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WTO 10 years later: The battle for Capitol Hill

ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES, 1999 — “Riot police move east on Pine Street as they drive protesters up to Capitol Hill on Nov. 30, 1999” — Seattle Times photos used with permission.

ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES, 1999 — “Riot police move east on Pine Street as they drive protesters up to Capitol Hill on Nov. 30, 1999” — Seattle Times photos used with permission.

The photograph of riot gear-clad police marching on Capitol Hill ten years ago this week is difficult to comprehend. What danger are they facing? Where is the enemy? This video of what they did when they got here, for CHS, at least, eliminates the confusion.

Where would you have been that night? Where were you? The story of 1999’s WTO riots in Seattle is one of geopolitics and global conflagration. There is also the story of the city’s politics and power structure and what forces ruled when things got hairy. But the story of Capitol Hill’s role in the ‘Battle of Seattle’ is about place. On their home streets, Hill residents found themselves under attack. That pepper-spray spouting, jack-booted thug of a law officer believed he was sent to clear those home streets. Sometimes with violence but often with tact, sometimes humor and always stubbornness, the Hill fought back. Here are the places on Capitol Hill where that story played out.

Seattle Central Community College

That week’s Stranger ran calendar listings of anti-WTO events:

NO TO WTO PROCESSION–Coordinated by the Direct Action Network and several neighborhood groups, this creative protest will feature giant puppets, theater, music, and dance in a “festival of resistance” that starts on Capitol Hill. Meet at Seattle Central Community College, corner of Pine & Broadway, at noon. Call 632-1656 for more info.

Here is the city’s WTO Accountability Review Committee’s report on the procession:

11:30 AM: A group of protestors begins to gather on the SCCC campus. (After-Action Report)

1 PM: The SCCC group, numbering approximately 500, begins marching north on Broadway, escorted by Police. (After-Action Report)

1:45 PM: The Fred Meyer on Broadway reports that protestors have just purchased all of the store’s lighter fluid. (After-Action Report)

Afternoon: The protestors move towards downtown. Intelligence indicates that they intend to march on the Gap and shut it down. Several retail stores close at their approach. After blocking downtown streets for an hour, the protestors demand an escort back SCCC. Police agree, and the protestors return to the campus and disperse. (After-Action Report)

A comparatively quiet time on the Hill, things started to get ugly downtown the day before the WTO meetings were scheduled to open. For a good read about the players and the events happening around downtown, see Seattle Metropolitan magazine’s 5 Days in Seattle that Shook the World.

9th and Boren Warehouse
Protesters use this empty space as a headquarters as downtown’s activities intensify. For now, Capitol Hill is a place for gathering and planning.

Boren and Pine

Groups of protesters gather at Seattle Central and on the Hill before streaming down to the Convention Center Tuesday morning. Here’s the description from Real Change News:

Sometime after 8 o’clock, the front line of marchers on both streets stopped at a predetermined point: the east side of Boren Avenue, just one block on Pine from the Paramount Theatre and one block on Pike from the Convention Center, where the delegates of the World Trade Organization were to meet.

A full block below them on Pike Street, at the eastern tip of the convention center grounds, a small group of police officers were just starting to put on their gear. They mounted horses and sat staring up the street for a time before realizing something was odd: the protesters were holding the line, not them. So, 30 minutes later, the police moved their line up to Boren.

For most of the day, Capitol Hill remains a staging area a few steps removed from the battle that has begun in downtown. The downtown protests bring the WTO meetings to a stop and there is an increasing level of violence in the streets. Tuesday night, attempting to lockdown the protest epicenter around the Convention Center, police begin pushing protesters up Pine. Capitol Hill becomes a war zone.

Broadway at Pine
As the police push rioters and protesters away from the downtown core, Broadway and Pike/Pine fill with a mix of the WTO combatants (well-trained, highly disciplined protesters vs. well-trained, highly disciplined police), bystanders, residents and party people. All can become victims — or perpetrators — of violence in the turn of a moment.

Here’s how Earth First! saw it:

State of Emergency is only supposed to extend throughout downtown, but the police have pushed the protesters out of downtown and are now invading Capitol Hill, Seattle’s queer center. Residents and bystanders pore out of the bars and restaurants, disbelieving that an occupying force has descended on their neighborhood. A passive mass faces down the police line and is pointlessly gassed. The crowd regroups and is gassed again. And again. School kids decommission a city bus, chasing off the driver. Two junior high boys try to steal the bus for a joy ride but can’t reach the pedals.

