In a nutshell, what was WTO Seattle?

The Seattle World's Fair on acid. Only better.

 

But first let's agree that organizers meant well, didn't

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Answering WTO's big questions

We've sifted through the documents, heard the testimony, and read the reports: Here's our take on what went wrong in the streets of Seattle.

In a nutshell, what was WTO Seattle?

The Seattle World's Fair on acid. Only better.

 

But first let's agree that organizers meant well, didn't they?

So did the Titanic's designers. With boundless naivete and risk-taking, WTO planners were determined to showcase Seattle as a—God help us—"world-class city." City Hall and the "trade community" (those boosters on steroids) plunged nakedly into the pre-event abyss, soon finding themselves in over their collective heads. A modest international trade meeting had relentlessly mushroomed into a global convention of top world leaders—and protesters. Security costs and danger levels rose alarmingly. Faced with finding quick solutions or pulling the plug, overwhelmed organizers did neither. They simply believed their privately held fears wouldn't be realized—that everyone would just get along. That fragile hope ended with the breaking of the first window and the firing of the first tear gas and rubber bullets on the morning of November 30, 1999.

 

So who do we blame?

Well, we're not going to blame peaceful protesters for demonstrating against the WTO, whether in legal marches or in the civil disobedient, highly organized, and peaceful street actions. Second, we're not going to blame well-meaning delegates, trade officials, and others who came to do business at the Seattle round. But the ensuing chaos was triggered by some irresponsible parties.

First—and easiest to name—are those infamous "Eugene" anarchists and their running dogs who, roiling through downtown like the river Styx, trashed select retailers in the belief that violence against property isn't really violence. (It's not? Stand between a window and a flying rock and tell us that don't hurt!) WTO would not be a sickening and costly memory had it merely been shut down by nonviolent blockaders. That more peaceful tactic wouldn't likely have drawn the head-bashing backlash and the enduring, Beirutlike images of a city at war. At the very least, it wouldn't have given the police cover for their more questionable and outrageous acts.

Then there are the cops. WTO crowd control was bloody, exhausting, and frustrating—officers wrongly deployed the first day turned into a repelling army the second. In all, 56 cops and almost 100 demonstrators went to the hospital. Outfoxed and outnumbered, police quelled a protester riot with a police riot. It reminded us of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's famous statement back in 1968, when his police force was turned loose on Democratic Convention protesters: "A policeman isn't there to create disorder, a policeman's there to preserve disorder."

 

But the blame goes deeper. Who got us into this mess?

Here, the parlor lights flicker and—aha!--reveal 12 people holding the smoking gun: Port Commissioner Pat Davis, Mayor Paul Schell, ex-Police Chief Norman Stamper, and all nine then-City Council members, in that order.

WTO cohost Davis, director of a nonprofit corporation called Washington Council on International Trade, and cohost Schell, a multimillionaire resort hotelman, were overcome by world-class mania and took us down with them. They're gung ho whenever the topic includes those magic words "trade" and "convention"—of which they often extol the public benefits without mentioning the rewards such commerce brings to their own private businesses, not to mention to their cronies. They acted like they didn't need anyone else's approval to hold the 1999 WTO round here, in what Schell likes to dreamily call "the Geneva of the Pacific." The record shows Schell was involved for more than a year prior to the WTO ministerial opening, writing a bid letter to President Bill Clinton on behalf of Davis in August 1998. In wildly conflicting did-not, did-too revisionism, each now somewhat blames the other. Two of the area's top elected officials, they operated behind the scenes to hold a conference at whatever cost and risk to the public. Davis made promises of funding to US officials without telling the city and, to promote her cause, convinced Schell not to talk to US officials about chipping in even when ministerial costs were starting to go through the roof. Goodwill ambassador Schell, meanwhile, was glad-handing the media and inviting shoppers downtown even as his executive department was quietly turning City Hall into a security-clad bunker. With his city under siege on the second day of WTO, Schell was asked by a Seattle Times reporter if he had rejected a tighter, proactive security plan for opening day (the one that SPD intelligence officers, who had briefed Schell personally, were urging be employed). Schell responded: "Not to my knowledge. I don't ever recall turning down a more aggressive plan in dealing with demonstrators. I did agree that . . . we are not going to build an armed camp here." Almost by themselves, Schell and Davis blew WTO. They also muffed a last

chance to do the right thing: at week's end, to walk into the middle of that illegal no-protest zone, confess all, and resign on the spot. Of course, it's never too late.

