Large but mostly non-confrontational protests greet the WTO in Seattle on November 29, 1999.

  • By Kit Oldham and David Wilma
  • Posted 10/18/2009
  • Essay 2143

On Monday, November 29, 1999, one day before the Third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) officially opens, three large demonstrations rally against WTO policies.  In the afternoon thousands of protestors, several hundred of them clad in bright green sea turtle costumes, march through downtown Seattle to denounce WTO "free trade" rules as harmful to the environment and animal welfare.  As the environmental march disperses there are several brief stand-offs between police in riot gear and groups of protestors, but they end without incident.  In the evening two marches converge on the Stadium Exhibition Center south of downtown, where WTO delegates are attending the conference's opening reception. Several hundred steelworkers and other union supporters protesting the WTO's labor policies join thousands organized by the Washington Association of Churches. They successfully form a human chain around the Exhibition Center to call on world leaders to cancel the debt owed by poor countries to international banks.

Although the WTO's Seattle conference would not formally begin until the opening ceremony scheduled for Tuesday morning, November 30, most trade ministers and other delegates from the WTO's 135 member countries had arrived in Seattle by Monday and official pre-conference events got underway. A symposium for non-governmental organizations was scheduled to start that morning in the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, the main site of the conference.  The lavish, invitation-only opening reception for the delegates was held that evening at the Stadium Exhibition Center located at the other end of downtown, between Safeco Field and the Kingdome.  The many groups gathered in Seattle to protest the WTO for favoring corporate interests over social and environmental concerns also planned the first major opposition events for Monday.  (Smaller, sometimes spontaneous demonstrations against the WTO and "corporate globalization" had been occurring throughout the Thanksgiving weekend preceding the conference.)

An Early Start 

Long before the first big march got underway shortly around noon, indeed well before the sun rose, five activists from the Rainforest Action Network climbed a 170-foot construction crane near Interstate 5 north of downtown Seattle to hang a huge banner with arrows labeled "Democracy" and "WTO" pointing in opposite directions.  John Sellers, a leading organizer of the massive direct action that would succeed in shutting down the WTO's opening session the next day, was one of the five climbers.  Police arrested the climbers and a supporter on the ground.  As it turned out, the six rainforest activists accounted for almost all WTO-related arrests made on November 29.  Seattle police arrested only two other people all day -- a man and woman who tried to cross a police line near the Convention Center to serve a "citizen arrest warrant" on WTO ministers.

Police surrounded the Convention Center in large numbers throughout the day.  Early in the morning, shortly after having completed a security check, police discovered a door that had either been inadvertently left open or forced open, prompting them to lock the Convention Center down for hours while SWAT teams, bomb-sniffing dogs, and the Secret Service conducted another check.  The lockdown delayed the symposium for non-governmental organizations and left delegates milling around on the sidewalks with protestors.

The historic First United Methodist Church on 5th Avenue -- strategically located midway between the Convention Center and the Stadium Exhibition Center -- was a gathering place for protestors throughout the day.  Organizations including Public Citizen, Alliance for Democracy, and the Sierra Club and other environmental groups proclaimed November 29 "Environment and Health Day."  Morning and afternoon discussion sessions at First United Methodist were sandwiched around a noontime march from the church to the Convention Center. 

Sea Turtles and Roquefort Cheese 

More than 3,500 people participated in the march, which was sponsored by the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Humane Society, and other environmental and animal welfare groups.  To protest a particularly notorious WTO decision, which determined that free trade agreements precluded the United States from enforcing a ban on importation of shrimp caught using methods that kill endangered sea turtles, nearly 250 marchers donned bright green turtle outfits supplied by the Earth Island Institute.

Around the same time that environmentalists were protesting the WTO ruling against U.S. endangered species rules, a well-known anti-globalization activist from France staged a unique protest against a WTO decision in favor of the U.S.  Farmer Jose Bove, who raised sheep whose milk was used to make Roquefort cheese, had gained international notoriety when he bulldozed a McDonald's restaurant in France to protest the WTO ruling that allowed the U.S. to impose punitive high tariffs on Roquefort cheese and other European imports in response to the European Union ban on beef raised on growth hormone. 

Despite the act that made his reputation, Bove advocated against property destruction in Seattle. He appeared in front of the McDonald's on 3rd Avenue, but only to hand out free Roquefort cheese to passersby.  A small window at the restaurant was broken, but it appeared to be an accident resulting from the crush of photographers and reporters around Bove.  When other protestors sprayed obscene graffiti on the restaurant walls criticizing the food, the farmer said "Non-violence is the best way to win ... . It will be good if nothing happens to McDonald's" (Sunde).

Largely lost among the anti-WTO events, there was a small pro-trade rally, sponsored by the Christian Coalition and some Republican leaders, that drew around 50 people to Mercer Arena. The rally was aimed to counter not only left-wing critics of the WTO like unions and environmentalists, but also some fellow conservatives, notably Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan (b. 1938), who accused the WTO of threatening U.S. sovereignty. 

Human Chain in the Rain 

Back at the First United Methodist Church, a capacity crowd packed the sanctuary and spilled over into other church rooms and the surrounding sidewalks and street for an early evening rally and interfaith prayer service preceding the "Human Chain for Debt Cancellation."  Although the WTO was not directly involved with the bank debt overwhelming many of the world's poorest countries (much of it owed to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, two other targets of anti-globalization activists), both WTO supporters and opponents focused on the plight of the poorest nations.  Supporters insisted that lower trade barriers would promote growth and increase jobs in poor countries, while opponents countered that free trade harmed traditional farmers and de-stabilized indigenous communities and that rich developed countries dominated the WTO to the disadvantage of poorer ones.

