Seattle 1999 Revisited

You don’t often get a chance to be at the epicenter of an event that makes history. It started for my partner, Charles Gray, and me in the quietest way. Both of us were longtime nonviolent activists. Early in 1999, we were invited to join a newly-formed “simplicity circle.” We were the oldest in this group in Eugene, Oregon.


Nine or ten of us met weekly to talk about adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. Voluntary simplicity meant valuing time more than money. Driving less, using less water, and doing our best to not create or take in toxic substances. We gloated about finding attractive clothes and furniture at Goodwill or St. Vinnie’s.  Soon we learned that a different kind of adventure was brewing.


The World Trade Organization (WTO) was slated to meet in our Pacific Northwest beginning November 30. This would be one of the “ministerials” held every 2 years, bringing together trade representatives and other higher-ups from its over 130 member nations. One of our group—Win Goodwin—headed the local chapter of a progressive national group, Alliance for Democracy. Periodically he traveled north to Seattle to confer with the Direct Action Network which was organizing the coming action. Win invited us to participate.


By September most of us had decided to participate. Soon we started meeting with like-minded folks in Eugene. Every week, 20 or more of us crowded into the living room of a real estate broker, Mary Ellen, whose environmentalist son had converted her to the cause. We talked and argued and speculated, but that wasn’t exactly the point. We were getting to know each other, forming an affinity group. We called ourselves McKenzie Free, after a wild river nearby.


Mary Ellen and I collected slogans for bumper stickers. Soon many cars in Eugene sported our mottos:

  • The WTO is a Hazardous Waste 
  • Fair Trade Not Free Trade 
  • We the People Not We the Corporation 
  • Participate in Democracy 
  • Stop WTO


Late in October, we went to non-violence training where we formally agreed to the guidelines of the Direct Action Network: no violence, physical or verbal, toward any person; no weapons; no destruction of  property.


Each day, daring and talented climbers dressed the city up for the coming event. Two young women scaled a retaining wall near Interstate 5 to hang a SHUT DOWN THE WTO banner. Men from the Rainforest Action Network hung giant arrows from a 170-foot-high crane near Seattle’s signature Space Needle. One, labeled DEMOCRACY, pointed forward; the other, labeled WTO, pointed back the other way.


We met regularly with our affinity group, hearing reports from Win, our spokesperson. Each day he attended meetings with the Direct Action Network housed in a converted warehouse. Signs and giant puppets were being made there and closely guarded preparations also were underway.


As the big day approached, we learned that our goal was to nonviolently block access of WTO delegates to their ministerial. The Direct Action Network had envisioned a circle around the convention center and cut it into 13 “pie slices,” each to be held and blocked off by a cluster of affinity groups—but we didn’t know where we would be posted.


Charles and I, elders that we were, were not slated to be in lockdown, directly blocking access. We took on other assignments. Charles was an old hand at dealing with media so he was press officer for our affinity group. I was picked to obtain legal help for team members who needed it. Since they weren’t supposed to give their real names if arrested—this was part of “jail solidarity,” another mode of resistance—they each chose a nickname. I memorized these from notes, then destroyed the notes.


Before dawn on November 30, Charles and I set out to join our group. The city had authorized marches into the center of Seattle from two different points. Our group was supposed to start from near the Pike Place Market at 7:00 AM, but along with hundreds of others, we rendezvoused hours before. In foggy pre-dawn light we barely managed to find our comrades in McKenzie Free. Someone distributed kits for us to use if we were tear-gassed. Then cops appeared and I heard a shout, “They’re taking our towers.”


Tripods are often used by activists to block logging roads into old growth forests. One protestor sits on top while others are locked to its base. People I could barely see in the fog hauled a couple off and were prowling suspiciously around our equipment when one of our campus members started shouting, “We know about the law against prior restraint.” Instantly, she gathered a little circle of women around her and three of us chanted with her, “We know about the law against prior restraint. We know about the law against prior restraint.” I hadn’t a clue what I was chanting about, but the cops backed off. Apparently, it was illegal for them to confiscate something just because they thought it might later be used for illegal purposes.


Well before 7:00 AM, our affinity group started up the line of march. Thousands of others were parading with us, many with signs and banners, but we found ourselves burdened—we were carrying the long float the cops had been snooping around before we started yelling.


At the far side of the intersection of Sixth and Pike, police stood facing us in full battle gear. Instantly, people who knew more than I did about the overall plan sprang into action. They formed a human barrier between us and the uniformed figures so the cops couldn’t see what was going on. In moments the octopus float became a raised platform. A couple of dozen activists locked themselves to a framework of pipes hidden underneath. Meanwhile, a cluster from Olympia, Washington fastened a matching barrier to ours while an impenetrable mass of protestors surrounded the platforms and jammed the sidewalk.


