First Monday

Showdown in Seattle: Turtles, Teamsters and Tear Gas

"What's all this WTO stuff?" the young man asked a young woman riding in the airport shuttle into Seattle. We were heading from Sea Tac airport on the busiest night of the year. She gave a cogent reply in three or four sentences, explaining what the WTO was, what the objections to it were and what might happen in Seattle during the week of protests, and then the whole van lapsed back into silence. Nobody else wanted to talk about it.

I had flown up from San Jose, and as the plane punched through the clouds, I half expected to see the city on fire, judging from the pre-conference rhetoric and rather public plans for disruption and civil disobedience at the 1999 Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization. Comprised of 135 countries and dozens of observer states, hoping to join, government trade representatives had been discussing trade regulations and since 1995, when the WTO took up the reins at the conclusion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations. GATT began in 1947 as a post-war strategy for recovery. A group called the Quad (Canada, EU, U.S., and Japan) usually set an agenda for WTO meetings beforehand, and the other nations followed. Peter Sutherland, former Director-General of the WTO, sees the organization as one that provides rules-based trading to help the small nations play with the same protection as the large and powerful ones. It offers dispute settlement, but this process is still fragile and could be undermined if the WTO cannot reach consensus. The disputes that have made the mainstream news have been over price supports for Caribbean bananas, American beef, the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, U.S. textile quotas, and Japanese control over the photographic film market. Normally, only a few policy wonks and corporate lawyers pay much attention to all of this. Why, then, did thousands of people opposing the WTO come to Seattle?

The turmoil over globalization and all of its attendant changes in technology, currency flow and worker displacement attracted the attention of many developing countries as well as dozens of non-profits and NGOs around the world. After reading Manuel Castells' trilogy, The Information Age,the reader realizes that trade is a major part of what the author calls "the space of flows" that characterize the modern world. Because it touches our daily lives and our environment, groups worried about jobs, the environment, food and the democratic process have decided to target the WTO.

The WTO lacks transparency, and its secrecy stirred up as much resentment as its publicized decisions have. The new Director-General, Mike Moore of New Zealand, took over this year and has tried to make some changes in the way the WTO operates. For the first time, NGOs were invited to Seattle to take part in a few limited discussions. He was more willing to make overtures to opponents, but the events in Seattle overshadowed this approach. Judging from the program, it was more the WTO talking to the NGOs, rather than listening to their concerns. If the WTO ministers were reluctant to engage in formal dialogue with the accredited NGOs, they certainly heard from those groups who did not want to meet with the WTO, and that is what made the news.

Tuesday, November 30

I tried to get press credentials, but I started the process too near the starting date of the conference. Therefore, I had no particular doors opened for me. In fact, few people had doors opened because disruption in the streets and the imposition of martial law. Security was extremely tight, and as the days passed, it was very hard to move around.

I had set up a schedule of open meetings and demonstrations that were clearly advertised weeks, even months before the week of November 29. One of the best sites for information was This led to an accurate calendar (for WTO official events and those opposing it), links to other resister sites, background on the Direct Action Convergence and detailed plans for the opposition. The WTO site - - in Geneva had the usual organizational profiles as well as webcasts of all the main sessions that were not cancelled. The video archives are in three languages and stream at three different speeds a total of nine files for each session! The 56 kb worked remarkably well on December 6, 1999. It is worth watching a selection to see that various delegates were voicing the same worries that people outside the meeting halls were raising. The morning session for November 29 is a good introduction to the WTO by Director-General Mike Moore.

What the news media concentrated on were not the position papers that weighed heavily on the NGO press tables but the telegenic events in the streets. I woke early on November 30, and made my way through a steady rain to a bus stop. I was staying with a friend from community networking activities. He and his young daughter and teenage son were going to the rally. The daughter carried a sign she had made, and the son was making a video of the events.

Young protestor with sign

Thousands of labor union members were gathered at the stadium for a large, approved march downtown. Leading up to this were environmental gatherings at nearby park. This was not very stirring, so we headed to the stadium. On the way we encountered hundreds of Asian practitioners of Falun Gong, the spiritual exercise system that has so upset the Chinese government. Around the edge of the park, dozens of followers stood silently, holding large banners in English and Chinese. Nearby, young Chinese fluent in English answered questions and asked passersby to sign a petition to the Chinese government. According to the Financial Times, a majority of Americans want to use trade leverage to link it to human rights improvement in China. In a large grid hundreds of Falun Gong people stood with their arms high over their heads, eyes closed. It was a silent testimony and a very impressive one, considering what they have endured from Chinese authorities.

