The battle in Seattle

December 9, 2011

In November 1999, tens of thousands of environmental, human rights, labor and other activists descended on the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. Local officials unleashed a storm of police repression, but ultimately, protesters were able to disrupt the meeting of the global loan sharks.

Socialist Worker's Lee Sustar was in Seattle to report on the protests--and ultimately was arrested in one of the many police sweeps. This article originally appeared in the December 10, 1999, Socialist Worker.

THE 40,000-strong "Big March" against the World Trade Organization (WTO) on November 29 was a magnificent display of anger at a system run in the interests of the multinational giants. Unionists from the U.S. and Canada turned out in force, along with representatives of workers' organizations from Europe, Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

At the rally, a General Motors worker from Mexico described what it was like to live on 73 cents an hour in wages--even though she works in one of GM's most modern factories in the world. U.S. workers, fed up with 25 years of declining living standards, came to express their anger at the system. Almost 10,000 longshore workers up and down the West Coast stopped work for a day to protest the WTO meeting.

Jennifer Tollefson, an instructional assistant at the Washington Education Association (WEA), told Socialist Worker, "I'm here because they want to privatize everything. Schools need to remain public."

Barbara Hopkins, a member of the Oregon Public Employees Union, said she attended the WTO protest because she believes in fighting for a living wage everywhere in the world. "Children shouldn't have to work in sweatshops," she said.

Peaceful protesters sit in as riot police fire pepper spray during the 1999 WTO protests
Peaceful protesters sit in as riot police fire pepper spray during the 1999 WTO protests (Steve Kaiser)

Environmentalists also turned out in force. Many were outraged over U.S. efforts to pry open markets for genetically modified foods that carry huge risks for public health and the environment. Thousands of students--many of them on their first protest--organized with schoolmates, coworkers and friends to come to Seattle. Most were from the West, but some traveled from as far away as Boston, New York and North Carolina.

The jubilant Big March shut down the Seattle downtown as chants of "Hell no, WTO!" and "Hey ho, WTO, time to pack your bags and go!" echoed off the buildings.

The high point came when an angry, 1,000-strong delegation from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union defied AFL-CIO marshals and police to march--along with hundreds of young people--to the convention center where the WTO was meeting. The cops were too intimidated by the ILWU to take action--and waited until they were gone before attacking nonviolent protesters.

But if the police crackdown was aimed at breaking the protests, it had the opposite effect. The cops succeeded only in deepening the anger against the WTO and the system it represents.

Cops run amok in crackdown on protesters

When protests humiliated Seattle authorities by forcing delays in the WTO conference, Mayor Paul Schell and Police Chief Norm Stamper imposed a police state.
First, a march of more than 10,000 people from labor and religious groups forced the cancellation of opening ceremonies on Monday, November 29. The next day, sit-ins delayed the start of the conference.

When a small group of protesters damaged several storefronts after the Tuesday labor march, Schell declared a curfew and got the governor to call in the National Guard. The cops did nothing to stop those breaking windows. Instead, they attacked nonviolent protesters--with pepper gas, tear gas, rubber bullets and concussion grenades.

After orchestrating a media backlash against anarchists, Schell and Stamper ordered an even bigger crackdown on Wednesday. Cops gassed a peaceful morning sit-in and arrested demonstrators, even though they were at a park well away from the WTO conference. Then they attacked a march coming from a Steelworkers' rally in the afternoon.

When the curfew took effect at 7 p.m., several hundred protesters marched from downtown to the nearby Capitol Hill neighborhood. People coming out of restaurants and bars were shot at with rubber bullets and tear-gassed. An elderly woman was shot just below her eye with a rubber bullet.

Meanwhile, cops blocked the entrance to Swedish Hospital to keep protesters from seeking medical attention. Hundreds of angry residents poured out of their homes and apartments in outrage over the cops' violent actions.

The next day, University of Washington and Seattle Central Community College students united with 2,000 protesters outside the King County jail--and occupied the entrance to the jail for six hours.

Protests began Friday with a 3,000-strong march called by the King County Labor Council. Chants of "Whose streets? Our streets! Whose world? Our world!" and "WTO, shut it down! Seattle is a union town!" echoed through downtown for the second time in a week. Afterwards, about 500 people marched to the jail to begin what became a 48-hour campout on the steps of the facility.

The solidarity was tremendous. Members of Teamsters Local 174, Food Not Bombs and other organizations brought food and coffee for protesters.

Everyone taking part realized that these protests are the first of many struggles to come. Donell Hayes, an air driver at United Parcel Service, told Socialist Worker, "I brought my 13-year-old boy here to show him that these people are here fighting for your future."

"We kept organizing even inside the jail"

I WAS part of group of protesters that marched from the Steelworkers' labor rally at the Seattle docks on December 1. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 174 President Bob Hasegawa was determined to defy the illegal "no-protest zone" imposed by the city. He was joined by rank-and-file truck drivers, steelworkers, students and young people. A delegation of French trade unionists from the CGT labor federation led us in chants.

The feeling of unity and internationalism was fantastic as we met up with another group from the rally to create a 1,000-strong march behind the Teamsters' banner.

Minutes later, cops in riot gear ambushed us in the middle of rush-hour traffic. Propping their weapons on the hoods of cars, they fired a hail of rubber bullets and threw concussion grenades and canisters of powerful, military-issue tear gas. We were pursued by cops on horseback, motorcycles, cars, helicopters--even an armored personnel carrier.

We decided to march to the Labor Temple, the headquarters of Seattle's unions, to appeal for solidarity. There, the cops ordered us to disperse--only to cut off our exit with more concussion grenades and tear-gas bombs. Several protesters alerted Ron Judd, head of the King County Labor Council, who immediately began organizing solidarity efforts for us.

We sat down in protest until the cops arrested anyone they could fit into city buses. While in custody on the bus, we used cell phones to contact lawyers and protesters still on the street. Some busloads of prisoners sat in for 14 hours before being forcibly removed by being sprayed in the face with Mace. Jail guards later beat one man, nearly breaking his wrist.

Once in jail, we kept organizing as we met new people in different holding cells--a postal worker, a Teamsters' organizer, a journalist, students and young people. My 19 cellmates included a leading organizer in the Rainforest Action Network, activists involved in direct action protests, anarchists and young men on their first protests.

We held political meetings continuously--ranging from debates over violence in protests to how to get rid of the system. Blase Bonpane, a high school teacher from Humboldt County, Calif., gave a talk on the history of the Nicaraguan Revolution.

In our discussion on the alternatives to global capitalism, I argued that organized labor was key to the political impact of the protests--and that workers had the power to lead the struggle for a socialist alternative. My cellmates were impressed by the workers they met--and asked which labor history books to read.

In our three days in jail, we were cheered by news of the 3,000-strong labor march on December 3 in defiance of the no-protest zone. I was among hundreds who were kicked out of jail the next day when bogus charges were dropped--once the WTO delegates were out of town. We were greeted by more than a hundred young people who had camped out on the jailhouse steps in solidarity.

But the fight against the police crackdown isn't over. Several protesters face trumped-up felony charges. Solidarity campaigns for them are already underway.

We left jail vowing to step up the struggle against a rotten system in which multinational corporations and the superrich benefit at our expense.

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