WTO Meetings in Seattle

A personal perspective from a not-so mainstream Seattleite

by David Lang

December 1999


When I had initially read that the World Trade Organization meetings were to be held in Seattle my reaction was excitement. The story I read on the website of a major network spoke boldly, claiming that Seattle would be the staging ground for the largest protest on American soil. The simple fact that so many people from the Environmental and Labor movements in America were planning to come together on a grass-roots level and march in the streets made my hair stand on end. That type of solidarity and unity, in my humble opinion, was way overdue. On one side we have people normally labeled as 'Tree-huggers' and on the other side we had people normally labeled as 'Rednecks'. To hear that these two groups, who have always been disassociated for the wrong reasons, were coming together spurred a hope for the political future of this country I hadn't considered possible. It seemed my wildest dreams were beginning to come true. The protest would enact grass-roots politics beyond the false choices of the two party system and the 'Change the world with a vote' rhetoric. This was a plan of action with people using their bodies to send a message. A peaceful insurrection uniting two groups that in the past had mostly been kept apart because of social reasons was about to take place in my hometown. It seemed like nothing less than history in the making. Truthfully, when all was said and done and the WTO meetings ended, I was not disappointed.

From the research I had done on GATT in the past (and its successor, the WTO), it was nearly impossible for me to find anything positive about the secret proceedings. Some of the ideas were good-natured, but the overall intention was plain and simple: Less-restricted capitalism on an international level. Profits. As idealistic as anyone wants to be, there is a bottom line which cannot be denied: People will do anything for money, especially people who already have more than they know what to do with. Human beings are naturally gluttonous.

I had been reading about child labor and environmental destruction on levels I could barely comprehend just to find out that many of the people who benefited from these disgusting activities would benefit even more with the WTO to stand behind. It made me sick to my stomach. I was screaming inside at the already incredibly rich CEOs "How much is enough? When will you be satisfied? Do the people of the world have to rise up and kill you to get you to stop? Is that what you want, a class war on a global level?" I realize in some senses I was being irrational and exaggerating the situation...or was I? Now I'm not sure. If destruction and exploitation continues at this level and the unity between political groups in the working class gels in spite of the obvious sensationalism and wrongful slander of the media, who knows? Nobody knew the WTO protest was going to become what it did, anything can happen. One thing is for certain, though: Ten years from now there will be even more pissed-off people living in poverty (who are technically the ones running the country). Ten years from now, if the WTO has any say about it, labor will have less power and the environment will be less restricted. If the few on the top become even richer while the many on the bottom become increasingly poorer, I think history has taught us a violent outcome is unavoidable.

If you disagree with Unions and the labor movements, in my opinion, you have serious issues. Some of the things you enjoy, like the weekend for instance, would not exist if not for them. As far as the environment is concerned, only a misinformed bozo ignores what's happening around him. Don't think we have any environmental issues to worry about? Go for a swim in the Rio Grande and then talk to me. Collect some shellfish in the Puget Sound and have their toxic levels examined and then talk to me. Count the salmon in Western Washington, compare the numbers from ten years ago, twenty years ago, and then talk to me. I haven't even mentioned the East Coast of this country. Popular outlook on the environmental issues of this country are a prime example of Cognitive Dissonance in modern society. I want to grab GOP members and shove them into a sewage-polluted river or a lake killed off by acid rain and shout, "How can you not see this? You are now swimming in it, will you continue to deny it? How can you say this isn't a problem? Are you a total moron or just pretending to be? Do you love your children? Then do something for them before it's too late!" Water is the source of all life and our fresh reserves are becoming unusable at an alarming rate. It doesn't take genius to realize this. The only science you need is your nose. Walk up to any river in a major city, take a whiff and ask yourself if you'd like to take a drink from it. Now ask yourself if once people could drink from it. So, with the tiniest amount of logic you can deduct that lack of environmental regulations and greed (lower building costs) produced the dead river before you. The next step takes a leap of faith unless you want to go on a long road trip, which I did so you can take my word for it if you like. These rivers and lakes are everywhere and their numbers are growing exponentially. I'll step off my bandwagon.

