Protests Delay WTO Opening
Seattle Police Use Tear Gas; Mayor Declares a Curfew
By John Burgess and Steven Pearlstein
Thousands of delegates, including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Anan, were trapped in the streets and hotels by what quickly blossomed into one the largest acts of mass civil disobedience in recent U.S. history.
Shouting slogans about greedy corporations and damage to the environment, protesters from all over the country--and many foreign nations--locked arms to block access to a convention center and theater where the WTO conference was to begin four days of talks aimed at opening another round of global trade negotiations. The Geneva-based WTO oversees and enforces world trade agreements.
Most of the demonstrators were militantly peaceful, sometimes chaining themselves together; but among their ranks was a core in black clothes and ski masks who at midday went on a rampage of window-smashing. Police, who fired tear gas at times to disperse protesters, said they made about 20 arrests.
In an effort to clear the streets, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell declared a civil emergency and said he would impose a 7 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. curfew for the downtown area. And at the mayor's request, the governor sent in two unarmed National Guard units to help police.
At 5 p.m. police began firing canisters of tear gas into the crowd and they began to disperse.
Earlier the 10 a.m. opening ceremony was canceled, but trade ministers met over lunch and at 3 p.m. the first joint session of the conference began on schedule under heavy police protection. Working groups on several trade issues also met, officials said.
"This conference will be a success," WTO Director-General Michael Moore told reporters. "The issues are far too important to be ignored." He said that "peaceful protest has often led to important social reforms. But violence and destructive behavior have never been part of that process."
Moore said he knew the violence was only from a tiny segment "whose actions detract from those who have come here to constructively protest. . . . We know we can improve our [organization] and that our critics are not always wrong."
President Clinton, speaking to reporters before he headed to Seattle to address the meeting Wednesday, said he believed "we should open the process up to all those people who are now demonstrating on the outside. They ought to be a part of it." He repeated his feeling that labor and environmental interests should play a larger role in trade talks. But he said he recognized that was "not going to be easy" because many developing countries see those issues as a way to "keep them down."
At midday, the AFL-CIO, whose officials said they had no plans to try to shut down the meeting, launched a huge parade from the city's Memorial Stadium to downtown. Teamsters, teachers, steelworkers and other unions marched peacefully. Longshoremen began a partial shutdown of Seattle and other West Coast ports in support of the union demonstrators.
The "Battle in Seattle," the long-planned protests against the WTO, astonished this Pacific city, a union stronghold where many people sympathize with the demonstrations' stated objectives of building a world trade system that respects labor rights and the environment. Local TV stations provided continuous live coverage, advising people to stay away. Public transportation was canceled.
The Geneva-based agency that brings together 135-member governments has emerged in the late '90s as the focus of a wide coalition of leftist groups and labor unions in this country and abroad. The groups and unions contend that the WTO operates in secrecy to build a world trading system that tolerates sweatshops, strips forests and benefits only international corporations and the rich.
U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky was unable to leave her hotel to make it to the opening ceremonies. As police attempted unsuccessfully to clear a secure route for her and other senior officials, she spent the time on the telephone, trying to advance the business of the meeting, the launch of a new round of negotiations to further liberalize world trade, a spokeswoman said.
The protests began before 7 a.m., as people assembled in a cold rain at sites near the convention center. A number of issues were raised: labor rights, biotechnology, free Tibet, child labor and oppression in Burma. Anarchists were there, as well as other groups that oppose the capitalist system in general. Foreign activists from Germany's Green Party and a social activist group from the Philippines also were present.
"The WTO is making decisions behind closed doors that affect the environment, children and labor," said Jean Peterson, a Santa Cruz, Calif., woman who brought her 11-year-old daughter, Lucy, to the event. Many of the marchers were in their twenties, quite a few were old enough to have experienced the anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s.
With drums beating, marchers moved toward the city center without police interference, chanting "Hey, hey, no, no, the WTO has got to go." Things were well organized, with spotters, medics and lawyers on hand.
Near the convention center, people immediately blocked key intersections and formed human chains. Having come with the intention of being arrested, others sat down on the pavement, some chained themselves together with bike locks. At Sixth Avenue and Pike Street, they set up a wooden speakers' platform, to which people chained themselves.
"We'll stay here until the WTO goes," said one young man, who lay on the street wrapped in an olive-drab parka.
