The real story from Seattle: A firsthand account of the 1999 protests of the World Trade Organization

By Damon Krane
December 1, 1999
The Santa Monica Times Mirror (Santa Monica, California)
The Terminal Journal (Chicago, Illinois)
The Chronogram magazine (Kingston, New York)
AK Press compilation of firsthand protestor accounts (San Francisco, California)

(Editor’s notes, 2/9/13 — I emailed out the following report along with a message granting permission to anyone, anywhere, to publish the piece free of charge. Thus to this day I don’t know all of the places this report ended up. However, in addition to its confirmed appearances in the print outlets listed above, a Google search I conducted one year after the report’s release showed it had been posted to at least two hundred websites and listservs around the world. Thus I like to think that my report — written when I was barely 20 years old and released the evening of the first day of ongoing demonstrations — was a small but somewhat significant part of the never-before-seen deluge of citizen media that poured out of Seattle in the waning days of the millenium. Amazingly, that unprecedented flood of firsthand, non-professional reporting (similar to what we saw so much of during the Arab Spring of 2011) succeeded in beating back the fictitious mainstream media narrative of the demonstrations, as well as the vicious police violence that narrative enabled.

For more thorough accounts of the demonstrations and an introduction to the issues behind them, see Big Noise Films’ This is What Democracy Looks Like and the book 5 Days that Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond by Alexander Cockburn, Jeffery St. Clair and Allan Sekula.)

**********************

Part 1: Tuesday, December 1, 1999

I got on a Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh at 3:00am the morning after Thanksgiving and traveled two-and-a-half days to Seattle to join the protests against the World Trade Organization. I arrived to see tens of thousands of activists from the widest range of causes I’ve ever seen in one place, united around a common concern – their desire to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives, otherwise known as democracy. I won’t go into the WTO in great detail. The information is out there. You can find for yourself that in the last 4 years the WTO has been in existence it has ruled against every environmental and human health and safety regulation that has come before it and, through economic leverage, has compelled countries to repeal these “barriers to free trade.” Such barriers in this country have been the sections of the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. But I won’t go into that further. Instead, I want to share with you what happened here in Seattle, to me and thousands of others, yesterday.

My friends and I woke up late Tuesday morning. (One of the largest protests of the century, and we sleep in…) We joined the protests at about 9:00am, and joined a human chain of people blocking one entrance to the convention center where the first day of the WTO summit was to take place. This was the scene at every street that led to the convention center.

The plan was to not let delegates enter and to shut down the meeting. This may sound drastic, but the purpose was to send a message that many have phrased as “No globalization without representation.” The WTO meetings are closed to the public and the WTO is not subordinate to any national government or, more importantly, and democratic body. Yet it has shown itself to have more of a say in things as basic as the quality of the air we breathe than we ourselves do. To me and nearly 50,000 others, this warranted the serious direct action. However, as serious as these demonstrations were, they were to be ALLL non-violent.

After being part of our own barrier to free trade and turning back WTO delegates for about an hour, we heard that protesters needed help at another intersection a few blocks away. Since there were more than enough people to keep up the barrier where we were, we left the blockade and headed for the corner of 8th and Seneca. When we arrived, we saw lots of demonstrators but no major media cameras. There was a smaller group of people sitting down on the street (which had already been closed) with police in riot gear standing behind them. Instead of the ordinary billy clubs, all of Seattle’s police were holding 3 foot oak clubs that look more like baseball bats than batons.

When the demonstrators began putting on their gas masks it became evident that police were planning to use pepper spray on the people sitting down. The rest of the crowd was pleading with the police not to use this cruel tactic. It was possible that if more people sat down, they police wouldn’t spray them, so I joined that group. When it became apparent police were going to use the spray anyway, we all locked legs and arms together, and I pulled a bandana my friend had given me over my face, covering my mouth and eyes.

Onlookers began yelling, “Get ready! They’re going to do it! Get ready!” I heard the spray and people began screaming in pain. I was just expecting pepper spray, so I was pretty surprised when I felt one of those big clubs land on the top of my head. The demonstrator behind me suffered most of the force from the blow, so I wasn’t hurt badly. I covered my head with my arm and covered my eyes with my hand, as the screams continued and it became obvious – even though I couldn’t see anything from underneath my bandana – that the cops were not only spraying but beating the people as well.

A police officer then grabbed my hand and pulled it away from my face and spayed me in the eyes with a canister of pepper spray. I held my eyes closed tight and my bandana absorbed the spray, protecting my eyes and face. I breathed a little bit of it in and began coughing. The crowd started to break up as the police continued beating people. I pulled away and stood up, pulling the bandana away from my eyes to see the police continuing to beat the few people that remained sitting. One woman was trying to get up, and they kept jabbing her in the side with their clubs. The rest of the crowd pulled those people to safety and began washing their eyes with a solution of baking soda and water to counter the effects of the blinding, burning pepper spray.

