Wednesday, November 04, 2009

WTO Anniversary - my notes from when it happened

It's coming up on the 10th anniversary of the WTO in Seattle! I was there at the time - below are some notes I took and sent out to friends. I thought it might be interesting for people to read.

-----Original Message-----
From: Sylvia Moestl []
Sent: Tuesday, November 30, 1999 11:31 PM
To: Undisclosed-Recipient:
Subject: Street level view of the anti-WTO riot in downtown Seattle Tuesday

Since I work downtown (, I got to work at 6:45 today to try and avoid problems such as road closures, traffic jams, etc., caused by the anti-WTO protesters. The traffic was very light even for that early in the day. Many people were probably just staying out of downtown entirely. I made two forays into the prime protest area around the convention center, one around 10:30 and then when the curfew was announced for tonight and people at my office were encouraged to leave, I wandered downtown again. That was about 5:30. I hope you enjoy reading my notes about what I saw.
As I got closer to the epicenter of the riots, the scattered groups of 3 or 4 protesters started congealing into large crowds. I was glad I was dressed more casually today than usual, with tights and running shoes. I still stuck out a little bit amidst all the hippies in protest garb, but not as much as I could have. Plus the running shoes helped me get away from the tear gas. Seriously.
It'll be made abundantly clear later on in my narrative, but I disagree totally with the protesters' point of view, and especially with their actions. I glared at them with as much hostility as I dared when they smiled at me, thinking that by being there I was showing solidarity. It was really more a morbid curiosity at what a riot like this is like which attracted me like a moth to a streetlamp. I sympathized strongly with the shop owners in the area. They were all completely shut down, starting many blocks away of the area of the protests. Most of the shop owners were standing in their doorways, protecting their stores with their presence. At least, I assume they were the owners, because that's a task that seems like it would be very difficult to delegate. Who knows if they'll be shut down all this week. At one shut down bakery/deli the owner was standing guard when a woman with the usual anti WTO stickers and signs asked if he would give her some bread. I heard bits of the conversation--she was saying that they were hungry, and the bread smelled so good. The owner asked in disbelief if she wanted to be given the bread for free, and she said, "Yes, that bread right there in the window", pointing to some very fancy looking bread rolls and loaves that were sitting just inside the window. The owner said, "No, we're closed today". I thought that there was an implication of a threat in the woman's request for free food--as in, "If you don't give it to us, we'll break your window. I really hope that didn't happen to that guy. I chatted with him a little after the woman left, commiserating with him over the situation of the shop owners. Once he was convinced that I wasn't trying to play some game with him, that I was really not a protester but just looking around, he responded warmly. He was really hoping that he wouldn't need to stay shut down all week.
There was all kinds of massive debris strewn in the streets--it seemed like all the newspaper vending machines had been dragged out into the streets to make impromptu barricades. Massive concrete planters filled with dirt and shrubs had been dragged out as well, one of them had broken and there were big clods of trodden down dirt in the street. One street light was bent over about 30 degrees--that must have taken quite a large and determined group to do that. The bottom was reinfoced with sandbags. The strategy seemed to be to make it as difficult as possible for the delegates to attend any meetings. By and large it seems they succeeded very well. The entrances to the convention center that I saw were completely blocked--closer to the door by a layer of police in riot gear, then after that by a bunch of protesters who had linked arms in front of the police. They were trying to get more people to form a second line and looked at me strangely when I just stood by them looking at them without making any motions to join their group. I wish I could have told them what I thought of them. My instinct for self-preservation overrode my willingness to take a stand, though.
The one group of protesters that I could sympathize with were the Chinese religious group Falong Gong. I asked if they had a stand on the WTO, but the Falong Gong representative diplomatically said that the were neutral towards it, and just thought that this would be an opportunity for attracting attention to their plight.
There was also a group of Koreans dancing on the street--with some very explicit signs about continuing subsidies to farmers in Korea. I spoke to a Korean who was a student at the University of Washington, who said he was there as a relatively neutral observer. His English wasn't very fluent--he said that some of the cans of tuna that are sold contain dolphin. I assume that he meant that the tuna wasn't trapped in dolphin safe nets.
Another group that I saw was some women who called themselves witches. They were dancing around a painted 5 gallon bucket, singing something that as close as I can recall was, "We are the real, live witches, we're here to restore the sun and the moon". Or something like that--I've paraphrased a little. One of them had on a floppy black witches hat with a gold star on it, probably left over from halloween. Another woman who looked like a middle-aged deadhead joined them. She was even doing the typical spacey deadhead dance.
There were also people who were supposed to be medics, but they didn't look very trustworthy. They wore full camo gear, military boots and a military cap, and had a cheesy looking white scrap of cardboard with a red electrical tape cross in the middle.
When I went out at noon, there were lots of guys who seemed to be self appointed organizers, that walked around either with bullhorns or yelling for groups of protesters to assemble in various locations, to block more entrances to the convention center or to block intersections. Or just to sit down, so that they'd be harder for the police to remove. It didn't seem like the police were doing much manhandling of protesters, though.
There were, however, a lot of tear gas cannisters going off. The first gassing I experienced was just sprayed out, I think (I didn't see it at the time, but the police had massive cannisters of peper spray that they used on people). However, when I went out in the evening, I experienced the real thing. As I got closer to downtown, my jaw dropped as I saw the number of stores that had had their windows smashed in. Fidelity Investments, Starbucks, Old Navy, Nordstrom, McDonalds, a jewlery store, the Gap. Plus there were tons of grafitti sprayed everywhere on the windows and the walls. One McDonalds that I passed in the evening had all its windows boarded up completely--during lunch it had been open and serving people. When I passed by at lunch I saw guys putting up plywood on the broken windows. They were really tough burly looking guys who didn't look like they'd be intimidated by the protesters.
