WTO Meeting and Protests in Seattle (1999) -- Part 2

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 11/13/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9213
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When Seattle elected officials and civic leaders won the bid to host the Third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO), they hoped to link Seattle's name to a new round of negotiations aimed at promoting and regulating international trade. What happened during the conference did indelibly link Seattle and the WTO, although not in the way that boosters hoped. Tens of thousands joined in rallies and marches against WTO policies that they said hurt the environment, farmers, workers, consumers, and others. Thousands more successfully (albeit temporarily) "shut down the WTO" through nonviolent civil disobedience. A much smaller group used property destruction to protest the WTO and big corporations. Seattle authorities responded with a massive show of police force and creation of a "no protest zone," drawing widespread criticism for both their lack of preparation and their subsequent crackdown. Part 2 of this two-part essay describes the lead-up to the conference, events during the conference week (which are further detailed in separate HistoryLink timeline essays), and the aftermath for the WTO, which failed to reach any agreement in Seattle, and for protestors and the city.

Invitation to Seattle

The WTO's goal in Seattle was to launch a ninth round of trade negotiations. Many of the eight earlier negotiating rounds held under the WTO's predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), were named for the location of the meeting where the agenda was adopted, like the 1986-1993 "Uruguay Round" that led to creation of the WTO. When the WTO in 1998 decided that the ninth round would be launched in the United States, boosters from some 40 American cities competed for the expected honor of having the round named for their hometown.

Seattle entered the competition to host the conference almost accidentally -- as more than one post-WTO critique pointed out, there never was a formal process to assess the pros and cons of inviting the WTO, as there had been when the City Council earlier declined to bid on hosting the 2012 Olympics. In May 1998, Don Lorentz, a Port of Seattle official attending a meeting in Geneva, the WTO's home city, ran into Rita Hayes, the U.S. ambassador to the WTO. Hayes mentioned that Seattle would be a good candidate to host the ministerial conference and Lorentz reported the suggestion to the Port Commission. It was Pat Davis, a Port Commissioner and the president of the Washington Council on International Trade, who initiated the effort to invite the WTO to Seattle.

With the backing of Seattle Mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014), Davis organized the Seattle Host Organization (SHO) to submit Seattle's bid. Washington Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950), U.S. Representative Jim McDermott (b. 1936), Boeing's Phil Condit, and Microsoft's Bill Gates (b. 1955), all strong supporters of free trade, joined in supporting the effort. In August 1998, Seattle made the first cut, becoming one of 21 finalists, and in December the list was reduced to two -- Seattle and Honolulu. In January 1999, after Seattle offered $9.2 million for the conference (which the Seattle Host Organization promised to cover), nearly twice Honolulu's bid, Davis, Schell, and others celebrated the announcement that the WTO would meet in Seattle from November 30 to December 3.

In order to start the planned new "Seattle Round" (in a sign of dissension to come, some countries preferred "Millenium Round"), all 135 trade ministers at the conference had to agree on a Ministerial Declaration setting forth a specific agenda for future negotiations, including such contentious areas as agriculture, intellectual property, and services. In addition, trade officials faced pressure, both external and internal, to address in Seattle some of the many criticisms of the WTO that had been raised since its formation.

Planning the Protests

As soon as Seattle's selection was announced, activists for diverse causes, representing a wide and sometimes conflicting variety of goals, strategies, and tactics, began planning to make their voices heard during the conference. The big unions and mainstream environmental and other groups (among them the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Global Trade Watch), which mobilized the largest numbers of protestors, generally sought to reform (not abolish) the WTO, in large part by having it incorporate labor, environmental, and other standards. Many argued that the WTO should not start another round of trade negotiations until those issues were addressed. These groups relied largely on legally permitted rallies and marches, whose times and locations were worked out with city authorities, the largest being the huge AFL-CIO rally and march scheduled for the opening day of the conference.

Other groups, which tended to share a more radical critique of the WTO, and in many cases of capitalism in general, planned to go beyond permitted demonstrations to physically shut down the WTO meeting through nonviolent direct action. Prompted by David Solnit and Sonja Sivesind from the San Francisco-based group Art & Revolution, organizers from up and down the West Coast came together in a loose coalition that they called the Direct Action Network (DAN). In addition to Art & Revolution, DAN included activists from Earth First, the Ruckus Society, Rainforest Action Network, People's Global Action, and smaller local groups.

