Tear Gas and Triumph: What Happened in Seattle and What’s Next

By Chris Dixon, February 2000

On Tuesday, November 30, 1999, I was standing on 6th Avenue between Pike and Union in downtown Seattle–an unremarkable place amidst remarkable circumstances. Directly in front of me stood a reinforced line of police officers decked out in full body armor, carrying two foot long sticks, rubber bullet guns, and grenade launchers. Later I would learn that each of these men and women, granted anonymity by black helmets and gas masks, was part of ‘the hard team,’ specially designed and deployed for dealing with ‘unruly crowds’–in other words, us.

All around me, hundreds of protesters packed into a compact human wall taking up half a block. And directly behind us in the middle of an intersection, at least another hundred people protectively surrounded a large wooden platform underpinned by metal pipes. Each pipe had the arm of an activist carefully locked inside. Resolute and defiant, we were all there to stay.

“This is the Seattle Police…,” an authoritative voice crackled through a loudspeaker. The rest was drowned out by the loud discharge from a grenade launcher and the disarming hiss of tear gas, punctuated by the shots of rubber bullets. Suddenly, we were scrambling, coughing, gasping, and crying. Tear gas is no fun, particularly when you’re being hit with hard plastic pellets at the same time.

Meanwhile, the hard team advanced, flanked by a ‘peace-keeper’–Orwellian for ‘armored personnel carrier.’ Yet, just as quickly as we were dispersed, we returned–en masse–this time with bandannas on our faces and water for our eyes. We weren’t going to be moved so easily. And again, the face-off began. Such was the rhythm of the day.

Alone, this scene was inspiring but not remarkable. Indeed, it happens nearly every day in occupied lands everywhere–Palestine, East Timor, Columbia. No, what was truly remarkable was that we at that particular intersection were not the only ones. For blocks behind us–stretching out of view and snaking around buildings–were thousands more people. There were activist Santa Clauses; dozens of people dressed as sea turtles; colorful stilt-walkers; a jubilant squad of radikal cheerleaders in red mini-skirts; an indescribable number of puppets; an anarchist marching band, complete with matching pink gas masks; plenty of shaggy Earth First!ers; and hordes of regular-looking folks, ranging from steelworkers to yuppies. Altogether, the entire circumference of over twenty blocks around the Washington State Trade and Convention Center was blockaded, with police confrontations at every single intersection. In addition, many local workers had joined a general strike in Seattle for the day. And the International Longshore Union had gone even further, shutting down the ports along the entire West Coast.

Visibly and physically, we were grappling with issues usually left to trade ministers and corporate heads. We were confronting the so-called ‘inevitability’ of globalization–the assumption that multinational corporations somehow have the ‘natural’ right to move freely, dismantling any barriers that interfere with their profit margin. In short, we were there to shut down the World Trade Organization.

I was one of many Alaskans present that week in Seattle. However, unlike most, I had the privilege of living and organizing in Washington leading up to the WTO Ministerial. In fact, I was at the mid-summer meetings months before when we had launched the Direct Action Network, the organization that would put out a call to ‘shut down the WTO’ in Seattle. At the time, those words seemed like a dream, but they embodied our commitment to direct action. That is, we weren’t interested in drab, routine, and largely symbolic arrests to protest the WTO; we didn’t want to reform it or just ‘make our voices heard’; we wanted to nonviolently intervene, to stop the week of Ministerial meetings with art and living, breathing human bodies.

Who could have guessed what was going to happen? Certainly not most of us who mouthed the words of ‘shutting it down’ while assuming that, at best, we might inconvenience delegates and dignitaries. Yet, for perhaps the first time in my activist experience, the rhetoric became the reality. On that Tuesday, the first day of WTO Ministerial meetings to ever take place in the US, most sessions were canceled because the Convention Center was so successfully blockaded by protesters. The Seattle Times quoted one of the last WTO delegates to leave that afternoon: “That’s one for the bad guys.”

Presumably, we were the bad guys.

This is What Democracy Looks Like

What happened on Tuesday, November 30 was just the apex of weeks full of protest and months of preparation. Since the January before, when Seattle was selected as the site for the 1999 WTO Ministerial, activist organizations of all stripes had been building coalitions, raising funds, and discussing strategies.

For one, Ralph Nader’s group, Public Citizen, launched People for Fair Trade/Network Opposed to the WTO, an organization that set the stage for much of what went down in the religious communities, on the college campuses, in the educational forums, and on the evening news of Seattle. At the same time, the American Federation of Labor began a large-scale (though politically moderate) educational campaign in locals, and easily mobilized some 30-40,000 people to flood the streets on November 30. Meanwhile, a loose conglomeration of peace activists, anarchists, environmentalists, international solidarity groups, and unaffiliated radicals initiated the Direct Action Network, which eventually evolved into a more structured coalition. With an enthusiasm for injecting vibrant art into radical politics, DAN became perhaps the most organized disruptive force of WTO proceedings.

At the international level, Peoples’ Global Action, a coalition of grassroots movements from 71 countries, endorsed global actions in solidarity with the protests in Seattle. In addition, they organized a caravan of activists from all over the world to travel to Seattle, educating communities along the way, and to engage in direct action on November 30. Less formally, the People’s Assembly, with many representatives from the global South, organized a series of events leading up to and during the Ministerial to demonstrate international sentiment opposed to the WTO.