The weaponry deployed by riot control officers includes chemical agents, projectile weapons, incendiary concussion grenades, pepper spray and riot clubs.

9th and Boren
Chemical agents are deployed to flush protesters out of the warehouse they have occupied. Residents in nearby apartments are also affected. The protesters exit the warehouse until the gases clear and then re-occupy. This scenario will repeat through the night.

Broadway and Republican
The violence of the night cuts in all directions. Property is damaged. Police officers are attacked. But in one particularly despicable act, a King County Sheriff’s deputy is witnessed convincing a woman filming the riot from inside her car to roll down her window and then dousing her and another woman in the vehicle with pepper spray. The women eventually settled a lawsuit over the attack.

Broadway and Pine
9 PM-11 PM: Protesters on Capitol Hill set fire to trash bins near the Egyptian Theatre and blocks the street with dumpsters, also on fire, at Broadway and Pine. Police disperse the crowd, but it re-forms farther north. This continues for two hours until police depart and the crowd disperses permanently. (ARC report)

Broadway and John
Edward Guerriero, manager of Twice Sold Tales on Broadway, locks his doors to protect shoppers stuck inside his business as the violence outside increases.

12th and Pine

Earth First! wins the essay contest for its description of December 1st. The crowd they describe has surrounded East Precinct headquarters at 12th and Pine after a night of Capitol Hill living under siege.

Replay scene three. Riot cops move systematically through downtown, pushing people up Capitol Hill. Residents take to the streets, screaming, “This is my neighborhood. People live here.” Standoffs ensue. The police retreat, establishing a one block perimeter around their own station. The crowd mills, advances, is gassed. Mills, advances, is gassed. Mills, retreats, is gassed. The Capitol Hill standoff displays par excellence the ignorant quirkiness of American politics. The crowd of drunks, activists, neighbors and hooligans can agree on nothing. Fist fights break out, not between cops and crowd, but internally. Activists who pull dumpsters into the road to stop the police advance are peacenicked and nearly beaten by violent pacifists in the crowd. A Republican county councilman and his minions spend at least two hours trying to convince the mob to move back to the sidewalk so that he can make a political statement. In the end, just before the final gassing of the night, the crowd is able to agree on a message, and the eerie strain of Silent Night rises up to the heavens, accompanied by the percussion of flash bangs.

Sonja Powell, 9, traveled with her parents from Maple Valley to protest against police aggression against protesters on Dec. 1, 1999. She marched with other protesters who left the Capitol Hill area and confronted police on Pine Street, near the Paramount Theatre. (Photo: Harley Soltes/The Seattle Times, 1999)


Here are the events that led to the scene described above. Again, from the city’s WTO ARC report:

Broadway at Pine
6 PM: Police sweep through downtown to enforce curfew. Most protesters move up Capitol Hill. Several hundred gather at Broadway and Denny and march along Broadway to Pine; police lines assemble at one end of Broadway. (Seattle Times) The protesters begin breaking windows; police request reinforcements. (After-Action Report)

Evening: A police car trying to move through Broadway and Pine is attacked. Protesters swarm the vehicle and attempt to overturn it with the officers inside. In response, police fire concussion grenades and tear gas; protesters begin throwing bottles, soup cans, bricks and rocks at officers, both on the ground and from rooftops. A riot starts and continues for five hours. (Seattle Times; After-Action Report)

Many protesters express excitement and pleasure at having started the confrontation. (Seattle Times)

    Broadway at Thomas
9:45 PM: An officer reports sighting a person dressed in black and carrying a molotov cocktail at Broadway and Thomas. (After-Action Report)

  Broadway at Roy
10 PM: A crowd of 400 protesters begins to move towards the East Precinct, possibly in response to a request made on police radio channels for reinforcements at that location, indicating it is insufficiently protected. Radio dispatchers receive reports that a group of protesters has taken over the Broadway Chevron station and are attempting to fill bottles with gasoline. A unit responds and the protesters at the gas station are dispersed. (After-Action Report)

   12th at Pine
11:15 PM: A crowd of approximately 1500 people descends on the East Precinct and surrounds the building. The group attempts to breach the perimeter several times, and officers guarding the precinct are the targets of rocks, bottles, and other debris thrown by the crowd. (After-Action Report)

3 AM: Tear gas and rubber bullets are used on the rioters outside the East Precinct. The crowd is successfully dispersed. (After-Action Report)

For another version of these events, check out this detailed description from the Seattle PI. Appears that the date on the PI account is incorrect however. Still, fascinating details.