A crowd of around 5,000 marched in the rain from the church to the Exhibition Center where, holding hands, they managed to encircle the block around the building, outside a line of fencing and police.  They were joined by about 600 union members and supporters, including Teamsters president James Hoffa, who marched from the Hammering Man statue outside the Seattle Art Museum in a labor march organized by the United Steelworkers.

Monday Timeline 

Significant WTO-related events in Seattle on November 29, 1999, included the following:

  • 4:00 a.m.: Five protesters from the Rainforest Action Network scale a 170-foot construction crane near Lake Union and hand a banner reading "Democracy" and "WTO" with arrows pointing in different directions. Seattle police arrest the climbers and one helper.
  • 4:30 a.m.: A broken lock hasp at the Convention Center causes a security scare, delaying the one major event in which delegates were scheduled to speak directly to trade ministers. Police sweep the building and turn up nothing.
  • 6:00 a.m.: University of Washington police arrest two protesters who try to climb a smokestack on campus.
  • 9:00 a.m.: Environment and Health Day is held at First United Methodist Church, 811 5th Avenue. (Participating organizations include the Sierra Club, Alliance for Democracy, Public Citizen, etc.)
  • 9:00 a.m.: Non-Governmental Organizations Symposium, an official WTO pre-conference event, is scheduled at the Convention Center. The opening of the symposium is delayed by the lockdown following discovery of the open door.
  • 11:00 a.m.: Police arrest two people who are trying to serve "citizen's arrest warrants" on trade ministers at the Convention Center.
  • 12:00 p.m.: "Boston W "Tea" O Party March" sponsored by Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, Humane Society, Animal Welfare Institute, and other groups.  About 3,500 people  -- 240 of them dressed in turtle suits and others waving red banners  -- march on 5th Avenue to the Convention Center.
  • 1:00 p.m.: The environmental march gathers to listen to a folk singer at 7th Avenue between Pike and Pine.
  • 1:30 p.m.: The environmental march begins to disband, but 500 to 1,000 people continue to march, which results in three confrontations with police that end without incident.
  • 1:30 p.m.: French farmer Jose Bove dispenses free Roquefort cheese from under the awning at McDonald's at 3rd Avenue and Pine Street. Protestors from the environmental march swell the crowd and photographers jostle Bove toward the McDonald's, where a small window next to the entry door is broken. Obscene criticism of the food is sprayed on the walls.
  • 2:00 p.m.: Protesters wander down Pine until they run into a line of police at 2nd Avenue.           
  • 2:00 p.m.: Protesters march to University Street and up the hill to the freeway where they meet a line of officers in riot gear. One member of Peace Time urges the protesters to sit down in the street, then persuades them to head to Nike Town.
  • 2:30 p.m.: A small group of protesters, some wearing black masks, overturn newspaper boxes and bang on Nike Town's windows. A majority of the protesters chant "non-violence, non-violence" and form a protective line in front of the store.
  • 2:30 p.m.: Pro-WTO rally and counter demonstration sponsored by Working Families for Free Trade, Christian Coalition, and others is staged at the Mercer Arena. Speakers tout the virtues of trade to a crowd of about 50.
  • 5:00 p.m.: Approximately 5,000 people participate in a prayer service and rally at the First United Methodist Church, called Jubilee 2000. Afterwards, they march to the Kingdome and the Stadium Exhibition Center where there is a WTO reception. They chant in the rain, "We're all wet, cancel the debt."
  • 5:30 p.m.: About 600 steelworkers and others march from the Seattle Art Museum to the WTO cocktail party at the Exhibition Center. Teamster President James Hoffa leads the march.
  • 6:00 p.m. (after dark): As many as 100 people dance, chant, and shout "home is not a jail" at the "squat," an abandoned building at 9th Avenue and Virginia Street taken over by activists.
  • 6:30 p.m.: Opening reception for WTO at the Exhibition Center next to the Kingdome.
  • 7:00 p.m.: People's Gala at the Key Arena attracts several thousand soggy demonstrators from other areas. Seattle Mayor Paul Schell makes a guest appearance and says, "Be tough on your issues, but be gentle on my town."


Scott Sunde, "It's Protest City -- and Get Ready for the Big One Today," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 30, 1999, p. A-1; David Postman, Jack Broom, and Robert T. Nelson, "WTO Week Off to a Rocky Start," The Seattle Times, November 29, 1999, p. A-1; Postman, "Right Meets Left in Protest, But for Different Reasons," Ibid., November 29, 1999, p. A-12; "Schedule," Ibid., November 29, 1999, p. A-13; Postman, Broom, and Warren King, "Police Fire Gas, Protests Delay Event," Ibid., November 30, 1999, p. A-21; Helen Jung, "Party Reveals a World of Difference," Ibid., November 30, 1999, p. A-20; Jung, "Pro-Trade Rally Fails to Attract Many Fans,"  Ibid., November 30, 1999, p. A-20; Alex Tizon, "Monday, Nov. 29," Ibid., December 5, 1999, p. A-14; Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (London: Verso, 2000); "The Seattle Police Department After Action Report," Seattle Police Department website accessed October 14, 2009 (;, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "WTO Meeting and Protests in Seattle" (by Kit Oldham) (accessed October 14, 2009).
Note: This essay was revised and substantially expanded on October 18, 2009.

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