There were tons of protesters with masks on, either scarves or bandanas over their mouths. Part of that might have been just being ready for tear gas, but I saw lots of people wearing masks when there wasn't any tear gas around. I'm sure they were just wearing the masks for anonymity so that they could break windows and destroy property with impunity. A fair chunk of protesters had military surplus tear gas masks of all different makes. Lots of them appeared to have condensation problems--people were wiping out the goggles of the masks when they got fogged up.
As I was walking around there were two guys in suits and trenchcoats. I looked at them curiously, and one of them said, defensively, as if I were going to attack or something, "We're not delegates". I chatted with them a bit after that, explained that I wasn't on the protesters side, and just generally talked like reasonable people do when faced with the random violence that we saw. They said they were from the Seattle Times. They advised me that I should walk away backwards and not run if I got stuck outside after the curfew. That didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. When we parted we warned each other to be safe.
In the evening there were serious blockades going on on the road with all the broken out windows. This is where I had my first close-up view of fully decked out riot police. They looked kind of like insects, fully covered from head to toe with shiny segmended hard plastic protective gear. They also had special helmets with a face guard that accomodated the tear gas mask. On their shoulders and chest they had padding that made them resemble football players. They also had very long batons, about 3 ft. long. Some of them had huge bundles of plastic handcuffs. This very serious looking police line was right behind a group of a couple dozen protesters that were sitting down on the street, blocking it. I hung out next to a reporter with a cameraman. I didn't ask her what station she was from. She was arguing with a protester, who was saying that they shouldn't be gassing people. While this was happening there was a group of black guys pushing behind me dressed not at all like protesters in assorted hippie gear, but more like hoodlums, with the huge baggy down jackets. I tried inching away from them.
The reporter argued that this kind of violence can't be allowed to go on. She drew out from her pockets the things she'd had thrown at her--a wrench, and a swiss army knife. I asked her if there's usually a warning before tear gas is fired. She said that warnings were given, but not necessarily right before the gas is fired, and besides you usually couldn't hear it unless you were right there. Plus, in that area where the blockade was going on, they'd been given warnigs to disperse already.
As if on cue there were some loud explosions. This was the first time I'd head the gas canisters actually exploding--maybe before when I'd seen it it had been sprayed instead of in canisters. For one crazy moment I though it might have been gunshots and ran away. I'd already scoped out an escape route which was pretty empty when I was listening to the reporter right next to police line. A lot of people had the same idea that I did, though, and the street was filled with running people. Some people were yelling, "Don't run, we only get hurt when we run".
I did end up feeling the gas some. My eyes started burning, and then I felt it in my throat. Some people really got it bad, with really red and teary eyes. I also saw one guy who had what looked like dozens and dozens of really recent mosquito bites on his face. I wonder if that was some weird gas reaction.
After that tear gas episode, I walked north. Things got ugly at the intersection I ended up hanging out at. (Okay, they were ugly before, but got worse). There was a line of police about a block back, and as I was standing up on a 3 ft high brick wall, a tear gas cannister went off above my head. I half fell off the wall trying to figure out where it was going to land, and ended up scraping my shin painfully. Cars were still trying to get by--I guess you couldn't see from inside the cars that there was danger up ahead. The protesters lured a dump truck into the intersection, motioning that they would let it through. Once it was right smack in the middle of the intersection, though, protesters stood right in front and behind it so it couldn't move. Quickly newspaper vending machines were dragged and a huge dumpster were dragged behind it. A guy with a mask ran up to it and stuck a knife in one of the tires. A few minutes later when it was completely surrounded by protesters (I guess I should just call them rioters at this point) the hiss of air from the tires was heard again, it sounded like they were doing all of them. I felt so sorry for the poor guy driving the truck. I imagined what I would do to help the driver if they dragged him out and started beating him up. Didn't decide, though. They were banging on the side of the truck incessantly. I'll bet the the poor guy was practically having a heart attack in there. After this had been going on for about 15 minutes, about 6 police cars came swooping through the intersection, making a corridor for the truck to get out. I guess they hadn't dragged any obstacles in front of the truck, because it was able to drive out.
While this whole thing was going on I was talking with a woman who was dressed semi businesslike--I approached her saying, "You look like you just work downtown like me". We ended up chatting for a while. It turns out she works for the governers office, and was staying at a hotel right at the intersection, and was just out for a look like I was. It seemed like she was there specifically for the WTO, perhaps to be a representative for the governor. We talked about the violence and the destruction of property we'd seen.
As I was walking away from this area (it was getting really close to 7, when the curfew was to go into effect) the tear gas was spreading in my direction. I talked with one guy for a while who had flown here from Oklahoma specifically for the protest. He was a student from a state university there. We had a mini-debate about free trade, since he seemed like a pretty safe person to disclose my pro free trade views to.
I think the whole argument about the vast majority of protesters being peaceful is completely false. If it had been true, there would have been at least 100 non-violent protesters to every one violent one, and the violence could have been stopped. As it was, the hoodlums broke windows and destroyed property with impunity. I read in a news article online about how one woman was saying, "This is the classical case of non-violent protests being met with violence by the police". What a load of baloney. The protesters' level of understanding of free trade issues can probably be surmised by the complexity of their slogan, which was, "Hey hey, ho ho, WTO has got to go."
Well, that's it. Very intersting, very exciting to be there, but very upsetting to actually see what went on there.


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