WTO protesters march along Broadway from the King County Jail to join the group at Seattle Central Community College on Dec. 2, 1999. (Photo: Jim Bates/The Seattle Times, 1999)

Thursday marked the end of the ‘riot’ on Capitol Hill. Protesters got back to marching. From the city’s WTO ARC report:

Seattle Central
8:30 AM: Demonstrators begin gathering for a march from SCCC to Victor Steinbrueck Park. (After-Action Report)

1 PM: The group at SCCC, now numbering approximately 1000, marches south on 4th toward Victor Steinbrueck Park. When they reach the perimeter at 4th and University, they negotiate with police, who agree to let them walk to the King County Jail, encircle it and remain for an hour, then disband. The group encircles the jail and remains, forcing the jail to go into a lockdown. (After-Action Report)

4:45 PM: A group of approximately 150 protesters gathers at SCCC and begins a march. (After-Action Report)

7 PM: Hundreds of protesters continue to surround the King County Jail. Police, in consultation with Ruckus Society director John Sellers, allow defense attorney Katya Komisaruk and protest leader Devon Hayes into the jail, where they examine the conditions in which arrested protesters are being kept. They then leave the jail and urge the protesters outside to leave peacefully. The protesters comply. (Seattle Times)

7:35 PM: The group at the King County Jail splits, half of them remaining and half moving up Broadway with a police escort. (After-Action Report)

12th and Pine

A candlelight vigil against police brutality is held on Capitol Hill. Marchers make their way to East Precinct headquarters. There are no rubber bullets or chemical agents. Just candles. Oh, and somebody brings a few boxes of donuts to leave at the station, too.

We also have no idea when and where this happened. But given the media’s role in the event — and remembering it ten years later — seems like a fitting way to wrap this up.

Jim Forman, reporter: Among many newsies, the KING-5 journalist is remembered fondly for his live, dramatic broadcasts in the midst of WTO rioting—while wearing a gas mask. A typical report: “Mmmph, mmmph, mmmph, mmmph!” He may have topped that with his supposed comment to a woman who says she was roughed up by Forman in a Capitol Hill encounter during the protests. Allegedly Forman shoved and shook her (he denies it), then called her a “hippie bitch.”

Seattle Times photos used with permission

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20 thoughts on “WTO 10 years later: The battle for Capitol Hill

  1. there’s also a good first person account of what it was like on Capitol Hill by Ben Dunn at Geekscape…

    “I was a student in my Sophmore year at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Life was pretty good. I had just gotten an apartment with a few friends in the Capitol Hill area…

    I was going to the grocery store at around 6pm (curfew started at 7pm) when I heard shouting coming from down the street toward the store. As I neared the store I saw that there was a large group gathered at the end of the intersection. When I got close enough I saw that on the other side was a group of riot police blocking off the road. Everyone has seen cops in riot gear on TV or in movies, but there is something completely different about seeing them face to face and knowing that you are on the WRONG side of their shield.”

  2. Lordy, this brings back memories….

    I was living in the late great Olive Crest Apartments at Olive and Belmont. The day of the first protests, I had had a very minor surgery, and was home sleeping it off. My phone rang, and it was a friend from Federal Way, wanting to know if I was OK. I thought he was being melodramatic about my surgery, but no – he’d seen what was going on on TV.

    Of course, I wanted to go out and see what was going on, especially since the tear gas was coming into my apartment. It was nuts out on the street – a mixture of protest and party. I think I ended up at The Cuff that night, and by the time I came home, things had calmed down.

    The next night, I got stuck between the protesters and the cops, and took refuge at Basic Plumbing (I was doing a lot of AIDS outreach work at the time, and the staff knew me.) There was practically no one in there, and the attendant and I sat in the little lounge and watched what was going on outside on the TV. He’d locked the door, and we could hear stuff hitting the building and all the noise.

    The last morning of the police blockade into downtown, I’d had enough – particularly of one arrogant cop who demanded to see my bag every morning. So that last morning, I put particularly raunchy porno mag and a huge dildo (That I used as a prop for a comical condom application in my HIV work) so that he would see them when he demanded to see my bag.

