World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999 protest activity

World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999 protest activity
World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999 protest activity
Pepper spray dispersed into the crowd.
Pepper spray dispersed into the crowd.
Other names N30
The Battle in Seattle
The Battle of Seattle
Participants Anti-globalization movement
Direct Action Network
Labor unions
Student and Religiously-based groups
King County Sheriff's Office
Seattle Police Department
Location Seattle, Washington
Date November 30, 1999 (1999-11-30)
Result Resignation of Seattle police chief Norm Stamper
Increased exposure of WTO in US media
157 individuals arrested & released for lack of probable cause or hard evidence
$250,000 paid to the arrested by the city of Seattle
Creation of the Independent Media Center

Protest activity surrounding the WTO Ministerial Conference of 1999, which was to be the launch of a new millennial round of trade negotiations, occurred on November 30, 1999 (nicknamed "N30" on similar lines to J18 and similar mobilizations), when the World Trade Organization (WTO) convened at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle, Washington, United States. The negotiations were quickly overshadowed by massive and controversial street protests outside the hotels and the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, in what became the second phase of the anti-globalization movement in the United States. The scale of the demonstrations—even the lowest estimates put the crowd at over 40,000—dwarfed any previous demonstration in the United States against a world meeting of any of the organizations generally associated with economic globalization (such as the WTO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), or the World Bank).[1] The events are sometimes referred to as the Battle of Seattle or the Battle in Seattle.


Organizations and planning

Planning for the demonstrations began months in advance and included local, national, and international organizations. Among the most notable participants were national and international NGOs (especially those concerned with labor issues, the environment, and consumer protection), labor unions (including the AFL-CIO), student groups, religiously-based groups (Jubilee 2000), and anarchists (some of whom formed a black bloc).[2]

The coalition was loose, with some opponent groups focused on opposition to WTO policies (especially those related to free trade), with others motivated by pro-labor, anti-capitalist, or environmental agendas. Many of the NGOs represented at the protests came with credentials to participate in the official meetings, while also planning various educational and press events. The AFL-CIO, with cooperation from its member unions, organized a large permitted rally and march from Seattle Center to downtown.

Others, however, were more interested in taking direct action including both civil disobedience and acts of vandalism and property destruction to disrupt the meeting. Several groups were loosely organized together under the Direct Action Network (DAN), with a plan to disrupt the meetings by blocking streets and intersections downtown to prevent delegates from reaching the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, where the meeting was to be held.

Corporations targeted

Certain activists, notably a group of anarchists from Eugene, Oregon[3] (where they had gathered that summer for a music festival),[4] advocated more confrontational tactics, and planned and conducted deliberate vandalism of corporate properties in downtown Seattle. In a subsequent communique, they listed the particular corporations targeted, which they contend to have committed corporate crime:

Fidelity Investments (major investor in Occidental Petroleum, the bane of the U'wa tribe in Colombia); Bank of America, US Bancorp, Key Bank and Washington Mutual Bank (financial institutions key in the expansion of corporate repression); Old Navy, Banana Republic and the Gap (as Fisher family businesses, rapers of Northwest forest lands and sweatshop laborers); NikeTown and Levi's (whose overpriced products are made in sweatshops); McDonald's (slave-wage fast food peddlers responsible for destruction of tropical rainforests for grazing land and slaughter of animals); Starbucks (peddlers of an addictive substance whose products are harvested at below-poverty wages by farmers who are forced to destroy their own forests in the process); Warner Bros. (media monopolists); Planet Hollywood (for being Planet Hollywood).[5]

Lead-up months

Activists of the successful 1998 campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) were convinced that the WTO would be used by transnational corporate influencers[clarification needed] as a forum in which to advance the global corporate agenda to the detriment of worldwide civil society and especially the interests of third-world countries.

