Protest Delays Start of World Trade Summit
In a daylong spasm of protest, a diverse army of demonstrators paralyzed downtown Seattle on Tuesday, forcing a delay in the start of a World Trade Organization summit and plunging parts of the city into chaos.
By nightfall, city officials had declared a curfew, and Washington Gov. Gary Locke called for up to 200 unarmed National Guardsmen to occupy the streets this morning and up to 300 state troopers to provide relief for Seattle police. The drastic steps added a sober, almost warlike atmosphere to what U.S. officials had hoped would be a triumphant occasion that would move the global economy into the 21st century.
Police on the street and high-level government officials alike were startled by the success of the, at times, antic protesters in bringing the carefully planned global summit to a halt.
“Those who were arguing they were going to shut the WTO down were in fact successful today,” Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper said.
Mayor Paul Schell declared a civil emergency and declared a 7 p.m.-to-dawn curfew for the downtown area. By late evening few ventured out onto the streets besides lingering demonstrators, police and members of the news media. But skirmishes continued between weary police and a remaining group of hard-core protesters, some wearing ski masks or handkerchiefs wrapped around their faces.
A batch of demonstrators massed near a bonfire; others looted and vandalized a Starbucks coffee shop. There were repeated scenes of police lobbing pepper-spray canisters only to have the canisters tossed back in their direction.
Police also threw concussion grenades--designed to control crowds with an unnerving flash and bang.
The unexpectedly serious disturbances prompted security concerns for President Clinton, who was due to arrive in Seattle at 1 a.m. today for appearances before the WTO. But officials voiced confidence that the situation will be under control with the Guard contingent in place.
Much of the day was marked by surreal scenes: Lines of police in full riot gear stood eye-to-eye with lines of demonstrators dressed as sea turtles and butterflies. Some protesters tried to break through the walls of police, who responded with clouds of tear gas and pepper spray. Twenty-five to 30 arrests were reported at a city press conference late in the evening.
Masked vandals shattered storefront windows through much of downtown Seattle and set fires to trash bins. Police fired what they described as rubber pellets filled with pepper spray.
Police estimated crowds at 40,000 to 45,000. Authorities reported that one police officer and one civilian were injured.
Organized labor led its own massive, but more orderly, protest, further choking off downtown streets and grabbing the spotlight from an international summit that was designed to launch the world’s next major round of trade talks.
Labor demonstrations spread to major ports along the West Coast, where dockworkers shut down Seattle, Tacoma, Oakland as well as Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s largest combined harbor. The unloading of cargo was halted in Los Angeles and Long Beach from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“We’ll keep the pressure on,” Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa Jr. vowed. “We want the message to go out that the WTO is in trouble; the citizens are revolting.”
An opening ceremony had to be canceled and the WTO conference, scheduled to start Tuesday morning, finally began around 3 p.m. Director General Mike Moore alluded to the bedlam all around, saying he would not let a “sad day” for Seattle distract the ministerial meeting from its goal of expanding global trade.
“This conference will be a success,” he insisted.
U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, the host of the meeting, also assured the delegates that the unhappy reception outside the convention center did not represent “the views of the people of Seattle or of the United States.”
At a briefing Tuesday night, Barshefsky said that the WTO ministers were able to make significant progress in agriculture, where European and U.S. officials were hammering out a draft agreement with the assistance of Singapore Trade Minister George Yeo.
Barshefsky confirmed that Clinton would be making an announcement today on an initiative to help the world’s poorest countries, whose plight has continued to polarize the WTO membership and is one of the issues driving the protests.
U.S. officials also offered conciliatory words for those protesters whose conduct was peaceful and nonviolent, and said they sympathized with some of the concerns about globalization. The WTO meeting has drawn delegations from more than 135 nations, which see their futures in a global trading system that has been dominated by the United States and Europe. But the Geneva-based WTO has also become a symbol for a range of political grievances at home and overseas.
‘Part of the Democratic Process’
In London, parallel protests broke out Tuesday. In a two-hour rampage, protesters overturned vehicles and disrupted London’s evening rush-hour commuter travel with their attack on the plaza outside Euston Station in the center of the capital. Riot police were called in to disperse the crowds.
This week’s summit has become a magnet for advocates of labor, the environment, human rights and other concerns, many of whom have been carefully planning their protests for months.
In particular, many of the environmentalists were angry about a WTO decision in 1998 that led the United States to cut back on its demands that foreign shrimp fleets adhere to U.S. standards of protection for sea turtles that get caught in the nets.
On Tuesday, the dark, rainy morning began with the sound of drums, whoops and chants as brigades of protesters marched through downtown and took up positions at intersections near the Seattle convention center where they joined arms to block delegates from entering.
They were immediately met by city police who tried to contain them but, for the most part, did not stop the demonstrators from blocking the trade officials.
