A Good Cop Wasted
The WTO debacle brought down Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, one of America's most progressive cops. Now he's published a memoir offering a frank look at his rise and fall, and the challenges of reforming law enforcement. By Nina Shapiro MORE
"Snookered in Seattle: The WTO Riots" is a chapter from the book Breaking Rank, copyright © 2005 by Norm Stamper, and appears by permission of the publisher, Nation Books, a division of Avalon Publishing Group Inc. The former Seattle Police chief will speak at Town Hall Thurs., June 9, at 7:30 p.m., sponsored by Elliott Bay Book Co.
I was "out of the loop" on the decision to invite the WTO Ministerial Conference to Seattle (November 29-December 4, 1999). I'm not sure how I would have voted anyway—for all I knew, "W-T-O" were the call letters of a Cleveland radio station. I will say this, though: Having your ass kicked so completely—by protestors, politicians, the media, your own cops, colleagues from other agencies, and even a (former) friend—does give cause for pause and reflection.
Local politicians were ecstatic that Seattle had beaten out San Diego, the only other U.S. finalist for the honor of hosting the WTO Conference. Our city of 530,000, with its police department of twelve hundred cops, was delighted to accommodate eight thousand delegates, the president of the United States, the secretary of state, dozens of assorted other dignitaries, hundreds of reporters from throughout the world, and tens of thousands of antiglobalization protesters.
No one was more tickled than Mayor Paul Schell. He wrote in an issue of his "Schell Mail" A folksy missive from the mayor to thousands of Seattleites, inside and outside government, issued as events dictated or inspiration struck. His opponents accused the mayor of using "Schell Mail" to advance a political agenda—particularly with respect to mayoral dreams (including re-election), programs, and budget requests. As one of his cabinet members, I found the Schell Mail messages informative. (No. 39): "As the whole event comes to a peak during the days of the actual Ministerial our streets and restaurants will be filled with people from all over the world. Issues of global significance will be addressed in our conference halls and public spaces. School teachers will use local news to teach international civics lessons. (And our many visitors will be bringing something like $11 million of business to our town.)"
Schell had that very morning met with Michael Moore (no, not the Michael Moore, but the secretary general of the WTO). He wrote of the meeting, "Ex-Prime Minister of New Zealand, ex-construction worker, with a background in labor, and an author, he's got a good sense of humor and a great mind. We had fun giving him a big round of 'g-day, mate.'" Then he turned serious: "Though there's been a lot of talk about protests and demonstrations, without question these are overblown." Everyone (except us killjoys in law enforcement) seemed unable to curb their enthusiasm about the event. Especially the antiglobalization forces.
One city council member invited protesters from around the world to come to Seattle to join in the "dialogue." He issued urgent public appeals to Seattleites to find room in their homes to house the hordes.
Early in '99, before pre-event speculation heated up, Ed Joiner, my Operations chief, and I walked the few blocks down to the local FBI office to learn what this WTO thing was all about from the "law enforcement perspective." Special agent in charge "Birdie" Passanelli and her fellow feds offered a primer. The World Trade Organization was established in 1995 to "oversee rules of international trade, help trade flow smoothly, settle trade disputes between governments, and organize trade negotiations." Simple enough, I thought. An innocuous mission with an emphasis on the bureaucratic and the diplomatic.
The WTO stood for the facilitation of free trade while its opponents favored fair trade. "Free," "fair"—what the hell was the difference?
I boned up on the controversy. "Free trade," I came to understand, means, essentially, the Clinton agenda—NAFTA, an opening of markets throughout North America and, beyond that, the reduction or elimination of trade barriers such as tariffs and quotas. Advocates claim that global free trade would reduce poverty, encourage greater economic and political freedom, increase corporate profits, and even enhance the environment. The most succinct free-trade argument I found, invoking Adam Smith, free enterprise, and the evils of socialism, came from Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman in "The Case for Free Trade" (Hoover Digest, 1997, No. 4).
In the view of its legions of disparate critics, however, free trade means devastation of rain forests and other irreplaceable ecosystems; loss of small American farms, businesses, and jobs to global conglomerates, agribusiness, and foreign sweatshops; world hunger; expansion of American imperialism; exploitation of laborers and the use of child workers in Third World countries; political imprisonment; a crushing subjugation of countries like Tibet; corrupt business practices by the multinational corporations; abridgment of intellectual properties; and denial of basic human and civil rights.
The last ministerial conference, in Geneva in May 1998, had attracted thousands of demonstrators, and it had turned violent. But President Clinton, a big supporter of the WTO, offered up the United States anyway. He was probably thinking, No problem. I mean, how long has it been since the country has seen violent political protest? Twenty-five years? Thirty?
