Anti-WTO Protests Escalate

views updated

Anti-WTO Protests Escalate

Newspaper article

By: Anonymous

Date: December 3, 1999

Source: "WTO Protests Escalate." Seattle Post-Intelligencer (December 3, 1999).

About the Author: This article was contributed by a staff writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a newspaper based in Seattle, Washington.


The World Trade Organization (WTO) is an organization of over 140 states that have signed a series of agreements about the details of global trade. The WTO was formed in 1995 and meets annually to set global trade policy.

Since its beginning, the WTO has been a political target of anti-globalization activists who view the organization as manipulating international trade in order to steal from the poor and give to the rich on a global scale. Such activists see the WTO as systematically undermining environmental, consumer, labor, and other protections in order to protect the profits of multinational corporations. Defenders of the WTO and the neoliberal economic policies it promotes argue that unrestricted international corporate activity— often referred to as free trade—actually produces greater prosperity, on average, for poorer as well as for wealthier countries.

The WTO's annual meeting occurs in a different city each year. In 1999, the city was Seattle, Washington. Organized labor, environmentalist, and anti-globalization activists planned protests against the organization's meeting on a large scale. Groups organizing included the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth, church groups, the Sierra Club, Peoples' Global Action, the War Resisters League, and more. Before the event, these preparations caused some apprehension—a Republican member of the King County Council who was consulting with protestors in hopes of organizing a peaceful outcome said that the upcoming event was a "security nightmare."

The outcome was not peaceful. There were 587 arrests and some property damage, including smashed storefronts and looting. The struggle was widely reported as "the battle in Seattle" in national and world media. All mainstream media sources agree that only a small minority of the protestors were violent. The WTO meeting itself failed to produce an agreement.


Anti-WTO protesters took to the streets in downtown Seattle again Friday night, with one contingent calling on city officials to release fellow demonstrators from jail and another calling on WTO delegates to go home.

What began Monday as a fight against the WTO ended yesterday with a candlelight vigil and a battle for civil rights.

"I think it started out about workers' rights and human rights around the world," said Ryan Hinkel, a plumber who took part in a labor march yesterday. "And then it developed more into being about the right to protest as the week went on."

As night fell, hundreds of people gathered peacefully at the King County Jail, the Westin Hotel and Denny Park. Amid the smell of burning incense at the jail, people broke into small groups to discuss what to do next.

Earlier in the day, protesters twice staged brief demonstrations inside the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, where the conference is being held. Around noon, eight people unfurled a banner in the center's press room that read: "Defend Forests. Clearcut the WTO."

"President Clinton is a clear and present danger to the world's forests!" shouted Randy Hayes of the Rainforest Action Network.

Seattle Police hauled off the protesters, and reporters questioned the WTO for limiting the activists' right to free speech.

But WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said people who shout and unfurl banners are not welcome.

The WTO conference ended Friday night after talks to set a trade agenda collapsed.

Community and city leaders, meanwhile, announced some incentives to get residents to return to downtown, which earlier this week was the scene of frequent large demonstrations, occasional violent outbursts, vandalism and looting by a small group of activists.

But first Seattle had to get through its fourth night of street-clogging demonstrations.

Just like they did Thursday night, a large crowd assembled at the King County Jail, with protesters calling for release of several hundred jailed demonstrators inside. City officials agreed the night before to let the group's lawyers in to talk to the jailed protesters if the crowd would disperse, which it did.

Another group of protesters reportedly chained themselves to doors at the Westin hotel and called on delegates, many of whom are staying at the hotel, to go home.

The Westin is not far from the convention center where WTO delgates are meeting and were two minor protests occurred earlier today.

Just before noon, seven environmental activists unfurled a large banner that said: "Defend Forests. Clearcut the WTO," referring to a U.S. initiative to slash border taxes on timber and paper products.

Environmentalists oppose the move because it would boost the rate of deforestation overseas and could eventually hobble domestic forest-protection laws.

"President Clinton is a clear and present danger to the world's forests," shouted Randy Hayes of the Rainforest Action Network. "We have got to stop this madness."

Another sign held by a protester with duct tape on her mouth said, "WTO is a global no-protest zone."

After about three minutes, reporters began to lose interest and return to their desks, then Seattle police rushed in and escorted the protesters out of the building at the request of WTO officials.

The protesters gained access to the press room using media credentials, which activists can obtain if they are writing for specialized publications, such as environmental newsletters.

Police said the seven were admonished and barred from the building, but they were not arrested on what is expected to be the final day of the WTO conference.

After the brief protest, reporters asked why the WTO was limiting the activists' right to free speech, considering many officials have held press briefings this week.

WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said the difference was that in those briefings, officials did not unfurl banners and did not shout.

"Everyone is welcome to come in," he said. "Everyone is allowed to distribute information, but disturbing the work of people who are reporters and who are trying to get their jobs done will not be permitted."

A second wave of demonstrations hit the convention center several hours later.

Protesters shouting "sea turtles are not trade barriers" unfurled a banner on the sixth floor so delegates hanging out in the fourth-floor smoking area could see it high in the atrium.

It showed a sea turtle snared in a fishing net and gave the Web address of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, a San Francisco Bay-area group.

"Clinton say No to the WTO," the banner read. It hung for about 45 seconds before the activist holding it was grabbed by police. Like the earlier protesters, this activist was admonished and barred from the building.

