To mark the 10-year anniversary of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, we’ve tried to document Capitol Hill’s place in the history . But those stories have been told before. More interesting are the words of community members who were there and saw these things with their own eyes — and smelled the ‘chemical agents’ with their own noses. Here is a collection of stories from the WTO days of 1999 on Capitol Hill from CHS comments and community members. If you were here at the time, please add your memories in the comments. Thanks for sharing.
Ten years ago tonight
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.
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 :-)
WTO advancing on Cap Hill
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.
It was truly a surreal experience. One of the things I remember clearly was standing on the corner in a crowd of people, most of which were the local residents curious, confused, upset and yelling for them to leave, then hearing a few voices that were really trying to antagonize and instigate something, weird vicious circle.
— Leandro Fornasir, photographer who captured one of the best sets of images of what transpired on the streets of Capitol Hill
We also found some good Capitol Hill stories in a special comments section the Seattle Times has been supporting to mark the 10-year anniversary. Their WTO memories forum is filled with stories from the entire city — here are some of the Capitol Hill voices we found in the mix.
I knew things were going to get ugly when the #7 bus to the UW had to stop on University Bridge for about 100 UW students heading downtown to protest the first morning of WTO. They spray painted the bus and other cars as they came across the bridge. That evening my husband and I walked from our Capitol Hill apt. to the Safeway on Broadway (it’s been recently replaced by condos) and they were boarding up the windows with plywood. We continued on down Broadway, and all of the businesses were closing and boarding up their windows. We got as far as Seattle Central Community college where the SPD were clashing with the rioters. When we got a whiff of tear gas, we turned around and spent the rest of the evening watching the police face-off with the rioters.
My lasting impression was that the WTO protests were hijacked by people who wanted to riot and tear up the city. This was compounded by CRAZY decisions by the city and police in how to handle the crowds (e.g. putting a curfew on downtown, which forced 3,000 rioters up Denny onto Captiol Hill).
This debacle gave our already prone-to-paranoia government just one more reason to crack down on the right to assemble – primarily, because no one could be sure those assembled would remain “peaceably” so.
It also gave the city a huge black eye. I was so mortified how people across the country saw Seattle after that. I’m always saddened when I think of that week.
I lived on the corner of 14th Ave E. and Harrison at the time. I was a first year teacher and exhausted from work; my schedule did not permit me to participate in the protests but I followed them closely. Aside from reading and watching news reports my most vivid memory was being awakened at night by the concussion grenades set off to disperse the crowds near Melrose & Pine, which was about a half mile from my apartment. It sounded like it was right under my window. I could also catch a whiff of the smoke from those explosions, which was also frightening. I felt sorry for everyone involved, protesters and police.
What struck me more than anything else, however, was the sadness I felt for those individuals who live in war zones or where martial law is an everyday reality.
I remember hearing a commotion outside my bedroom window at 4.a.m., only to discover three “anarchists” dressed in all-black, headlamp flashlights on their heads, digging through the garbage at my apartment building on Capitol Hill.
Later I heard that they were sleeping under the freeway overpasses. Evidently they needed some snacks for the following day’s protests.
nebula37, Seattle, WA
I was living in an apartment at the corner of Bellevue and Olive. Right across from City Market. Helping my teenage daughter raise my infant grandson. It was as close to a war zone as I’ve (fortunately) experienced.
The whole event was surreal.
Armed, gas masked officers crouched in front of City Market. Closing all the windows as my daughter started to complain of her eyes burning from the tear gas. Covering my grandsons windows with wet cloth to help keep the gas out. Trying to maneuver my car up the side street to pick my son up from work at Dicks,as there is no way he would be safe walking the few blocks.
Seeing Jim Forman on television at the same time watching his report out my window. Collecting tear gas canisters as souvenirs in the morning.
Still can’t believe the strategy of the SPD to drive the mob into a residential neighborhood, and then expect them to disperse.
I would love to hear some ‘official’ account of what happened on the day that Capitol Hill was invaded. It was in the early evening, can’t remember if it was Dec 2 or 3, and there was a small but vocal march coming up Broadway (presumably from downtown via Pine/Pike in the direction of John), which we watched out the window of my 3rd floor SCCC classroom (I was showing a film to my class that day, because it was hard for many students to make it to Capitol Hill).
Then, about 10 minutes or so later, a column of police/natiuonal guard followed up Broadway, in full riot gear, with Jeeps/Land Rovers carrying large bazooka-looking objects on the back. It really looked like an invading army rolling into a residential neighborhood.
Then, to our shock & dismay, the bazooka-like equipment started firing tear gas cannisters towards Broadway and John – 2-3 blocks away!! I was flabbergasted- who knew where these tear gas cannisters would land? I later heard from my neighbor (10th & Republican) that one cannister landed across the street, in the middle of our residental block. My friend at 14th & Denny could smell the tear gas drifting into her apartment window for hours (they had central heating, and the apartment would get unbearable if the windows were closed). Her 3 day old daughter thus breathed tear gas as some of her first breaths!
After class (30 mins later?), I tried to make my way back to my apartment, but the riot police had blocked Broadway at John, so I couldn’t get home. Confused and curious residents, shoppers, parents with strollers, etc., milled around B’way & John on the south side of the blockade for a few minutes, and then suddenly a tear gas cannister was released at the SW corner of John & Broadway. There was no obvious disturbance, and there was absolutely no audible order to disperse. Most people, terrified, fled south on Broadway.
