Clashes, Protests Wrack WTO -- Police Try To Break Up Protesters; Clash Delays Opening Event
Seattle Times Staff Reporters
One of the largest protests in Seattle's history turned confrontational today as police fired paintball guns and pepper spray to disperse groups of unruly demonstrators who broke windows, sprayed graffiti on buildings and tried to block delegates to the World Trade Organization conference.
They succeeded, at least in part, when the official opening of the conference was delayed past its scheduled 10 a.m. start, and finally canceled about 12:45 p.m.
Property destruction downtown was extensive. One group of about 200 demonstrators, dressed mostly in black and wearing hoods and masks, pulled out hammers and other small implements and began smashing windows, first at Nordstrom, then at other nearby stores. Other demonstrators yelled at them to stop.
Most protesters, though, remained peaceful as up to 20,000 people from labor unions, environmental groups and local colleges rallied around the city, with the largest rally at Seattle Center. Most then marched downtown.
The worst of the confrontations began around 10 a.m. When police fired pepper spray at protesters, they in turn threw sticks at the officers, prompting police to move an armored truck into the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Union Street and physically throw protesters out of the way.
Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper praised the actions of his officers, saying they remained in control of the streets. "I've seen some remarkable restraint and effective community-relation efforts" by the police, he said. "For the most part, demonstrators are very peaceful and we're appreciative of that."
The mass demonstration began with rallies at the Pike Place Market, the University of Washington, Seattle Central Community College and Memorial Stadium, where a labor-union group gathered.
The UW group marched from Red Square to the Mural Amphitheater at Seattle Center, where it joined with marchers from Capitol Hill and a handful of Southeast Asian human-rights groups carrying signs proclaiming "Independent Taiwan" and "China out of Tibet."
The group listened to speeches from a variety of organizations, responding enthusiastically and with no sign of trouble, oblivious to the confrontations going on at the same time downtown.
There - particularly around the Washington State Convention and Trade Center - demonstrators tried to stop today's opening sessions of the WTO conference. They are opposed to the WTO because they say its attempts to reduce tariffs and other global trade barriers can lead to human-rights violations and can harm the environment.
Many of the protesters splintered into so-called "affinity groups" and once downtown, formed human blockades, sat cross-legged in intersections and chained themselves to scaffolding with bicycle locks.
By midmorning, they were at least partly successful: A news conference with Charlene Barshefsky, the top U.S. trade minister here, was canceled, and only a fraction of WTO delegates were able to get into the hall for the opening ceremony, which was delayed.
Later in the morning, officials canceled the conference's opening session.
Throughout the day, there were conversations between demonstrators and delegates, some confrontational, others philosophical.
Ole Lundby, a delegate from Norway, said he told demonstrators, "A lot has happened to the WTO in its life. We're taking up new issues now that were unthinkable in the organization's beginning."
Asked if the demonstrations had had an effect, he said, "It was a very clear signal to the organization . . . that you need to have a more open organization."
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was turned back by protesters at Pine Street and Boren Avenue as he tried to walk through a chain of demonstrators.
Vilsack and his security detail tried to push through the crowd but quickly gave up and walked several blocks back to their car. He expressed frustration at being unable to get to a delegates' meeting and said he wasn't sure what he would do next.
"I have mixed emotions about this," he said.
Hundreds of demonstrators also surrounded Arnold Schwez, a German delegate who was trying to get back into the Sheraton after being turned away from the WTO meeting. The demonstrators shouted, "Go home!" over and over at him.
"These people do not understand the benefits of free trade to the developing nations," Schwez said.
From Sixth and Union, the hot spot shifted to Sixth between University and Union streets, where protesters blocked an intersection with a large, inflatable whale as they chanted "om." Some were posing for pictures in front of the SWAT team while one man hula-hooped. Pedestrians, unable to cross, grew upset and exchanged angry words with protesters.
Police asked the demonstrators to disperse. They refused.
Officers then moved in with an armored truck and began to fire a spray called OC, or oleoresin capsicum, on the protesters. A police spokesperson said the spray is derived from jalape centsno peppers, and that the gas causes severe burning of the eyes, mucous membranes and breathing passages.
Four protesters were treated and released this morning from Virginia Mason Hospital. One person fell down while the other three were treated for inhaling pepper spray. "They were very minor injuries," hospital spokesman Chris Schneider said.
In addition, a 22-year-old Oregon woman was admitted to Harborview Medical Center about 11 a.m. for injuries from the pepper spray, said spokesman Larry Zalin.
Several local hospitals were tracking symptoms of patients who come to their emergency rooms to see if there is a pattern that indicates any sign of bioterrorism, such as the use of anthrax.
Dr. Ron Dobson, chairman of emergency services at Swedish Medical Center, said doctors are looking for things such as diarrhea, vomiting or similar problems, and recording them in a computer.
So far they have found no indication of bioterrorism symptoms, he said. The hospitals have been working with the Department of Defense on this effort for several weeks.
During the height of the demonstrations, delegates were told to stay inside the Westin Hotel as police tried to get them into the convention center and the Paramount Theatre.
One officer in SWAT gear told a team of police that "we're going to protect these doors at all costs." There were police dogs inside the hotel.
Dalton Yancey, a representative of the Florida Sugar Cane League, said he wasn't afraid of the protests because he'd seen similar activities at trade talks in Geneva.
"The city of Seattle seems to be doing a great job in security," he said. "Protests are a part of these negotiations."
Some protesters were dressed this morning as clowns and butterflies. Others walked on stilts, while others wheeled through the growing throngs on high-riding bicycles modified to look like choppers.