Chief Stamper, though he accepted blame and fell on the sword of "early retirement," failed miserably as the supposed head of security. It would have been one thing had he simply planned poorly for unpredictable riots. But there was angry disagreement from the start over Seattle's preparedness as the concern of some law enforcement officials turned to outright fear. Documents from his own police department now show that he was told WTO was on a security risk level bordering that of an Olympics event and to expect the worst—including the potential deaths of officers. But he made few if any decisions in the security planning for this massive event (even the mayor's WTO review report, albeit self-servingly, called the chief "virtually absent from any role of leadership"). Stamper delegated the entire matter to a subordinate, and when he did put in an appearance on November 30, as downtown was coming apart and his commanders were urging him to declare a civil emergency and call in reinforcements, he hesitated and lost control.

The City Council, meanwhile, was a bystander—and that's the problem. Today's council, with three new members, is taking the high road; its WTO citizen-review boards have been rightly skeptical of all the usual suspects. They're also investigating a crime scene that has the old council's fingerprints all over it. Or is it the lack of prints? Members proposed but never signed off on memorandums of understanding that might have legally committed WTO organizers to pay costs the city is now stuck with. They sat blithely by as they, too, began to hear directly from police officials that the WTO was getting hairy: Expect gas in the streets, is the way former Assistant Chief Ed Joiner, charged with security planning, says he put it to them. Meanwhile, the mayor and Pat Davis were calling WTO "the biggest meeting anywhere in the world on trade," and cops were told to prepare for a near-Olympics event—just months after the council, worried about security risks and responding to a public weary of sports gigantism, had turned down a plan to bid for the 2012 games. To the Nodding Nine of '99—Martha Choe, Richard Conlin, Jan Drago, Nick Licata, Richard McIver, Margaret Pageler, Tina Podlodowski, Peter Steinbrueck, and Council President Sue Donaldson—we ask: Where were the checks and balances? Even a street closure draws more scrutiny.

 

Who aided and abetted?

Deputy Mayor Maud Daudon and Assistant Chief Joiner, the point people for Schell and Stamper. Daudon, also a former Port official cozy with the trade crowd, sat in on planning sessions but didn't sound the public alarm even though she admits "we kept close track" on WTO fundraising, or rather the lack of it, that left the city $9 million poorer. Joiner, the SPD's chief planner, claimed not to have known of the dangerous threat posed by demonstrators—despite documents revealing contrary briefings by his intelligence officers.

 

All right then, who knew what, and when?

"I'm no security expert," Schell says in defense of his decision making, shifting tactical blame to the vanquished Stamper, who has maintained that the protest threat could not be fully assessed in advance. But documents now show police knew all they really needed to know about planned violence, demonstrator tactics, the size of the protest, etc. Of course, the police could have gotten much of that from press reports, but in fact their intelligence gathering was much more detailed than that: Documents now show that the cops investigated some activist groups—giving a lie to after-action complaints that Seattle's law restricting such surveillance was a hindrance to WTO security planners. SPD's Criminal Intelligence Section felt in November that "anarchists groups constitute the greatest concern with regard to demonstrations related to criminal activity and 'affinity group' direct actions. Their ultimate goal is to disrupt the WTO to the extent that it cannot conduct its business . . . and [to] prevent Clinton from speaking." Investigators warned of sabotage, arrests, street violence, and attacks on the city's infrastructure and communications system "on a significant scale." Intelligence logs show officers briefed Stamper on November 23 and Schell November 28 regarding the threat. As Washington State Patrol commander Tim Quenzer would later say, the SPD "should have listened to the police intelligence it received and disregarded the mayor's office . . . [SPD] needed to keep the mayor and his politics out of the [command] decision making. . . ."

If nothing else, violence-torn WTO Geneva, May 1998, should have tipped off local officials to expect the unexpected at WTO. Chief Stamper told city reviewers there was "a belief that the Geneva rioting was a European phenomenon . . . [that would] manifest more destructively and more violently in European settings because that had been largely the history in Europe. . . ." But in Geneva just 4,000 protesters broke windows, turned over and burned cars, and trashed buildings, clashing with 2,500 police officers employing barbed-wire barriers and army helicopters. And we were planning on handling 50,000 demonstrators here with 600 cops? The mayor's office knew about Geneva early on. Deputy Mayor Daudon told city reviewers: "I remember the very first meeting was the meeting I heard about Geneva. Ray Waldman [of the host group] was there and talked about it." During a briefing for Seattle officials November 13, 1998, after the city had bid for the 1999 event, WTO executive Jacques Chaubert discussed the "terrible problems" and "violent demonstrations" of Geneva, recalling how one delegate's car was set afire. At the very least, might we say that Geov Parrish wrote a piece, published in the Weekly November 18, 1999, that outlined how local protesters were adopting more aggressive "European" protest tactics—and he mentioned the time and place these demonstrators would be gathering on November 30. That story alone should have raised a red flag for city officials.