Seattle had handled, since the general strike of 1919 and through the antiwar and civil rights uprisings of the sixties and seventies, an unending stream of political demonstrations. Even in the mid-nineties it was like the city was frozen in time—or, depending on your politics, ahead of its time.
Seattle is a progressive town, one that can always muster several hundred, or several thousand, to protest social service budget cuts or police brutality or the conditions of migrant farm workers on the other side of the Cascades. I felt privileged to live and work in a town whose people still cared enough about social justice to get off their butts and help bring it about.
We launched a regional planning effort on the heels of that FBI meeting. Joiner headed up a "Public Safety Executive Committee" consisting of ranking officials of SPD, King County Sheriffs, Seattle Fire Department, Washington State Patrol, the FBI, and the United States Secret Service. In all, twelve local, state, and federal agencies plus sixteen collateral agencies joined the planning effort.
Joiner and his group formed subcommittees to address every imaginable challenge: intelligence, venues protection, demonstration management, access accreditation, transportation and escort management, criminal investigations, communication, public information and media relations, hazardous materials (including weapons of mass destruction), fire and emergency medical services, tactics, logistics, personnel, finance, and training.
Their mission? Put together a plan to protect people—conferees, demonstrators, residents, business owners, shoppers, and dignitaries (the secretary of state, the secretary of labor, the president himself, maybe even Fidel Castro, who'd been rumored to be on the list of uninvited but expected guests). And property—the streets, the convention center, downtown hotels, Old Navy, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Nike, the Gap, independent news and espresso stands ...
My purpose as a cop, as a chief was to make our streets safe—for everyone. When people asked me to describe the mission of SPD I gave them a stock answer: to stop people from hurting other people. It didn't matter to me whether the danger was in a couple's apartment in Greenlake or on downtown streets jammed with demonstrators.
The police would, in the mayor's words, "make sure that, for the citizens of this city, life can go on more or less as usual." The conference would be taking place at the peak of the holiday shopping season. "The carousel will be up at Westlake, shoppers will fill the stores, the holiday lights will be up, the PNB [Pacific Northwest Ballet] will be dancing The Nutcracker. This is still Seattle in December, after all," wrote the mayor.
Joiner presided over the most exhaustive event planning SPD had ever done. Almost ten thousand hours of training was provided: over nine hundred SPD personnel, through the rank of captain, went through an initial nine-hour "crowd management" (riot control) class. Then weekly, then twice-weekly squad drills. There were three four-hour platoon-level exercises and a four-hour session with all platoons drilling together. There was extra training on the department's new chemical agent protective masks, and eight-, sixteen-, and twenty-four-hour classes on "crisis incident decision making" (a disciplined approach to analyzing and responding to crises of all kinds) for supervisors and commanders. Thirty SWAT officers traveled to Ft. McClellan, Alabama, for a four-day course on WMDs. Several SWAT supervisors and commanders attended an additional twenty-four hours of WMD and incident command system training. The Secret Service gave two days of dignitary protection and escort training to all motorcycle officers from the five agencies that would be contributing cops to the cause. The FBI and Secret Service ran two intensive tabletop exercises.
I monitored the training we provided to our officers. It started with classroom instruction on the short history of the WTO, the protest methods used in Geneva, and what they could expect, from best- to worst-case scenarios. Next, the student-officers were herded into an abandoned hangar at the old Sand Point military facility where they were subjected—against the audible background of an actual riot (a loud actual riot, recorded during recent political protests in Vancouver, B.C.)—to simulated protest strategies and tactics, including violent attacks. Back and forth the cops went, first as missile-chucking "demonstrators," then in their real role as frontline cops confronting those missiles. They rehearsed tactics, prepared mentally for things likely to come.
All along, I'm thinking, We've got this sucker covered.
But my cops? They weren't so confident. They appreciated the training, they loved the new equipment—all that all-black "hard gear," from catcher-like shin guards to ballistic helmets, making them look like Darth Vader. But they were convinced the city was in for a real shitstorm.
There were some ominous signs—Internet organizing and mobilizing, Ruckus Society training, anarchists threatening to descend on the city and muck things up not only for the conferees but also for the throngs of peaceful protesters.
I was familiar with such pre-event refrains from a segment of police officers who always sound like Chicken Little, as well as the shut-it-down braggadocio of the lunatic fringe of protesters. I'd heard the voices of "extremists" many times in my career. Back in the seventies in San Diego, a wild-eyed lieutenant warned of the day that fundamentalist religious sects in the Middle East would migrate to our shores and do bad things to innocent Americans. He prophesied acts of terrorism, like blowing up airplanes and buildings ... if you can imagine that. The brass labeled him "Ol' Bombs and Rockets"—and kept him away from the armory.
