Seattle authorities ease crackdown as peaceful protests against the WTO (and earlier police tactics) proceed on December 2, 1999.

  • By Kit Oldham and David Wilma
  • Posted 11/03/2009
  • Essay 2140
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On Thursday, December 2, 1999, police abandon the rubber bullets, tear gas, and other forceful tactics used during the past two days to quell protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO). Hundreds of demonstrators protest peacefully against both the WTO and the prior police conduct and call for the release of those arrested earlier (only two are arrested on Thursday). President Bill Clinton (b. 1946), whose presence had been a major reason for the crackdown, leaves Seattle after signing a treaty aimed at eliminating egregious forms of child labor. Many of the day's demonstrations focus more on the police and the "no protest zone" imposed by the City than on the WTO, but a waterfront farmers' rally condemns the trade organization for its support of corporate agriculture and genetic engineering.

Thursday began as Wednesday had, with heated post-midnight confrontations on Capitol Hill, where police used massive quantities of tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades to disperse demonstrators, who included both anti-WTO protestors pushed out of the downtown "no protest zone" and Capitol Hill residents angered by police conduct in their neighborhood. The second consecutive night of hardline tactics on Capitol Hill sparked widespread condemnation. Representatives of church, civil rights, gay and lesbian, labor, and other groups denounced what many called indiscriminate use of tear gas and instances of police brutality.

Appalled and Disappointed

The president of the Capitol Hill Community Council called on Police Chief Norm Stamper to resign and the area's state representative, Ed Murray, said:

"Although I have supported and applauded the way police handled the first night of violent acts downtown, I am appalled by the tactics used in residential neighborhoods ... . Families on Capitol Hill sleeping in their homes should not be subjected to tear gas or concussion bombs at 2 in the morning" (Murakami and Foster).

Stamper and Seattle Mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014) met with community leaders on Thursday morning and called some of the reported police conduct troubling. But the mayor's apparent apology produced a backlash from law enforcement. Asserting that his deputies had been cursed, spat at, and had rocks and bottles thrown at them while supporting Seattle police, King County Sheriff Dave Reichert (later a U.S. Representative), said:

"I'm really disappointed by the comments made by the mayor today. ... He should be thanking the officers. He should be praising them for the restraint they have shown" (Murakami and Foster).

Change in Tactics

Whether due to criticism or because conditions had changed, as police spokespersons asserted, police virtually abandoned the use of what they called "chemical irritants and other other less lethal munitions" that had been so prevalent since Tuesday ("... After Action Report"). Many fewer officers appeared in the full body army riot gear that whole squads had worn in the prior confrontations. Unlike the previous two days, Mayor Schell did not impose a 7 p.m. general curfew covering all of downtown, which had played a role in driving the confrontations to Capitol Hill. In addition, after the departure of President Clinton, Mayor Schell reduced the size of the no protest zone, so that it no longer covered the Westin Hotel, where the president had stayed -- or shopping destinations like Westlake Center and Nordstrom that had technically been off limits to shoppers. Only two people were arrested in connection with protests all day Thursday.

Before leaving town, Clinton signed the Child Labor Convention, drafted by the International Labor Organization, which required countries signing it to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, including slavery, prostitution, and illegal or unsafe work. The signing was praised by U.S. labor leaders, who were strong critics of the WTO's refusal to link trade agreements to labor standards. However, many WTO delegates, particularly those from poorer developing countries, expressed heated opposition to Clinton's call to enforce labor standards using trade sanctions. Although WTO officials continued to express optimism that agreement would be reached the next day (it wasn't), deep divisions among negotiators remained on agriculture and farm subsidies, reforming WTO procedures, and other issues in addition to labor standards.

Peaceful Protest, Restrained Response

Despite, or perhaps because of, the police restraint, numerous protests throughout downtown and Capitol Hill on December 2 remained peaceful, even recapturing to some extent the festive atmosphere of Tuesday morning before tear gas flew and windows were smashed. About 1,000 rallied at Seattle Central Community College on Capitol Hill to defend their right to protest and denounce city officials and police for suppressing free speech and mistreating demonstrators over the past two days. Many then marched downtown to join a Food and Agriculture rally at Victor Steinbrueck Park near Pike Place Market, where musicians played and giant puppets danced. The demonstration by family farm advocates focused on issues that originally motivated the anti-WTO demonstrations. Consumer activist Ralph Nader, French farmer Jose Bove, and other speakers denounced corporate agriculture and genetic engineering that they said were encouraged by WTO trade agreements.

Following the rally at the market, some demonstrators marched up the waterfront to protest corporate agriculture giant Cargill at the company's grain terminal north of Myrtle Edwards park. Others marched through downtown to the King County Jail, which they encircled, blockading the entrance to demand that the nearly 600 people arrested over the past two days be released. Despite the blockade of a key public-safety facility, which prompted the City Council to cancel its meeting in the nearby Municipal Building that had been scheduled to approve or reject the mayor's emergency orders, the police did not use force to dislodge the crowd of demonstrators, which remained for hours in front of the jail.