    The look on his face when he saw that stuff almost made the whole WTO mess worthwhile :-)

  3. Collected here:

    One person marked as a National Lawyers Guild “legal observer” is struck in the head by a round the manufacturer describes as capable of causing “trauma” and “death” if aimed at that region of the body. The observer slumps to the ground, bleeding.

    A medic is shot below the eyes with a trauma inducing projectile. The projectile is designed by its manufacturer to be fired into an area of the body with large muscle mass such as the thigh or buttocks. The manufacturer states that shots to the head may cause trauma and death.

    A man is tear gassed while standing with wife and child. Later he describes indiscriminate violence by the police, and police physically attacking people who were already running away.

    A Capitol Hill resident witnesses the tear gassing of a professional video news photographer and the drive by pepper spraying of bystanders.

    Another witness states he heard noise and went to investigate. He experienced and witnessed tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray. He helped several people including a reporter and a couple out for dinner into his building, away from the tear gas.

    Two women state that they were standing in front of their apartment with four other residents. Their account is as follows: They were the only people on the street at the time. Without warning .a line of police charged at them from Pine Street. They ran inside but were pepper sprayed as they went into the building. They went to their first floor apartment where they went to the window and began to call for the police to leave. Then the police pepper sprayed their window

  4. The most disturbing aspect to me, at the time and now, is the failure to prosecute and improson the police officers responsible for such vicious behavior, and their supervising officers. These people continue to be employed, and they should not be. The same poor judgment and lack of discipline continues to be an issue that Seattle has not faced.

  5. We lived here at the time – 10th & Prospect. I remember being on edge all week. Then they moved up to Capitol Hill. Even at 10th & Prospect you could hear the ‘boom!’ , ‘boom!’, ‘boom!’. It was night by the time the noise of the tear gas canisters and rubber bullets started and you could hear that it was ddvancing down the street. Our apt. faced Prospect but was 10 ft from 10th. I was on the ground level and worried they were coming up to the park and would break my apt. or car windows. It was a very unsettling feeling. Needless to say I couldn’t sleep. Up until then WTO was something I stayed away from and watched on TV. When the reality of the noise and the smoke alighted on Cap. Hill it was too real.

  6. It wasn’t an easy time for police – 2 sides. If you read the coverage the city was caught off guard and had to pull in multiple agencies of police officers. Many of those ‘out of town’ police who were overly abusive were not Seattle Police. The reports met that out – they were from smaller agencies. Either way the city was unprepared for magnitude that was WTO.

  7. > The photograph of riot gear-clad police marching on Capitol Hill ten years ago this week is difficult to comprehend. What danger are they facing? Where is the enemy? This video of what they did when they got here, for CHS, at least, eliminates the confusion.

    The danger they were facing was a militant mob that attacked businesses, WTO attendees, and police. That seems pretty obvious to me, from what I read in the report and from the movie “Battle in Seattle”. So I don’t understand how you can be confused about that?

    Both sides clearly made mistakes, and police brutality against law abiding citizens should never be tolerated. But the protesters that were setting fire to garbage cans, making bombs, throwing rocks and other objects at police – those were clearly dangerous people. Law enforcement needs to take charge in a situation like that, and in a chaotic environment like that it’s easy for them to make mistakes. That’s what a riot is. By being anywhere near a riot you risk being targeted as a violent protester even though you’re a peaceful protester.
    Though the women in her car that got pepper-sprayed for video taping, that is pretty messed up, glad she got a settlement.

  8. Whatever happened to the point-blank pepper-spraying Cops? Didn’t one get thrown off SPD only to get rehired? Also the guy who kicked an unarmed protester in the groin? Anyone want to follow up with what happened to these guys?

  9. “The danger they were facing was a militant mob that attacked businesses, WTO attendees, and police. That seems pretty obvious to me, from what I read in the report and from the movie ‘Battle in Seattle’. So I don’t understand how you can be confused about that? “

    All of which happened DOWNTOWN.

    It’s so frustrating that few people know what happened on Capitol Hill, which is well out of the so-called “no protest zone”. Basically, the police/national guaard followed some protesters up the hill. Eventually the police arrive on Broadway and start randomly pelting and pepper spraying innocent bystanders just going about their business. The chaos that occurred on Capitol Hill was barely covered by the local media.

  10. I’d be even more glad if I knew that the offending oficer that peppered her was now asking people if they would like fries with that.

