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WTO 10 years later: Official report on what happened on Capitol Hill

CHS compiled these accounts of the violence that came to Capitol Hill during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests and police actions — WTO 10 years later: The battle for Capitol Hill. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, set aside some time and step back into a powerful moment in the Hill’s recent history. A major source of information for the article is the city’s WTO Accountability Review Committee’s report.

We’ve attached the committee’s final report to this post and included the full text of the section devoted to the events that transpired on Capitol Hill. While many contend that the ARC process was flawed, the lessons officials documented at the time can reinforce your own beliefs about what happened in the city at the end of the last millennium and give shape to the arguments we hope will improve the place we live in. If nothing else, the takeaways for Capitol Hill show that, contrary to some complaints, the city’s leaders saw that something wrong occurred up here. Whether the document sets the groundwork for making sure it never happens again is something else altogether.

Photos: Leandro Fornasir with permission

The Events on Capitol Hill
Two chaotic nights on Capitol Hill presented a daunting challenge to the ARC to interpret, and in the end there may never be agreement on the facts. But it is evident that under-staffed and often exhausted police made questionable strategic and tactical judgments, which created serious questions for the committee about the protection of civil rights. The unintended consequence of police actions on Capitol Hill was to bring sleepy residents out of their homes and mobilize them as “resistors.”

When police enforcing the emergency order on Tuesday night drove protestors across the I-5 freeway into the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill, they had fulfilled their mandate under the civil emergency to enforce a curfew in prescribed areas. The decision to “pursue” was allegedly based on the conviction of a field commander that protestors should not be allowed to hold “high ground” from which police could be pelted with rocks or bottles (reports differ about the seriousness of this threat). The result of the decision to effectively expand the curfew zone by marching east was to mobilize residents against the police. Protestors found supporters among Capitol Hill residents and bystanders galvanized by police action.

On Wednesday, police were understandably worried that there would be an assault on the East Precinct Station at 12th and Pine, as it had previously been the target of attacks and vandalism. But when officers reported a car trapped by a crowd at 12th and Broadway, the attempt to “rescue” stranded officers acquired a life of its own. The level of panic among police is evident from radio communication and from their inflated crowd estimates, which exceed the numbers shown on news videotapes. ARC investigators found the rumors of “Molotov cocktails” and sale of flammables from a supermarket had no basis in fact. But, rumors were important in contributing to the police sense of being besieged and in considerable danger.

Demonstrators and residents, for their part, had the right to assemble on the sidewalk. Eyewitnesses confirm that there was some level of provocation against police by individuals. Nevertheless, it may have been wiser just to let citizens stand in the rain rather than force dispersal with gas and other means.18 ARC finds that the Seattle Police Department’s doctrine for management of situations like this is not well developed, and a policy should be articulated clearly after dialogue with the community that spells out expectations of all involved.

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