The weeks just before the protest the scares began to appear in the press. At first I fell for their subtle tactics. A minor story about the CDC keeping an electronic eye on the symptoms of patients admitted during the protest. They were looking for signs of chemical or biological attacks. Another story about local law enforcement beefing up for the possibility of terrorist attacks during the protest. A story on FBI Project Meddigo expecting some domestic terrorism from right wing conspirators, all but saying the Oklahoma City bombing could be repeated.

"Just try and find my name and badge number."
Cabaret Voltaire? "The Best Of All Worlds"
reads the sign on the awning

Talk radio on NPR making subtle remarks about international terrorists taking advantage of the large crowds and diverse politics. Bold announcements of the Sand Point Naval Base being used to jail the excessive numbers of protesters hit the front page of local papers. Volunteer requests being made to local nursing students to assist the expected wave of injured protesters. The week before the protest a combination of my paranoia and the negative slant of the media seemed to be prevailing over my urge to get involved. I talked to others who had similar views. A friend from Amazon.com bought a gas mask, not for tear gas from the police, but because she had to work downtown and the local media had convinced her there was a high probability of a chemical or biological attack on the city during the meetings. Deep inside I wonder how many more would have been there if not for these scares. Many people I work with thought I was totally nuts from that perspective alone when I finally decided to go downtown and get involved. By Monday morning I grasped the scare tactics for what they were and vowed that on Tuesday I would be there, all day, to show my support.

Surprisingly, I could find only one American citizen at work that agreed with the WTO. Even the conservatives seemed to be against it. They spoke of National Sovereignty being threatened, and rightfully so. But enough about the reasons to protest: Let's get to the protest. I told my boss at the big multinational software corporation that I would not be coming in on Tuesday. She didn't ask, but I believe she knew why. The reaction I got from her was nothing less than approval. I was a bit surprised. The next day she would thank me for having the balls to stand up against big business and for thinking of all of our futures. I was even more surprised.

Tuesday morning came suddenly. I had spent the evening before discussing the situation with my girlfriend and found myself sleeplessly pondering possibilities. She had a final at school she couldn't miss and planned to meet up with me after it was complete. I managed to get about four hours of sleep.

The alarm shot me awake at 7:30 AM and I rose from bed instantly. I had set aside the clothing I was going to wear and a few snacks I pocketed to keep me going throughout the day. I was dressed and out the door in less than ten minutes, speeding to the rally point set with two friends at one of their houses on Capitol hill. NPR was already reporting the protests but I couldn't listen. Instead I popped in a CD from Vancouver B.C. punk band DOA. The disc featured Jello Biafra (formerly of the Dead Kennedys) and had a very anti-corporate message. By the time I reached the rally point I was a half hour early and raging with passion.

We quickly created several protest signs, one reading 'Stop Global Corporate Control', another reading 'Protect America's Sovereignty' and my personal favorite in its bluntness read 'Wake Up, Human'. My friend's wife was watching their two young children and made us coffee for which we were all grateful.

The TV was on upstairs with on the spot coverage of the masses converging around the convention center and NPR was broadcasting highlights downstairs. I glimpsed the live footage but each segment seemed to make me more anxious to be there in person. My stomach was knotting and I was growing more and more inspired. Finally we set out. The friend who owned the house we used as a rally point wanted to meet with the sanctioned, legal protest rally and march sponsored by the Labor forces and the Sierra club. The other friend that met us there was more interested in getting downtown and seeing the action first hand. We saw the Secret Service helicopter, the airborne central command buzzing overhead. We could see the excitement on each others faces and every other car that drove by us seemed to honk in support. In the distance a crowd of at least two hundred Falun Gong practiced a Tai Chi form in a field just off of Denny Way. Their actions in unison, like a collective wave of performance artists, were indescribable. Farther down Denny Way a huge mass of people was quietly walking toward the Seattle Center. Their causes as diverse as their clothing and protest signs. 

It wasn't long before our differences in desired location separated us. I tried to bond both to one group, I didn't care too much where we were either way, but both were hardheaded about what they each wanted to do. One wanted to increase the force of the March, what the other wanted was to be a spectator and less proactive in the end. I didn't know it at the time.

We split up, two of us for downtown and the other made his way to Seattle Center. When the crowds of protesters first appeared I was surprised by the magnitude and the diversity. All and all everything seemed pretty calm. There was a carnivalesque atmosphere and morale was high. People from all over the world milled around with locals and activists, everyone smiling.

Then the figures of control began to appear. Clad in the latest in modern riot gear with rigid body Kevlar armor and identities hidden behind Plexiglas and gas masks, they stood in various locations. I had to laugh openly when I heard a news report of policemen being in danger from things like 'plastic bottles' and 'street cones' being thrown at them. In their gear you could have thrown large rocks and not made a scratch. Loaded firearms at their sides, some of them holding machine guns and shotguns designed for maximum damage against a crowd, I was appalled at the show of force. Were loaded weapons really needed for a peaceful protest? Once in a while some kid in a black mask would pull out a can of spray paint or a hammer and trash some corporate storefront. At that time the vandalism taking place didn't seem like much, especially if you compared it to the atrocities the big businesses are committing worldwide. The police seemed to pay no attention to these elements. At one point in the future I would consider the outcome if the police had been willing to talk to people and handle things from a community perspective. We were all Americans after all. Instead, they ignored everyone and stood like robots, deep in the 'Us and Them' mindset. I saw a young girl talking to one of the officers on the line, calmly. She spoke of peace and friendship; he ignored her completely. At one point the sight of a military assault rifle in the hands of one of the officers increased my anger to the point of becoming vocal. I stood a foot from that man, working hard to get his eye contact, shouting at him, "Are loaded weapons necessary to hold a crowd like this at bay? Do you really need that machine gun to control a bunch of unarmed peaceful protesters? This isn't China! You make me sick!" He would not make eye contact with me and did not respond. Their intimidation tactics failed. No one was frightened off.

I mistook my friend's urgency to get to the Convention Center as urgency to get involved in the most dangerous part of the protest. Within the hour I witnessed his real interest as he passed as closely as possible to every broadcasting news anchor and wouldn't come within a hundred feet of the frontlines. Then the smell of CS gas came and my excitement and need to make a stand grew stronger. Eventually we bumped into our friend at Amazon.com and she lent us her gas mask. I used it at first, but with my comrade's apprehensions I eventually lent it to him.

As soon as the gas began to really circulate, even with the mask he remained farther back. It got so difficult for me to keep track of his location that eventually we parted ways. I didn't see him for the rest of the day. All and all, his body in the crowd still increased the size of the protest and therefore was a good thing.

I bumped into another friend from a local software company with a downtown office who was actively protesting on his break from work. Later he took the rest of the day off and continued holding a respectable stance near the front of the action. In his casual business attire, he scaled a roof front and took down an American flag. The flag was then handed to another person who climbed a nearby street lamp. The street lamp had a bright and stale corporate welcome sign for the WTO delegates. The American flag symbolically replaced it and the immediate crowd cheered with approval. The effect conveyed the message: ‘This is our land and the laws will be decided by us, not at a stockholders meeting’. The noise filled the air, welling up inside me. That was truly one of those moments I will remember for the rest of my life. Whatever anyone wants to say about the politics of the crowd, I believe at least ninety-percent of the people were really patriots looking to improve the system for us all.

Six canisters of gas flung into the masses and people started pulling back. The men and women on the line with their own gas masks started chucking them back. Flash grenades exploded loudly around us. As the people became subdued by the gas, new people moved into position. The riot police gained no ground at all. When I passed by that barricade later in the day, the same ground was still being held. That cheer will remain a battle cry for me until I am satisfied with the direction we are headed as a nation.

Just outside of Westlake Center was the most impressive of all the barricaded protest lines. The largest mass of people, many prepared with gas masks, formed a half circle around three burning dumpsters. Several members of the anarchist element stood on top of the dumpsters making gestures at the police and absorbing most of the rubber bullets. A few more were in front with masks on as well, actively lobbing the canisters back at the police. More and more police appeared behind the police line as reinforcements came in. The sight was incredible. They would hold their ground for the rest of the evening. Unfortunately I would learn later that the core of the looting took place just behind this line.

Throughout the day I did my best to help people who had fallen from the overwhelming use of CS Gas and pepper spray by pouring water into their eyes and leading them out of the crowds. In the process I was hit twice with CS Gas. All and all that wasn't so bad. It took me about fifteen minutes of splashing water in my eyes to get back to a normal state.

When my girlfriend had finished her test she and some friends headed downtown and I eventually met up with them; I also spotted my other friend in the big march and we regrouped. The three of us continued to aid people as best we could. At one point I was leading a blinded woman out of the fray and a storm trooper/police officer hosed me down with pepper spray. I'm not really sure why he did it. I was getting people out of his way, after all. I guess it made him feel tough. A lot like the officer I saw shoot a woman wearing a Red Cross armband in the forehead with a gas canister from close range. She was the tough one, with blood streaming down her face and a star shaped wound on her forehead she continued to help the temporarily blinded. Pepper spray was much more unpleasant than the CS Gas. For over half an hour a volunteer nurse poured saline into my eyes and scrubbed my face with a baking soda/water mixture.
Eventually I was able to see again and went back to protesting and aiding protesters without a second thought. When the curfew went into effect we made our way to a dive bar called the Frontier Room in Seattle’s Belltown district and ended up in a long conversation with two delegates. I hadn't known about the looting until then but wasn't all that surprised by it. The looters appeared to be local thugs taking advantage of the situation.

(Before I continue I want to mention a little bit more about the actions of the police. As a first hand witness, I deplore what they did. It infuriates me. We have a right in America to meet and voice our opinions. Although the methods of control were not lethal, they were still meant to suppress the protesters and disperse the crowds. I witnessed at least sixteen overly aggressive acts committed by officers on passive protesters first hand and heard about hundreds more. I saw billy clubs jabbing into the ribs of the people in front who where helplessly suspended there by the mass of people behind them. I saw rubber bullets bouncing off of unsuspecting faces of onlookers. What they did on Capitol Hill that night and Wednesday night was totally unacceptable. They fired a gas canister into a bar. People were pepper sprayed standing on a street corner while an armored vehicle cruised by, like a drive by shooting with no point other than intimidation. An elderly couple was incapacitated by tear gas on their way home from buying groceries. An elected King County Councilmen was gassed while trying to talk to a small group of calm protesters. The police chief later would announce his resignation as well as the officer in charge of coordinating the crowd control. A Tukwila Policeman who was caught on video kicking a man in the groan and then shooting him at close range with a beanbag round fired from a shotgun would be suspended. Two film students would begin a lawsuit based on being hit with generous amounts of pepper spray while watching the event unfold from their vehicle (Not tear gas, pepper spray fired intentionally by an individual policeman who went up to the vehicle and had the female students open their window so he could spray inside the cab for no reason whatsoever). Many were arrested outside of the protest zone and held for over twenty-four hours without reason.)

The conversation with the delegates was good. A woman from Germany represented information technologies for her country and a man from India was dubbed a political advisor for IT in his. We spoke of labor and environmental issues calmly and respectfully. The woman from Germany seemed to be in agreement with our opinions on the fact that labor and environment should have been better represented in the WTO meeting. The man from India, wearing a Rolex watch and an expensive gold chain, claimed that India was currently too poor to consider such restrictions the groups would impose. My take on their stances and their opinions on why the WTO was a good thing enforced my beliefs from the beginning. Here were two people, both obviously very well-to-do, talking about restrictions affecting the amount of money that could be made, not by the workers, but by the executives. I appreciated their points of view and listened as best I could without being too judgmental, and I honestly felt they gave me the same grace.