  11. The PI report you’ve linked to is far more accurate than what you quote above from the ARC report about the Capitol Hill riot. The report above makes it sound like the protesters in some way threatened police. All they did was not leave the street. It was definitively a police riot.

  12. WTO: Ten years ago tonight over a very long evening I watched police invade Capitol Hill from my living room window and on television simultaneously. I had taken a walk earlier and realized rather quickly that I couldn’t run fast enough to stay on the street. Police were present in pairs and in groups, moving along Broadway sidewalks randomly beating passersby, using pepper spray, their batons and their fists. Once back home, through a haze of tear gas, I watched about 20 troopers get into formation below in the intersection of E. Denny and 10th E., thwacking their batons percussively against their boots to rev up to march back into Broadway and the side streets bashing citizens. I saw and heard my neighbors, who were simply going about their business, being assaulted and pleading with police “Why are you doing this? We live here. Go away.” Later on I met scores of people who had been pushed north through the park from the East Precinct confrontation on E. Pine in my front yard with a garden hose to wash the tear gas from their eyes and in some cases blood from their scrapes and cuts. Finally I went back upstairs and watched the E. Pine standoff live on TV, which had a slight sound delay from the actual crowd noise audible and visible through my open window, as the tear gas stink filled the house. Jim Forman completely misread the situation and made an ass of himself reporting on KING-TV. Brian Derdowski (“The Derd”) was down there in the street trying to mediate. I watched and listened into the middle of the night. It was surreal for sure. Outrageous, and surreal.

  13. I remember when the police push back up Capitol Hill started, I had just left MY BIRTHDAY PARTY at the deck at the Capitol Club, and was a little bemused to walk out onto the street and nearly be run over by kids in black masks sprinting at the chance to mix it up with the Man. I seem to recall somewhat boozily watching the two sides firm up and throw things at each other before deciding to head home to the Biltmore. Was there a Sonics game on? (Yes! They were playing the Lakers.) All night I could smell tear gas coming in through the windows. The Hill was pretty universally pissed off at the riot police for the remainder of the protests.

  14. Deputy Fired for WTO Acts is Reinstated
    Pepper-spraying of 2 in car appropriate, arbitrator rules
    by Lewis Kamb

    A King County sheriff’s deputy who was fired for using excessive force during the 1999 World Trade Organization unrest in Seattle will get his job back, an arbitrator ruled yesterday.
    Sheriff Dave Reichert fired John Vanderwalker in April 2000 after a long internal investigation into accusations that he pepper-sprayed two art students in a car and kicked a medic as she knelt on the ground in unrelated incidents Dec. 1, 1999, during WTO protests.

    Yesterday’s ruling “stunned” Reichert and other officials, said Sgt. John Urquhart, spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

    “The arbitrator basically ruled that it was OK to pepper-spray those girls in the car, and it was OK to kick that medical worker while she was on the ground,” Urquhart said. “We disagree, and we believe it was a legitimate termination.”

    Vanderwalker, 48, was a 19-year veteran on the force before his firing. When asked about his reinstatement, he told The Associated Press, “This is great.”

    Ruling on an appeal to last year’s firing of Vanderwalker, arbitrator Michael DeGrasse ordered the King County Sheriff’s Office to reinstate the former deputy to his patrol position in the Maple Valley precinct.

    The binding ruling also compels the county to compensate Vanderwalker for back wages and lost off-duty and overtime pay.

    Both WTO incidents were captured on videotape.

    In one of the most widely publicized incidents stemming from the WTO, two art students shooting footage from a car in a Capitol Hill parking lot captured an officer as he approached them, ordered them to roll down their window, and then doused them with pepper spray.

    Although the officer was unrecognizable in a gas mask, Vanderwalker came forward several weeks later.

    The students, Shauna Balaski and Melissa Benton, sued King County over the incident and received $100,000 as part of a settlement.

    In the second incident, caught by a news camera, an apparently disoriented woman wearing a red-and-white arm band and holding a first aid kit is crouching on the ground. An officer then runs up and kicks her in the back, knocking her forward.

    Sheriff’s officials have said they identified Vanderwalker as that officer by enlarging images to read his name on his helmet.

    In his 10-page ruling, DeGrasse, an independent professional arbitrator hired by both sides to rule on the appeal, said that Vanderwalker’s use of force was appropriate under the circumstances.

    He also ruled that Vanderwalker did not lie in his statements to sheriff’s officials about the incidents — a contention that sheriff’s officials held as part of the grounds for his firing.