Scenes from the Battle of Seattle

Report and photos by Liz Highleyman


Tuesday, November 30 -- termed N30 by anti-WTO activists -- dawned gray and cloudy as I made my way up Pike Street to Victor Steinbrueck Park on the Seattle waterfront. By the time I arrived at 7:00 a.m., over 1,000 demonstrators had gathered, ranging from environmentalists to union members to advocates for human rights for the people of Tibet.

Soon the crowd began to march toward the Seattle Convention Center, site of the long-awaited meeting of the World Trade Organization, a group of government representatives who set the international rules regarding trade and tarriffs. WTO delegates were scheduled to attend an opening ceremony that morning at the historic Paramount Theater at 8th and Pine, but protesters were determined to ensure that WTO business did not proceed as usual.

[Liz [Liz As delegates arrived, demonstrators -- some dressed in sea turtle costumes and others carrying giant puppets -- formed a human barrier to deny them entry. Many began to climb on top of the Metro buses that Seattle police had parked end-to-end around the theater. Amazingly, authorities had neglected to secure a protected means of entry for the delegates who began streaming toward the theater individually and in small groups. This was to be the first sign that city officials were woefully ill-prepared for what was to come in the hours and days to follow.

[Liz Several affinity groups -- small groupings of ten or so people determined to interfere with the WTO meeting by means of direct action -- stationed themselves in major downtown intersections around the meeting sites, in some cases locking their arms together inside wire tubes or chaining themselves to makeshift platforms. About 100 others settled in for a sit-in outside the Sheraton convention center hotel at 6th and Pike. Along with the many protesters who would not have looked out of place at an anti-war demonstration three decades ago, there was 50 to 100 protesters clad in hoods and bandanas, accompanied by a small marching band wearing matching pink gas masks. From my 15-year acquaintance with the anarchist movement, I recognized the "black bloc," a direct action tactic adopted from Germany in the 1980s; several of the anarchists joined the sit-in, facing off against a line of cops in full riot gear.

[Liz [Liz Around 10:00 a.m., the demonstrators got louder and the police appeared nervous. Some protesters tipped newspaper boxes into the street to form makeshift barricades and began banging on them with sticks. Soon a small tank dubbed "the peacekeeper" pulled up behind the line of riot police. With no apparent provocation, the first of many cannisters of tear gas flew toward the crowd.

[Liz Some of the protesters had come prepared with goggles and gas masks, while others covered their noses and mouths with bandannas soaked in vinegar or baking soda. Many more, not expecting to be gassed and unsure what was happening, panicked and tried to flee the spreading cloud of gas and smoke. People with tears streaming down their faces sought shelter in the doorway of an FAO Schwartz store as others rinsed their eyes and burning skin with water. During a break in the melee, I picked up several quarter- and half-inch rubber pellets which police had shot at the crowd; as I would later see, the pellets cause large bruises and can break teeth and penetrate skin at close range.

[Liz Since the early-1990s, I had largely "retired" from direct activism and focused my energies on writing; having traded in my scruffy leather jacket for a North Face rain parka, I had come to Seattle to cover the events as a freelance journalist. As the gassing and shooting started, though, I began to think that my first aid training would prove more useful. I had been a volunteer "medic" at large events such as gay pride parades and pro-choice marches before, but had never had to do more than apply a bandaid to a blister. Such was not to be the case this week.

[Liz The tear gas used by the Seattle police -- CS gas, or O-chlorobenzalmalononitrile -- is actually a cloud of tiny crystals that irritate the mucous membranes. It causes the eyes to water, burns the nose and throat, and its acrid odor leaves a bitter taste in the back of the mouth. Those who come into contact with the gas -- even a block away from where it was dispensed -- may be blinded and find it hard to breathe; some also vomit. Flushing the eyes with water or a saline solution is the best immediate remedy. Rubbing the eyes -- most people's natural reaction -- only makes the burning worse.

Some protesters who were equipped with goggles and gas masks stayed on the front lines and lobbed gas cannisters back at the police. Other enraged protesters began to throw bottles and other small debris. As the police kept themselves occupied facing off against the large crowd, fewer than 50 protesters -- including several in hoods and masks -- vented their rage at the face of corporate America in a more direct way. Sticks, boots, manhole covers and newspaper boxes were used to smash store windows, and facades were spray-painted with the anarchist circle-A and anti-capitalist slogans. Damage was targeted at corporate monoliths such as McDonalds, Old Navy, and Niketown, accused of environmental destruction and the use of sweatshop labor. The majority of demonstrators opposed the vandalism, with some attempting to physically restrain or stand in the way of those carrying it out.

[Liz Many demostrators, newscasters, and politicians would lament in the days and weeks to followed that the violent actions of a few marred the message of the many. Ironically, the anti-corporate and anti-technology message of the militant anarchists was undermined in turn when a small number of local youths not initially involved with the anti-WTO protests looted the damaged storefronts, making off with armloads of Nike logo merchandise, cell phones, and small electronics equipment.