Using a decentralized affinity group structure, DAN organizers coordinated efforts to block access to the Washington State Convention & Trade Center where the WTO would meet and the nearby Paramount Theatre where the conference opening ceremony was scheduled for November 30. Organizers trained protestors in the time-honored strategy of civil disobedience including, because civil disobedience by definition involves breaking the law, preparation for the likelihood of arrest and remaining peaceful in interactions with police. Borrowing techniques used earlier by protestors trying to block Northwest logging operations, many affinity groups prepared to use plastic pipes, duct tape, bicycle locks, and other devices to fasten themselves together, making it harder for police to remove them from intersections or doorways.

Performance art and street theater were also a big part of the direct action plans. Artists prepared giant puppets, huge balloons, and large banners that carried anti-WTO messages and, along with music, drumming, and performances often gave a festive air to the occupation of downtown streets. While planning to break the law through civil disobedience, DAN organizers adopted action guidelines that called for no property destruction (and no weapons, violence, drugs, or alcohol). The call for no property destruction led to debates within the coalition, where the question of whether harming property constitutes violence was hotly contested, but DAN organizers adhered to the no destruction guideline.


However, a few small groups that were outside DAN or broke from the coalition made plans to protest the WTO and global capitalism generally by destroying property of large corporations such as banks, Nike, the Gap, McDonald's, and Starbucks, that they identified as responsible for evils such as exploiting workers and destroying the environment. Members of these loosely organized groups, which mustered an estimated 100 or so people within the crowd of 40,000 or more protestors on November 30, sometimes called themselves the "black bloc," but were most commonly referred to as "anarchists."

All of these disparate plans, from permitted marches and rallies through nonviolent civil disobedience to targeted property destruction, were public knowledge long before the conference began. Organizers for the coalition of unions, environmental and consumer groups, and others planning the large permitted demonstrations spent hours negotiating the details with city officials and police. DAN's plans were likewise no secret. For two weeks before the WTO arrived, organizers operated a "Welcome Center" on Denny Way just east of downtown where they trained potential protesters in civil disobedience, prepared the street art, and planned the civil disobedience. In The Seattle Times's advance listing of WTO-related events for November 30, "Shut Down the WTO -- Mass Nonviolent Direct Action," appeared right alongside the listings for official conference events, permitted marches, and the plethora of other scheduled events. Even the anonymous anarchists circulated their plans for months on websites and in leaflets.

The possibility of major disruptions was widely discussed in the media. As early as August 1999, the Seattle Weekly headlined a front page article "Shutting Down Seattle." Many articles in the local and national press in the weeks leading up to the conference reported that 50,000 or more demonstrators could jam the streets and gridlock downtown; others described rumors of possible violent protests.

But Not Ready

Despite all these forewarnings, the one thing that virtually every subsequent account of Seattle's experience with the WTO agreed on was that city officials and police commanders were not adequately prepared for the protests that occurred, although the reasons for that were debated and never fully clarified. In the aftermath, many pointed to Mayor Schell, who had stressed his own background as an anti-Vietnam war protestor and actively sought to portray Seattle as a city that would allow (peaceful) demonstrators to be heard. Others blamed Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, describing him as out of touch during the planning and the protests.

Financial concerns apparently played a role in what turned out to be an insufficient number of police officers in the field ahead of the big protests on November 30. In its eagerness to get the WTO conference, the city avoided asking the federal government to help cover security costs. City officials also avoided advance requests for assistance from other law enforcement agencies, which would have committed Seattle to paying even if the assistance wasn't needed.

Police officials may simply have been over-confident. The Seattle Police Department's own After Action Report faulted the department for counting on its past success in handling events like the 1993 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference and the 1990 Goodwill Games, and on what it called "the Seattle tradition of peaceful protest." In fact, while dissent in Seattle in the years immediately preceding the WTO may have seemed peaceful, many observers, including historian and HistoryLink.org co-founder Walt Crowley (1947-2007), pointed out that "peaceful" Seattle had seen its share of disruptive protests in the past, among them the 1919 General Strike by 60,000 workers, the 1934 waterfront strike that included several deaths, University District riots in 1969, and the 1970 protests against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia that shut down Interstate 5.

Protests Start

Anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle began over the long Thanksgiving weekend with small protests on Friday and Saturday, November 26 and 27, 1999. On Sunday, November 28, as WTO delegates began arriving in Seattle, there were two somewhat larger demonstrations. WTO critics also presented a full schedule of meetings, teach-ins, symposia, and other programs on trade issues, as they would throughout the week.

Monday, November 29, brought the first official WTO events in advance of the conference itself and the first major protests, which included minor stand-offs between police and protestors but no significant incidents. WTO officials reached out to critics, holding an all-day symposium with delegates from non-governmental organizations, many of them highly critical of the WTO and free trade. The sea turtle costumes that would become an iconic image of the Seattle WTO protests made their first appearance, in an environmental protection and animal welfare march. Two other groups of protestors demonstrated outside the WTO's evening reception.