As the chaos mounted, some hotels near the convention center locked their doors, and such dignitaries as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Barshefsky were unable to attend planned appearances.
In the increasingly confused scene, it became nearly impossible to walk around within blocks of the meeting site.
At one point, demonstrators blocked the trade ambassador from Estonia, the WTO’s newest member country, who became frustrated at the democratic claims of his antagonists: “I’m a socialist,” he proclaimed, as he angrily wheeled around and walked away. “You people are nuts.”
A few blocks away, a national legislator from South Korea and his colleagues were cut off from a planned meeting with Japanese officials. They paced the street, where a cordon of riot police had blocked an intersection. “How can I get out of here?” asked Chin Woo Choo, the legislator.
Nearby, police in gas masks gazed warily up a steep hill where protesters had been rolling down rocks and barrels.
Because the disturbances had forced most downtown stores, including Nordstrom, Old Navy and Banana Republic, to close for the day, protesters took over the streets.
One group of Earth First! activists from Northern California chained themselves together at a major downtown intersection to try to keep people away from the convention center. “We’ve got to beat back the corporate attack,” said a 28-year-old woman who called herself Shazzam. She was lying on her back in a puddle with her arms inside cement-filled pipes that were linked to her companions.
Another group marched into a Starbucks, drumming and dancing among the blinking customers. As police began forming lines to clear a block around 6th Avenue and University, the crowd began shouting, “Our streets! Our streets!”
Then, when the police began lobbing pepper-spray canisters, the crowd began shouting “Shame! Shame!” Presently, Santa Clauses with tinkling bells formed a line in front of one line of riot police at the entrance to the Sheraton Hotel.
Delegates repeatedly tried to leave the Sheraton and Hilton hotels but were blocked by human chains of protesters until police cleared the way with pepper spray.
“Interesting. Very interesting,” said one Israeli delegate, who wouldn’t give his name. “I appreciate what they’re saying, but you have to keep talking.”
Mfundo Nkhulu, a member of the South African delegation, said: “It’s an expression of concerns. It’s part of the democratic process. We do this in our country all the time.”
All up and down 4th Avenue, newspaper racks were ripped off the sidewalks and thrown into the street. Huge dumpsters were tossed into the middle of Pine Street and a dumpster at 4th and Pine was set afire. There was incense burning in front of the Sheraton Hotel.
As the white clouds of pepper spray kept flowing, the crowd shouted, “The whole world is watching!” “You use chemicals, we use voices!” “Why are you doing this to us? We are your grandchildren.”
Bill Boese, a 53-year-old electrician from Portland, sat as part of a human chain across 4th Avenue. He said he came five days ago “to help the demonstration and to make sure nothing bad happens.”
“This whole city of Seattle is making an incredible statement that the WTO cannot do business as usual,” he said.
Harborview Medical Center in downtown Seattle treated three people Tuesday: A woman, 22, who was exposed to pepper spray, was released after treatment; a Seattle policeman, 45, with a rapid heartbeat was admitted for observation; and a 38-year-old delegate from Ireland was treated for hyperventilation and released, the hospital said.
Orderly Dissent by Organized Labor
In contrast to the wilder protests, in which some demonstrators invited arrest, a massive gathering of organized labor provided a somewhat more orderly expression of dissent.
At a large rally in Seattle’s Memorial Stadium, a Who’s Who of organized labor--from AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney to Teamsters leader Hoffa, exhorted a crowd of at least 25,000 people to proclaim Nov. 30 the beginning of a worldwide citizens’ revolt against what they referred to as “corporate greed.”
The huge turnout of union members and their families, said to be the biggest rally of its kind in modern labor history, guarantees Seattle--the home of the bloody general strike of 1919--another notation in labor history books.
Hoffa, who brought along a cheering section of 3,000 Teamsters, warned WTO trade ministers and U.S. politicians to ignore Tuesday’s outpouring of citizen concern at their own risk. The next battlefield, he said, would be over congressional approval of “normal trade relations” status for China, which is expected to join the WTO next year.
Throughout the rally and a march to downtown Seattle, labor leaders tried to distance themselves from their more unruly brethren. At the same time, the mood was grim.
United Steelworkers President George Becker warned that his union would lead an effort in Congress to get the U.S. out of the WTO unless it responded to union concerns about child labor, prison labor and the loss of good-paying U.S. jobs to lower-cost countries.
“Either they fix the goddamn thing or we’re going to get out,” he declared.
* L.A. PERSPECTIVE
The Southland gives a better picture of world trade today than do protests in Seattle, James Flanigan writes. C1
* FUTURE OF GLOBALIZATION
How the U.S. handles itself in the world economy will determine whether nations will adapt or resist, Tom Plate writes. B9