Seattle Police officer fires plastic pellets at point blank range into a group of demonstrators attempting to prohibit access to the WTO at the Washington State Convention Center Nov. 30, 1999. (Paul Joseph Brown/Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
By any objective account, the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999 were one of the most significant political statements in the last three decades.
It's important not to forget such a pivotal event, even though almost 10 years have passed. What happened in Seattle in 1999 amounted to a police riot of the kind which at that time hadn't been seen on American streets in more than 30 years -- since the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when overzealous police brutalized Vietnam War protesters.
Battle In Seattle, the just-released fictionalized movie account of the Seattle protests, will go a long way toward keeping the memory of the event alive. And one hopes it will bring renewed attention to the thousands of hours of actual video and photographic documentation of what truly went down in the streets of Seattle back in '99.
It's the same old story of police over-response and gratuitous violence, followed by crowd response, with events then spiraling out of control. And sadly, a certain segment of the populace seems eternally willing to accept the same old official excuses: "We had to control the crowd"; "Protesters instigated the violence"; "Police were assaulted."
The protesters who were in the streets at the time can tell you a different story, if you care to hear it. Along with seasoned activists, many of the protesters were kids as young as high school age. Their brutalization at the hands (and nightsticks and plastic-pellet-firing guns) of the Seattle Police Department was a grim awakening to the realities of social control and suppression of dissent in modern day America.
"There were a few dozen self labeled anarchists who broke a few windows. More would have been broken if protesters hadn't intervened. The cops had been using military weapons on nonviolent protesters for hours before those windows were broken. I was in the middle of it all the entire week and if anything was thrown at the police it was in response to being assaulted by them. Police officers think they can use military weapons on citizens with impunity. And when, on the rare occasion, they are held accountable they whine and lie," reported a protester who was on the scene.
"If the police didn't do anything wrong why has the city had to pay out millions in claims for unlawful arrests and assaults on citizens? The SPD was out of control and unprofessional at that event. Having grown accustomed to being able to abuse citizens with impunity over the years and armed with all those shiny new military weapons it is no surprise the SPD would violently put down an uprising against the state, i.e. corporate power -- even a nonviolent uprising."
Another witness tells me: "I saw three teenaged girls -- they couldn't have been much more than 14 years old -- who were sitting in the street, holding hands and singing, high on the idea of political activism. Some policemen came up and ordered them to clear the street. The girls said, 'No, we're protesting.' And without further ado, the cops got out their billyclubs and started beating these young girls savagely."
My friend and fellow blogger James Lovette-Black of San Francisco offers an eloquent eyewitness account of the protest. "I witnessed lines of riot police with no identification badges marching lock step, looking like the storm-troopers from Star Wars, advancing on peaceful protesters, firing tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets on demonstrators with no provocation," James writes. "The story was that because advanced intelligence had freaked out the Seattle PD, they had consulted with European police regarding riot gear and it certainly looked as if they had done so. I was astonished to witness this on American soil."
"I was there and was tear-gassed by the cops in 1999," James told me. "I went because I was compelled to do so and felt like I had to make a stand against the WTO, along with everyone else going to Seattle. The story is that the Seattle PD used so much tear gas that they ran out of it and began to use military CS-gas. Concussion grenades and flash bombs were used against people peacefully protesting all over the downtown. I personally witnessed numerous injuries from these devices that are meant to scare the living HELL out of you, trigger a panic response and make you run, and that are so loud they can actually knock you out if you are close enough to them.
"At one point, I looked out over the beautiful city of Seattle and could see for about a mile into the downtown: literally every intersection was blockaded by protesters as far as the eye could see, all the way to the very core of Seattle. I witnessed a cop on a motorcycle trying to run over a guy's leg, simply because he was blockading our group's intersection by sitting down with others, chain-linked through pipes with a group of other protesters. What scared the hell out of the cops was that this was such a massive and well-executed protest that it freaked them out," James said.
"After being tear-gassed and treated by a First Responder, I discovered that the cops were actually going after the First Responders - who were identified by arm bands for easy location by the injured - and arresting them, so that we could not help and support people. I thought, not on my watch! I take the work of helping and healing seriously, having been an RN for 30 years. So, I became a First-Responder to fill the ranks of those who were literally being snatched from the streets by the cops. We used a solution to remove tear gas from the faces and eyes of protesters and bystanders caught up in the police violence.
"Because it became a cat-and-mouse situation in the downtown, some of us took refuge in the lower level of Pike's Place Market," James remembers. "A security guard kept watch for us and I will never forget him. He came down after about 20-30 minutes to tell us that the cops were on their way, so we had to evacuate our injured. One of the injured protesters was a young Canadian woman who was just a few feet away from one of the flash bomb-concussion grenades when it went off and she blacked out, pitched forward, and fell face down on her nose. We had to run to avoid capture, taking our wounded with us.
"All of this happened on American soil and was perpetrated by a city government in league with transnational corporate powers against Americans and visitors who came to actively and peacefully dissent. I was there, it was real, and it was incredible," James concluded.
It's important to remember these protests happened almost two years before 9/11/2001. And what that sadly means is that, with the "Patriot Act" and related "anti-terrorist" legislation backed by the Bush administration and passed by a gutless Congress, the deck is now stacked even MORE heavily against those who dare to speak out against the corporate monied interests represented by the WTO.
More on the movie, from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: