The real battle in Seattle was one of futility

A fictional film account of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests opens the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival this week. Battle in Seattle might be spectacular for the action and drama it portrays, but the historical legacy of the actual events is something short of momentous. In the end, the anti-globalization movement went nowhere.
Crosscut archive image.

<i>Battle in Seattle</i>'s portrayal of the 1999 WTO protests. (Insight Film Studios)

A fictional film account of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests opens the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival this week. Battle in Seattle might be spectacular for the action and drama it portrays, but the historical legacy of the actual events is something short of momentous. In the end, the anti-globalization movement went nowhere.

Phalanxes of cops in black clothing and Darth Vader face shields, massed protestors, clouds of tear gas, an endlessly burning Dumpster: Those are the real images of the massive protests — and massive police response to the protests — that greeted the World Trade Organization's Seattle ministerial meeting at the end of 1999. It's hard to believe that Battle in Seattle, the fictional account starring Charlize Theron that kicks off this year's Seattle International Film Festival, will produce anything half as memorable.

The movie trailers say that the WTO demonstrations changed the city and changed the world. Actually, they changed very little, except police tactics — and, of course, the public careers of then-police chief Norm Stamper and then-mayor Paul Schell.

The real battle in Seattle may have looked like the start of an anti-globalization tidal wave, but it was really the high-water mark — and, except for its media value, not very high at that. The very next year, THAW, the Seattle company that had manufactured outdoor clothing and gear for REI, closed down. REI had been sourcing some products offshore for years, but the company had figured that its customers wanted things made in the U.S., and that since people expected outdoor gear to last a long time, small differences in price didn't matter. Before long, it changed its mind. In the late 1990s, REI conducted a number of customer surveys. They all showed the same thing: Yes, customers wanted outdoor products manufactured in the U.S. No, customers wouldn't buy those products if they cost substantially more. In 2000, only months after the anti-globalization demonstrations, THAW folded.

So much for halting globalization. In fact, globalization accelerated. Between 2000 and 2006, one-sixth of the remaining U.S. manufacturing jobs disappeared. Between 1999 and the end of 2002, Starbucks more than tripled its number of foreign stores. In 2004, Boeing announced the launch of its new 787 "Dreamliner," some 70 percent of which would be made overseas, with significant components coming from Japan, France, Germany, England, Sweden, and South Korea.

In their historic nature and basic futility, the demonstrations mirrored the Seattle General Strike that shut the city down in 1919, just 80 years before. Strikers controlled the city for five days, keeping order, distributing food, maintaining vital services. But they basically wanted to turn back the clock. Not surprisingly, they failed.

During World War I, the federal government had been eager to build cargo ships as quickly as it could; even though Seattle prices were high, the government reimbursed shipyards that paid high local wages, new shipyards sprang up and men streamed in from all over the West to work there. When the war wound down, the government was no longer willing to reimburse shipyards for Seattle wages. The shipyards got ready to close, and soon after the armistice, shipyard workers decided to go out on strike. The rest of the Seattle Central Labor Council decided to join them. They never had a chance. They could shut down the city, but without a war, they couldn't bring back wartime industry or wartime wages. Many of the WTO demonstrators similarly wanted to turn back the clock on globalization. Not surprisingly, they failed, too.

But what stuck in people's minds from the 1999 WTO protest wasn't the practical effect; it was the tactics of demonstrators and police, the alleged brutality and violations of civil liberties, and, of course, those images. Reminders keep cropping up. At the end of 2006, Theron and the other actors were in Seattle filming the movie. Four months later, the city finally settled the last lawsuit brought by people who had been arrested during that week in 1999. Some 175 plaintiffs had been arrested in Westlake Park — where they had neither tied up traffic nor interfered with pedestrians — even though the police had never checked to see whether or not they were entitled to be there, never ordered them to leave, and never gave them an opportunity to leave on their own. The police had simply rounded them up, loaded them onto buses, and hauled them off to jail. The officers who arrested them had used a single photocopied arrest record, drawn up without reference to any of the actual people involved or to any of the things they had actually done — in other words, without the "individualized suspicion" that the law requires.

In a pre-trial hearing, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman had said flatly that "these photocopied arrest records are false." She had also observed that video footage showed the demonstrators "seated in the middle of Westlake Park," where they were "not even near the sidewalks." The judge explained, "Because the officers did not investigate whether any of the class members were shoppers or residents or employees of downtown businesses, they could not have had a reasonable suspicion that each and every class member was prohibited from being physically present in the restricted zone." Therefore, the city had arrested them without probable cause.