Of course there would be demonstrations downtown. Of course there'd be knuckleheads who'd try to bait the officers. But even though Seattle was a small city in a small county in a small state, I was confident my PD was ready. Joiner had asked for help from state and regional agencies, and gotten it. From everyone, that is, but Tacoma. Their chief sent a letter declining to ante up any officers. I tracked him down at a DV conference. "We really could use your help, James." James: "We're shorthanded." Me: "Aren't we all, aren't we all. But this thing could really blow up on us." James: "I've got my own city to police." Me: "But we're always there for you, James. Sure you won't change your mind?" James: "No." Me: "Well, that really blows." James: "But if things get out of hand up there you can count on us." Thanks, James. Thanks a bunch. Washington State Patrol, King County Sheriffs, Port of Seattle, Bellevue PD, Kent PD, and the combined forces of Auburn, Renton, and Tukwila committed a total of fifty-three motorcycle cops, seventy-five patrol officers, thirty-one SWAT officers, five bomb cops, two communications/media personnel, and three explosives-detection K-9 teams. Washington State Patrol and King Country Sheriffs also committed a total of 145 officers for "demonstration management" duty in the event they were needed. All of this was to supplement the core forces of Seattle's police. On a normal day SPD would field about one hundred cops at peak times. For the WTO we would have more cops on the streets than at any time in PD history. In all, nine hundred SPD officers would be suited up for WTO, all of them working twelve-hour shifts. It sure sounded like a lot of cops.
Things were moving apace when shortly before the conference, Schell insisted on visiting roll calls. He wanted to offer words of encouragement, let the officers know he was there for them—and to tell them to behave themselves. Maybe he thought they wouldn't play nice with our global visitors, that they might not show proper restraint if provoked. I went with him to the roll calls, stood by his side. The first few sessions were uneventful, if not dull. The mayor was a bright, articulate politician but when it came to rallying the cops he was no Knute Rockne.
The last roll call was at the West Precinct, in a spanking-new facility, spacious, comfortable, and, unlike so many police facilities, designed and built with cops and police work in mind. It had that new-building smell, nice and fresh, and its opening had been a joyous occasion for the West Precinct cops, mostly because of the pit they were leaving. And because the plan called for free parking—just like PD employees at the other precincts enjoyed. But Schell had changed all that, and the cops were in a foul mood. In fact, they were lying in wait as we walked in.
There they sat. A roomful of disgruntled cops staring at a politician who had the nerve to ask them to make a good impression for the all the world to see, even as he stuck it to them on the parking. They glared, they griped, they grumbled. When one guy complained about WTO, hizzoner finally snapped. "Look, if you can't handle the job I'll find someone who can!"
Fighting the urge to throttle the guy, I stepped forward and reminded the cops of my confidence in them. But the damage had been done, and the mayor wasn't through yet. Right after roll call and within earshot of officers filing out of the room he turned to his police chief, shook his head and said, "I sure don't envy you your job."
The next day he said he was sorry. "Tell it to the cops," I said.
"I was tired," he said. "And hungry. I hadn't eaten since lunch." Well, sir, neither had I. And the cops you were talking to? They're headed for long hours with no sleep, no food, not even a place to pee.
As the conference approached, I began to have some of the same doubts my officers felt. I took my concerns to Joiner, who brought me back to reality. The first WTO ministerial conference had been held in Singapore, which meant, of course, there had been exactly no demonstrations. And the violence at that second one in Geneva? A "European phenomenon." Besides, Seattle PD had had a ton of experience and enjoyed a well-earned reputation for handling big political protests (while still in San Diego I'd heard positive things about SPD's approach to demonstration management). Moreover, Joiner planned to use only known and trusted SPD personnel at the most sensitive posts.
Ed Joiner had solid credentials as a strategist and tactician. His planning team included some of the best minds on the department. Plus every stakeholder, from the regional bus system to local hospitals, was involved in the planning. Also comforting was the FBI's threat assessment of "low to moderate." (I later learned they were talking about terrorist threats.)
And how's this for reassurance? The head of the local Secret Service office told the mayor and me at a meeting in Schell's office just moments before kickoff: "If things turn to shit it won't be for of a lack of planning." As a matter of fact, he had "never seen a better job of planning and preparation."
Things started well. There were a couple of small-scale demonstrations downtown on the Friday before the Monday conference opening. On Saturday three daredevils rappelled themselves over a bridge and hung an anti-WTO banner over Interstate 5 (they went to jail). Sunday there were demonstrations on Capitol Hill, but what else was new? Later that night a collection of anarchists broke into and occupied an abandoned building near the West Precinct. Even that wasn't all that troubling—it allowed Joiner and his crews to keep an eye on the comings and goings of the "outside agitators." Further, it would have been problematic at that late moment to commit the dozens of personnel necessary to raid the place, scoop up the trespassers, sort out their undoubtedly counterfeit identities, and jail them—a decision that was a mistake, in hindsight.
