumer protection), labor unions (including the AFL-CIO), student groups, religiously-based groups (Jubilee 2000), and anarchists.

The coalition was loose and broad, based more on opposition to free trade policies than support for any one political position, but there was a general consensus among the protestors that the WTO favors the rich and powerful multinational corporations over the interests of most of the world's population and that its policies are destroying the lives of people in third world countries. Many complained specifically about the impact of the WTO on Americans in undermining the sovereignty of federal, state, and local governments and siphoning well-paying American jobs to countries with lower wages, poorer working conditions, and few environmental protections.

The motivations and intent of many of these groups in coming to Seattle differed drastically. Many NGOs came with credentials to participate in the official meetings, while also planning various educational and press events. The AFL-CIO, with cooperation from its member unions, organized a large permitted rally and march from Seattle Center to downtown.

Others, however, were more interested in taking direct action, especially civil disobedience, to disrupt the meeting. These groups loosely organized together as the Direct Action Network (DAN), with a plan to disrupt the meetings by blocking streets and intersections downtown to prevent delegates from reaching the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, where the meeting was to be held. Though the group was a politically diverse one, it did settle on a basic code of nonviolence, including: "We will not destroy property."[1] (http://flag.blackened.net/~global/aaconvergence.htm)

However, certain activists, most notably a group of mostly-young anarchists from Eugene, Oregon (where anarchists had "rioted" that summer), advocated more confrontational tactics, and apparently planned deliberate vandalism of properties in downtown Seattle owned by multinational corporations, such as Beaverton, Oregon-based Nike, Seattle-based Starbucks, various banks, etc.


At 5:00 A.M. on the morning of November 30th, the Direct Action Network's plan was put into action. Several hundred activists arrived in the deserted streets near the convention center and began to take control of key intersections. Over the next few hours, a number of marches began to converge on the area from different directions. These included a student march from the north and a march of citizens of the developing world who marched in from the south. Some demonstrators held rallies, others held teach-ins and at least one group staged an early-morning street party. Meanwhile, a number of activists still controlled the intersections using lockdown formations.

The control of the intersections, plus the sheer numbers of protestors in the area, prevented delegates from getting from their hotels to the Convention Center. It also had the effect of cutting the police forces in two: the police who had formed a cordon around the convention center were completely cut off from the rest of the city. The police outside of the area eventually decided to attempt to break through the protestors' lines in the south.

At 10:31 am, the Seattle police fired tear gas canisters into a crowd at the intersection of 6th Avenue and Union Street. By noon, they were also shooting demonstrators with rubber bullets and pepper spray, in order to force as many WTO delegates as possible through the blockade. Apparently acting on a previously determined policy, police initially refused to arrest demonstrators (in some cases pepper-spraying those non-violently presenting themselves for arrest). When they did attempt to make arrests, they found themselves unable to do so. Some police began beating demonstrators and engaging in other acts of violence, even towards bystanders who were not participating in the demonstrations. In a few hours, the police expended all their tear gas, and rushed to other police departments to get more.

The situation was complicated around noon, when perhaps a few dozen black-clad anarchists (in a formation known as a black bloc) -- many of them likely from Eugene, as discussed above -- began smashing windows and vandalizing corporate storefronts. This produced some of the most famous and controversial images of the protests (one particularly widely-distributed photo showed a Nike-wearing anarchist vandalizing Niketown). Reaction from other protestors was mixed (some attempted to physically block their activities) and the police were unable to make arrests.

The police were eventually totally overwhelmed by the mass of protestors downtown, including many who had chained themselves together and were blocking intersections. Meanwhile, the late-morning labor-organized rally and march drew tens of thousands; though the intended march route had them turning back before they reached the convention center, most ignored the marshals and joined what had become a street-carnival-like scene downtown.

The opening of the meetings was delayed, and it took police much of the afternoon and evening to clear the streets. Seattle mayor Paul Schell imposed a curfew and a 50-block "No-Protest Zone" of dubious legality. Businesses lost approximately $9 to $18 million in sales, and suffered $2 to $3 million dollars in property damage (mostly covered by insurance). There were further losses in tourism due to damaged reputation, and/or public apprehension in living or visiting Seattle.

Over 600 people were arrested over the next few days, although virtually all of them were later acquitted due to inappropriate police procedure during the arrests. One particularly violent confrontation occurred the evening of December 1, when police pursued protestors fleeing from downtown into the bohemian neighborhood of Capitol Hill, indiscriminately using tear gas, pepper spray, and physical force and injuring some neighborhood residents.

The Indymedia project started here to cover the protests.


The conclusion by many in Seattle was that the WTO convention was not worth hosting due to the economic damage caused by the protests. Controversy over the city's response to the protests resulted in the resignation of Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, and arguably played a role in Schell's loss to Greg Nickels and Mark Sidran in the 2001 mayoral primary election.

Similar tactics, on the part of both police and protesters, were repeated at subsequent meetings of the WTO, IMF/World Bank, Free Trade Area of the Americas, and other international organizations.

The long-term impacts on WTO policies remained decidedly unclear, and it is an open question whether the WTO's actions since that time have been influenced significantly by these events.

On January 16, 2004, the city settled with 157 individuals arrested outside of the so-called no-protest zone during the WTO events, agreeing to pay them a total of $250,000.

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