 

But this is mellow Seattle. Why worry?

After WTO's smoke cleared, officials said they had relied on Seattle's history of gentle demonstrations to prevail, but that theory crashed and burned. The SPD's WTO review report, for example, claimed commanders "put their faith in historical precedent—the Seattle tradition of peaceful protest . . . concluding that the 'worst case' would not occur here." Of course, worst case didn't happen here during WTO: no bombs, no deaths, limited property destruction. But still, one wonders: What history are they talking about? The Seattle General Strike? The Seattle of the late 1960s and early '70s that featured mass antiwar protests, angry freeway marches, bloody street clashes, bombings, shootings, marauding renegade cops, mass arrests, and the memorable criminal trial of the Seattle Seven? (And that's back when we weren't drinking 20 designer cups of caffeine a day.) As the WTO record notes, of 417 people (out of 603) arrested who had identifiable hometowns, more than half were from Seattle.

Today, Seattle can match shootings, road rage, and other crazed acts with any big city. Note that 27 days before WTO, a gunman shot four coworkers—two fatally—at a Seattle shipyard, and 27 days after WTO, the Space Needle millennium celebration was canceled by a terrorist bombing threat. Then there's that dark history of police shootings. We're not the Emerald City anymore, Toto.

 

What was Hizzoner smoking when he established a no-protest zone?

Fumes from burning Dumpsters? Apparently he heard good things about no-protest zones from the Russian delegation. But of course here in the Soviet of Seattle a fiat ordering protesters to stop protesting is inarguably unconstitutional. As a federal judge in Los Angeles just said about a plan to similarly limit demonstrations around the Democratic convention (they call theirs a "security zone"), responsible public officials just can't do that. As we could tell him, Seattle is proof why. The illegal cordoning sent a signal to those enforcing it that anything goes. As hundreds of protesters and miles of video will attest, placards were confiscated because of their messages and demonstrators arrested because of their looks. It gave rise also to the unchecked deployment of gas, pepper spray, and nightsticks—you know, the so-called "nonlethal" stuff that sure the fuck hurts (especially when you get blind-sided while assembling and demonstrating peacefully). The troubling legacy of the gag zone, though, is that it came and went before a court could effectively intervene. What's to prevent its use again?

 

Who are the people who brought us WTO?

The Washington Council on International Trade, self-described leader of "the months-long effort to bring the WTO to Seattle" and the group that earlier brought the APEC conference to Seattle, is headquartered on the waterfront, has more than 80 corporate members, and is operated by its president and Port of Seattle Commissioner Pat Davis. Among the members: Boeing, the Port, Bank of America, Weyerhaeuser, Microsoft, Wells Fargo, Westin, Seattle's Best Coffee, Sheraton Seattle, Puget Sound Business Journal, Northwest Airlines, Paccar, Mitsubishi, Key Bank, Kaiser Aluminum, Holland America, Foster Pepper & Schefelman, Davis Wright Tremaine, Perkins Coie, Bank of Tokyo, UPS, Visio, and Union Bank.

 

Who died and made them hosts?

Since there's no established protocol for approving a convention in Seattle regardless of potential risks and costs, practically anyone—even the KKK, as Schell pointed out to city reviewers—can convene here without much oversight. In WTO's case, the ball got rolling almost by itself in May 1998. Don Lorentz of the Port of Seattle, in Geneva for a tourism show the week prior to the WTO meeting there, was chatting with Rita Hayes, US ambassador to the WTO. The bidding for the next ministerial was about to begin, and she suggested Seattle might have a good chance. Lorentz carried the message to Davis, other Port commissioners, and Ray Waldman, president of Davis' trade group. Davis, Sam Kaplan of the Trade Development Alliance, and Kathy Paxton of the Convention and Visitors Bureau sprang into action, making plans to reserve hotel rooms as well as space at the Washington State Convention Center. The US State Department sent out bid invites in June 1998. With Schell's support, Seattle responded and became one of 21 finalists in August—thanks also to Representative Jim McDermott's offer "to lead an aggressive bid." To back Seattle's offer, Davis set up a host committee that included Schell, Ron Sims, Gary Locke, Congressional members, Phil Condit, and Bill Gates. All sent letters to Clinton supporting Seattle's entry. Financial bid proposals were then sought (the State Department said "all actual expenses . . . are the responsibility of the US government" but didn't really mean it; to make bids more attractive, WTO-seekers knew they had to propose paying all costs themselves). By December, it was Seattle and Honolulu in the running—Honolulu offering a $5.5 million budget, and Seattle topping that with a $9.2 million bid; a letter signed by Davis and Paxton promised "the Seattle Host Committee will cover whatever the final costs are." (Must have gotten that wording from the Mariners.)