Now the major intersection—one that authorities probably had expected to keep clear for delegates to use—was blocked. The convention center was two blocks northeast. Three blocks west was the hotel where the U.S. Secretary of State was staying.


Clouds of teargas started sweeping up Sixth Street. I pulled a kerchief up over my face and backed out of the intersection into a side street and started sprinting as soon as I saw that telltale cloud.


As the morning wore on, word spread that federal officials had deemed the streets too dangerous for Madeleine Albright and her trade representative to the opening ceremonies. By 10:00 AM the morning session had been cancelled. Now, though the battle to block the meetings was still raging, it was easier to enjoy the carnival that was rollicking through the streets.


Stiltwalkers and giant cartoonish puppets loomed overhead. Teams of folks marched dressed as Santa Clauses or sea turtles. Lots of people threaded through the crowds, photographing or filming the action. But none of them got to record the huge scope of it. Access was banned to all the tall buildings from which they might have filmed the multitudes.


It was 11:00 AM before I saw violence from anyone other than the police. Four booted figures dressed in black, with black balaclavas covering everything but their eyes, slipped past me into a side street lined with stylish shops still open on either side of Nordstrom’s. Nervous salespeople hovered near their stores. In 30 tightly choreographed seconds, the figures in black grabbed grates and tossed them in the gutter, then formed waste containers into an instant barricade and moved up the street.


The carnival went on. More tear gas and wafts of pepper spray and who knows what else the cops were using. (Later, they would use concussion grenades.) I noticed a new set of black clad figures squirming up the side of a nearby building. They were Black Bloc, anarchists from Eugene who were violent toward the trappings of the corporate world, otherwise determinedly non-violent.


I hadn’t noticed before the sign over a store at the corner: Niketown. Nike was widely despised for using Third World sweatshop labor to make its expensive sneakers and sportswear. The people in black started laboring to pull its sign down. Some of the demonstrators pointed and chorused, “No violence.” Then others of us started intoning  “Om-m-m,” another thing we’d been trained to do. The sound of thousands chanting “Om-m-m” was gentle and calming. But Black Bloc went on yanking at that sign.


Rumor had it that the WTO had canceled its afternoon session, but many members of our affinity group remained in lockdown. As members of the media, foreign and domestic, pressed through the teeming streets trying to figure out what was happening, I watched my partner many yards away holding his ground and briefing them.


After a while, things quieted down a bit. I chatted with Brookrod who’d organized our simplicity circle. Brookrod and I strolled across town to join the labor demonstration. As we lined up to get into the stadium, I met other people at the corner of Sixth and Pike. Then a woman I’d never met before struck up a conversation with me.


“Never thought I’d be with you folks today,” she said. “I was supposed to be at the WTO meetings.”


“You were,” I eyed her suspiciously.


“Don’t worry,” she smiled. “I’m with an NGO. I was supposed to be an observer.” She wouldn’t tell me what organization she was with, but she had inside information and she seemed to want to share it.


“They’re meeting,” she said, “at other places in town. But maybe it doesn’t matter. These disruptions—this enormous show—it’s changed things.”


“What has it changed?”


“It’s changed a lot of minds.”


 “Whose minds?” I asked.


She smiled faintly. “Oh, not the G-7. The little guys. The representatives from the poor countries, the ‘unimportant’ countries, delegates that thought they had to take orders from the countries that run things…. But now that’s all changed. These demonstrations—they’ve given them backbone. They’re refusing to agree.”


It turned out that what she said was right. I could write lots of things, but they wouldn’t matter as much as what that woman I met on the union march told me. That day in Seattle, representatives from those countries whose opinions weren’t supposed to count heard rumblings in the belly of the great and powerful U.S.—signaling they weren’t as friendless and helpless as they thought. When the American Trade Representative walked into a plenary session, the African delegation booed her. “As the day came to a close,” one observer reported, “a coalition of delegates from over 70 countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia…stubbornly refused to sign onto an agenda in which they saw they had little voice.”


Time and again since then, the World Trade Organization has tried to push the Doha Round. Supposedly, it’s designed to help developing nations, but it’s far more likely to help giant food exporters from rich countries like the United States flood their markets with cheap, genetically modified grain. At stake is the welfare of small subsistence farmers. In most of the Third World these make up the majority of the people. What happened in Seattle in 1999 gave Third World nations the courage to resist. 


Sylvia Hart Wright is a nonviolent activist and professor emeritus at the City College of New York.