Shutting Down the WTO

A defining moment of the week came early on Tuesday morning, November 30, when the direct action protestors out-maneuvered authorities and (temporarily) shut down the WTO. The city had not installed fencing or otherwise closed off areas to ensure access between the hotels where WTO delegates were staying, the Convention Center, and the Paramount Theatre, and police commanders, assuming demonstrations would not start before 8:00 a.m., did not plan to begin deploying large numbers of officers until 7:30. However, affinity groups gathered much earlier and well before 8:00 protestors occupied intersections on all sides of the Paramount, physically blocking delegates from reaching the opening ceremony. Police made no attempt to escort delegates into the Paramount nor to arrest those blocking the streets and venues (only 68 WTO-related arrests were made all day).  Instead, they began using tear gas and pepper spray to force demonstrators out of intersections several blocks away from the theater.

By afternoon, the opening ceremony was canceled but enough delegates had made it to the Convention Center to get the negotiating sessions underway. The demonstration grew into one of the largest in Seattle's history when many of the 35,000 or or so marchers from the Seattle Center rally organized by the AFL-CIO joined the crowds downtown. The black bloc made its appearance by late morning, breaking windows and painting graffiti at targeted businesses. Despite the scattered property destruction, which some other demonstrators tried to stop, and sporadic use of tear gas by police, much of downtown remained festive into the afternoon as thousands of upbeat protestors filled streets and sidewalks, chanting and waving signs and banners.

State of Emergency

Then at 3:30 p.m., with many protestors heading home, Mayor Schell, under intense pressure from federal officials with President Bill Clinton (b. 1946) due to arrive that night, declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew on most of downtown starting at 7:00 p.m. Police did not wait for the curfew hour. By 5:00, large squads in riot armor and gas masks, backed by armored vehicles, began sweeping through downtown using concussion grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas to force remaining protestors and bystanders alike off the street. Several hundred protestors retreated to Capitol Hill and when police followed, infuriated Capitol Hill residents joined the protests.

Soon after President Clinton arrived in Seattle in the early morning hours of Wednesday, December 1, Mayor Schell issued another emergency order. It established a "limited curfew" -- enforced and usually referred to as a "no protest zone" -- in 25 blocks of downtown that protestors were not allowed to enter until the WTO conference ended on Friday. Governor Locke called in the National Guard, other law enforcement agencies sent support, and before daylight on Wednesday, troops and officers lined the perimeter of the no protest zone. Police surrounded and arrested several groups of would-be protestors (and more than one bystander). More than 500 people were jailed on Wednesday. Throughout the day, police used tear gas to disperse crowds downtown, although a permitted demonstration organized by the Steelworkers Union was held along the waterfront.

During the day President Clinton spoke to WTO officials and critics, but was unable to address delegates at the Director General's Reception planned for Wednesday evening -- the event was canceled so that lagging negotiations could continue. On the streets, Wednesday evening unfolded as a repeat of Tuesday: police trying to disperse protestors they had driven from downtown to Capitol Hill unleashed concussion grenades and large quantities of tear gas, angering residents.

Crackdown Eases, Talks Collapse

Having spent Tuesday evening and Wednesday forcefully demonstrating that they could control the streets, after being out-maneuvered Tuesday morning, police on Thursday, December 2, shifted tactics. Even though demonstrations, including some peaceful civil disobedience, continued for the next two days, officers essentially abandoned the use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and the rest of what they called "less lethal munitions" ("... After Action Report"). Additionally, after Wednesday's mass arrests, they made very few additional WTO-related arrests.

Police officials attributed the new approach to changed circumstances (for instance, President Clinton left town early on Thursday), but it also followed severe condemnation of earlier police tactics by a range of groups and community leaders, especially those on Capitol Hill. Although most of Thursday's and Friday's numerous protests were aimed at city officials and police for the earlier crackdown, they remained peaceful and even recaptured something of the festive atmosphere of Tuesday morning.

WTO negotiators worked late Thursday night (social events were again canceled), but the conference ended on Friday, December 3, without the expected Ministerial Declaration. There were many reasons in the Convention Center and on the streets for lack of agreement, but what finally torpedoed the talks was a dispute between the richest countries over agicultural subsidies (the United States wanted to start eliminating them, the European Union refused).