In the evening, police officials negotiated with organizers from the Direct Action Network (DAN), which had organized the massive non-violent civil disobedience against the WTO, to allow a DAN attorney and leader into the jail to meet with those being held. After they did, the DAN organizers encouraged the crowd to leave and many did, although a small group (which ebbed and flowed in size) remained outside the jail through the weekend.

Many demonstrators who left the jail marched up to Capitol Hill, escorted by officers. As on the past two nights, hundreds of people gathered in the evening at Broadway Avenue and Pine Street. This time, however, police made no attempt to disperse them. Instead, people danced as others played bongos and tambourines, and demonstrators directed traffic through the intersection.

Thursday Timeline

On December 2, 1999, events in Seattle unfolded as follows:

  • 9:00 a.m.: WTO Plenary Session begins at the Convention Center.
  • 9:00 a.m.: Trade and Environment Issues (invitation only) at the Bell Harbor International Convention Center, sponsored by Seattle Host Organization.
  • 10:00 a.m.: More than a dozen community leaders from Capitol Hill meet with Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and Police Chief Norm Stamper to voice complaints about police conduct.
  • 10:00 a.m.: President Clinton departs Seattle after signing Child Labor Convention.
  • 11:00 a.m.: Protesters rally on Capitol Hill against suppression of free speech and then march to Victor Steinbrueck Park at the Pike Place Market, where they are joined by demonstrators concerned about agricultural issues. Market businesses close to avoid possible clashes between police and demonstrators (which don't occur).
  • 12:30 p.m.: More than a thousand people gather at Steinbrueck Park for the Food and Agriculture Rally to support family farmers. At the end of the rally, one group heads toward the Cargill Grain Terminal and another heads toward the King County Jail.
  • 2:00 p.m.: At the King County Jail, protesters encircle the building and read their demands over bullhorns: Immediate release of protesters; Drop all charges; A public apology; Shut down the WTO. The jail is locked down.
  • 2:00 p.m.: The City Council meeting called to approve or disapprove the mayor's declaration of emergency and emergency orders (as required by law to make those orders legally binding) is canceled because of ongoing protests.
  • 4:00 p.m.: King County Superior Court Judge Michael Spearman orders that arrested protesters be given access to legal counsel within eight hours of arrest, except for those who are "physically uncooperative" with the booking process or fail to give a true name.
  • 6:00 p.m.: One hundred persons gather at Pine Street and Boylston Avenue and dozens of officers stand by, but the armored car is kept out of sight.
  • 7:00 p.m.: Hundreds of protesters continued blocking the King County Jail. Jail staff agrees to admit an attorney and a protest leader to see prisoners. Most of the crowd then disperses. Captain Ron Griffin, King County Sheriff's Office, says, "You know what? They even picked up their trash when they left" (Postman et al., "Peace Settles...").
  • 8:00 p.m.: Several hundreds of protestors gather at Broadway Avenue and Pine Street on Capitol Hill, where they drum and dance as police keep their distance.
  • 10:00 p.m.: Trade negotiators work late into the evening in an attempt to reach agreement before the WTO conference ends the next day.


Robert T. Nelson, Gordon Black, and Lisa Pemberton-Butler, "Shoppers Barred in Retail Core," The Seattle Times, December 2, 1999, p. A-1; "Schell Urges: Stay in Control," Ibid., December 2, 1999, p. A-1; Stephen H. Dunphy, "Clinton Signs Pact to Lessen Child Labor," Ibid., December 2, 1999, p. A-1; Nancy Bartley and Joshua Robin, "Busloads of Protestors Head to Court," Ibid., December 2, 1999, p. A-23; David Postman, Mark Rahner, and Eric Sorensen, "Peace Settles Over Downtown," Ibid., December 3, 1999, p. A-1; J. Martin McOmber, Robert T. Nelson, and Susan Gilmore, "Some Regrets, But No Apologies," Ibid., December 3, 1999, p. A-1; Ian Ith and Janet Burkitt, "Rally Protests Police Actions," Ibid., December 3, 1999, p. A-22; Dunphy, "Negotiators Struggle to End on Time," Ibid., December 3, 1999, p. A-23; Alex Tizon, "Thursday, Dec. 2," Ibid., December 5, 1999, p. A-15; Kery Murakami and Heath Foster, "Outrage on Capitol Hill Softens Police Stance," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 3, 1999, p. A-1; Scott Sunde, "Police Restrained at Peaceful Jail Protest," Ibid., December 3, 1999, p. A-1; Michael Paulson, "Delegates Angered by U.s. Agenda on Labor," Ibid., December 3, 1999, p. A-1; Joel Connelly, "Clinton Signs U.N. Treaty to Ban Worst Child Labor," Ibid., December 3, 1999, p. A-22; 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 (; "Report of the WTO Accountability Review Committee of the Seattle City Council," WTO Accountability Review Committee website accessed October 20, 2009 (; "The Seattle Police Department After Action Report," April 4, 2000, copy available at USDA website accessed November 29, 2017 (; 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);, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "WTO Meeting and Protests in Seattle" (by Kit Oldham) (accessed October 14, 2009).
Note: This essay was revised and substantially expanded on November 3, 2009, and the source list was updated on November 29, 2017.

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