Falun Gong practitioners, Tuesday,November 30

It was so different from the festive and feisty nature of the labor rally and to the vandalism going on elsewhere in the city. For several hours we heard diverse voices from El Salvador, Philippines, France, Canada and unions representing longshoremen, steel workers, airline pilots, building trades, teachers exhort the crowd to "fix it or nix it."

Start of labor rally, Memorial Stadium

On the field there were clusters of members, and the folks dressed as sea turtles stood by the Teamsters and unions that would usually never be in the same room as environmentalists. It was quite a show, but the talks went on so long that some groups began the march before James Hoffa and the head of the AFL-CIO appeared. I sat next to a steelworker with a 100-decibel whistle that blasted my ears every 30 seconds, so I was anxious to move out. The exit was massively congested, but nobody pushed or appeared to be impatient. Outside the stadium a gaggle of young anarchists dressed in black were strutting around.

Young activists outside of Memorial Stadium

Later we were to hear that while we sat in the stadium another action had taken place in the early morning. That is when the breaking of windows began and the blocking of the intersections started. Non-violent protestors tried to stop the vandals from breaking windows in stores. The labor march proceeded at a leisurely pace; it was almost a carnival atmosphere with street theater groups bearing coffins, dressing as Santa Claus, walking on stilts, and playing music, courtesy of the anti-fascist marching band.

By the time we reached downtown, other activists tried to divert the main flow of marchers down a street to confront the police. Eventually, everything was jammed together, and we saw evidence of the morning rampage: overturned dumpsters, boarded up windows, and scrawls on the building walls.

Demonstrators on overturned dumpsters

The most ubiquitous was the anarchist's logo, an A with a circle around it. If you look at a formal funeral wreath, it is a round display attached to a free-standing A-frame. Take away the flowers and you have the anarchist logo. Death wreath equals anarchism? Coincidence? Who knows?

Many of the intersections were blocked, but after an hour or so milling about, the legions of union members left, and those remaining were casual observers, more hardcore demonstrators, and the general public still trying to get to work or even do Christmas shopping. However, most businesses were closed by now. The hotels were guarded heavily, and the police seemed tired and edgy. An African WTO delegate tried to get past the police, but he was rebuffed. He stood near me, peering into the parking area and finally got the attention of another officer. He flashed an ID badge inside his lapel, and we helped him up on the high ledge so he could enter.

Many delegates were not allowed passage by demonstrators, and both Madeline Albright and Kofi Annan were kept from meetings. We watched as the tension built up between the chanting crowd and the immobile police line. Retiring to an office above a congested intersection, we watched as the heavy armor units of the Seattle police began preparing for an escalation. We heard very loud concussion grenades exploding a few blocks away and then saw large clouds of tear gas drift into our intersection.

Tear gas drifts toward onlookers

There were only a few demonstrators grouping below our window, and nothing violent happened.

Pain Compliance

We heard that a curfew had been imposed, but none of the police had been told when we asked. Eventually, one hard case, Officer Best, said that there was a curfew from 7 PM to 7 AM and if you looked like you were causing trouble, he would "hurt you." Did he mean "arrest you?" No, he meant pain compliance. A wonderful new term for my vocabulary. What methods are used to exercise pain compliance? The police have an array of non-lethal tools. You can read more about these online, but is a large supplier of "solutions" to law enforcement agencies for SWAT (special weapons and tactics) vehicles, shields, body armor and weapons that fire rubber pellets, bullets, and paintballs, tear gas and pepper spray.

Pepper spray achieved notoriety in 1997 when it was used on environmentalists from Earth First! who were demonstrating in northern California. The police forced the eyelids apart and sprayed directly into the eyes of the demonstrators. A lawsuit ended in favor of the police, and undoubtedly other jurisdictions felt justified in using similar tactics. Pepper spray is made up of oleoresin capsicum and a propellant. OC is the oil from peppers which vary in strength. Sprays used by hunters have more OC with a higher Scoville Heat Unit rating. Sprays carried by women to ward off attackers are somewhat weaker, but any skin contact is extremely painful. The symptoms cause pain, nausea, and restrict breathing. To see this used so liberally by the police was shocking to many residents (as well as those on the receiving end of the weapon).

According to a report after the conference ended, a WTO conference consultant had recommended the police stockpile $100,000 worth of the spray, but they only bought $20,000 worth. When the police expended this supply by mid-week, they had to fly to Casper, Wyoming, to pick up more canisters and deliver them by backpack to the troops.