But, it wasn't a bad weekend. All the more remarkable given that the conference was gearing up at the same time the city was playing host to the Seattle Marathon and a Seahawks game—both of which demanded much from our force.
Early the next morning officers discovered evidence of a possible break-in at the convention center. They'd been guarding the facility (a sprawling, multistory building, with a complicated layout, in the heart of downtown) throughout the night. But as Lt. Robin Clark, our SWAT commander, showed me, it looked like someone could have slipped through the outer perimeter, scaled a temporary wall at the back of the facility, busted open a padlock, and entered the place.
This was serious. Police commanders had not taken as idle the threat by militant protesters that they would, indeed, "shut down the WTO." It wasn't hard to imagine the mess they'd make if they'd breached security of the main WTO venue. They could set off the fire sprinklers and flood the interior, spraypaint choice antiglobalization slogans all over the walls, unleash stink bombs. Or real bombs. Officers had to search the whole convention center. So they did. Meticulously, with SWAT and police dogs. It took hours.
The opening ceremonies were delayed, and a few delegates got their noses bent out of shape—mostly because they got yelled at a good bit by throngs of raggedy demonstrators as they stood in line in their western business suits and native attire. One of them, a "minister," pulled a gun on some demonstrators.
A couple of hours later everyone was safe and snug inside the building. We breathed a collective sigh of satisfaction, and I returned to the streets to resume my "roving."
In the Incident Command System, which we had adopted (and trained for) long before WTO entered the picture, the chief of police has, by design, no "operational" role. His or her name and title might appear at the top of official documents, but if you searched those documents for a job description you'd find none.
There are compelling reasons to keep police chiefs out of the operations arena. They are simply too busy, across a broad range of organizational and community duties, to master the kind of continuously updated specialized expertise needed to handle a SWAT incident, a crime scene, or a major demonstration.
The last thing you want is a police chief actually running the show. So, I "roved."
I walked the streets, encouraged my cops at their posts, stopped by the various hotels set aside for WTO delegates and dignitaries, and moved in and out of the convention center. I spent time with my commanders in the Multi-Agency Command Center (MACC), the Seattle Police Operations Center (SPOC) next door, and the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the fire station at Fifth and Battery. (My four assistant chiefs, with Joiner taking the point, were split between the MACC and the EOC, each pulling twelve-hour shifts, for around-the-clock coverage.) I received regular updates and teamed up with the mayor and the fire chief to make frequent announcements to, and to field questions from, the huge international press corps. One of my answers at one of the press conferences would infuriate my cops, but that wouldn't come until later.
The first press briefing on Monday was upbeat. I had just come from an intersection clogged with demonstrators. David Horsey, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, had been standing next to me as a local protester approached. She told us she'd traveled downtown for two reasons: to protest globalization, and to keep people from hurling insults and/or bottles at her cops. She wanted me to know how much she respected and admired the job our officers were doing. It was one of those lovely peace-love-harmony moments. I envisioned the next morning's political cartoon, and felt all warm and fuzzy.
Veteran cops told me they'd never seen so many people on the streets. There was sea of sea turtles and anti-WTO signs, choruses of chanting, and street theater performances, replete with colorfully costumed actors on stilts playing out the various points of opposition to globalization. That night, thousands of protesters filed into Key Arena where the Sonics and the Storm play their basketball. They heard speeches from local politicians, including the mayor (who at one point bleated, "Have fun but please don't hurt my city") and various protest leaders and organizers. There were songs by Laura Love and other politically active musicians. Day One ended peacefully.
Which was in stark contrast to the way Day Two began. Starting at two in the morning (those protesters needed a union!), demonstrators began assembling, quietly, but not unobserved (cops do work 24/7). Throughout the night the MACC and the EOC fielded reports from officers monitoring the increasing size of the crowds. By five-thirty a large group had formed at Victor Steinbrueck Park just north of Pike Place Market. Sprinkled within the crowd were gas masks and chemical munitions. At seven-thirty large groups began marching to the convention center from five different locations. Between seven-thirty and eight o'clock, seven distinct, large-scale disturbances erupted within a two-block radius. At nine minutes after nine the incident commander authorized the use of chemical irritants. One minute later he put out the call for mutual aid.
