People Power in Seattle

This is a diary of events I witnessed in Seattle at the WTO protest, followed by some general thoughts. It might be useful to anyone who wasn't there. -- Theo Simon

An eyewitness account by Theo Simon of Seize the Day of the events on the streets of Seattle during the WTO protest as they unfolded. The account takes the form of a diary plus personal comments.

Sunday 28 November 1999

To avoid any hassles at Seattle airport, we fly into Canada. On Vancouver Island we join a rally against the WTO. We sing them our Monsanto song and tell them about the Actions against GM crops in England, hoping to inspire them in the same direction.

In turn, we're inspired by the easy way that labour and environmental issues link together over here. After short speeches from greens, trade unionists and anarchists, the rally marches off to a nearby picket-line of Cine-projectionists fighting a wage-cut. The chanting is more musical and syncopated than your average English sloganeering: "Hey-Hey! Ho-Ho! WTO has got to go!"

Some things are more familiar - the SWP have managed to print a placard for everyone here! - and the rally is briefly disrupted by some Hare Krishnas passing through. We take the crowded Thanksgiving ferry to America, through waters full of Porpoises and Orcas. I worry endlessly about the vast ecological price of our flight ....

Monday 29 November 1999

9 am: Genetics meeting with activists from everywhere. Americans finally getting the message! Brilliant networking - everyone's looking to Britain for inspiration. Consensus is to keep Biotech out of the WTO's remit, otherwise we'll lose any semblance of democratic control.

2 pm: Torn between the march for turtles endangered by WTO rulings, and the French Farmers giving away Rocquefort Cheese outside McDonalds. I join the one, and to my delight we arrive at the other. The 2 events merge, we start to drum, and suddenly it's June 18th again, with over a thousand people dancing and chanting at the intersection. The streets are closed, the police keep their distance, the Burger Sellers are temporarily shut down.

Farmers leader Jose Bove, who has himself demolished a McDonalds in France, calls for global solidarity against the WTO. American "Family Farms" speak in support, and an Indian farmer boasts there's only three Burger joints in India, then promises they won't be there for long! The crowd erupts - but never loses it. Some guys climb on top of a bus, the whole crowd chants "Get down off the Bus" - and they do.

6.00 pm: We're at the People's Gala in the massive Key Arena. Big Bands, Big Names, and even Anita Roddick! She talks about a bold new "dynamic Government" in Britain, coming under pressure from multinationals .... I think about Lord Simon and Lord Sainsbury. We sing the Monsanto Song - they loved it, in spite of the fake American accent! While we stock up from the hospitality suite, comedian Michael Moore sees political choice reduced to "Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dumber", and calls on us all to shut-down the WTO tomorrow.

Tuesday 30 November 1999

7 pm: Couldn't sleep for excitement. Join march of thousands, and by 8.30 we've surrounded Seattle centre, preventing access. The WTO will not open today! The mood is totally good-natured, though the cops look slightly worried. They're reassured repeatedly that people are ready to be arrested as soon as the cops decide, and won't resist with violence if they are. A sound-system starts playing songs of the sixties. Further on, some black guys are rapping to a drum: "Who's streets? - Our streets! Who's world? - Our world!"

Delegates hang-out in the coffee shops. An African ambassador berates us for preventing him from representing his people's needs to the WTO. I say the WTO is an exclusive corporate club, but they'll probably hear him better now they've seen our global solidarity. He appreciates that, but not the wasted air-fare, so somebody offers him a donation. He refuses, but he's touched.

10 am: Young radicals block an intersection, arms locked together in a circle of 40, with 50 more in support. A few blocks away we hear loud bangs and a roaring crowd. People come down the street holding wet scarves to their faces. The cops have decided to try and clear a way for delegates. But why use tear-gas? Everyone's scared, but calm.

I see the young people who locked-on expecting to be arrested, now preparing to be gassed. But word comes they're needed elsewhere, and the group moves off, monitored by the ridiculously conspicuous "Feds", disguised as shoppers in a town where all the shops have closed, and speaking to invisible friends.

12 am: Around the city I hear the sporadic police violence from afar - but I still haven't witnessed it. Some people have broken windows at Gap, the sweat-shop shop. Now the Labor march is starting and the tear-gas and plastic-bullets are silent while 100 thousand people pass us: Unions out in strength, Iron, Steel, Teamsters, Dockers, then there's Loggers and Environmentalists united under one anti-corporate banner, Human rights groups, First Nation people in feathered head-dresses, exiled Tibetans, Eco-warriors. Everyone's looking at their new-found allies. I'm witnessing something I've never seen before. Older workers tell me it's like the Sixties and Seventies, only global this time.

4 pm: The march has passed, and thousands have gone home. The police begin attacking again with gas. They want to secure the centre. Some people have been shot in the face with plastic pellets, and tempers are frayed - but to my amazement, people stay cool. They chant "No Violence!", and in places we make good contact with some of the cops. Other places, people lose it and fight back.

6pm: It's getting dark, and the Mayor has declared "a state of emergency". Armoured cars roam the streets shooting gas at any group of protesters in the way. Some local kids throw bottles. I leave before the 7pm curfew. It seems so sadly predictable: First permissive policing, then aggressive, then some violent reactions - then blame "the violent minority" for starting trouble.