With growing global resistance to the WTO and incredible organizational infrastructure in Seattle, it was no surprise to see innovative forms of protest sparking in advance of the actual Ministerial. In fact, by November 28, a day before meetings were to begin, the tally of actions was considerable. Late-night activists had placed a fake front page on 25,000 issues of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, satirizing its coverage of the WTO. A rally on the University of Washington campus had marched the full length of a main avenue, occupying key intersections with guerrilla theater. A large squad of anti-corporate cheerleaders had crashed the annual Bon Marche parade through downtown Seattle. A critical mass bike ride, inflated to 400 anti-auto activists, had ridden down main streets and eventually opened the doors of the Convention Center, riding straight through. Two courageous young women had scaled a retaining wall next to Interstate 5 with a “SHUT DOWN THE WTO” banner while one of their mothers shouted words of encouragement. And thousands of people had colorfully marched through Seattle’s trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood, again occupying key intersections with street theater. Just by the looks of it, the WTO was in for a public relations nightmare.

Indeed, the only match for the tally of actions before was that during the week of the Ministerial. Kicking it off, anarchist squatters occupied an abandoned building one block from the downtown police station, protesting homelessness and globalization. Seattle commuters started their work week in sight of five members of Rainforest Action Network dangling from a 170-foot crane with an enormous banner which read “Democracy” and “WTO” with arrows pointing in opposite directions. Thousands joined an interfaith human chain to call for an end to Third World debt, encircling the site of the WTO’s opening gala seven times over. Some 50-100,000 people occupied the streets of downtown Seattle, blockading the Conference Center and halting the start of Ministerial meetings. Several hundred people were arrested and many others were injured in continuous police confrontations, yet street marches continued every day throughout the week. Over one thousand activists occupied the city jail, gaining concessions from the Seattle city prosecutor and then holding out until all arrested protesters were released. And finally, many watched the Ministerial end while occupying the ritzy Westin Hotel, where many high-profile delegates were staying.

The crowning moment, of course, came within the last hours of Ministerial meetings on Friday, December 3 as a coalition of delegates from over 70 countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia stubbornly refused to sign onto an agenda in which they saw they had little voice. The next day’s headline put it tersely: “Summit ends in failure.” The WTO wasn’t dead, but it was severely stalled. Our efforts had contributed, some delegates would later admit, by costing the Ministerial nearly two full days of meeting time. The graffiti scrawled all over town had come true: WE ARE WINNING. Thousands of us had gone up against one of the most powerful organizations in the world. And we won.

Prospects for Fundamental Social Change

In the wake of the WTO protests, everyone from Time to Ralph Nader is weighing in on what the success in Seattle represents. Was it the last gasp of ’60s radicals and their ’90s imitators? Or was it the first shot of a growing social movement? Certainly, there were alliances in the streets of Seattle rarely if ever seen: Teamsters and environmentalists, animal rights activists and farmers, international workers and the AFL-CIO, among many others. However, there were also some deep fissures around issues of ‘violence’ and property damage, not to mention the fact that some activist bigwigs like DAN still haven’t dealt with the fact that its supporters are mostly white and middle-class. In other words, the trajectory of what happened in Seattle is yet to be seen. Indeed, we determine it–in the choices we make and the actions we take. If the success in Seattle shows anything, it reminds us that the way the world is isn’t set in stone. We can change it.

So where to go from here? Some folks are organizing other large-scale, high-profile direct actions like what took place on November 30. For instance, East Coast activists are preparing for a massive protest in Washington DC against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on April 16. Using similar strategies to Seattle, they are hoping to nonviolently intervene in the semi-annual meetings of these two institutions largely responsible for implementing and sustaining poverty in the global South (see http://www.a16.org/ for more info). Meanwhile, activists worldwide are preparing for Mayday of this year as an international day of action like November 30, in which local communities use celebratory direct actions to occupy public space, commemorate workers’ struggles, and disrupt the grinding effects of global capitalism (see http://www.mayday2k.org/ for more info). In addition, activists are already planning for the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia (see http://www.r2kphilly.org/) and the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles (see http://www.d2kla.org/), both this summer.

What happened in Seattle wasn’t just about mass actions, however. Many people present returned to their communities with new urgency and direction for local struggles. In truth, that’s what made Seattle so remarkable in the first place. As Bay Area activist Chris Crass points out, our success “was made possible because of all of the organizing that we do day-to-day, the often unglamorous work that makes social change happen.” And here in Alaska, there is plenty. Witness the continuous oil extraction and consolidation on, ultimately, what is–as it always was–indigenous land just as Tony Knowles balks at any hint of Native sovereignty. Or listen as the Alaskan Legislature seriously discusses privatization of public services–a neoliberal international trend that benefits none except for the large companies that reap profits while ripping us off. Or watch Anchorage’s billowing service sector of underpaid, non-unionized workers while Wall-Mart makes millions.

We have our work cut out for us. From now on, though, we carry the spirit of Seattle with us. No longer do we have to wonder if we can win; the question now is how?

This piece was originally featured in the Spring 2000 issue of Wild Voices, an Alaskan activist journal.