How accurate is Battle in Seattle?

A journalist and former Seattle City Council member who led the council's investigation into the WTO riots faults the film for claiming too much for the protesters. More disturbing was the picture of dreamy nonchalance in planning that the investigation revealed about City Hall and Seattle Police.
Crosscut archive image.

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

A journalist and former Seattle City Council member who led the council's investigation into the WTO riots faults the film for claiming too much for the protesters. More disturbing was the picture of dreamy nonchalance in planning that the investigation revealed about City Hall and Seattle Police.

Battle in Seattle, now in theaters, is a dandy movie, but it overstates the impact of the World Trade Organization protests of 1999. World trade talks are in trouble but not because of those festivities in Seattle streets. It is unmistakable that WTO got a sobering message, but the portrait director Stuart Townsend paints of a successful uprising against globalism is oversimplified.

First of all, there were no winners. True, the Seattle demonstrators showed the potency and breadth of opposition to free trade and the concept of globalization and delivered a stinging blow to President Bill Clinton's hopes for worldwide trade liberalization. The violence dashed hopes that a "Seattle Round" of global talks would be launched. But it is disingenuous to think the disturbances curbed the activities of the WTO. The 144 member nations continue to meet — behind barbed wire and in inaccessible countries like Doha — and continue to negotiate.

The WTO today is much diminished in clout, but not because of the demonstrations. Instead, negotiations have grown so ponderous that side deals — regional and bilateral treaties — have become the rule. The "Doha Round" of talks is essentially dead. For big countries, like the U.S. or Japan, or for groups of nations like the European Union, it's more advantageous to bargain one-on-one with trading partners rather than struggling for global rules. In the WTO, the vote of Togo or Sri Lanka has the same weight as that of the U.S. — a recipe for paralysis.

The 1999 events of the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle brought changes in security arrangements for international meetings, but that's a dubious gain. At WTO meetings in Doha and Marrakech, barbed wire kept protestors a mile from the deliberations. Demonstrators were talking to each other, not the world.

Nevertheless, the film about the battle of Seattle paints a harrowing, and largely accurate, picture of the chaos in the Seattle streets. The awful effects of tear gas, clumsy arrests, and jail procedures can't be denied. The WTO conflict injured the city and its reputation and created serious and legitimate doubts about our dedication to protecting speech and assembly. The battle left a residue of anger and mistrust that took years to disperse. That's no victory for anyone. On the positive side, there have been substantial (if painfully slow) improvements in police accountability. In all, Seattle paid a high price.

How did it happen? Seattle has long yearned to be a world class international port, and landing the WTO promised to raise our international profile. Then-Mayor Paul Schell boosted the event relentlessly but was largely absent from security planning. Police Chief Norm Stamper handed off planning to a deputy chief and disappeared. The result was a dreamy nonchalance — what could go wrong?

The Washington Council on International Trade, a non-profit consortium of trade-dependent businesses and public agencies in the area, issued an invitation promising $9,237,000 for costs of security, transportation, social events, etc. They had apparently not consulted their membership. Elected officials who were members of the host committee said they made no such commitment.

After the Battle, I headed a City Council committee that oversaw a nine-month investigation, superbly led by staff director Alec Fisken. We found that the Schell administration ignored repeated and clear signals of the potential for trouble. A WTO official, Jacques Chaubert, briefed Seattle police about 1998 demonstrations in Geneva, where 4,000 demonstrators did extensive damage. Chaubert described "terrible problems ... violent demonstrations" and an incident in which a delegate's car was set on fire. Trade Development Alliance President Bill Stafford supplied a French documentary about the Geneva confrontation to the Seattle Police Department. Newspapers in Eugene, Ore., gave detailed coverage of anarchist plans to disrupt the summit, and the intent of many groups to block downtown streets was widely known. Nonetheless, SPD Assistant Chief Ed Joiner downplayed the problem, and one of our interviewees said police told the WTO official, "Well, we've dealt with demonstrations before."

The film gets another thing right about the demonstrations. Demonstrators expected to be arrested for symbolic acts like blocking streets and said so in advance. But police numbers were completely inadequate for what happened. Faced with the necessity to clear the streets, cops used tear gas. Schell, trying to display his commitment to free speech, limited police resources. But his attempt to appear welcoming worked against, not for, robust speech. If there had been more resources, mass arrests would have eliminated the need for teargas.

By the way, the battle cost the city $9 million. Seattle had hosted APEC a year earlier and did a pretty good job of getting federal reimbursement for security costs. The City Council pestered Schell and his aide, Cliff Traisman, to get State Department or host organization financial support for security. Council member Martha Choe asked for a clear memorandum of understanding about who picked up the security bills. Traisman said "we never implemented the suggestion." That was to cost the city dearly.

Skimpy planning meant things went wrong immediately. Demonstrators, as promised, blocked downtown intersections. Understaffed and unprepared cops had no resort but tear gas. The curfew and "no-protest zone" — an attempt to remedy errors from the first day — were designed in haste and never clearly defined. A limited curfew resulted in actions explicitly intended to limit protest. A bizarre example of instructions to police to bar demonstrations came when Seattle attorney Harold Green displayed to officers a business card on which he wrote, "I protest." He was told he was subject to arrest and told by officers in riot gear to leave.

In the course of our investigation, I developed some personal outrages. I was appalled that police took off name badges or covered them. The paralysis of elected officials when things got rough was troubling; then-Gov. Gary Locke was apparently the one who broke their trance and told them to do something. (Another unsung hero: the Seattle Fire Department, which refused requests from police to disperse crowds with fire hoses.) The police culture of secrecy that emerged during our probe was appalling; documents that were said not to exist were mysteriously located under council pressure.

I learned that protecting speech and expression is hard work, and that often the cops have to be guarantors of civil dialogue. Demonstrators have to understand that there is a difference between communication and obstruction. The clearest message is that we must draw a bright line between disruption and protected speech. There is a clear public interest in guaranteeing that demonstrators are heard, just as there is an interest in letting delegates from Nigeria and Nicaragua have their say.

  

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