The protests inside the convention center marked the only exceptions to a week that saw delegates, reporters and assorted hangers-on going easily about their business inside the convention center, insulated from assorted outbursts of anarchy on the streets.

Those inside the convention center wanted for little, having at their disposal Kinko's, Starbucks, Subway and several other fast-food outlets, a full-service restaurant and bar, a post office and several retail shops. The gym was closed.

Access to the convention center has been limited to people with proper credentials. The convention center also is in a "police perimeter" zone or "no-protest" zone that further restricts access.

Across town at about the same time as the press room demonstration, hundreds of demonstrators gathered for a rally and march through downtown on behalf of fair trade, free speech, worker rights and the environment. It was that rally that eventually wound up back at the county jail and at the Westin.

Many people in this afternoon's march said they saw the week shift from an indictment of the WTO and its powers, procedures and policies to concern over excessive police force and trampled constitutional rights.

"I think it started out about workers' rights and human rights around the world," said Ryan Hinkel, a plumber. "And then it developed more into being about the right to protest as the week went on."

Wearing a hard hat, harness and tool belt, Vulka Staab of Seattle extended his lunch break from his job as a carpenter erecting a 25-story building downtown to join the union procession.

He too was disappointed in police handling of demonstrations this week.

"I don't think a few vandalized doors is enough to declare a state of emergency," he said. "I always thought our Seattle cops were better than that. I definitely think less of them now."

Others praised police efforts to keep order.

Still others regretted that the WTO had chosen Seattle for its conference.

"It was a mistake to have invited them here," said Bill Bankhead of Seattle. "I wondered why they were invited here when they caused so much trouble in Geneva."

Earlier this week, police frequently used tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and other measures to control what they said were defiant or law-breaking WTO protesters.

Tensions were particularly high Tuesday, when violence broke out and a small group of protesters smashed downtown windows, set Dumpsters on fire and looted stores.

A state of emergency was declared, curfews were imposed and hundreds of extra law officers—including two National Guard units—were called in to keep the peace during the final days of the WTO conference. By Wednesday night, more than 500 protesters had been arrested.

Protests continued Thursday, but police did not need to resort to force to control crowds and only two people were arrested.

Seattle's mayor called for calm, lifted a general curfew, shrunk the no-protest zone around the convention center and agreed to let lawyers into the county jail to talk to demonstrators who had been arrested.


The Seattle protests and riots have often been cited as the coming-of-age of the anti-globalization movement in the United States and the most significant revival of student protest since the Vietnam War era. Never before had such a wide array of activists—labor, peace, human rights, environmental, anti-corporate, feminist, and others—converged on a single target. California Senator Tom Hayden wrote shortly after the unrest that "the Seattle protestors represent the breakthrough of the vast hip-hop generation into a public effort to challenge the system." Conservative critics, on the other hand, cited the protests as evidence of the irrationality and potential for violence of the movements involved.

Media coverage of the event was itself controversial. Mainstream outlets such as the Washington Post frequently referred to the protestors as "anti-trade activists" or characterized the protests as being against world trade, but protestors insisted that they were advocating for "fair trade" rather than no trade or the system generally referred to as "free trade." An editorialist in the New York Times wrote, "When protestors shout about the evils of globalization, most are not calling for a return to narrow nationalism, but for the borders of globalization to be expanded, for trade to be linked to democratic reform, higher wages, labor rights and environmental protections."

Much media coverage of the Seattle protests emphasized the violence of protestors, especially property damage caused by a relatively small number of self-identified anarchists. Some media critics argued that police assaults on nonviolent demonstrators preceded the looting incidents and that police sometimes ignored vandals in order to attack demonstrators non-violently blockading the entrance to the WTO meeting. The Seattle Chief of Police at the time of the protests, Norm Stamper, later wrote of seeing criminal assaults by police: "I saw a cop kicking a retreating demonstrator in the groin before shooting him in the chest with a rubber pellet … Then there was the cop who, spotting two women in a car videotaping the action, ordered one of them to roll down her window. When she complied, he shouted, 'Film this!' and filled their car with mace." Left-leaning journalists Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair argue that "the evidence of a civilian riot was nonexistent. With tens of thousands of demonstrators on the streets for a week, under near constant assault by cops, there were no firearms confiscated, no Molotov cocktails discovered, and no police officers seriously injured … minor acts of [property damage] served as a kind of Gulf of Tonkin incident, used to justify the violent onslaughts by police and the National Guard." Moreover, there were allegations of beatings and deprivation of food, water, and medical care for protestors in detention. Direct Action Network spokesperson told Agence France-Presse on December 4, 1999 that "Our legal team has gone in [to jails where arrested protestors were being held] and found out that beatings in detention were severe, and there has been repeated use of pepper spray in detention." The accuracy of accounts of abuse in detention was disputed by Seattle police.

Protests at WTO meetings and the meetings of other organizations instrumental in the globalized free-trade regime (e.g., the meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. in 2001) have continued. Media coverage of such events tends to focus on clashes between protestors and police rather than on the substantive agendas of either the protestors or the organizations being protested.



Cockburn, Alexander and Jeffrey St. Clair. Five Days that Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond. New York: Verso, 2000.


Hayden, Tom. "The Battle in Seattle: What Was That All About?" The Washington Post (December 5, 1999).

Klein, Naomi. "Rebels in Search of Rules." The New York Times (December 10, 1999).