As a token of the effectiveness of democratic lobbying at local level, Seattle declared itself an MAI Free-Zone by unanimous vote in the City Council on Monday, April 12, joining numerous cities in the US and around the world.[6]

On 12 July, the Financial Times reported that the latest United Nations Human Development report advocated "principles of performance for multinationals on labour standards, fair trade and environmental protection ... needed to counter the negative effects of globalisation on the poorest nations". The report itself argued that "An essential aspect of global governance is responsibility to people—to equity, to justice, to enlarging the choices of all".[7]

On 16 July, Helene Cooper of the Wall Street Journal warned of an impending "massive mobilization against globalization" being planned for the end-of-year Seattle WTO conference.[8] Next day, the London Independent newspaper savaged the WTO and appeared to side with the organisers of the rapidly developing storm of protest:

The way it has used [its] powers is leading to a growing suspicion that its initials should really stand for World Take Over. In a series of rulings it has struck down measures to help the world's poor, protect the environment, and safeguard health in the interests of private—usually American—companies. "The WTO seems to be on a crusade to increase private profit at the expense of all other considerations, including the well-being and quality of life of the mass of the world's people," says Ronnie Hall, trade campaigner at Friends of the Earth International. "It seems to have a relentless drive to extend its power."[9]

On November 16, two weeks before the conference, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 13141—Environmental Review of Trade Agreements[10], which committed the United States to a policy of "assessment and consideration of the environmental impacts of trade agreements" and stated "Trade agreements should contribute to the broader goal of sustainable development."

A spectacular coup was staged against Seattle's daily paper the Post Intelligencer on Wednesday 24 November. Thousands of hoax editions of a 4-page front-cover wrap-around were printed and inserted into piles of newspapers awaiting distribution in hundreds of street boxes and retail outlets. The spoof front-page stories were "Boeing to move overseas" (to Indonesia) and "Clinton pledges help for poorest nations".[11] The byline on the Boeing story attributed it to Joe Hill (a union organizer who was executed by firing squad in Utah early in the century). On the same day, the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development reported that:

"...developing countries have remained steadfast in their demand that developed countries honour Uruguay Round commitments before moving forward full force with new trade negotiations. Specifically, developing countries are concerned over developed countries’ compliance with agreements on market access for textiles, their use of antidumping measures against developing countries’ exports, and over-implementation of the WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs)".[12]

This ominously foreshadowed the impending conflict of the North-South divide which was to result in the collapse of the forthcoming WTO talks.


Seattle police on Union Street, during the protests.

On the morning of November 30, 1999, the Direct Action Network's plan was put into effect. Several hundred activists arrived in the deserted streets near the convention center and began to take control of key intersections. Over the next few hours, a number of marchers began to converge on the area from different directions. These included a student march from the north and a march of citizens of the developing world who marched in from the south. Some demonstrators held rallies, others held teach-ins and at least one group staged an early-morning street party. Meanwhile, a number of protesters still controlled the intersections using lockdown formations.

The control of the intersections, plus the sheer numbers of protesters in the area, prevented delegates from getting from their hotels to the Convention Center. It also had the effect of cutting the police forces in two: the police who had formed a cordon around the convention center were cut off from the rest of the city. The police outside of the area eventually tried to break through the protesters' lines in the south.

That morning, the King County Sheriff's Office and Seattle Police Department fired pepper spray, tear gas canisters, stun grenades, and eventually rubber bullets at protesters at several intersections in an attempt to reopen the blocked streets and allow as many WTO delegates as possible through the blockade.[13] At 6th Avenue and Union Street, the crowd threw them back.

The situation was complicated around noon, when black-clad anarchists (in a formation known as a black bloc) began smashing windows and vandalizing storefronts, beginning with Fox's Gem Shop. This produced some of the most famous and controversial images of the protests. This set off a chain-reaction of sorts, with additional protesters pushing dumpsters into the middle of intersections and lighting them on fire, deflating the tires of police vehicles,[14] non-black bloc demonstrators joining in the property destruction, and a general disruption of all commercial activity in downtown Seattle.

