On Tuesday, November 30, 1999, thousands of direct action protestors achieve their well-publicized goal to "shut down the WTO" through nonviolent civil disobedience, forcing cancellation of the opening ceremonies of the World Trade Organization's Third Ministerial Conference in Seattle. Unprepared for the numbers of protestors, Seattle police use tear gas and pepper spray to clear some intersections. Tens of thousands more anti-WTO protestors rally at the Seattle Center, where environmentalists and students march to join a huge rally organized by the AFL-CIO. More than 35,000 march from the labor rally to downtown, where many join the crowds of protestors already in the streets. Roaming through the crowds, and taking advantage of the lack of police in most of downtown, a small group of black-clad, masked "anarchists" smashes windows, sprays graffiti, and vandalizes police cars. Despite scattered confrontations, the atmosphere in much of downtown remains largely calm into the afternoon. However, with streets still occupied by protestors, delegates unable to move freely, and President Clinton due in town that night, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014) declares a state of emergency and police begin using massive amounts of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and other "less lethal munitions" to move protestors, and anyone else who happens to be there, out of downtown. By evening, police have pushed large groups of protestors into the Capitol Hill neighborhood to the east, where confrontations continue late into the night.
Long before it was scheduled to open, the WTO conference held in Seattle from November 30 to December 3, 1999, became a lightning rod for a growing number of critics, who condemned "free trade" for favoring corporate interests over social and environmental concerns. Protests began days before the conference started, but most groups focused on the opening day, Monday, November 30.
Effective Direct Action
Early that morning in a pre-dawn rain, thousands of protestors assembled at Victor Steinbrueck Park, a few blocks from the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, main site of the WTO conference, and the nearby Paramount Theatre where the opening ceremony was planned. Other groups massed at Seattle Central Community College on Capitol Hill and at the University of Washington to march to the conference site. The protestors, loosely organized in small, autonomous affinity groups within a coalition dubbed the Direct Action Network (DAN), planned to shut down the WTO meeting through nonviolent civil disobedience -- physically blocking access to the conference venues. Many affinity groups came prepared with plastic tubing, pipes, chains, bicycle locks, tripods, and other devices to fasten themselves together, making it harder for police to remove them. Others prepared street theater performances featuring giant puppets, signs, drummers, and musicians.
The direct action protestors, whose numbers were eventually estimated at up to 10,000, more than even optimistic organizers expected, quickly occupied key intersections around the Paramount and the Convention Center. Evidently unprepared for the numbers engaged in civil disobedience, even though DAN's intent to shut down the WTO had been widely publicized, Seattle police neither attempted to prevent protestors from occupying the intersections nor arrested those blocking the streets. Instead, fearing that protestors would enter the conference venues or the Sheraton and Westin hotels where delegates were staying, police locked down those locations.
Rather than arresting those committing civil disobedience, the police resorted to what they called "chemical irritants and less lethal munitions" -- tear gas, pepper spray, and guns firing rubber bullets, pellets, and bean bags -- to clear the streets. Starting around 10:00 a.m., police gassed protestors at 6th Avenue and Union Street to drive them out of the intersection, then moved on to 6th Avenue and University Street. Some protestors responded by throwing bottles or sticks from their signs at officers.
Puppets, Anarchists, Teamsters, and Turtles
Despite the confrontations on 6th Avenue, a more festive atmosphere prevailed into the afternoon in much of downtown as giant puppets performed and protestors chanted, sang, and chatted with bystanders and police. The crowds in the streets grew and protestors continued to block the intersections around the Paramount. After several delays, the scheduled 10:00 a.m. opening ceremony was canceled at 12:45 p.m. However, the WTO managed to get the planned trade negotiations underway in the Convention Center by midafternoon.
Late in the morning a small, well-organized group (usually estimated at 100 or less) of self-described anarchists began attacking the property of large corporations that they accused of exploiting workers, destroying the environment, and other evils. For the next several hours, with little interference from the police but over the sometimes vocal objections of other protestors, they broke windows and painted graffiti at Bank of America, McDonald's, Carrolls Jewelry, Nordstrom, Nike Town, Starbucks, and other stores, and managed to flatten tires and paint anarchist symbols on seven police cars.
Meanwhile, the far larger crowds of non-destructive protestors swelled further with the arrival of a mammoth march of 35,000 or more from the rally organized by the AFL-CIO at Seattle Center. The labor rally was augmented by feeder marches organized by environmental groups, reflecting the union-environmentalist alliance against the WTO captured in the image of "teamsters and turtles" marching together. Although march leaders attempted to get the thousands of marchers to skirt downtown and return to Seattle Center, many joined the crowds already there, making the anti-WTO protest one of the largest in Seattle's history.