The jury found that the city had arrested them illegally and was therefore liable for damages. It did not find that the city had clearly targeted the demonstrators for their opinions, so it hadn't violated their First Amendment rights. Before the jury could award damages, the city settled for $1 million and a promise to add Pechman's rulings to police training manuals. The city's insurance company made the decision to settle. The city's attorney blustered that Seattle would have won on appeal.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer illustrated its settlement story with a photograph taken during the anti-WTO demonstrations. In it, demonstrators in rain jackets sit or crouch on the pavement, heads down, arms held protectively across their faces, while a Seattle police officer in black riot gear, complete with helmet and black gas mask, aims a rifle at them. The caption says he is shooting rubber bullets. The demonstrators clearly pose no physical threat to the officer or anyone else. They are also clearly not about to move; they are crouching down, protecting their faces, not about to stand up into a hail of rubber bullets. Perhaps there are less passive demonstrators standing behind them, out of the picture. Perhaps. Are they hurling rocks and bottles at the officer, or brandishing clubs? Evidently not. The officer has his face shield tilted up, presumably for better vision. He's not worried about his safety. He's not shooting these demonstrators because they threaten him or anyone else with bodily harm. He's not even shooting them to change their behavior. He's just doing it because he can.

On the same day that picture appeared, The New York Times science section ran an interview with social psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo, whose 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment showed, in the Times' words, "how anonymity, conformity and boredom can be used to induce sadistic behavior in otherwise wholesome students." In the experiment, Zimbardo had Stanford students act as prisoners and prison guards. As he explained it, after he warned the guards against physical violence, they "quickly moved to psychological punishment, though there was physical abuse, too. In the ensuing days, the guards became ever more sadistic, denying the prisoners food, water and sleep, shooting them with fire extinguisher spray throwing their blankets into dirt, stripping them naked and dragging rebels across the yard [...]. The guards ordered the prisoners to simulate sodomy."

When Zimbardo saw the first photographs from Abu Ghraib, he was "shocked but not surprised [...]. What particularly bothered me was that the Pentagon blamed the whole thing on a 'few bad apples.' I knew from our experiment, if you put good apples into a bad situation, you'll get bad apples."

He suggested that the stress of long days and dangerous conditions helped warp the guards' judgment. No doubt the stress of long days and the — probably unwarranted — perception of danger helped warp the judgment of some officers who assaulted anti-WTO demonstrators, as well as bystanders who just happened to be there at the wrong time.

One can use Zimbardo's experience and insight to criticize the people who put guards or police officers into such situations without adequate supervision or manpower. It seems a stretch, though, to absolve the guards or officers of all personal responsibility. No one has alleged that all the guards at Abu Ghraib abused prisoners, or that all the police officers on duty in Seattle during the WTO meeting abused demonstrators or violated people's First Amendment rights. Some people behaved well. Others didn't. Most cops didn't brutalize demonstrators, much less innocent bystanders. But the ones who did fit a pattern: They were anonymous, and no one was going to stop them; presumably, they did it at least partly because they could.

Presumably, at least some officers did it because they didn't like the protestors' messages. City officials insisted that they had not established a "no protest zone" in which police prevented people from expressing certain messages — in clear violation of the First Amendment — but evidently no one had bothered to explain this to officers on the street. The people running city government understood the First Amendment, but the many first-person accounts of people being stopped, told to removed buttons, having signs or literature confiscated make it clear that at least some officers thought they were enforcing a no-protest zone. One man who had been downtown on Wednesday morning told the ACLU:

I made 500 copies of the First Amendment, underlining the part about the right to peaceably assemble. I was going to hand these out within the no protest zone [...]. After handing out only 5 of my 500 copies, I approached the southwest corner of the 'no protest zone.' There were about 10 riot police on the corner, and I smiled and handed a copy to one of them. He shouted, 'What's this?' I replied, 'I'm not protesting, I'm educating.' He responded, 'Not with this you're not!' and immediately ripped the copies I was holding away from me. I was only holding half of my copies and had the other half in a cloth sack I was holding around my arm. The riot policeman proceeded to open the sack and dig into it. I told him, 'You need a search warrant to look in there.' He yelled, 'No, I don't!' and took the remaining copies away from me. The Seattle Police Department had just confiscated the First Amendment.

Sorry, Charlize, but with anecdotes like that, who needs fiction?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.