By 8 a.m., hundreds had advanced from the rally at the Pike Place Market to Sixth and Olive near the Westin Hotel, where about 20 chained themselves together around a banner, encasing their arms up to the elbows in PVC pipe wrapped in duct tape, tar and chicken wire to make it difficult to cut.
They, in turn, were surrounded by another circle of demonstrators, which was surrounded by yet another.
"We are going to stay here as long as it takes to stop the WTO from meeting," said Jennica Born of New York. "We have food. We have water."
Hundreds of others marched from the SCCC rally to Pike and Boren, where they sat down in the intersection and blocked traffic. Carrying large cardboard ears of corn, they also strung hot-pink twine from light posts to block the traffic.
Near the Paramount, they formed a makeshift command post, erecting a teepee-like structure using three 20-foot-high poles lashed together at the top.
At the entrance to the convention center, others linked arms to block streets, sidewalks and even some entrances.
Before the confrontation at Sixth and Union, the protests were, for the most part, peaceful, though there were at least two arrests at the rally at the Pike Place Market.
There were other close calls as well: A brief scuffle and shoving match occurred about 9:30 a.m. at Pine Street and Boren Avenue when police were unable to escort several people to the delegates' meeting. That confrontation quickly ended when protesters began shouting "nonviolence" and police gave up.
Most protesters were urging one another to keep the peace; when a group of about 20, all wearing black, began throwing metal newspaper boxes into the street, others chased them away, shouting at them to keep the demonstrations non-violent.
Many of the protesters carried written guidelines, saying they were not to arm themselves, become violent or destroy property as they carried out their various actions.
In some places along the protest route traffic was detoured in advance by police, but in other areas demonstrators themselves blocked streets, closing off a freeway exit at Sixth and Seneca Street, where motorists sat in cars unable to move.
One of them, Mark Barbieri, a real-estate manager, said he knew the protesters were going to be downtown today, "but I was hoping to get as far as my building. I made it within a block."
After 45 minutes of waiting, and no idea when the intersection would be reopened, Barbieri said, "I guess this is OK, but it's too bad they have to impact everyday folks like this."
As the labor group gathered at Memorial Stadium, Dan Sexton of Bothell, a member of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 32, stood out of the rain, his hat on backward.
"We're here to send a message to the WTO. We want to support core workers rights. No forced labor. No child labor. The right to organize. Freedom of association. It always seems like they say that workers' rights and traditions have nothing to do with free trade, but they do."
Tadd Hess, 35, a member of Carpenter's Union Local 247 in Portland, said he traveled to Seattle with his family. "We don't like the WTO and the lack of democracy in it," he said. "The fact that it can overturn environmental and labor laws bothers me."
But he called the protest "a great way to educate our kids. It's democracy in action."
Metro halted downtown bus service between Denny Way and South Jackson Street around noon because it feared for the safety of drivers and passengers. Shortly afterward, a driver was assaulted at Third and Union, according to transit manager Rick Walsh.
A planned strike by taxi drivers today was further threatening to add to the city's woes, though it was unclear just how many of drivers were staying off the job.
Orange Cab figured about half of its fleet was out of action, causing delays for some customers.
At rival Puget Sound Dispatch, which handles Yellow and Graytop cabs, it was a different story. The company said most of its drivers were on the road.
The 150-member Cab Drivers' Alliance of King County hoped to convince most of Seattle's cabbies to stay off the job for 12 hours today.
`A mad river of people'
Yesterday, in a preview of today's main event, the serene symbols of Christmas in downtown Seattle became the backdrop of a loud, meandering protest as hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets.
Environmentalists joined hands with steelworkers, nuns, French cheese-makers, vegans and sea-turtle impersonators. Teenagers in baggy-legged pants and graying hippies walked side-by-side. Social workers and lawyers shared picket lines with body-pierced punks and tattooed grungers.
The lighted Christmas tree in Westlake Park shone eerily over black riot helmets. At one point, protesters converged under the Bon Christmas Star on Third Avenue and Pine Street. While Christmas music wafted from the Westlake Park carousel, bullhorns thundered tirades against the WTO. Protesters climbed street poles, snagging baggy jeans on strands of white Christmas lights.
"It was a mad river of people," said Metro bus driver Brenda Schwald.
While there were no violent clashes, police arrested eight protesters - five of them environmentalists who scaled a 170-foot-high construction crane next to Interstate 5 and Lake Union to unfurl an anti-WTO banner.
Later in the day, amid driving wind and rain, some 5,000 protesters marched from First United Methodist Church and formed a human chain circling the Kingdome, next to the Stadium Exhibition Center, where WTO members were at a reception.
"We're all wet, cancel the debt!" a speaker hollered.
`Be gentle on my town'
At a People's Gala in KeyArena last night, several thousand soggy protesters trickled in from their respective anti-WTO activities to raise fists and listen to live music and celebrities of the left.
Mayor Paul Schell made an appearance, as well as City Councilman Nick Licata.
"Seattle is a city that cares about free trade," Schell said, setting off a chorus of heckles, "but it's also a city that cares about the environment. If we're going to build the economy, we better build one that's sustainable."
He went on to encourage the protesters to remain peaceful. "Be tough on your issues, but be gentle on my town," he said.
Times reporters Tyrone Beason, Jim Brunner, Alex Fryer, Susan Gilmore, Helen Jung, Linda Keene, Dionne Searcey, Steve Miletich, Keiko Morris, Lisa Pemberton-Butler, David Postman, Mark Rahner, Joshua Robin, Dionne Searcey, Eric Sorensen, Alex Tizon, Chuck Taylor and Patrick Harrington contributed to this report.
Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.