Police and crowd near Union Street, November 30

Late in the afternoon, confrontations were stepping up, and we saw a number of young men challenging the static police line. One fellow had been injured and blood was streaming down his face in rivulets. People came up to look and check the wound, but he shouted that he felt fine. Another person looked as though he would call for medical help, but instead he shouted "Can someone find a cameraman?" All sides were so media-aware and this was evident in many other instances too. This proved to be useful in some ways, but violence and street spectacle shaped the public perception of what happened in Seattle rather than reports on private and public meetings. I was shocked by the violence but pleased by the meetings I attended. One successful one was the Tuesday evening debate.

IFG Debate

One of the most adamant opponents of many aspects of globalization has been the International Forum on Globalization headed by Jerry Mander. Mander had been very critical of the use of computer technology by NGOs because it tended to benefit large businesses and government more than small organizations and communities. However, IFG now has a useful Web site, electronic mail, and I found it very useful to find out about the debate on November 30. Though it was sold out long before, I thought many ticket-holders would be afraid to come down town in the evening. Standing around in the cold drizzle, eyeing the police across the intersection, strangers began to sell tickets, and share stories, fears and rumors.

A longshoreman from San Francisco told of a CBS reporter who approached a steelworker from Pennsylvania. She asked him if he didn't feel uncomfortable about young activists with body piercings and weird dress. When he responded that his nephew had an earring and that the kids were standing with the labor unions in this demonstration, her face dropped. Unable to drive a wedge between unlikely allies, she turned to someone else.

The debate was excellent, but at a cost of $10 to $20, only a few hundred people could take part in the education and discourse. It was the only real dialogue that took place between WTO proponents and those who opposed the WTO. The November 29 session between the WTO and accredited NGOs was very one-sided. The WTO speakers had much more time to speak, and the respondents only had three minutes. It was not give and take between equals. The IFG debate was well-moderated and fair. Ambassador David Aaron of the U.S. Department of Commerce and Columbia University professor Jagdish Bhagwati were the main spokesmen in support of the WTO, while the omnipresent Vandana Shiva, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (India) and Ralph Nader of Public Citizen were against the WTO. Given the events going on, it was amazing that the audience, largely against the WTO, let the speakers have their say without too much cheering or hissing. The audience controlled those in the audience prone to outbursts, and the debate went quickly. Nader frequently waved documents to make his points, and in rejoinder Aaron cited another critique that challenged many of the facts in one of Nader's own publications. This really annoyed Nader who challenged Aaron to a five-hour debate on the issues that were only touched upon that evening. Aaron accepted. It was clear to me that many pro-WTO leaders really see the process as benefiting poor countries, leveling the playing field, and setting out a rule making process to stave off trade anarchy where the big, rich, and powerful will prevail. Those against seemed to be arguing that decisions that affect the culture and sovereignty of individual nations should be made locally. In fact, many of the disagreements are over the centralization or devolution of decision-making.

There were some letters to the editor of local papers from right-wing conspiracy theorists who, in effect, said, "You laughed when we warned you about black helicopters and a despotic world government. Now here it is in Seattle." These are people that are suspicious of any important decision made outside of a jurisdiction where they feel they have some power. That might be a clan or town or state or perhaps a nation. Anti-globalization politician Pat Buchanan was in town and offered support for the demonstrators, even though many of those on the streets were hostile to him.

Wednesday, December 1

This was a day for meetings, but the continued curfew and change in police tactics made it very hard to get into the NGO headquarters. Police now carried dozens of plastic restraining devices for arrested demonstrators. Many had not had much sleep or food, and the mayor and top police officials were starting to point fingers at each other over the debacle of Tuesday. I knew it would be hard to get into the hotel, and I wrote the meeting organizer to find out how to gain admittance. He just told me to "come on down." I showed up at the door, brandished my print-out from the Agitprop calendar, and told the guards that it was an open meeting, and that I had been invited. Because I was not young and had a sport coat on, I was able to use social engineering and rational arguments to get to the NGO credential table and secure a badge for the meeting. I had to give up the badge within 60 minutes of the end of the meeting.

Once inside, I had a certain freedom to roam around, and my first stop was the press table. Hundreds of piles of position papers and press releases were spread over a large area. Even choosing titles sparingly I came out with five kilograms of documents. Some were crude; others were lavish. ActionAid, a London NGO, had a fancy folder with a dozen nicely designed position papers on farming, biodiversity and Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). There were comics for kids to learn about globalization (write; IFG's "Beyond the WTO: Alternatives to Economic Globalization"; a huge volume from the Japan delegation that included exhaustive studies of the importance of rice paddies in Japanese culture; and a lavish "World Trade Brief" from the WTO and Agenda Publishing. It is inconceivable that any reporter, let alone many of the delegates could skim and absorb the main points from many of these documents, but it was the only way for these approved groups to get their message out.