Wednesday 1 December 1999

10 am: Where's all that beautiful optimism and excitement of yesterday? I watch the TV news with it's tales of "rioting" and "looting", and Seattle reduced to "a war-zone", and I'm seeing history rewritten before my eyes. In Seattle they believe that a few broken windows and an overturned waste-bin is a civil emergency. The civic pride is touching, but seems a bit exaggerated by English standards. Maybe that's more of a reflection on England ....

Today the police tactics have changed. They've already arrested several hundred peaceful protesters in the centre. I go down town and find myself excluded by National Guardsmen from a workshop on gene-patents. Suddenly a group of 100 or so comes down the street, singing "There ain't no power like the power of the people, cos the power of the people don't stop!" I join them and it swells as we walk - other impromptu processions appear, and by the time we reach the Union Hall, there's several thousand again! Seeing how irrepressible these American people are, I start to cry.

Midday we set off, led by the Steelworkers singing "Power To The People", for a rally on the waterfront. Great elation all round, but the rain sets in, and the speakers go on too long, and pretty soon we're all headed up town again. Everyone's irate about the first amendment. They're not going to be told they can't demonstrate peacefully outside the WTO.

3 pm: We're marching through the streets of Seattle, in the "exclusion zone". People are smiling and waving their support from buildings and cars. Suddenly that armoured car skids round the corner, and we're being gassed. I tie a wet sock round my stinging face. Trying not to panic, we move away. They come from another direction and gas us again. We regroup, chanting "peaceful protest", and I'm really choking now.

A swat squad runs at where I'm standing. The woman next to me is batoned and then sprayed point-blank with pepper gas. I dodge them and run. Cops kneel between the cars and shoot more gas as we run through the traffic. Drivers stare, horrified. I run down an alley and collapse for a while. Someone picks me up, and washes my eyes.

4.30 pm: We try to regroup, but the cops won't leave us alone. I slip off to a bar, and watch the tv version with the locals. We all laugh at the mayor's justifications and Clinton's Condemnations. The trouble is, the people of Seattle have seen it for themselves ....

Thursday 2 December 1999

9 am: I call two phone-ins on the local radio, one as a Genetics campaigner, and one, 30 minutes later, as "John" an irate NGO lobbyist. The Sheriff is claiming that warnings are given before people are gassed. Locals ring in because the police, having chased protesters into the suburbs have started gassing them there! There have now been 500 arrests, but no-one charged, or allowed an attorney.

The mayor announces that anyone carrying a gas-mask will be arrested. It is now illegal to defend yourself!

12.30: We sing at a Food and Agriculture rally, where Vandana Shiva is talking. The sun is out, and 5000 people have come, in an upbeat and militant mood. This time there's a lot more workers, farmers, and Seattle residents. The last few days have somehow galvanised us all. Now there is a genuine unity of purpose, whatever the different issues we have. I begin to have real faith in our power to change things.

In very high spirits we weave back between the skyscrapers of Seattle's centre. This is one crowd they dare not gas. The chant is: "This is what democracy looks like!" The destination is the Jail where some of the non-violent protesters are being held. The police keep their distance again, as we surround the prison-building, chanting "Set Them Free!". Prisoners faces appear at the distant windows, and a huge cheer goes up.

Our march relaxes into a sit-down blockade. We all start talking to each-other. People come and go. As the day darkens, I wish it was the Summer, because then I know this event would just keep developing. As it is, the authorities finally allow the prisoners their right to attorneys and legal support, on condition the crowd disperses. We feel powerful, and once the legal teams have been let in, we leave.

Tomorrow I'm leaving Seattle. I've been shocked, inspired, gassed, and inspired again. Barefaced lies have been told about what happened here, but we've put the unaccountable WTO firmly in the spotlight, and maybe, just maybe, we're starting to rediscover People Power.


The Seattle protest was a great success, and an important historical moment. Partly as a result of lobbying by NGOs, partly because of the pressure from the streets, and partly because of the rough treatment and tear-gas experienced by the delegates themselves, no agreements were made at all, and Biotechnology was kept off the WTO's agenda.

Perhaps more importantly, the foundation was laid for a genuine People's alliance uniting Third and First World Farmers, Industrial Workers, Consumers, Environmentalists, Students and Citizens concerned with Human Rights. Especially significant was the involvement of American youth and labour. They have the potential to lead the global revolution against Capital, if they can acknowledge the role of the US in global oppression and reassess their own life-styles. The link between Environmentalists and Labour are crucial for this.

It is unlikely that the Seattle Police were acting independently. Despite what they now say, they knew full well what to expect, and they could easily have just mass arrested the peaceful protesters. But this would have meant allowing People Power to triumph without a fight. The WTO used the American State machine to send a message to the world: Any opposition to us will be met with brutal suppression, even in the most liberal town in America! They want to scare people from realising that the power to transform the world IS ALREADY IN OUR HANDS. (It is also possible that the Corporate government wanted to sabotage the meeting themselves, once they realised that they would not get the deals they wanted.)

We have been united by a common enemy, and felt our incredible power, but if this movement is to develop beyond a marriage of convenience, we will all have to face some pretty tough questions. There are many apparent conflicts of interest between the different groups. These can all be resolved through common struggle. Future WTO meetings will be good places to start!

WTO ~ Biotech ~ Seize the Day
Seattle diary (c) Theo Simon 1999 Web design (c) Keith Parkins 1999 -- December 1999 rev 0