Eventually the conversation digressed into talks of specific Internet technologies and where to travel in their respective countries. A part of me was exhausted and I could see they felt the same. We all seemed to welcome the middle ground and small talk over drinks. We were licking our psychic wounds and resting our tired minds. I could see that neither side desired to be enemies but I could also feel a sense of condescension on their parts, as if we the people of Seattle weren't clear on what we were doing. Looking back now I feel strongly their stances were more defensive and that they truly wanted to make peace with the enemy of the day. The situation had dehumanized them and made them feel like Scrooge characters from a global Christmas Carol. They were shocked when we offered to buy them drinks and insisted on paying us back with the next round. However isolated the results of their collective actions had made them feel I think that evening they understood with more clarity why the polarization was happening. I think they also realized we represented their prospective cash cows in many ways, the generic demographic of the American consumer. If this type of upheaval was happening in the first world, where things are supposed to be hunky-dory, imagine what would eventually take place in the third world where the class lines are even more distinct. I think all of us noticed a tinge of fear in the delegates eyes, not of us, but of something bigger.

Regardless of media sensationalism or whatever anyone jokes about in editorials or on dry-humored radio shows, the protest was a victory. Two weeks before the event barely anyone knew what the WTO was. Now, even if at the time it's hidden behind vandalism and looting, it's still very much on the average American's radar. Even the vandalism was not completely in vain. Some of the specific stores that were hit took the reaction seriously. The news clips often commented on why the stores were targeted if only for a sound bite. 'Unfair labor practices' in conjunction with Gap or 'Rights of the coffee farmers' mentioned in the same sentence as Starbucks hit home for some people. The message is loud and clear, Labor and Environment need to be included in the talks that will decide all of our futures. If they aren't by the choice of the Multi-national conglomerates, the people themselves will impose their presence.

If you think any of this is worth fighting for, don't let it end here. Let this be a new watershed, let the momentum continue. Consumer awareness and ideas on sustainable living are at an all-time high. Get involved and don't let the fight for the streets of Seattle be forgotten. Let the entire event be a symbol of the power and the conviction we have. When you die will your gravestone read 'A Good Consumer'? You only get one life, use it wisely and don't be afraid to risk it for something you believe in. These are exciting times; a war has begun.

Do your part by paying attention to what you buy and knowing who it supports. Do you want to look cool in this week’s fashion on the sweat and blood of foreign children? Do you want to support a company that could be releasing untested genetically altered organisms into our world? Does that burger taste better knowing it's full of carcinogens and hormones that are causing young girls to menstruate before they should?

Hit them where it hurts, where you spend your money. Support FAMILY businesses and small businesses, stay out of big chains. Pay attention to everything, don't sleep walk through this world. Do something, anything, with your life. Ask yourselves "Why is it that the demographic of people who have the most in the world are also the most selfish?" Did that extra buck you saved on a product produced in China really make any difference in your life? Don't just sit there like a fly on the wall, pacified by idiotic sitcoms and slanted newscasts. Use your brain, although everything in this soulless consumer based society doesn't want you to, be a rebel and THINK.

One last word to the people much less fortunate than myself: Some of us here in the US are not so distracted by the superficiality of Western society and the wall built by the economics of the first world. We are thinking about you, daily.


David Lang is a 26 year old Washington Native who was born in California. He tests software for a living and enjoys lots of outdoor activities in this beautiful part of the world. He considers himself politically conscious but not politically correct by the general standards. He's currently saving money to move into a zero-emission lifestyle with some good friends (A self-sustaining commune that's Eco-friendly, more or less). He would like to make a living by making things live (farming, etc.). He also enjoys writing fiction, traveling, and listening to music of all types. He believes the best way to change the world is first to change the way you live in it. He can be reached at davlan@microsoft.com