This was my first experience with pepper spray. I got a tiny bit of it on my forehead and a sharp burning sensation lingered for quite some time. I can’t begin to imagine the pain felt by those who had it sprayed directly into their eyes. I think I was luckier than anyone else I was sitting with, having escaped the spray and only having been clubbed once.

I began snapping a few pictures as the rest of the crowd was dispersed, and screamed at the cops for a while, calling them fascist pigs between plenty of other expletives. But once the over all scene and my own emotions calmed down a bit, other demonstrators and I began speaking to the police now standing shoulder to shoulder in tight formation where demonstrators had previously sat.

It quickly became evident that some of the police were visibly disturbed by what they had just done. One female officer’s hands were shaking as she held her club up to her chest. Her eyes were watery and she kept blinking them to avoid crying. We talked to other officers who wouldn’t look us in the eyes, but their faces showed no signs of pleasure. After I calmed down a bit and got my emotions under control enough to speak, I said to them more or less the following.

“You probably think we’re just fanatics with nothing better to do, or maybe vagrants who are too lazy to be working right now, or maybe spoiled college kids who don’t have to work. You can think that we’re idiots who came across a few statistics on environmental degradation or sweatshops; that we’re out here today to be self-righteous and think that we’re better than everybody else. But we’re people just like you. And everybody standing here with me knows exactly why they’re here today. We’re trying to make the world better. And I don’t think a single one of you even knows why you’re here. How many of you support the WTO? How many of you even know what it does? We know why we’re here. Why the hell are you here?

“I don’t think any of you became police officers to beat people who aren’t a threat to anyone’s safety. Just who do you think you’re protecting? We’re unarmed. None of us have tried to attack you or anyone else today. You attacked us. You aren’t protecting yourselves; there’s no one behind you that you’re protecting – Who do you think you’re protecting!? If you have a good reason for beating us today, if you felt it was right, that’s one thing. But if you didn’t have any reason and you still beat these people anyway, I want you to ask yourself why you did it. Why you were willing to inflict violence on other people for no reason other than you were told to.”

I asked them to go home and think about that; what they did to make things better today by beating non-violent protesters; if that’s what they became cops to do.

As other demonstrators and I harangued the police about such things, the officers were all silent. Many kept turning their heads spastically to avoid making eye contact with any of us. Eventually, the commanding officer stepped in, walking back and forth directly in front of his officer’s formation, pushing demonstrators back to create more distance between his officers and us. He ordered the crowd to disperse, saying that if we didn’t leave the police would remove us by force. We didn’t leave. We just kept talking to the police more.

I asked the commanding officer to explain to us why we ought to leave. He didn’t acknowledge the question. I asked them all if that’s what those clubs meant, that they didn’t have to explain their actions to anyone, even themselves. Other protesters reminded them that even though they were trained to be robots, they were still people who were responsible for their own actions – orders or no orders. I told them my name, where I was from, that I go to college in Ohio, that I have family and friends. I asked them their names. None answered.

Soon a group of people with their arms chained together inside tubes wrapped in duct tape. Four of these people had come from Athens, Ohio, where I attend school: three OU students and friends of mine. The police were still threatening to charge the crowd. I quickly realized that these people had no way to protect their heads from the police clubs. Being obviously nonviolent had already proven to be no defense against police violence. Another OU student and I walked up to the police line to ask them about this.

We found that the line was now made up of different police officers. We approached one and voiced our concerns. He looked at us and said, “Well, if they’re worried about getting hurt, they should have thought about that before they came out today.” I asked him to show me his badge number, and he refused.

“Aren’t you required to show your identification to the public?” I asked.

He didn’t answer.

The officer to his left sneered at me and said, “Well you have all the answers, why don’t you tell me?”

I began to, but he cut me off by raising his club in a threatening manner and yelling at me to back up. I did and continued talking to him from a safer distance, but he looked away and ignored me.

The first officer had no identifying number anywhere on him. No visible badge, no number on his helmet. So I took his picture and got others to do the same. I encouraged everyone around me to keep an eye on him.

When I first spoke to police after they had beaten us, I had been very encouraged that some had actually shown some signs of human compassion, but my hopefulness disappeared after I talked to the latter group of officers and realized that many of them appeared quite happy to inflict harm on people. Reinforcements came and as protesters cleared the way for them, one cop pushed a protester and, with a big grin on his face, said “Get the fuck out of my way.”