Other protesters tried to physically block the activities of the black bloc. Seattle police, led by Chief Norm Stamper, did not react immediately, because they had been convinced by protest organizers during the protest-permit process that peaceful organizers would quell these kinds of activities.[15]

The police were eventually overwhelmed by the mass of protesters downtown, including many who had chained themselves together and were blocking intersections. Meanwhile, the late-morning labor-organized rally and march drew tens of thousands; though the intended march route had them turning back before they reached the convention center, some ignored the marshals and joined what had become a street-carnival-like scene downtown.

The opening of the meetings was delayed, and it took police much of the afternoon and evening to clear the streets. Seattle mayor Paul Schell imposed a curfew and a 50-block "No-Protest Zone".

Over 600 people were arrested over the next few days. One particularly violent confrontation occurred the evening of November 30, when police pursued protesters fleeing from downtown into the bohemian neighborhood of Capitol Hill, using tear gas, pepper spray, and physical force.[16] A police order that day also banned the use or sale of gas masks downtown, provoking criticism.[17]

Media response

The New York Times printed an erroneous article that stated that protesters at the 1999 WTO convention in Seattle threw Molotov cocktails at police.[18] Two days later, The New York Times printed a correction saying that the protest was mostly peaceful and no protesters were accused of throwing objects at delegates or the police, but the original error persisted in later accounts in the mainstream media.[19]

The Seattle City Council also dispelled these rumors with its own investigation findings:

"The level of panic among police is evident from radio communication and from their inflated crowd estimates, which exceed the numbers shown on news videotapes. ARC investigators found the rumors of "Molotov cocktails" and sale of flammables from a supermarket had no basis in fact. But, rumors were important in contributing to the police sense of being besieged and in considerable danger." [20]

An article in the magazine The Nation disputed that Molotov cocktails have ever been thrown at an anti-globalization protest within the US.[21]


Controversy over the city's response to the protests resulted in the resignation of Seattle police chief Norm Stamper,[22] and arguably played a role in Schell's loss to Greg Nickels in the 2001 mayoral primary election.[23][24]

Similar tactics, on the part of both police and protesters, were repeated at subsequent meetings of the WTO, IMF/World Bank, Free Trade Area of the Americas, and other international organizations, as well as the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in the US.

To many in North American anarchist and radical circles, the Seattle WTO riots, protests, and demonstrations were viewed as a success. Prior to the "Battle of Seattle," there was almost no mention of "anti-globalization" in the US media, while the protests are seen as having forced the media to report on why anybody would oppose the WTO.[25] However, this was only the second phase of these mass demonstrations. The first began on 12 December 1997 in which newly formed grass-roots organizations blockaded Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and Darwin city centers.[26]

On January 16, 2004, the city settled with 157 individuals arrested outside of the no-protest zone during the WTO events, agreeing to pay them a total of $250,000.[27]

On January 30, 2007, a federal jury found that the city of Seattle had violated protesters' Fourth Amendment constitutional rights by arresting them without probable cause or hard evidence.[28][29]

The massive size of the protest pushed the city of Seattle $3 million over its estimated budget of $6 million, partly due to city cleanup and police overtime bills. In addition, the damage to commercial businesses from vandalism and lost sales has been estimated at $20 million.[30]

