A storm that still carries a sting

WTO, the media and the unfinished business of the Battle in Seattle.
Crosscut archive image.

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

WTO, the media and the unfinished business of the Battle in Seattle.

The night before the "N30" WTO protest in 1999, a pep rally was held in Key Arena. One of the speakers was filmmaker Michael Moore, who came onstage and said incredulously to the crowd of activists and labor union members: "The WTO in Seattle? What were they thinking?" The crowd roared. It was as if the most indulgent parents in high school had volunteered their house for a party. Moore knew, as everyone but the Seattle police knew, that the next day's attempted shutdown of the WTO meetings was going to be an event to remember, enabled by the fact that it was happening in protest-friendly Seattle.

I was editor of Seattle Weekly at the time. We'd seen it coming months ahead of the rest of the local media. We'd been covering the coming event for nine months, we'd previewed the extravaganza in an August cover story by Geov Parrish. We'd sent reporters to Eugene and even ran an anarchist "manifesto" in the paper. We told Seattle it was going to be a big, big deal. Some thought we were engaged in reporting overkill, including my bosses in New York. Until November 30th.

When it came, we were ready, like most of the media (save perhaps KOMO-TV, which said it wouldn't cover the protests but reluctantly did anyway). We had reporters and photographers inside the WTO summit and in the streets. We posted stories and photographs immediately to the Web, and afterward the Smithsonian asked us for a copy of our electronic archive. We hosted some visiting journalists, like Bill McKibben, who wrote about WTO from the Weekly offices. We even helped the budding IndyMedia movement by donating a bunch of old computers. It wasn't an ideological move, rather that we liked the idea of democratizing coverage. We wanted to encourage a new generation of alternative media. That was one of the fascinating aspects of WTO press coverage: It wasn't controlled by the mainstream media, known today as the MSM. The Web and the fact that protesters with cell phones and cameras became their own "media" added a powerful new dynamic.

Every reporter who was able was in the streets that day, and many on subsequent days. The Weekly produced a special WTO preview edition, but also had complete coverage of the demonstrations on the street the day after N30. Distribution of the Weekly proved problematic. Most of downtown had been shut down by the police, and a First Amendment-violating "no protest" zone kept almost everyone out. Our distribution people had difficulty getting in and out, not to mention that protesters had used news boxes to break windows and make barricades. There was an endlessly played loop of WTO footage showing a Weekly box going through the window of a Starbucks. Or was it a McDonald's?

TV overplayed the violence, but the story of WTO was very complex, involving multiple events, multiple venues, multiple days, multiple agendas, multiple ideological lenses, and teeming multitudes, not to mention the complexity of world economic, environmental, and social issues. It was a local event, a national one, and a global one. It took place in Seattle, but we were a staging ground for a global message delivered by many people from around the world who convened here to protest. The WTO was a multi-headed hydra, and no one got it right, or got the whole story.

It is tempting to simplify WTO (anarchists vs. cops) and caricature it. One Weekly cover showing pigs battling sea turtles was later exhibited at the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angles in a show about political stereotypes. And while the Weekly might have been onto the fact that WTO was going to be a big event before most Seattle media, we did not cover the issues behind it in depth. Even our own columnist Parrish criticized us for this (back at you, Geov!). One reason is the provincialism of local media: We covered it because it was a local event, like a flood. If it had happened in Boise, we would have scarcely taken notice.

But Seattle took it seriously, if not before the event so much, then afterward with investigations and recriminations. Bless Seattle for its tendency to do serious soul-searching. If we are an indulgent city sometimes, we are also one that tries hard to get things right.

Former police chief Norm Stamper, whom I now consider a good friend, has written and talked reflectively about his role and his own mistakes with refreshing frankness. The City Council conducted extensive hearings to determine what happened and how. "What were they thinking?" Michael Moore asked? Thanks to the after-action reports, we know. Civic boosters like Pat Davis of the Port Commission wanted to show off Seattle's bona fides as a global partner. That kind of boosterism is part of our civic DNA and it was hoped that hosting WTO would result in free advertising for our "world class" city. Like most civic booster projects, the downside is rarely given its due.

If the WTO protests didn't change the world, they did make Seattle a little more worldly.