From time to time ambulances would come through and the crowd would clear a path immediately. Some protesters asked, “What if WTO delegates are sneaking in on the ambulances?” But people came to an immediate consensus that, although this was a possibility, it wasn’t worth risking people’s safety.

Suddenly, a WTO delegate made it unnoticed through our lines. But when he made it to police they refused to let him enter. They turned back another delegate later. As it turned out, we were guarding an exit not an entrance. The police’s orders were to not let anyone in – whoever they were. Also, since police had shut down the street and no protesters had attempted to cross police lines, none of us were even doing anything illegal – which is probably why none of the people in the sit-down group were arrested but all were beaten and pepper sprayed.

Word soon made it to us that the situation was worse elsewhere. We made our way to the heart of downtown and found the streets full of teargas. There was a large group of people sitting down in front of police in full riot gear with their gas masks on. Behind them was an armored personnel carrier: essentially a tank minus its cannon. Soon the police attacked protesters again.

Against non-violent protesters, the police used pepper spray, clubs, tear gas, and later fired rubber bullets and marbles at the people, as well as “flash-bang” and concussion grenades. In every single instance I witnessed first hand, police violently attacked non-violent protesters with no provocation whatsoever. That was the case when I was beaten and sprayed, just as it was when downtown was flooded with tear gas.

As night fell, police helicopters flew overhead, shining spotlights down into the crowd. Thousands of police forced protesters out of the downtown area firing canister after canister of tear gas into the crowd. My friends and I were split up in the crowd of people fleeing from the gas. Eventually, I made it back to the house to join them.

The whole way to their house, I was hoping that this story would get out. Hoping that the level of violence inflicted on non-violent protesters, peacefully assembled, would wake a lot of people up and show them the actual level of civil liberties and democracy in this country. Hoping that people would see what the level of force aimed at people who peacefully oppose the interests that are dominant in this country and the world.

I returned home to have this hope crushed. The local news stations were reporting on the broken windows of businesses and not the broken bones of protesters. They reported on things like “police fatigue,” which I assume is when your arms get tired after you beat people all day. They talked – and continue to talk, as I write this – about the extreme “restraint, open-mindedness, and gentleness” displayed by police.

A state of civil emergency was declared, and a curfew was set for 7pm. If anyone was downtown after that, they would be arrested. Police then cleared the curfew zone of people. But on TV, my friends and I watched as police continued to pursue demonstrators up Capitol Hill – many blocks outside of the curfew / “no-protest” zone. Police chased demonstrators into a retail district, firing tear gas into crowds that now included holiday shoppers and people getting dinner. Finally, after 12 hours of people being beaten and gassed, a small riot broke out. A Starbucks coffee shop was damaged and looted. I’m amazed it took this long to happen. From my perspective it seems as though, by repeatedly attacking and torturing non-violent protesters and then chasing them into a retail district, the Seattle police deliberately sought to incite a riot and finally succeeded to a small degree. The news media then responded by running the scene of Starbucks being looted again, and again and again. At least a dozen times in under an hour. There were also quick clips of police beating demonstrators shown once and not again.

A newscaster on KOMO, channel 4, said, “Look, earlier today we saw protesters carrying signs with clear messages against the WTO, but what you have going on now is an unruly mob just trying to cause problems. In the pictures we’re seeing now, I don’t see any signs at all. These people don’t have any message.”

What the newscaster failed to notice was that people, myself included, dropped their signs when they were fleeing for their lives. We dropped our signs because you need two hands to guard your eyes from tears gas.

Talk of the “police being too lenient” has continued into today’s news reports. And the lack of signs continues to be portrayed as a lack of any constructive purpose among the protesters. As one newscaster remarked, “Come on, get a life. We live in a prosperous country.”

In all honesty, the news is scaring me more than the riot police, because what it has done is justify further violence against the protesters. Commentators have accused the only of being “too lenient.” In reality, in addition to making indiscriminate mass arrests, the police have used teargas, pepper spray, clubs, rubber bullets, marbles, and assorted grenades against peaceful protesters in downtown Seattle. The only thing police haven’t done is use live ammunition. And in the event that greater violence occurs against protesters, the media will have justified it.

Besides insulting protesters, the local media has focused on the disruption to traffic and holiday shopping. The National Guard is now occupying the city, a 50 block “no protest” zone has been established, about 120 people have been arrested, and many have been hospitalized – though that has received no coverage as far as I’ve seen.

In other news, I’m happy to say we succeeded in shutting down the first day of WTO meetings. The situation is still developing, so I encourage everyone to watch the news coverage and contrast it to what I’ve written here. And please – do your own research on the WTO.

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