I stood in the rain at the intersection of Sixth and Union and witnessed a single line of ten King County Sheriff's deputies holding off more than a hundred raucous demonstrators who were trying to penetrate the underground parking at the Sheraton. The militants taunted the deputies, pushed up against them. I worried for the thin tan line, the tiny handful of county cops who rarely saw this kind of "big-city" action. And realized, for the first time, that we didn't have nearly enough cops to get the job done.
Moments later hundreds of demonstrators surged into the middle of the intersection and took a seat. They completely choked off Sixth Avenue up to University, a block east. If a police car, a fire truck, or an aid car had to get to an emergency in or around any of the high-rise buildings it would have been impossible. Police commanders had spent months negotiating with protest leaders, but this wasn't in the plan. There was no choice but to declare an unlawful assembly and clear them out. Which wouldn't be pretty, given what the sitters did next.
In response to the command to leave the intersection, protesters locked arms, making themselves one massive knot of humanity. Only force would unlock them from one another. A field commander told them they were in violation of the law, and that they would be arrested if they didn't leave the intersection. He did it by the numbers: He used the proper language, stationed cops around the perimeter to verify that the bullhorned warning could be heard, and warned them and warned them and warned them. Then he warned them again. Then he gassed them.
Why didn't he and his squads just wade in, pull the protesters apart, and haul them off to a prisoner transportation unit? This particular demonstration wasn't violent, after all, but a classic civil disobedience tactic. But there simply weren't enough cops to pluck them off one at a time. And violence had broken out at several other locations around the convention center.
At noon, a scheduled AFL-CIO march left Seattle Center in the shadow of the Space Needle and headed downtown. It grew from twenty thousand to forty thousand on the way, and soon converged with another ten thousand demonstrators already on the streets of downtown. Suddenly, my minuscule police force seemed microscopic.
Even the reinforcements from other agencies, streaming in and en route, struck little confidence into the hearts of police staffers. Our cops were clearly in trouble. The department had co-planned with organizers from the AFL-CIO and other groups, and had gotten assurances that they would largely police themselves. These were honorable people who'd kept their word in the past. One could only hope they'd be able to hold their own against interlopers.
Those hopes were dashed when even before the tail end of the march reached downtown, self-described anarchists and Beavis-and-Butthead recreational rioters unleashed a round of criminal acts.
Thugs in uniform—black with black bandannas—popped out of the throngs of peaceful protesters and chucked bricks and bottles at cops, and newspaper racks through shop windows. They even smashed a Starbucks window and ripped off bags of Arabica, Colombian, and French roast (a hanging offense in Seattle). Then they scurried back into the crowd where they cowered behind senior citizens, moms with jogging strollers, and kids dressed up in those cute little sea turtle costumes.
I walked into a hastily called meeting at the MACC, Joiner's windowless headquarters. The mayor was there, so was Washington governor Gary Locke, Chief Annette Sandberg of the Washington State Patrol, King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, and a couple of feds who were in town to do advance work for the president's visit. Clinton was due in late that night. The meeting had one item on its agenda: whether to declare a state of emergency and call in National Guard troops. Tension in the room was palpable, as you might expect with a city under siege. But there was also an undercurrent of something else.
The place reeked of fear. It couldn't have been a fear for our own safety—we were, for the moment, safely hunkered in and bunkered down, far away from the din of battle. So what were we afraid of? I can't speak for the others, but here's what I was afraid of: (1) My cops were out there on the streets, taking a licking; (2) nonviolent protesters, store owners, office workers, and shoppers faced a clear and present danger; (3) the president of the United States, leader of the free world, wouldn't be able to address the ministers—if he could get in to the city at all; (4) my beloved city looked more like Beirut, or Baghdad; and (5) I didn't know what the hell to do, other than close down the city and call in the National Guard.
Mostly, I was afraid I'd failed. I had let down a lot of people I cared about. Sitting next to me in the MACC was Sheriff Reichert who wanted nothing more than to get back out on the streets to kick some ass and take some names. Reichert, angry at our insufficiently "aggressive" plan for dealing with the demonstrators and disgusted by the dithering in the room, leaned over and whispered, "Let's just throw the damn politicians out of the room." I liked the sound of that, but we needed them: the mayor to put the official request for a declaration of a "state of emergency" to the governor, the governor to act on it.
Joiner, still in charge in the MACC, remained calm and cool. He held out for accurate updates from the field. Through his own "shock and awe" at what had unfolded that day, he was still very much the kind of operations commander you want calling the shots.
Now, however, everybody wanted to run the show—or at least judge it.
Sandberg sighed audibly, rolled her eyes, and murmured under her breath when the conversation took a turn she didn't like. The feds migrated to a corner of the room, mumbled, crossed their arms, put their heads together and shook them vigorously. (Paraphrasing, their position was: Just clear the fucking streets, for God's sake! We don't care what it takes. We got the Big Guy touching down in a matter of hours. POTUS (the Secret Service abbreviation for "President of the United States") shouldn't be exposed to this ... this riffraff.) And Reichert? The poor guy was apoplectic, his blood boiling over every time Schell opened his mouth.