I don't know any journalist who covered WTO who didn't have a grand time because it was a chance to live history happening. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporters were issued gas masks, how cool was that? And, as Paul Schell and others have reminded us, bad as it was, no one got killed. For many, the anarchists throwing rocks and news boxes and lighting dumpster fires are the indelible images, or cops in body armor swinging nightsticks. Some of those images stick in my own mind, like seeing policemen on horseback illuminated in the dark December light by flash grenades at the Pike Place Market. Now there was a perfect holiday-card picture for the tourists.

But one thing that got lost in the coverage was the morning of N30 as the rivers of protesters flowed into downtown Seattle from Capitol Hill, the Pike Place Market and Seattle Center, a noisy, costumed, celebratory crowd that seemed surprised and delighted to find so many in common. There was rain but also singing and drumming, balloons and puppets, the anarchist marching band. It was more Woodstock than Altamont. Quite frankly, it was deeply moving to see tens of thousands of people march, sit, and celebrate something bigger than the almighty dollar. It was stunning to see our familiar city transformed not by a sporting event or snowfall or holiday shopping, but by a movement with such serious things on its mind. The protesters chanted "This is what democracy looks like," and in the early hours, it was a beautiful snapshot.

My own responses to WTO were complicated. The media coverage was criticized and analyzed immediately. I remember serving on a panel at Town Hall before a raucous audience. Many protesters were enraged by the coverage, denying that it was a "riot," or that any "violence" had taken place except on the part of the police. Violence against property was not real violence, some argued, but I begged to differ. Smashing windows or looting a Starbucks is violence. During the protests, I had stood between marchers and Niketown for a brief time and ducked as someone was using a high-powered slingshot to fire ball bearings at the windows. The sound of the ricochet was scary because you knew from the sound that if they hit you, you'd be injured seriously. The idea that it wasn't violence if an anarchist did it was absurd. Later, at Sixth and Union when the police began to fire gas and pellets at peaceful protesters, you could hear the hard rain of rubber projectiles pattering through the crowd and you could tell by the sound that they inflicted pain. It was an unnecessarily violent way to clear an intersection.

There were so many strange juxtapositions, the kind reporters can struggle with. An elected official who took to the streets to calm things down on Capitol Hill wasn't a Seattle liberal, but an Eastside Republican, then-County Councilman Brian Derdowski. I saw black-clad anarchists waiting in line politely to use a downtown restroom in the middle of the mayhem outside. There was arch-conservative Pat Buchanan coming to town to show anti-WTO solidarity with the Teamsters Union. And I remember the Socialist Worker's Party candidate I talked to who disdained the protests as pro-fascist. "We believe in globalization," he said. It just happened to be the Marxist version.

And there was the overarching contradiction of a city that loved Starbucks-sipping Bill Clinton serving as ground-zero for a rebellion against his pro-WTO, pro-NAFTA, pro-Wall Street economic vision. How could a city built on trade be against free trade? How could a city that helped the world globalize through computer software and jet planes have doubts about what it had wrought? Many of those contradictions are still not untangled in the public mind, or in policy where economic "recovery" is defined as more of what got us into trouble in the first place. The issues of globalization are still with us, and they still hurt. Boeing's union-castrating move to South Carolina is a case in point.

It's also interesting to note that the political legacy of WTO never jelled. Some wondered if the "Teamsters and turtles" alliance of greens and labor would have legs, and locally they helped form part of Seattle's powerful alliance with developers that propped up Mayor Greg Nickels and is seen as essential to dominating the city's political money sources. Seattle preaches "local" as in eating local foods, but our neighborhoods have lost real power and our economic future is still anchored to trade, Boeing, Microsoft, and growth as an end in itself. As I noted recently, the protest juice seems to be more on the right wing with the Tea Party movement, and youth has mostly rejected Naderism and the Greens and cast its lot with Obama, who is much like Bill Clinton in terms of economic policies. Rampant "free markets" and globalization might be blamed for some of our economic woes, but few in America are turning to the anti-gloablization cohorts for the answers. Last I looked, Jello Biafra hasn't been appointed to the Cabinet.

Exactly a year after WTO, I was walking on a stormy beach near Kalaloch. I happened to be wearing the canvas jacket I wore during the protests. I felt a burning sensation on my hands, more than the cold, and looked down to see a rash forming on the back of each hand and my wrists. It took me a few minutes to figure it out: It was the residue of WTO pepper gas running off my jacket where it had dried as it was cleansed by the driving rain. I laughed that I might be the Battle in Seattle's last pepper gas victim. WTO was a kind of storm that swept through our city, gone, but still carrying a sting.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.