Police enforce a "no protest zone" around the WTO meeting in Seattle and arrest hundreds of demonstrators on December 1, 1999.

  • By Kit Oldham and David Wilma
  • Posted 10/27/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2141

On Wednesday, December 1, 1999, following Tuesday's massive nonviolent civil disobedience that temporarily shut down the Third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and scattered vandalism of downtown businesses, Seattle officials enforce a "no protest zone" in 25 square blocks of downtown Seattle. Police and National Guard troops bar anyone with anti-WTO signs from entering the area and arrest hundreds of demonstrators, along with some bystanders and at least one WTO delegate. With the streets cleared of protestors, trade officials move freely between their hotels and the conference venues, where they continue negotiating agricultural subsidies and other contentious issues. President Bill Clinton (b. 1946), whose presence was a major reason for the crackdown, travels empty streets as he meets with union and environmental leaders who organized the large, peaceful protests and calls on the WTO to include labor and environmental standards in trade agreements. In a repeat of Tuesday, as darkness falls police use tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion bombs to force protestors and bystanders off downtown streets, driving many protestors onto Capitol Hill, where major confrontations continue into the early morning hours for the second night in a row.

When President Clinton arrived at Boeing Field at 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning and traveled to the Westin Hotel where he stayed for two nights while attending WTO events, post-midnight clashes were continuing on Capitol Hill in the aftermath of Tuesday's confrontations. Not long after Clinton's arrival, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014), who had declared a state of emergency on Tuesday afternoon, issued an emergency order imposing a 24-hour-a-day "limited curfew" in a 25-square-block area of downtown, including much of the retail shopping core, centered around the hotels where the president and other attendees stayed and the Washington State Convention & Trade Center where the WTO meetings were held.

No Protest Zone

On paper, the order made no mention of protesting -- it simply barred anyone except WTO participants, area residents and business owners or necessary employees, emergency and public safety personnel, and (after Schell revised the order) city officials and journalists from entering the curfew area until midnight on December 3, the day the WTO meeting would end. In practice, authorities described and enforced the curfew area as a "no protest zone," stating that demonstrations would not be allowed in the area. Even people who lived or worked in the area, who were expressly allowed in by the terms of the order, were barred by police if they were holding or wearing anti-WTO signs or buttons. Conversely, shoppers and others not permitted to enter by the language of the order were allowed in if they did not display any anti-WTO messages. Within hours, the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked a federal judge to prohibit the City from imposing the no protest zone, but District Judge Robert Bryan rejected the request that afternoon and the zone remained in place.

Following Mayor Schell's declaration of emergency, Washington Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950) had called in the National Guard. Before daylight Wednesday, police and National Guard troops were stationed at all the intersections around the perimeter of the no protest zone. Nevertheless several hundred would-be protestors managed to make their way to Westlake Center, within the zone. Hundreds of police officers surrounded the crowd at Westlake, which included more than a few bystanders not intending to protest, arrested them, and loaded them onto Metro buses which took them to Sand Point for booking. Elsewhere downtown, police used tear gas to disperse crowds.

Trade Talks Continue

With the streets cleared, trade ministers and other delegates had no trouble getting to the Convention Center, where they continued the difficult process of attempting to reach agreement on the agenda for a new round of talks aimed at reducing "barriers" to international trade. The process was contentious because even among supporters of free trade there were sharp disagreements, especially on agriculture, where European nations, Japan, Korea, and others strongly resisted efforts by the U.S. and other agricultural-exporting countries to require reductions in internal farm subsidies. WTO officials canceled social events on Wednesday evening so that delegates could continue trying to reach agreement.

President Clinton, an avid free-trade advocate despite his Democratic Party's strong support from unions and environmental groups who vehemently opposed unfettered trade, promoted the U.S. trade agenda at several stops. At the Port of Seattle's Terminal 5, he met with farmers from Eastern Washington and affirmed his goal of gaining access to foreign markets for American food exports. Clinton used his address to the trade ministers' lunch at the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel to call on the WTO to include standards for workers' rights and environmental protection in trade agreements. The address was received without enthusiasm by the ministers, many of whom, particularly those from the poorer, developing nations, viewed labor and environmental standards as another form of protectionism benefiting richer countries. However, Clinton's remarks were praised by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and other labor leaders with whom Clinton later met privately, as he did with environmental leaders.

Another Night of Clashes

Following up on Tuesday's huge AFL-CIO rally and march, the Steelworkers union organized the largest permitted march held on Wednesday. Some 1,500 steelworkers and others marched uneventfully to piers 62 and 63 on the waterfront, where they dumped Styrofoam "steel beams" into the water to protest countries, especially Japan, "dumping" steel products on the U.S. market at below cost. Except for the permitted Steelworkers march, there was little protest activity during the middle of the day. At 3:30 p.m., Governor Locke toured downtown, declared that everything looked fine, and encouraged people to come and shop. But half an hour later, when a crowd of several hundred gathered near Pike Place Market, police drove them away with concussion bombs and gas.