Those individuals most capable of bringing reason to the table and advice to the decision makers, like West Precinct captain Jim Pugel, weren't in the room. They were, by popular demand, out there on the streets. Pugel was doing a hell of a job under hellish conditions. He and other field commanders reported in regularly, but the situation kept changing, of course, from one minute to the next.
So there we were, a roomful of leaders, accustomed to running things, taking risks, making decisions, getting things done. As individuals we made things happen. Now we were suddenly thrust together as a body, as a team of leaders—though hardly a cohesive one. It occurred to me that planning and preparation for WTO should have included at least one tabletop exercise for the "rovers"—the very people in that room.
At 3:52 the mayor declared a civil emergency. The governor called out the National Guard. In a script that could have been written by Joseph Heller, Joiner had asked in advance that the National Guard be placed on alert. We can't do that unless a state of emergency exists. But we're trying to prevent a "state of emergency." Well, we can't mobilize unless a state of emergency exists. Can't you just have your people standing by, say, in Kent or SeaTac? Nope. Have your emergency first, then give us a call. A curfew, which covered most of the downtown area, was imposed for that evening and the next.
I left the MACC and headed back out on the streets. If anything, the situation was worse. Police officers were being pelted with an amazing array of missiles: traffic cones, rocks, jars, bottles, ball bearings, sticks, golf balls, teargas canisters, chunks of concrete, human urine shot from high-powered squirt guns. Gas-masked militants fired their own teargas at the cops, hurled ours back at us, and flung barricades through plate glass windows. Some moron(s) flattened all four tires on a herd of parked police cars. By nightfall it was no better. Most of the action simply moved to Capitol Hill where innocent caf diners got gassed along with rioters.
But at least POTUS made it in to town safely. At about one-thirty in the morning he was put to bed at his favorite Seattle hotel, the Westin.
At five o'clock Wednesday morning, having established a "police perimeter" to keep demonstrators from getting too close to the WTO venues, officers observed people carrying crowbars, rocks, masonry hammers, and bipods and tripods (from which to suspend intrepid activists high in the air, in the middle of intersections). The cops confiscated what they could and began arresting the first bunch of the hundreds who would be jailed that day. Against a backdrop of full-scale urban rioting, police officers and Secret Service agents escorted our national leader and his entourage from one venue to another—from the Westin to the Bell Harbor Conference Center on Elliott Bay to the Four Seasons Hotel. Officers continued to take a pelting but POTUS was never touched.
By mid-morning the ACLU filed for a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court seeking to overturn the "police perimeter." A police commander had to break away from his duties to summarize the department's defense of the tactic, but it paid off. The court denied the request. (As if the demonstrators were paying any attention at all to the so-called "no protest zone.")
All that day and into the night, with action shifting once again to Capitol Hill, cops fought the fight, ducking often as protesters chucked unopened cans of soup and other objects. A platoon commander's car was surrounded by a fun-loving crowd that jumped up and down on the vehicle, then attempted to flip it over. (The lieutenant, who had himself been an antiwar demonstrator at the University of Washington back in the days, told me later, "I've been on every kind of call there is, Chief. But I've never been more scared than I was that night. I thought sure they were going to pull me out of the car, grab my gun, and ... and who knows what.") Officers dispersed that group with gas and rescued their boss.
Moments later an employee at a gas station on Broadway called 911 to report that the station had been taken over by rioters who were filling small bottles with gasoline. One officer witnessed an individual dressed in black carrying a Molotov cocktail. A crowd of three hundred to four hundred broke off from the Broadway festivities and moved to the 1100 block of East Pine where they threatened to take over SPD's East Precinct.
At two-fifty Thursday morning the precinct was still under siege, the crowd having grown to somewhere between a thousand and fifteen hundred. The officers protecting it were no longer surprised by the pelting they took, or by the infinite variety of projectiles.
A combination of chemical agents and rubber pellets finally secured the peace. The building, which contained weapons, injured police officers, and prisoners, was never breached.
Downtown at dawn was much quieter than it had been the past two days, a portent of positive things to come. Clinton flew out of town at ten, and the "no protest" perimeter was shrunk. A crowd circled King County Jail at about one in the afternoon (triggering a lockdown), but other than that it was peaceful. Most of the violent demonstrators were either in jail, lying low, or scurrying out of town. As day turned to night the crowd continued to hang around the jail, listening to speeches from protest leaders, criminal defense attorneys, and other activists. At seven-thirty they split up, half of them sticking around, the other half, under police escort, heading up to Capitol Hill where they continued their mostly peaceful ways.