I attended a meeting on TRIPS which was hosted by Doctors without Borders ( Médecins Sans Frontières) and Nader's Consumer Project on Technology. James Love led the group from NGO's as well as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in a discussion of the issues around access to expensive medicines. Carlos Correa, University of Buenos Aires and Ellen't Hoen of (M.S.F.) took an active role. U.S. and European drug firms have spent a lot of money developing expensive treatments for AIDS and other diseases like meningitis. Many countries can't afford the retail prices and have tried to institute "compulsory licensing" for firms that want to sell in their borders. The U.S. has linked rejection of this clause to other aid or trade, and the countries like Thailand and South Africa, which have marketed generic versions of such drugs, are being threatened by the U.S. Large drug firms do not develop drugs where the market can't deliver adequate profits, even if the need is there. This affects the sick in many poor countries in Africa.

Another issue was TRIPS and patents on indigenous knowledge or products derived from local resources. One cogent example was explained by ActionAid in their brochure on TRIPS and farmers' rights. In Gabon there is a natural sweetener that is 2,000 times sweeter than sugar. It is called brazzein or J'oublie (I forget) locally. A University of Wisconsin researcher brought it back to Madison where the DNA encoding was sequenced and then produced it in the lab, eliminating the need to grow it in Africa. They applied for a patent, claiming the University had "invented" it. The whole process ignores the oral tradition that kept local knowledge of this food. This disconnect between indigenous farmers and trained researchers and product developers is not easily mended in the WTO framework. This split causes opponents to use the term "bio-piracy" when publicizing these inequalities.

>In the afternoon Love gathered a much smaller group to talk about the Internet and TRIPS. There were only eight of us talking about electronic commerce, patents on business processes and ICANN. All of these issues are like a distant tidal wave ignored (for the most part) by beleaguered delegates who had their hands full with all the other challenges. On November 30, Microsoft had hosted a meeting on e-commerce where business and UNCTAD (U.N. Conference and Trade and Development) took part. Our small group discussed Internet taxes, the pressure from the U.S. to have other countries enforce patents on business processes, many of which are coming out of American Internet firms. Most countries find it ludicrous that these processes were granted patents in the first place. ICANN seems to be facing on a small scale the kind of opposition faced by the WTO, but it was barely discussed in Seattle. Still, there were parallels with the complaints about ICANN's transparency, back-room deals, their governance ambitions and those of the WTO.

Librarians from Canada representing the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions ( IFLA) and Canadian organizations attended and took part in discussion about cultural issues and intellectual property. Their concerns are with privatization of libraries, the right of for-profit foreign libraries to be established in Canada, and the likelihood that these businesses would challenge government subsidies for public libraries. They also advocated that libraries be part of the cultural sector, an area that some Europeans and Canadians want excluded from consideration by the WTO.

That evening I attended part of a session on indigenous environmental issues at Seattle College. Speakers from the Cuna people in Panama and groups in Colombia as well as American Indian groups met to talk about common concerns. I left for a two-hour walk home. Overhead, a helicopter beamed its light on North Broadway, and after ten minutes I reached an area of restaurants and shops. Young couples sipped cabernet and dined at a restaurant as hundreds of activists blocked the intersection just outside the window. SWAT vehicles bristling with robo-cops were on side streets, and a large amount of trash smouldered at another intersection.

(Rubber) Bullets on Broadway, December 1

One of the few buses I saw stopped a hundred yards away, and their passengers got out because it was impossible for it to proceed or detour. As I headed away, the chanting crowd crept toward town.

December 2, Thursday

Food and Agriculture Day was a very well-integrated event. It began with a press breakfast with excellent, locally-produced food, and in a safe and roomy church panels spoke for two hours. José Bové, the French sheep owner and activist who trashed the MacDonald's in the south of France, was one of the media stars during the whole conference. Ralph Nader repeated some of his main themes, as did Vandana Shiva. I sat next to an old retired farmer from the eastern plains of Montana (featured in Jonathan Raban's book Bad Land) who is still very active in working with fellow farmers and staying in touch with groups around the world. To my left a young woman clapped and frequently jumped up to show support to most of the speakers.