[Liz A midday, a large march of over 20,000 labor unionists and supporters met up with the ongoing downtown demonstration after marching from a rally at a stadium several blocks away. This new influx swelled the crowd to some 50,000. Indeed, the incoming march was so large that it was forced to separate into smaller columns to approach the convention center. Demonstrators were euphoric when word spread through the crowd that the morning's actions had resulted in the cancellation of the WTO's opening ceremonies.

Despite the anti-technology sentiments of some of the protesters, modern technology was highly in evidence. Much of the networking and planning necessary to gather so many activists from so many disparate movements had been carried out using the Internet. At times, it appeared that there were as many people photographing, recording, and videotaping the activities as there were participants. Mainstream Seattle media broadcast live for hours, and an Independent Media Center marshalled volunteer journalists and videographers to get non-corporate-controlled information out over the radio and the Web. It was easy to tell when some excitement was taking place in a surrounding area, as a chorus of ringing cell phones alerted organizers to mobilize their forces elsewhere or summoned the media to cover a new unfolding event.

[Liz At about 3:30 p.m., word came from the cell phones that the cops were attempting to push protesters out of the downtown core near 4th and Pine with a renewed barrage of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. Authorities had begun to worry about how downtown workers -- many trapped in their stores and offices by protests and street closures -- would be able to get home. Seattle Mayor Paul Schell imposed a 7:00 p.m. to dawn curfew for a several block radius around the city center.

[Liz I had taken advantage of a break in the action to duck into a drug store for cigarettes and fresh first aid supplies -- water, gauze pads, paper towels, rubbing alcohol, and small squeeze bottles perfectly sized for eye-rinsing. As I approached the corner of 4th, a large number of people were fleeing a cloud of gas bigger than any we had seen so far. Chris, a fellow "medic," had set up a first aid station in the shelter of a nearby doorway. Although tear gas can be quickly flushed away with water and the sting lessens with exposure to the air, pepper spray is another matter. Not only does it cause agonizing and prolonged eye pain, it also causes the skin to redden and sting like a severe sunburn. Chris and I applied the recommended remedy of mineral oil, rubbing alcohol, and water to the red faces of dozens of demonstrators. As we worked, a woman came by with blood streaming down her face from a jagged wound on her forehead -- she had been hit at close range with a tear gas cannister. Another protester had been shot in the mouth with a rubber pellet and appeared through the blood to have several broken or missing teeth.

[Liz [Liz Determined to clear the downtown area by curfew, police continued to rush and gas the protesters, pushing them back toward Pine Street. As the twilight sky darkened, the clouds of gas reflected the Christmas lights that ringed the central shopping plaza. On Pine, the cops divided the crowd, sending some in the direction of the waterfront and others toward highway I-5 and the residential Capitol Hill neighborhood. As the demonstrators passed the convention center, a speaker on nearby hotel balcony blared Jimi Hendrix's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

As the evening wore on, police continued to push demonstrators up the slope toward the neighborhood. Despite the fact that the mayor had declared I-5 as the western boundary of the curfew zone, the police did not stop there. On Capitol Hill, residents and bar patrons joined the protesters, and all were pushed further west by intermittent barrages of concussion grenades and gas. Once the crowd reached Broadway, a stand-off ensued, and some people began to block the intersection with burning dumpsters. at around midnigt, arguments were continuing about whether the group should stand its ground or go home when I decided to call it a night.


On Wednesday morning, many store windows in the central shopping area were boarded up, and several of yesterday's demonstrators were helping sweep up broken glass and clean graffitti off walls. About 200 protesters from the Direct Action Network decided to stage a non-violent sit-in at Westlake plaza. But today, President Clinton was in town, and Seattle officials were not in the mood to deal with any dissent. Mayor Schell had declared a state of emergency, called in the National Guard, made the blocks surrounding the WTO meeting and Clinton's temporary residence at the Westin Hotel a "no protest" zone, and banned the possession, sale, or transport of gas masks. Faced with this affront, the focus of the protesters shifted somewhat from the WTO to the actions of the police and the denial of constititional rights. [Liz

Soon the police moved in and -- in a drastic departure from the day before -- arrestered the sitting demonstrators as well as many bystanders who had no intention of getting arrested. Onlookers raised peace signs and fists as the demonstrators were cuffed wth plastic ties and loaded onto city buses pressed into service to carry them to Sand Point, a decommissioned naval station several miles outside the city. The arrestees later reported that they were not given food or water and were denied access to their attorneys; the majority refused to cooperate with the police and declined to give their names.

The mainstream media and many city officials repeatedly lamented that the WTO and the surrounding events were interfering with expected holiday shopping. Indeed, little commerce was conducted Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday as Mayor Schell extended the previous night's curfew into a general 24-hour restriction on any unauthorized movement within the downtown core.

[Liz In the afternoon, under a drizzly sky, over 1,000 protesters gathered to march from downtown to join a large labor rally on the waterfront docks. Members of the steelworkers union were to dump steel into the sound to protest international trade rules that hurt American workers. Student activists, environmentalists, and anarchists alike cheered the union leaders, but grew impatient when they were followed by a string of long-winded legislators. Soon a chant of "Downtown!" arose, as protesters decided to march once again toward the convention center.

[Liz Some 4,000 people marched along the waterfront and through Seattle's famed Pike Place Market. Although police presence had been minimal at the docks, fully armed riot cops appeared seemingly out of nowhere -- on foot, on motorcycles, in squad cars, and riding the "peacekeeper" tanks -- as the crowd approached 1st Street. Once again, it didn't seem to matter that this area was several blocks outside the "no protest" zone declared by the mayor. "Flash bang" concussion grenades, designed to frighten and disorient a crowd, were followed by large amounts of tear gas. Unlike yesterday, though, today's crowds near the marketplace included shoppers, bystanders, and people leaving school or work. In the high winds, the gas could not be targeting and blanketed a several-block area. At one point, bus drivers and passengers were forced to abandon city buses as the acrid fumes filled the vehicles.

[Liz I stopped a volunteer medic on a bicycle flying a red cross flag to collect more supplies. Two of us found a sheltered spot around the corner from the melee and began helping people rinse their burning eyes. With only a pair of sunglasses and a bandanna soaked in vinegar to neutralize the acrid fumes, I found myself blinded and coughing as the wind blew the gas towards us. After recovering for a moment, I helped two Asian girls who said they were coming home from school. A demonstrator across the street assisted an elderly man who had gotten caught in the cross-fire. Although a faceful of tear gas is never pleasant, it is especially shocking and terrifying for those who are not expecting it and have no idea what hit them.

[Liz As the gas thickened, the crowd became disorganized. More riot police arrived. They ordered people to disperse, but fired on them with more and pepper spray before they had a chance to comply. Police had seemingly blocked off all routes of escape. The small group I was with attempted to turn up several side streets, only to find our exit blcoked by yet another line of police. During the panic following one grenade and gas blast, I found myself on the other side of a line of cops and was able to get away. Others were not so lucky. One group of about 100, finding themselves completely surrounded, sat in the street and began chanting, "The whole world is watching!", echoing the protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. As they did then, the cops attacked the group and a large number of arrests followed. [Liz

Many of the protesters who were not arrested made their way East on Denny Way, well north of the so-called "no protest" zone. As they had the previous evening, the police charged and gassed the crowd, moving them once more toward Capitol Hill. At Broadway, the demonstrators held a brief "victory celebration." The victory was short-lived, however. When a police SUV tried to drive through the crowd, several people began to pound and kick the vehicle, bringing an immediate response from a line of riot police stationed a couple blocks away. Once again, the tear gas flew, this time answered by a volley of firecrackers, bottles, and debris.

Many angry neighborhood residents, some of whom felt the effects of the tear gas in their homes, began to join the protesters on the streets. Others left shops and restaurants, demanding that the police "Get off our hill!" Although some neighbors also expressed anger at the protesters, but most appeared to support the demonstrators' right to engage in peaceful expression. As we watched the standoff from an adjacent corner, I talked with a young African-American high school student who lived a block away, after I had washed tear gas out of her eyes. She said she was studying to become a lawyer and hoped to fight against such civil rights abuses in the future. I gave her a spent CS cannister that I found on the grass at the community college; she wanted to take it to school the next day to show her classmates and teachers. Wednesday night's standoff continued for hours near the local precint headquarters -- and involved the gassing of a local city council member who tried to mediate between the cops and the crowd -- until the police were finally able to disperse the crowd at about 2:00 a.m.


[Liz [Liz On Thursday, with the first dawning of the sun all week -- and with the departure of the president -- everyone's spirits appeared to have improved considerably. A morning free speech demonstration at the community college on Capitol Hill was followed by an uneventful march to join a waterfront rally supporting farmers and opposing genetically engineered foods. A protest organizer later told me that the police -- apparently concerned about the public's negative reaction to their actions the previous day -- had offered to escort the marchers anywhere they wanted to go.

[Liz Following the farm rally, several thousand people marched through Pike's Place market and headed back downtown toward the King County jail at 4th and James to express their solidarity with those arrested the previous two days. After surrounding the jail, the demonstrators announced their intention to stay put until their comrades were released. The scene became a true "festival of resistance" as demonstrators played music and danced and Food Not Bombs distributed food. The mayor and police officials agreed to negotiate with representatives of the protesters for the release of the arrestees. Negotiations were continuing when I left to catch the last flight that night to San Francisco.

[Liz According to later reports, the demonstrators left before the curfew that night, but many returned to continue their vigil the next day. The arrestees continued their jail solidarity. Most were given minor charges and were released by the end of the week, but must return later for trials; a small number face more serious felony charges. A fragile progressive activist coalition was built on the basis of shared ideals rather than shared identities; it remains to be seen what will become of this in the future. The actions of the police so angered the citizens of Seattle that the chief of police was forced to resign the following week. As for the WTO, their meetings ended Friday in failure -- according to mainstream media reports -- with no major agreements or schedules for further talks. The U.S. public can no longer remain unaware of the once-secretive body that arbitrates international trade.

© 1999, Liz Highleyman

Liz Highleyman --