State of Emergency
With the area still thronged with demonstrators and President Bill Clinton (b. 1946) due to arrive at the Westin that night, Seattle leaders faced intense pressure from federal officials to regain control of the streets. Seattle Mayor Paul Schell responded by declaring a state of emergency and imposing a "general curfew" making "any person found to be in a public place" in a large swath of downtown after 7:00 p.m. subject to arrest (Resolution 30099).
By the time the emergency was declared, large numbers of demonstrators were already heading home. Long before the curfew went into effect, police began using concussion grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, and armored vehicles to force the remaining protestors out of downtown. Around 5:00 p.m., after firing multiple rounds of tear gas to end an hours-long standoff at 4th and Pike, large formations of police in riot gear began marching through downtown, filling the streets with clouds of chemicals that drove not only protestors but also shoppers, commuters, and even some WTO delegates to flee or take shelter.
Several hundred protestors, a few of whom responded by throwing rocks, bottles, or sign sticks at police, attempted to continue demonstrating. During the evening police drove them east across Interstate 5 to Capitol Hill, where protestors regrouped and police continued to use concussion grenades and massive quantities of gas, angering many on Capitol Hill who were gassed in their homes and businesses. Some neighborhood residents joined the protests, by now directed squarely at the police rather than the WTO, and confrontations in the area continued into the early morning hours of Wednesday, December 1.
Despite the large-scale civil disobedience, the property destruction, and the repeated confrontations throughout the late afternoon and evening, police made only 68 WTO-related arrests all day Tuesday.
On November 30, 1999, events in Seattle unfolded as follows:
- Before 6:00 a.m.: Protestors begin gathering at Steinbrueck Park near the Pike Place Market and elsewhere for the "Shut Down the WTO -- Mass Nonviolent Direct Action" planned by the Direct Action Network (a coalition that includes Art & Revolution, Earth First, the Ruckus Society, Rainforest Action Network, People's Global Action, and other groups).
- 7:30 a.m.: Students from Seattle Central Community College start marching toward downtown to join the direct action.
- 8:00 a.m.: Demonstrators at 6th Avenue and Olive Street near the Westin Hotel link themselves together using PVC pipe, duct tape, and chicken wire.
- 8:00 a.m.: Demonstrators lock themselves to concrete blocks at 4th Avenue and University Street.
- 8:30 a.m.: Environmentalists sponsored by the Sierra Club gather at Denny Playfield before marching to the AFL-CIO rally at the Seattle Center.
- 8:45 a.m.: About 20 protesters dressed in black throw eight metal newspaper boxes into 6th Avenue near the Sheraton Hotel, but are chased away by other protesters. The protesters in black join approximately 50 others in similar clothing near the Washington Athletic Club.
- 9:00 a.m.: Hundreds of students gather in Red Square at the University of Washington. The crowd grows to several thousand and then marches across the University Bridge towards downtown.
- 9:00 a.m.: Protesters prevent delegates from entering the Paramount Theatre at 9th Avenue and Pine Street for the WTO opening ceremonies scheduled for 10:00 a.m.
- 9:00 a.m.: Approximately 30 demonstrators lock themselves to a metal platform at 6th Avenue and Pike Street. Sheraton Hotel security officers and police lock down the hotel.
- 9:15 a.m.: Soon after protesters block the intersection of 6th Avenue and Pike Street, about a dozen young men and women wearing black masks and combat boots throw newspaper boxes and garbage cans into the street. Other protesters shout, "No violence, no violence."
- 9:30 a.m.: The head of maintenance for the Pike Place Market talks "anarchists" out of destroying property there.
- 10:00 a.m.: AFL-CIO People's Rally and March begins at Seattle Center's Memorial Stadium.
- 10:00 a.m.: The scheduled WTO opening ceremony is postponed by protest action, which prevents delegates from entering the Paramount Theatre.
- 10:00 a.m.: Police clear the intersection of 6th Avenue and Union Street by firing tear gas into the crowd from their armored vehicle. Some demonstrators throw back the sticks from their signs.
- 10:00 a.m.: WTO delegates are told to stay in their hotels.
- 10:30 a.m.: Police clear a crowd at 6th Avenue and University Street with pepper spray and tear gas. Protesters who have chained themselves together do not move. Other protesters provide them with water and treatment for the effects of the chemical agents.
- 11:30 a.m.: Police use gas again in an attempt to clear the street at the Sheraton Hotel, 6th Avenue and Pike Street. Officers carry protesters off the street. Some protesters throw cans, bottles, and barricades at the police. Garbage cans and newspaper boxes litter the streets.
- 11:55 a.m.: Protesters smash windows at the Bank of America, 4th Avenue and Pike Street, McDonald's, and other locations.
- 12:00 p.m.: 35,000 union members and supporters begin a peaceful, permitted march to downtown from Seattle Center.
- 12:00 p.m.: Up to 200 "anarchists" use hammers to smash windows at Nordstrom, Nike Town, Planet Hollywood, Banana Republic, FAO Swartz, Warner Brothers, and elsewhere.