Leaders of Food & Agriculture march to Pike Street Market

The weather was beautiful as the panels ended, and we oozed out of the church onto the streets. I talked with Farhad Mahzar, an activist and researcher from Bangladesh. He recognized the need to do serious evaluations of practices on the effects of policy changes, as well as articulating the more emotional side of these effects. A leader of a South African farmers' union quizzed me about satellite access to the Internet, and as we reached the Pike Place Market (largely deserted by shop owners), some farmers handed out delicious organic apples to the crowd. The mood was high, and the only police were a block away as the speakers mounted the back of a truck and began to address the crowd of at least 1,000 farmers and supporters. Jim Hightower, radio commentator with a real down-home delivery commented that the people would prevail because they had "just opened a big can of kick-ass." Bové and Nader spoke as did Helen Waller of the Northern Plains Research Council, and Jean Bakole of COSAD in Cameroon.

Rally after March, December 2

There was a call for a march on Cargill, and part of the group headed that way while others went to approved meeting places for breakout strategy sessions. I attended the farmer and farmworker strategy session where about 100 farmers from every continent talked about their current activities and some common plans for the future. Most felt they needed to get more power locally in order to change the views of the national government, but it was difficult to generalize. Some encouraged those not online to get connected and begin electronic networking. All in all, however, the role of the Internet was very low profile. Everyone realized that the prime way to convince and organize was face-to-face or through the traditional media. Many activists had integrated e-mail and Web information into their routine activities, but many countries still have high costs of access, and poor NGOs are spending their money for other agenda than electronic connectivity.


Though WTO's Moore tried to put the premature ending in a positive light, it was a disaster for them, for the delegates, and for the city of Seattle. While some of the demonstrators were jubilant, there seemed to be little new dialogue established between the NGOs and the WTO. Ministers were cool to the call for more openness in the meetings and labor disputes, and President Clinton's call for sanctions against countries that used child labor angered many from developing countries who saw this as yet another example of the West imposing its own version of human and labor rights on poor nations. Some nations are still arguing that universal human rights are not that at all, but are still specific to industrialized countries and should not be shoved down their throats with threats of trade sanctions. The developing countries still feel that the more industrialized countries with large delegations are not listening to them, and there seems to be no ongoing forum to deal with this resentment.

For those who actually wanted the WTO to go away (to nix it, not fix it) probably considered Seattle a victory, but there is the danger that it will continue to operate in relative secrecy and choose only cities where the security forces can maintain a larger and more impenetrable perimeter that separates the delegates from the NGO representatives as well as the protestors. Were there lessons learned from the confrontations? Perhaps, but not the same ones that the protestors hoped to convey. Many delegates believe the WTO is for the weak countries, and that it has been successful in alleviating poverty in many places. Supporters like Thomas Friedman of the New York Timeswrites of innovative companies competing successfully in Sri Lanka while Vandana Shiva talks about thousands of onion farmers losing their market, their land, and heading for the big, over crowded cities of India. Who's right? Both, but until the WTO or UN or World Bank comes out with a way of measuring the social impact of these trade agreements, the arguments over their benefits or harm will continue. Perhaps the Earth is too big and complex for 135 nations and hundreds of NGOs to reach any kind of meaningful consensus.

Before the Seattle meeting most Americans would have asked, as the young man did in the airport van, "What's all this WTO stuff?" A week later they still may not be able to say much more about the organization, but they know it seems to provoke disorder and dissension and so many American will be against it until other events convince them that it is beneficial.

Was this a landmark event for the end of the 90s? I compared it to the battle of Agincourt in 1415 where English archers destroyed thousands of French knights who could not defend against the clouds of lethal arrows. This was the end of the age of chivalry and of mounted knights as a fighting force. Seattle may be the end of faceless trade lawyers making decisions and deliberating without any input from other organizations that hurled their own verbal arrows across police lines and onto the Web sites and television channels of the world.

About the Author

Steve Cisler is a consultant whose background is in public and special libraries. He has been a teacher in the Peace Corps, a wine maker and search and rescue coordinator in the Coast Guard. Now he focuses on public access projects and community computing projects in the United States and developing countries. He has written for Online, Database, American Libraries, Library Journal, and Wired. Steve has two sons and lives with his wife in San José, California.

Editorial history

Paper received 5 December 1999; accepted for publication 6 December 1999

Contents Index

Copyright © 1999, First Monday

Showdown in Seattle: Turtles, Teamsters and Tear Gas by Steve Cisler
First Monday, volume 4, number 12 (December 1999),