Recriminations and Resignations

Recriminations began even before the talks collapsed. Pundits and ordinary citizens worried that Seattle's image had been tarnished, though there were sharp disagreements whether protestors or authorities were to blame. WTO delegates from other countries complained that Seattle and the United States should not have invited the WTO if they could not keep order. Downtown merchants, usually supporters of Mayor Schell, lambasted his administration, estimating that the conference and resulting disruption cost them $2.5 million in property damage and $17 million in lost sales at the start of the critical holiday shopping season. (In mid-2000, the Seattle Weekly noted that actual losses ended up being far less: overall holiday sales rose 6 percent in 1999 and even during the protests sales jumped at suburban locations.)

Civil liberties groups and thwarted protestors accused the city and police of violating free speech. Church, civil rights and other groups, and individual citizens denounced the indiscriminate use of tear gas and conduct that they called police brutality, saying some officers beat people with nightsticks and deliberately pepper-sprayed in the face at point-blank range locked down demonstrators, arrestees in handcuffs, and even passersby. At the same time, rank-and-file officers complained bitterly that they were not properly prepared or equipped, lacked backup, and had been forced to work excessive hours under dangerous conditions without rest or food. There were calls from all sides for Mayor Schell and Chief Stamper to resign.

Within days, Stamper announced what he said was a previously planned retirement. Assistant Chief Ed Joiner, who handled police planning for the WTO, followed Stamper into retirement. Mayor Schell did not step down voluntarily, but fallout from the WTO played a role, along with other issues, in his defeat in the primary when he ran for re-election in 2001.

Studying the Problem

In the week following the conference, the Seattle City Council ratified Mayor Schell's emergency declaration and orders, including the no protest zone, then began hearings on the city's preparation for and handling of the WTO conference and protests. The many complaints voiced at the hearings prompted the Council to establish a WTO Accountability Review Committee, which became one of many bodies to issue a report on the protests and city response. The Seattle Police Department did its own study and Mayor Schell hired R. M. McCarthy and Associates, a consulting firm, to conduct another study. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington also prepared a report.

The reports agreed that the city had not prepared adequately, but they disagreed over subsequent events. The department and McCarthy reports argued that under the circumstances police made an appropriate, restrained response to lawless, violent protestors, but the ACLU concluded that "having under-prepared, the City then over-reacted" ("Out of Control). Both the ACLU and the City Council stated that police should have been prepared to arrest those engaging in civil disobedience and that widespread use of chemical irritants unnecessarily harmed both peaceful protestors and bystanders and often inflamed the situation.

Charges Dropped, Compensation Paid

Within weeks after the conference, prosecutors dropped the charges filed against almost all of those arrested. Many then filed class-action lawsuits challenging the no protest zone and seeking compensation for wrongful arrest. Some people injured by rubber bullets, pepper spray, or tear gas also sued. The city settled with those claiming injuries and with a group of protestors arrested outside the no protest zone, but fought the claims of those arrested in the zone.

In 2005, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the no protest zone as written was constitutional, but that those arrested could recover if they proved that the order was enforced in an unconstitutional manner in their cases. In a subsequent trial, District Judge Marsha Pechman determined that the mass arrest of some 200 people at Westlake Center was illegal and a jury concluded that the illegal arrests were based on city policy, making the city liable. The city then settled, paying the protestors $1 million (bringing the total paid in settlements to nearly $2 million), clearing their records, and promising to improve police training.

The settlement payments came on top of the $9.3 million that Seattle spent on security during the conference, well over the $6 million budgeted (in addition, other law enforcement agencies spent nearly $3 million). The U.S. Congress eventually approved $4 million to partially reimburse local law enforcement, but the private Seattle Host Organization that invited the WTO and promised to contribute millions to cover costs only made good on a fraction of its commitment.

Worldwide Impact

After the collapse of the Seattle trade negotiations, protest organizers claimed victory not just for helping scuttle the talks but also for making the formerly obscure WTO and their criticisms of it front-page news. The success in Seattle motivated large scale protests elsewhere, including the April 2000 meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (two other targets of anti-globalization activists) in Washington, D.C., and the presidential nominating conventions in both 2000 and 2004. However, events in Seattle also changed law enforcement strategy around the country. Learning from what they saw as Seattle's mistakes, authorities responded with huge exclusion zones enforced well in advance and pre-emptive arrests of protest leaders; following Seattle's example, police made liberal use of chemical irritants and less lethal munitions. Subsequent protests in the U.S. did not replicate what the direct-action protestors achieved in Seattle on the morning of November 30, 1999.