On Friday, the final day of the now-truncated WTO conference, the drama ended. (If the demonstrators had been shouting "Truncate it! Truncate it!" instead of "Shut it down!" they would have achieved their goal.) All that remained of the protests was a hastily negotiated, legally sanctioned march by organized labor. It drew a decent crowd, maybe eight hundred to a thousand, but by then the focus had shifted from the WTO to claims of police brutality and to condemnation of the curfew and the perimeter. At its conclusion the marchers headed back to the Labor Temple.
A hundred or so of them broke from the group, marched over to Fifth Avenue, and swarmed the main entrance to the Westin—did they think POTUS was still inside? (Protesters earlier in the week had effectively made hostages of a furious Secretary of State Madeline Albright and U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky—both of whom were unable to leave their hotel rooms for the better part of a day.) Several of the demonstrators chained themselves to the front door of the hotel. It was a lame tactic—the Westin had other obvious entrances but there were too few protesters left to cover those doors. I walked into one of those other entrances and took the elevator to the twenty-first floor where a suite had been set up for officers assigned to dignitary protection at the hotel. I helped myself to a bottled water and walked over to the window. It was dark outside. A good-size crowd had gathered to cheer on this last hurrah. We could hear the muffled chants from behind the thick glass. A couple of hours later, the chains came off and what was left of the crowd either went home or over to the jail to shout words of encouragement to their imprisoned brothers and sisters. The riot was over.
Saturday, December 4. I made one last round of the still-operating venues, stopping finally at the MACC where I informed the deputy mayor I that I was turning in my badge.
My decision made headlines. And a Horsey cartoon which had the chief of police falling on his sword. Its caption: "I figured I'd do it myself before someone did it for me."
It took great self-discipline for me not to blurt out publicly what I thought of the mayor. But had I done it, it would not have been for the things the mayor was being accused of (hubris, navet, lack of foresight—all of which, if it fit him, also applied to me). In fact, I strongly believe that Schell got a raw deal for his role in the battle. It just wasn't his fault, any of it. The guy wasn't a cop, or a tactician, or a "demonstration management" expert. Hell, he'd only been a politician for two years. But the mayor had acted the fool on other fronts, and it was those occasions that had riled me. First and foremost were his reckless remarks to and about Sheriff Reichert.
Riding around at the height of the rioting with King County Executive Ron Sims, Reichert had observed an act of vandalism. Telling Sims he'd seen enough, he bailed out of the car and gave chase. He didn't catch the suspects, but his actions produced a satisfying sound bite on the evening news—and endeared him to my cops, who had plenty of other reasons to favor the county lawman over their own chief.
As the mayor and the sheriff walked out of a hall following one of Clinton's speeches, Schell cornered Reichert. He told him he didn't appreciate the sheriff "acting like a fucking hero out there," or words to that effect. He blocked Reichert's path, and continued to berate him. The sheriff ignored the mayor, and pushed past him. Schell, always the gentleman, shouted after him, "I'll personally destroy you!" The many witnesses to the mayor's actions were not impressed.
After the dust had settled, Schell presided over a special cabinet meeting. He praised all the city departments who'd played any kind of a role during the week (especially the crews who'd cleaned up around Westlake Park over the weekend and made downtown sparkle once again). He thanked us for our personal sacrifices, and so on. It was a gracious statement. Then he said, "You know, everyone did a terrific job under incredible stress. Everyone except our lunatic sheriff." Running a Bush "Mini-Me" campaign—support for the war in Iraq, opposition to reproductive rights, support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, opposition to federally funded sex education, support for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, opposition to stem-cell research—the "lunatic" won election in November 2004 to the eighth Congressional District from Washington.
I cornered the deputy mayor after the meeting, Schell having scooted off. "I'm sick and tired of your boss's character assassinations." I told her he was acting like a "narcissistic sociopath," and urged her to put a muzzle on him.
"I know, I know," she said. "He's been under such pressure ..."
It wasn't that I didn't understand. The week had taken a personal toll on everyone. I, myself, had gone home to my condo in the middle of the night, four nights in a row with only enough time to shower, air out my gas-saturated uniform, and try to squeeze in a couple of hours' sleep. Bone tired, I found it next to impossible to get to sleep. Some nights I could still hear the whoop-whoop-whoop of Guardian One, the sheriff's helicopter I'd ridden in with the governor in order to get an eagle's-eye view of the proceedings. As with a song you can't get out of your head, I'd be wracked by a rerun of the day's other noises: drums, police whistles, chants, screams, rocks landing on police helmets and on the face shields of our horses, dueling bullhorns, glass shattering. I replayed over and over in my mind the frantic radio call of one of my mounted officers as the cop reported being pulled from his horse. I'd responded to that one, Code 2, turning onto Pine Street just in time to catch a faceful of CS gas.
