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WTO 20: Return to the battle for Capitol Hill

WTO Riot - Seattle, WA - Capitol Hill District

Leave it to your neighborhood community news blog to turn the 20th anniversary of a massive protest and police response over the global power of the World Trade Organization into a street by street examination of Capitol Hill in December 1999. While others are — rightly — remembering the Battle in Seattle for its impact on environmentalism, activism, policing, and government, our focus twenty years later is on what happened here and how the neighborhood responded.

Many of the cultural, political, and, yes, tactical powers that shaped those nights in December 1999 continued to play out for years until. Fifteen years later, CHS reported on SPD’s continuing tactics of pushing downtown protests onto Capitol Hill. It’s a tactic that has finally been put aside.

(Image: City of Seattle)

But in 1999, those forces were strong and the riot came to Capitol Hill. 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.

Much of 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.

(Image: City of Seattle)

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.

WTO After Dark - Seattle, WA 1999

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.

From a CHS reader: 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.

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.

10th and Prospect
From a CHS reader: 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.

Melrose and Denny
From a Seattle Times commenter:
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.

12th and Pine

Earth First! provides the most colorful 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.

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)

WTO After Dark - Seattle, WA 1999

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

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)

From a CHS reader: 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 :-)

From a Seattle Times commenter: 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.

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.”

(Image: City of Seattle)

The City’s Report
When CHS compiled these accounts of the violence that came to Capitol Hill during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests and police actions, a major source of information for the article was 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.

City Council member Tim Licata co-authored the blistering report:

We find that city government failed its citizens through careless and naïve planning, poor communication of its plans and procedures, confused and indecisive police leadership, and imposition of civil emergency measures in questionable ways. As authorities lost control of the streets they resorted to methods that sometimes compromised the civil rights of citizens and often provoked further disturbance.

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 here.

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.

“Perhaps the worse example of police response was their pursuit of protestors up to Capitol Hill where uninvolved residents, business owners and shoppers found themselves breathing in teargas or even arrested for being in the wrong spot while the police rounded up protestors,” Licata wrote 20 years later.” Those actions and the Mayor’s enactment of a no protest zone treated many citizens as criminals. Eight years later in January 2007, a federal jury found that the city had violated protesters’ Fourth Amendment constitutional rights by arresting them without probable cause or hard evidence.”

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1 year ago

My recollections. I was working in the Rainier Tower with a view of 4th avenue looking toward Union. A lone protester pushed a trash can into the street and attempted to set it on fire. Five (police sheriff, guard) officers converged on the protester and beat him down. All officers were in riot gear, masked and without name tags and most insignia to make them impossible to ID. Later that night the “law enforcement” command did move the protests out of the heavily fenced, fortified, and largely boarded up downtown to Capitol Hill, as well documented above. (Note: everyone was stopped at the perimeter and questioned before they were permitted to enter downtown. I was recorded and broadcast on King TV doing exactly that.) So to protect secured downtown property the Mayor and Police Chief moved everyone to our unprotected and unfortified neighborhood. Little to no damage occurred. I recall tipped over garbage bins as the extent. The police chief resigned within days and the mayor didn’t even survive the primary election. Good riddance to both. Police Riots was and is an apt term.

Jonathan Ursin
Jonathan Ursin
1 year ago

Is that a Games and Gizmos store front half visible in the first picture next to the line up of cops? #Flashback