As the noise and energy of the gathering increased, protesters closed in from other directions and closed all the streets into the area. Many WTO delegates emerged from their hotels, intending to walk to the convention center, and were surprised to find the way blocked. Some protesters were polite to the delegates, who wore ID badges, other gave contemptuous heckles, but none let them through the lines.
Protesters had demanded a "dialogue" on trade issues with delegates, and quite a few such exchanges ensued, right there in the street.
Lydie Polfer, Luxembourg's foreign affairs minister, found herself at midmorning at a line of arm-linked protesters. "I came here with a hope the meeting would be a place where we could discuss" the different views on trade, she said, suggesting the discussion should be more civil. Citing Europe's resistance to U.S. efforts to sell hormone-treated beef, she said to a protester, "There are many things where we agree."
A protester interjected that the WTO is a power of its own. Polfer responded, "We are accountable to our people. Before coming here we had a discussion with our parliament." Polfer then tried to move through a line of Seattle policemen in riot gear to reach the convention center, which was visible beyond, but they politely turned her away, saying they had orders to let no one through.
In front of the Sheraton Hotel, its front doors barred by linked arms, protesters gathered around Bill Sprague, who identified himself as a Kentucky farmer who had come to Seattle to press for freer farm exports. "We're for the consumers--whatever the consumer wants, we'll give it," Sprague said, declaring himself ready to cooperate with the demonstrators.
A young man nearby, wearing a sign that declared "No slave labor in Burma," responded: "Let's work together, my brother."
But "you won't let us in," said Sprague, refering to the blockades.
"You won't let us in," responded the young man, referring to the protesters' view that the WTO does its work in secret.
The rallies had the air of a party through much of the morning. People variously dressed as pigs, turtles, clowns, Superman, vegetables, fish and butterflies. Demonstrators dressed as turtles (WTO rulings are said to have harmed steps to protect them) danced atop buses that the police had parked head-to-head as a barrier. "Who are you that's telling me what I can eat and drink," shouted one woman at some of the delegates who made it into the theater where the opening ceremony was to take place. "What about life and justice?"
Music from street sound systems blared; some demonstrators danced like they were in a disco. "Delegates to the WTO are upset because their meeting has been canceled," said an announcer over a sound system, feigning sorrow. "Aaaawww." The crowd roared in approval. "They'll just have to have their meeting sometime else," the announcer said. "For now we rule the streets."
Kevin Danaher, his clothes plastered with stickers showing a red line through the letters WTO, said the leadership strategy of the group was "many lieutenants, no generals. . . . You can't decapitate the movement."
While the streets swirled, many businesses remained open; people sipped cappuccino behind the glass of gourmet coffee shops.
Louise Avery, concierge at Pacific Place, the ritziest mall in downtown said: "I think these people have a lot of passion for their cause. . . . I'm learning more about the WTO every day." But she said she was "a little edgy . . . Seattle is usually such a calm and peaceful place so I have a lot of mixed emotions but at another level, I have to admire them. I mean, they have a point.
As the morning progressed, scattered violence broke out. A dozen people in black clothes and ski masks seized a half dozen newspaper vending machines and threw them into the streets. "No violence, no violence," chanted the crowd, and the group made off.
Later, people in similar clothes broke windows at a McDonald's restaurant, a chain that is faulted by many of the protesters as symbolizing corporate power and encouraging consumption of meat. A jewelry store was attacked, as was a Gap clothing store, which demonstrators allege uses sweatshops. The group threatened TV journalists who filmed them and sprayed red paint on the lens of one camera.
By late morning, police had begun using tear gas to clear selected sites. At one intersection, sit-down strikers were ordered to move and when they did not, tear gas canisters were fired. In ensuing hours, the police fired repeated volleys of tear gas and pepper gas. Patrol cars were vandalized; while police arrested a few protesters, they allowed most to run away.
In addition to the National Guard units, police had reinforcements from surrounding communities and the state police. Armored vehicles were kept in the ready on side streets. City leaders, having expressed basic agreement with many of the protesters' positions, were reluctant to approve aggressive action by the police to clear the streets. In the early afternoon the police chief stated the obvious, that the protesters had postponed the meeting, and appealed for them to clear some streets so that emergency vehicles could get through.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company