Throughout downtown large numbers of police engaged in repeated confrontations with several hundred demonstrators, many of them no longer protesting just the WTO, but the police and what they saw as the City's denial of free speech. Police made several more mass arrests, bringing the total arrested for the day to nearly 500. Not infrequently bystanders as well as protestors were caught up in the tear gas and police activity. In one incident, police pulled Richard McIver (1941-2013), the only African American member of the Seattle City Council, from his car as he arrived at the Westin Hotel for a WTO event and appeared to be about to arrest him before releasing him. As they had the night before, police drove protestors from downtown into the Capitol Hill neighborhood, where confrontations between police, protestors, and enraged residents again continued well past midnight.

Charges against almost all those arrested on December 1 were dropped within weeks and hundreds of arrestees later joined in class-action lawsuits against the city, winning settlements totaling nearly $2 million.

Wednesday Timeline

On December 1, 1999, events in Seattle unfolded as follows:

  • 1:30 a.m.: President Clinton arrives in Seattle on Air Force One at Boeing Field and travels to the Westin Hotel.
  • Early morning hours: Mayor Schell signs emergency order aimed at preventing protests in much of downtown Seattle.
  • 6:00 a.m.: Some 200 National Guard troops are on duty in Seattle for the first time in memory. Three hundred Washington State Troopers are also assigned to assist the Seattle Police, as are officers from the King County Sheriff's office and nearby cities.
  • 7:15 a.m.: "Let me get this straight," an officer says over the radio. "We're just supposed to arrest all the protesters?" "That's affirmative," a supervisor answers. "Give them an order to disperse, then arrest them" (Sunde, "Crackdown...").
  • 8:00 a.m.: Starbucks closes 26 stores in Seattle for the day. Tully's Coffee closes four stores. Coldwater Creek remains closed all week. Washington Mutual closes three downtown branches. The Seattle Art Museum closes for the day.
  • 8:30 a.m.: Mayor Schell signs an emergency order prohibiting the possession of "any device commonly known as a gas mask." The order is effective throughout the city except for military and the police.
  • 8:30 a.m.: WTO Plenary Session is underway at the Convention Center.
  • 9:00 a.m.: Trade and Labor issues meeting (invitation only) at the Westin Hotel, organized by the Seattle Host Organization.
  • 9:00 a.m.: Agriculture and food trade meeting (invitation only) at Bell Harbor International, organized by the Seattle Host Organization.
  • 10:00 a.m.: By this time, 246 persons have been arrested downtown. They are handcuffed, placed on Metro buses, and taken to the former naval station at Sand Point for booking. Many will spend the next 10 hours on the buses.
  • 11:00 a.m.: Seattle police chief Norm Stamper announces at a press conference that gas masks will be prohibited for everyone but police.
  • 12:00 p.m.: Protests downtown dwindle by noon.
  • 1:30 p.m.: U.S. President Bill Clinton tells WTO delegates during a luncheon that they must "continue to find ways to prove that the quality of life of ordinary citizens in every country can be lifted, including basic labor standards and an advance on the environmental front." Regarding the protests in Seattle he says, "I condemn the small number who were violent and who tried to prevent you from meeting, but I am glad the others showed up" (Dunphy, "Clinton Signs...").
  • 1:45 p.m.: Victor Menotti, an environmental trade specialist with the International Forum on Globalization and a credentialed non-governmental delegate to the WTO conference, is chased by police and arrested. He had been standing on the sidewalk telling a group of colleagues about a WTO briefing he had just attended.
  • 2:00 p.m.: Steelworkers' rally and march to Seattle docks draws around 1,500 demonstrators.
  • 2:00 p.m.: Agricultural Trade Conference at the Sheraton Hotel, sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation.
  • 3:00 p.m.: Four hundred persons have been arrested, mostly in the Westlake Center area.
  • 3:00 p.m.: Mayor Schell revises the gas mask ban so that journalists with credentials are authorized to possess gas masks.
  • 3:30 p.m.: Governor Gary Locke tours downtown and declares that everything is fine.
  • 3:45 p.m.: Police confront protesters at 4th Avenue and Pike Street and clashes continue downtown until after nightfall.
  • 4:00 p.m.: Marchers shout "peaceful protest" when police fire tear gas, rubber pellets, and concussion bombs at 2nd Avenue and Pine Street.
  • 4:00 p.m.: Approximately 800 protesters sit down in the intersection at 2nd Avenue and Pike Street, blocking cars. Police fire tear gas and the protesters run toward Pike Place Market.
  • 4:00 p.m.: Police throw tear gas and concussion grenades at 1st Avenue and Pine Street, 2nd Avenue and Pine Street, 3rd Avenue and Pine Street, 1st Avenue and Pike Street, 2nd Avenue and Pike Street, and 4th Avenue and University Street.
  • 6:00 p.m.: Police begin to make arrests downtown to enforce the 7:00 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. curfew that Mayor Schell has again imposed for all of downtown between Interstate 5 and the waterfront, from Yesler Way to Denny Way.
  • 6:55 p.m.: Police on horseback, on motorcycles, and in armored vehicles move protesters north out of the curfew zone from 4th Avenue and University Street.
  • 7:00 p.m.: Curfew takes effect in downtown area.
  • 7:00 p.m.: City Councilman Richard McIver is pulled from his car by police at 8th Avenue and Seneca Street on his way to a WTO reception. They start to handcuff him before releasing him.
  • 7:05 p.m.: At Denny Way, several hundred protesters vote to turn east toward Capitol Hill.
  • 7:30 p.m.: "Voices from the South" forum is scheduled at Garfield Community Center, 23rd Avenue and Cherry Street, sponsored by Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).
  • 7:30 p.m.: At Denny Way and Interstate 5, protesters vote to march to Seattle Central Community College.
  • 7:45 p.m.: Protesters meet another large group already demonstrating on Broadway at E Harrison Street.
  • 7:50 p.m.: A combined force of about 500 protesters march up and down Broadway denouncing the police presence and behavior on Capitol Hill.
  • 9:00 p.m.: Police try to scatter crowds with tear gas and flash bombs. An armored car is swarmed and kicked. Police reply with concussion grenades.
  • 9:00 p.m.: More police and National Guard arrive on Broadway.
  • 9:30 p.m.: Police close several blocks of Broadway between E John Street and E Republican Street. Protesters and residents heckle police; some throw rocks or bottles.
  • 9:35 p.m.: Police pepper spray demonstrators at Broadway and E John Street. Then they detonate flash bombs and push south along Broadway. During the police operations, a Tuwkila officer is shown live on television kicking a retreating protestor in the groin and then shooting him point-blank with a bean-bag gun. A King County sheriff's deputy is caught on video (not shown live) motioning for a driver to roll down the windows of her car and then pepper-spraying the driver and her passenger.
  • 11:55 p.m.: At the Sand Point booking facility, as many as 140 arrested protesters refuse to leave buses and to submit to the booking process.
  • 12:00 p.m.: Nearly 600 persons have been arrested by the end of Wednesday.
  • 1:00 a.m.: Approximately 300 people gather at Pine Street and Broadway.
  • 2:50 a.m.: The crowd on Capitol Hill finally breaks up after police again use chemical and other "less lethal" munitions.