- 12:00 p.m.: Secretary of State Madeline Albright and U.S. trade minister Charlene Barshefsky, the chair of the conference, remain at the Westin Hotel because the Secret Service says the streets of Seattle are too dangerous for them to travel the few blocks to the opening ceremonies. A press conference with Barshefsky is canceled.
- 12:15 p.m.: Protesters and/or opportunists loot Starbucks at 6th Avenue and Stewart Street.
- 12:20 p.m.: A State Patrol response team guarding dignitaries at the Westin Hotel takes no action as protesters vandalize a Starbucks 300 feet away. They are not authorized to take action against property destruction.
- 12:45 p.m.: The WTO opening ceremony at the Paramount Theatre is canceled.
- 1:00 p.m.: The AFL-CIO march arrives downtown at Westlake Center. When they converge with other protests, as many as 40,000 protesters jam the central business district, where a largely festive atmosphere prevails in much of the area. Demonstrators sing, chant, and celebrate their victory while musicians play and street performers with giant puppets, huge balloons, banners, and signs parade through the crowds.
- 2:00 p.m.: Pacific Place, Nordstrom, and The Bon Marche close and send their employees home.
- After 2:00 p.m.: Plenary session of the WTO gets underway at the Convention Center somewhat after its scheduled starting time.
- 3:00 p.m.: Benaroya Hall is damaged by protesters at 2nd Avenue and University Street.
- 3:15 p.m.: Clinton administration officials inform Mayor Schell that if the protesters are not cleared from the Central Business District, the WTO will be called off.
- 3:30 p.m.: Mayor Schell declares a state of emergency and establishes a 7:00 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. curfew on the area of downtown between Interstate 5 and the waterfront and between Yesler Way and Denny Way.
- 3:30 p.m.: At the Mayor's request, Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950) orders the National Guard and 300 state troopers to assist Seattle police. This is the first time in recent history that the National Guard is called into Seattle.
- 3:30 p.m.: Demonstrators identified as anarchists build a bonfire in a dumpster at 4th Avenue and Pike Street, where a large crowd of demonstrators has gathered. Police fire tear gas at the crowd, segments of which respond by throwing bottles. Neither side gives ground.
- 4:00 p.m.: Protesters stand in front of Nike Town windows, 6th Avenue and Pine Street, to keep others from breaking them.
- 4:00 p.m.: Protesters board Metro buses and assault drivers, pull battery plugs (disabling the buses), and slash tires. Metro service is suspended downtown.
- 4:00 p.m.: In violation of Seattle Police procedures, street level officers have not received meal or rest breaks.
- 5:00 p.m.: Protesters sit down at 4th Avenue and Pike Street and police fire tear gas to disperse them.
- 5:00 p.m.: Protesters persuade others not to climb onto Interstate-5 to block traffic.
- 5:00 p.m.: As crowds begin to thin, police begin a major push to clear downtown using gas to force protesters to retreat from several locations. Armored police sweep through downtown, pushing protesters out of the curfew area with rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray. Many bystanders are also sprayed or forced to flee.
- 6:00 p.m.: More than two dozen protesters, three police officers, and two delegates have been treated at hospitals for minor injuries.
- 6:00 p.m.: Police fire gas into a remaining group of protesters at 6th Avenue and Pine Street and begin driving them east up Pine Street, toward Capitol Hill.
- 6:30 p.m.: Police temporarily halt their push up Pine Street at Boren Avenue.
- 6:40 p.m.: Protesters seize a garbage truck at 6th Avenue and Stewart Street to use for protection against police.
- 7:00 p.m.: At Seattle Town Hall, just outside the curfew area, Ralph Nader and Undersecretary of Commerce David Aaron debate whether free trade causes suffering or creates prosperity.
- 7:30 p.m.: Police break up a group of demonstrators who had started a small bonfire at Pine Street and Melrose Avenue on Capitol Hill.
- 8:00 p.m.: WTO ministerial reception and dinner at the Museum of Flight.
- 9:00 p.m.: Protesters overturn and set fire to trash bins in front of the Egyptian Theatre and then block the intersection at Pine Street and Broadway. Police disperse the crowd which gathers again farther north on Broadway.
- 10:00 p.m.: Police bomb technicians detonate a suspected explosive device in a parking garage at Pine and Boylston. It turns out to be an unattended briefcase.
- 10:00 p.m.: A crowd of 300 to 400 protesters, including many Capitol Hill residents infuriated by the police presence and widespread use of tear gas and rubber bullets in their neighborhood, collect at Seattle Central Community College and chant "Off our hill! Off our hill!" at police.
- 10:00 p.m.: Police use concussion grenades and tear gas to force many protestors to leave.
- 10:00 p.m.-3:30 a.m.: Police remain on Capitol Hill as scattered confrontations continue.