See also


  1. ^ Seattle Police Department: The Seattle Police Department After Action Report: World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference Seattle, Washington November 29 – December 3, 1999. p. 41.
    "Police estimated the size of this march [the labor march] in excess of 40,000."
  2. ^ Anarchism: Two Kinds, Wendy McElroy. About market, violence, and anarchist reject to WTO.
  3. ^ Roosevelt, Margot (July 23, 2001). "In Oregon, Anarchists Act Locally". TIME.,9171,1000411-1,00.html. Retrieved 2008-02-28. 
  4. ^ Bishop, Bill (2007-07-01). "Local unrest followed cycle of social movements". The Register-Guard. Retrieved 2008-02-28. 
  5. ^ ACME Collective, A communique from one section of the black bloc of N30 in Seattle.
  6. ^ Seattle declares itself "MAI-Free Zone"! (Third World Network)
  7. ^ Globalization with a Human Face UNHDR, 1999
  8. ^ "''Globalization Foes Plan to Protest WTO's Seattle Round Trade Talks''". Retrieved 2009-07-17. 
  9. ^ THE HIDDEN TENTACLES OF THE WORLD'S MOST SECRET BODY Sunday Independent, 17 July 1999
  10. ^ "Presidential Executive Order 13141". 1999-11-16. Retrieved 2009-07-17. 
  11. ^ Parvaz D P-I executives not amused by protesters' parody Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 25 November 1999
  12. ^ No New Issues Without Redress Of Uruguay Round ImbalancesICTSD Bridges Weekly Seattle 99, Vol 3 No 46, 24 November 1999
  13. ^ Seattle Police Department, After-Action Report, pp. 39-40
    Draft King Country Sheriff's Office Final Report, II.H.2.
    WTO Accountability Review Committee, Combined Timeline of Events During the WTO Ministerial, 1999, Tuesday, Nov. 30: 9:09 AM & 10 AM.
    A recording of the Seattle Police Department radio channel command-5 is also available, but has a gap from 0836 to 0840.
    Highleyman, Liz, Scenes from the Battle of Seattle.
    St. Clair, Jeffrey, Seattle Diary.
    Gillham, Patrick F., and Marx, Gary T., Complexity and Irony in Policing: The World Trade Organization in Seattle.
    de Armond, Paul, Netwar in the Emerald City: WTO Protest Strategy and Tactics, pp. 216-217.
  14. ^ Postman, David (December 1, 1999). "Group Rejects Others' Pleas Of `No Violence' -- Black-Clad Anarchists Target Cars, Windows". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2008-11-01. 
  15. ^ Press and other reports
  16. ^ Rand Corp report, pg 24.
  17. ^ "ACLU challenges the city's actions". 1999-12-02. Retrieved 2009-07-17. 
  18. ^ Christian, Nichole M. (2000-06-04). "Police Brace For Protests In Windsor And Detroit". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-07-17. 
  19. ^ "Origins of the Molotov Myth". Retrieved 2009-07-17. 
  20. ^ "Seattle City Council findings" (PDF). Retrieved 2009-07-17. 
  21. ^ The Myth of Protest Violence, David Graeber. The Nation.
  22. ^ Kimberly A.C. Wilson, Embattled police chief resigns, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 7, 1999. Accessed online May 19, 2008.
  23. ^ Dan Savage, Paul is Dead: Norm's Resignation Ain't Gonna Save Schell's Butt, The Stranger, issue of December 9–15, 1999. Accessed online May 19, 2008.
  24. ^ Rick Anderson, Whatever Happened to 'Hippie Bitch' Forman?, Seattle Weekly, November 24, 2004. Accessed online May 19, 2008.
  25. ^ Owens, Lynn, and Palmer, L. Kendall: Making the News: Anarchist Counter Public Relations on the World Wide Web, p. 9.
    They state that "[t]he protests in Seattle brought attention not only to the WTO and its policies, but also to the widespread organized opposition to those policies."
  26. ^ Seattle Explosion: 2 Years Too Late, Rhoderick Gates, Our Time, Nov. 31 1999.
  27. ^ City to pay protesters $250,000 to settle WTO suit Seattle Times, 17 January 2004
  28. ^
  29. ^ Colin McDonald (January 30, 2007). "Jury says Seattle violated WTO protesters' rights". Seattle Post Intelligencer. Retrieved 2007-12-27. 
  30. ^ WTO protests hit Seattle in the pocketbook, CBC News, January 6, 2000

Further reading

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