David Postman, Jack Broom, and Florangela Davila, "Police Haul Hundreds to Jail," The Seattle Times, December 1, 1999, p. A-1; Postman and Mike Carter, "Police Switch to New Strategy," Ibid., December 1, 1999, p. A-1; Stephen H. Dunphy, "Delegates Get On With Business," Ibid., December 1, 1999, p. A-1; Dionne Searcey and James V. Grimaldi, "Clinton Welcomes Peaceful Protestors," Ibid., December 1, 1999, p. A-16; Robert T. Nelson, Gordon Black, and Lisa Pemberton-Butler, "Shoppers Barred in Retail Core," Ibid., December 2, 1999, p. A-1; "Schell Urges: Stay in Control," Ibid., December 2, 1999, p. A-1; Dunphy, "Clinton Signs Pact to Lessen Child Labor," Ibid., December 2, 1999, p. A-1; Patrick Harrington, "Steelworkers Rally Against WTO, 'Dumping,'" Ibid., December 2, 1999, p. A-23; Duff Wilson, "Judge Upholds Schell's Lockdown," Ibid., December 2, 1999, p. A-24; Alex Tizon, "Wednesday, Dec. 1," Ibid., December 5, 1999, p. A-15; Mark Rahner, "Officer in Protestor Kicking is Member of Tukwila Force," Ibid., December 6, 1999, p. A-23; Joel Connelly, "Clinton Implores WTO to Open Itself Up," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 2, 1999, p. A-1; Scott Sunde, "Crackdown - and New Clashes" Ibid., December 2, 1999, p. A-1; Paul Nyhan, "Clinton's Proposals Praised by Labor Groups," Ibid., December 2, 1999, p. A-16; Robert Mcclure, Bruce Ramsey and Michael Paulson, "Delegates Argue Way into Progress," Ibid., December 2, 1999, p. A-16; Jake Ellison, "Suit over WTO Arrests Settled," Ibid., January 19, 2004, p. B-1; Colin McDonald, "WTO Protesters to Receive $1 Million," Ibid., April 3, 2007, p. B-1; Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (London: Verso, 2000); City of Seattle Resolution 30099 (December 6, 1999) with Mayoral Proclamation of Emergency and emergency orders attached as exhibits, copy available at Seattle Municipal Archives website accessed October 14, 2009 (http://www.seattle.gov/CityArchives/Exhibits/WTO/1999Dec6.htm); "Report of the WTO Accountability Review Committee of the Seattle City Council," WTO Accountability Review Committee website accessed October 20, 2009 (http://cityofseattle.net/wtocommittee/currentdocs.htm); "The Seattle Police Department After Action Report," Seattle Police Department website accessed October 14, 2009 (www.seattle.gov/police/publications/WTO/WTO_AAR.PDF); Menotti v. City of Seattle, 409 F.3d 1113 (9th Cir. 2005); HistoryLink.org, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "WTO Meeting and Protests in Seattle" (by Kit Oldham) http://www.historylink.org (accessed October 14, 2009).
Note: This essay was revised and substantially expanded on October 27, 2009.

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