I and 2 others crossed the street to the SE corner to get away from the gas, and started asking the police (through their darkened, storm-trooper-styled masks) why a tear gas cannister was fired, why there was no order to disperse, and why we couldn’t pass this barricade to go to our homes. An officer ‘responded’ by shooting pepper spray in our faces.
My take on all of this is that a combination of factors were at play here:
1) officers predisposed against the protesters, and thus seeing everyone as a potential protester;
2) clear lack of professionalism and training, and an absence of guidance from the top on appropriate behavior towards civilians;
3) the attitude, pervaded from the top, to over-react now to shut down any protests at any cost, and that the legal consequences later were not a concern (especially since we taxpayers would be the ones footing the bill for all of this by the by);
4) and, finally, a more insidious possibility: the use of excessive police intervention in order to change the narrative from a debate about the WTO to the “battle in Seattle,” and, hence, no discussion in the press about the WTO at all (i.e. a smokescreen to obscure the real issues).
In the end, though, the protests were way more successful than anyone would have predicted. The meeting was largely a failure, attention was raised all over the world (“Seattle” was now known for more than Kurt Cobain and Gary Payton to folks worldwide), the protest movement was galvanized, and, most of all, the protesters’ message (dangers of corporatization of international relations and economics) was shown to be incredibly prescient with this year’s economic collapse.
On the other side, the police, too, learned their lesson, in their own way. Subsequent protests (in Seattle and elsewhere) were more effectively shut down by police– sometimes with fairly brutal tactics, but effective nonetheless. an example was the 2004 RNC protests in NYC which were pretty well controlled by the police.
Finally, subsequent legal cases largely vindicated the protesters, and as I stated previously, we all paid the bills for that (both for the class action settlements and for the myriad spurious legal cases that were thrown out before or during trial).
But when will that lesson be learned by the police? Only when the people demand that their public servants act to protect and serve, as they claim they do.
bugjah, Cap Hill
I recall getting off work the first night and walking home. I worked at Stewart and Denny and lived at Broadway and Pike. There was a conflagration at Melrose and Denny, police in riot gear shooting tear gas at protesters and wannabes throwing the stuff back, and it was right in front of Machiavelli and Bauhaus. I remember seeing a couple on a date in the window of Machiavelli eating their nice dinner while all this “performance” of protest and violence occurred before them. That summed everything up for me. You could avoid the protests by walking around the block, and so really then there was no “protest”, no one was trying to change anything: those marches had occurred in early part of the first day. The rest was grandstanding and testosterone on both sides.
I took the next two days off of work and went downtown and around Capitol Hill following different protests around, taking pictures and talking to people. By the midday of Day 2, I was talking to some police officers who had worked 36 hours, and protesters who had partied all night and got right back at it in morning. This all led to the worst incident of all, the Police Riot that occurred on Broadway late into the second night of WTO. A mildly planned protest started moving up and down Broadway at about 5 pm. It went from Broadway and Pine north to Roy and then back. As it went along it accumulated quite a few people. It started off with maybe 100 and grew to 1500 or so. I noticed that no police or news cameras were there for that entire portion, but that police cars were driving down the side streets tracking what was happening. The ‘leaders’ of the march, those with bull horns, dressed in black and keeping their faces covered because they are and were cowards who dont really want the world to change, were just directing the crowds back and forth from John Street back to Roy. Finally, they decided to head back towards Seattle Central. I ran ahead to get a good vantage point to take a picture. I was on the lawn at Broadway and Pine as the crowd spilled into that intersection. The police had the streets blocked so the crowd could only turn right and head down Pine, instead of east on Pine or south on Broadway. As the crowd was milling aimlessly, it started to disperse, when for some inexplicable reason a police car drove west on Pine heading downtown right into the middle of the crowd. As this happened, the “black mask” covered leaders attacked the police car, rocking it. I turned to walk across the lawn and go down the little slope that leads to the parking garage behind the Broadway Performance Hall when all of a sudden two lines of police in riot gear came rushing across the lawn. Since I knew my way around the neighborhood and realized what was going down I turned and ran the other direction, going between the Performance Hall and SCCC, running around the block instead of down Harvard, and then diving into Linda’s Tavern. I looked behind me as I was running and it was absolute chaos.
My impression at the time was, and still is, that the police car that drove into the crowd was what started everything that night. All the businesses up and down Broadway and Pine were letting people in and closing their doors to keep the police out, basically the entire neighborhood was teargassed.
I was driving a Metro Access bus for people with disibilitys and it was a normal day, then I turned left on broadway and I was head on with a protest march, I knew the WTO was happening downtown I had no idea it was happening on Capitol Hill, I stoped my bus, thankfully I didnt had any passengers, so I just abanded the bus, hopeing not to make it a target, and I walked away, walking ahead of the mob to a book store that had shelves of book out on the side walk I helped the store employees to get the shelves inside, all the wile seeing the inmges from the news about the ritos and looting and all out city damage. thankfully this mob was realitvly peaceful. 2 hours later the mob retreded and I was able to drive down broadway once again.
the scariest day in seattle.
Jonathan, Broadway ave
There is another opportunity to record these stories for posterity. Thursday night at MOHAI, a videographer will be on hand to record people’s recollections of the WTO protests as part of a night marking the 10-year anniversary.