After Seattle was designated, Davis' group promised to pay Seattle security costs and quietly agreed along with Schell not to confront the State Department over up-front money, instead resolving to gain reimbursements later. In a February memo from city lobbyist Cliff Traisman to Schell and City Council President Sue Donaldson, Traisman warned of potential "significant budget impacts," and said if Clinton and Al Gore decide to attend, "the security requirements will quickly escalate." Traisman later told the city's WTO Accountability Review Committee that had bid and selection been more a more public process, "Seattle would not have hosted [WTO] and 39 other [bid] cities wouldn't have either."

 

What's the damage?

The calculators are still running, but it's in the ballpark of $40 million—give or take $20 million due to, uh, inflation, let's say. For example, the Downtown Seattle Association estimated retailers lost $17 million in sales during the five days of WTO, the busiest shopping season of the year. But that didn't take into account the jump in suburban sales for some of the big stores like Nordstrom, as shoppers avoiding downtown went to the malls. And by Christmas, retail sales had increased almost six percent over the previous year, making up for any of those so-called losses. So despite the outcry and hand-wringing over downtown shopping, retailers in general did fine and their insurers picked up the damage tab.

The City of Seattle estimates its direct WTO costs to be around $10 million—mostly police overtime—while state, county, and suburban agencies face mutual aid costs of $6 million. (Short on funds, Seattle WTO planners opted not to initially mass a security force using police from other areas, instead realizing they could summon help through the mutual aid pact, leaving the three dozen other jurisdictions to scramble to pay their own costs; King County and the Washington State Patrol were each stuck with tabs totaling more than $2 million.)

The lawsuits and claims filed in WTO's wake range from several dollars to $1.7 million by a man claiming false arrest, and it's reasonable to assume the city will spend and pay at least a few million to settle claims. Having failed their mandate to ensure the city would not pay for a party thrown by a private group, the mayor and council are hoping the state's congressional delegation will be able to wrangle offsetting US funds (pushed by Senators Slade Gorton and Patty Murray, a $5 million payment is working its way through Congress). The State Department, feeling deceived, is threatening no more WTOs for Seattle!

 

Why not sue the bastards?

Why not indeed? In addition to its pledge to the State Department, the Washington Council on International Trade promised the city it would pay Seattle security costs of $1.5 million but has tendered only $320,000. In its first printed informational guides for Seattle Host Organization officials, WCIT also made these statements: "SHO is a division of the WCIT" and "WCIT is the only legal and financial entity involved in hosting the Ministerial. All SHO financial and legal obligations reside with the Council."' What part of all doesn't City Hall understand? A WTO Accountability Review Committee panel has also found that WCIT "breached its oral commitment to the city to pay for the city's security costs." Tab for Ms. Davis' billionaires, please.

 

Is there anything we still don't know?

Among other things, we aren't likely to learn exactly what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, trapped in her hotel room, shouted over the long distance line to DC. ("Gas those pinko dupes!" maybe?) What were the orders Clinton's security advisors gave to local officials to quell the protests? What did the Justice Department think about Seattle's security planning and the mayor's faith that WTO would be a nonviolent assembly? So far, those answers are lacking in part because the city has not seriously sought them. Review panel director Alec Fisken says he'd like more documents if he had his druthers (federal agencies such as the Justice and State Departments are notoriously slow to respond to document requests). But the city's reviews have not included detailed queries to or responses from federal officials for much the same given reason they claim to have chosen not to review WTO civil rights violations: not enough time, people, and money to get into it. The city is willing to spend millions hosting WTO, but comparatively little reviewing why we shouldn't have.

 

Would probing the federal role in WTO really reveal much?

We'll let you know if we ever get any response to some of our Freedom of Information Act requests. But clues to the deeper federal role pop up now and then. In a March 1999 letter, for example, FBI agent Bob Houston informed the SPD about the formation of a high-level task force, the WTO Joint Interagency Intelligence Support Element group, which consisted of "all relevant public safety, consequence management [teams] and, where appropriate, military agencies." Was that a reference to the Special Force Deltas who, as sources tell us, operated out of a Denny Regrade motel and were the security eyes and ears for top federal officials? Such tidbits only hint at important missing WTO chapters.

 

What do we do now?

Something maddeningly simple: Routinely require official city approval of any sizable confab, including a full, honest, and public assessment of any security threat and signature of the requesting party on a legally binding contract of responsibility. Had that been done for WTO Seattle, it would have been called WTO Honolulu, which would have been fine by us.

More on WTO:

Report on the reports

The WTO is dead in the water, but don't count it out just yet.

The legacy of Seattle's WTO protest leaders.

 
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