In many ways the Seattle protests may have had their biggest impact on protest movements abroad and on the WTO itself. Two years passed before the WTO, meeting in Doha, Qatar, was able to agree on an agenda for a new round of talks -- what local boosters had hoped would be the Seattle Round instead became the Doha Development Round. Then when the WTO met in Cancun, Mexico, in 2003, a combination of massive street protests as in Seattle and rebellion by a group of developing nations brought negotiations to a complete halt. Over the years, WTO officials several times revived the Doha round negotiations only to see them fall apart again. Ten years after the WTO met in Seattle, it still had not reached substantive agreement on the issues that divided delegates and drew tens of thousands of protestors to Seattle streets.

To see Part 1, click "Previous Feature"


The World Trade Brief: WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle, 30 November-3 December 1999 (London: Agenda Publishing in association with World Trade Organization, 1999); Seattle: What's At Stake? (Geneva: World Trade Organization, 1999); The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization, ed. by Eddie Yuen, Daniel Burton Rose, and George Katsiaficas (New York: Soft Skull Press, 2001); Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (London: Verso, 2000); City of Seattle Resolution 30099 (December 6, 1999) with Mayoral Proclamation of Emergency and emergency orders attached as exhibits, copy available at Seattle Municipal Archives website accessed October 14, 2009 (http://www.seattle.gov/CityArchives/Exhibits/WTO/1999Dec6.htm); "Report of the WTO Accountability Review Committee of the Seattle City Council" and "An Independent Review of the World Trade Organization Conference Disruptions in Seattle, Washington Prepared by R. M. McCarthy & Associates," copies available at WTO Accountability Review Committee website accessed October 20, 2009 (http://cityofseattle.net/wtocommittee/currentdocs.htm); "The Seattle Police Department After Action Report," April 4, 2000, copy available at USDA website accessed November 29, 2017 (https://aglearn.usda.gov/customcontent/ICS/ICS200/assets/WTO_AAR.pdf); "Out of Control: Seattle's Flawed Response to Protests Against the World Trade Organization," American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State website accessed November 4, 2009 (www.aclu-wa.org/issues/subissue.cfm?&issuesubissue_id=99); Menotti v. City of Seattle, 409 F.3d 1113 (9th Cir. 2005); World Trade Organization website accessed November 1, 2009 (www.wto.org); Walden Bello and Mary Lou Malig, "The Dracula Round," Foreign Policy in Focus website accessed November 4, 2009 (http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/5441); Geov Parrish, "Shutting Down Seattle," The Seattle Weekly, August 19, 1999, pp 21-24; "Answering WTO's Big Questions," Ibid., August 3, 2000; Parrish, "Is This What Failure Looks Like?" Ibid., November 24-30, 2004, pp. 22-24; Philip Dawdy, "What the Cops Learned," Ibid., November 24-30, 2004, pp. 25-26; "WTO in Seattle," The Seattle Times, November 28, 1999, p. E-2; "The History of the World Trade Organization," Ibid., November 28, 1999, p. E-8; Tyrone Beason, "Some Poor Nations' Delegates Are Irked," Ibid., December 1, 1999, p. A-16; J. Martin McOmber, "Schell: 'I Did the Best I Can With the Circumstances," Ibid., December 2, 1999, p. A-22; "All Eyes on the City, But Views Differ," Ibid., December 2, 1999, p. A-25; McOmber, "Scrutiny of Schell's Leadership Is Just Beginning As Council Schedules Hearings," Ibid., December 5, 1999, p. A-1; Michelle Matassa Flores, "Seattle Left Less Naive As It Counts Costs, Both Physical and Psychological," Ibid., December 5, 1999, p. A-1; Lisa Pemberton-Butler, "Civil-Rights Groups Call For Investigation," Ibid., December 5, 1999, p. A-17; David Postman and Lynda V. Mapes, "Why WTO United So Many Foes," Ibid., December 6, 1999, p. A-1; "How Did the Police Do? Everyone Has an Opinion," Ibid., December 6, 1999, p. A-22; McOmber, Mike Carter, and Steve Miletich, "'I Don't Feel Like the Fall Guy,'" Ibid., December 7, 1999, p. A-1; McOmber and Jack Broom, "Stamper: WTO Riots Didn't Force Decision," Ibid., December 7, 1999, p. A-1; "Horror Stories From Protestors, Police," Ibid., December 7, 1999, p. A-20; Kery Murakami, "City May Tighten Rules on New Events but Activists Worry That the Proposal Might Stifle Protests or Unpopular Rallies," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 16, 2001, p. B-1; Colin McDonald, "City Violated Rights with WTO Arrests, Jury Finds," Ibid., January 31, 2007, p. B-1. For additional sources and further details of events during the week of the WTO conference, see the individual www.HistoryLink.org timeline entries for the dates of November 28 through December 3, 1999.
Note: This source listing was updated on November 29, 2017.

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