With eyes shut I saw Technicolor images of bipods and tripods, looters, Dumpster fires, intersection bonfires. I saw cops being baited and assaulted. And I saw a cop kicking a retreating demonstrator in the groin before shooting him in the chest with a rubber pellet. That particular scene, caught by a television camera, was flashed around the globe, over and over, Rodney King-style.
Then there was the cop who, spotting two women in a car videotaping the action, ordered one of them to roll down her window. When she complied, he shouted, "Film this!" and filled their car with mace.
If Paul Schell wasn't responsible for this mess, who was? I was. The chief of police. I thought we were ready. We weren't. I thought protest leaders would play by the rules. They didn't. I thought we were smarter than the anarchists. We weren't. I thought I'd paid enough attention to my cops' concerns. I hadn't. All in all, I got snookered. Big time.
To this day I feel the pangs of regret: that my officers had to spend long hours on the streets with inadequate rest, sleep, pee breaks, and meals, absorbing every form of threat and abuse imaginable (including, for a number of officers, a dose of food poisoning, from eating vittles that had been sitting out all day); that Seattle's businesses were hurt during the rampaging; that the city and the police department I loved lost a big chunk of collective pride and self-confidence; that peaceful protestors failed to win an adequate hearing of their important antiglobalization message; and, yes, that Paul Schell's dream of a citywide "dialogue" had been crushed.
When I think back to that week in 1999, which I do probably too often, one event stands out. It's three in the morning. I've just walked into my darkened condo on Lower Queen Anne.
I check for phone messages. There's only one. I'm sure it's from one of my cops. Friendly and jovial on Day One, the officers had joked with me, shown off their new equipment, passed along compliments they'd heard from protesters. But this was Day Three, and now they were shooting me nasty looks. Why?
Word had spread through the ranks that I'd answered "yes" to a reporter who wanted to know if I'd seen any police conduct that disturbed me. Well, I sure as hell had, and I wasn't about to lie about it. That I'd lavishly praised the sterling performance of my officers at a string of press conferences made no difference to many of my cops. I'd broken an important provision of "the Code." Like the Republicans' "Eleventh Amendment," police officers are not to speak ill of one another—even if one of them has assaulted an unarmed, retreating demonstrator. Or maced innocent women. In neither of these incidents was a Seattle police officer involved. The "kicker-shooter" belonged to Tukwila PD, the "macer" was Reichert's. Both agencies responded immediately, taking their cops off the streets—and later imposing stiff penalties.
I punch in the code and retrieve the message. It's not from a cop, after all. It's from a friend. A doctor friend I have dinner with several times a year. I sigh. Thank God, I can use a little support right about now.
"I can't believe what I'm seeing on TV," says the friend's voice, dripping with venom. "Your cops are worse than the fucking Gestapo. I'm totally repulsed that you're allowing this. You're a sorry, miserable excuse of a human being and I'm appalled that you're our chief."
But at the end of the week there was this: My cops hadn't killed anyone. Given fatigue, provocation, and ample legal justification to employ lethal force on numerous occasions, they'd held their fire. The Battle produced not a single death (and fewer than a hundred injuries, the most serious of which was a broken arm).
The Battle of Seattle was an important event in the history of American social and political protest. Whereas ten years ago a thousand people might have shown up to protest the WTO, there were fifty times that number on the streets of Seattle in the fall of '99. I believe that's a testament not only to the power of the Internet (which has all but replaced posters on fences, campus leafleting, and telephone trees as the primary means of organizing and mobilizing protest) but also to broad, intense antiglobalization sentiment and to a deep mistrust of our government's policies. Witness the awesome numbers of protesters who took to the streets locally (as well as globally) to protest America's invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Seattle was, in the end, just too damned small to pull it off. If you're thinking about hosting such an event you need to be able to count your cops in the thousands or tens of thousands, not hundreds. Hell, the city wouldn't have had enough cops had we called in every officer in the state.
We learned many lessons from the Battle, foremost of which are: (1) line up as much help in advance as you possibly can, then find more; (2) plan for "force multipliers" (i.e., volunteers), but don't become overreliant on them; and (3) keep demonstrators at a much greater distance from official venues. No matter how much they bitch about it.
And finally, my gift to every police executive and mayor in cities the size of Seattle's: Think twice before saying yes to an organization whose title contains any of the following words: world, worldwide, global, international, multinational, bilateral, trilateral, multilateral, economic, monetary, fiscal, finance, financial, fund, bank, banking, or trade.