Apocalypseattle Now

by Randall Woods


On November 30th, Seattle, Washington exploded with the worst rioting in the city's history. Our (mostly) fearless reporter takes you there.



"Tin solider's and Clinton's comin'
We finally will be known
This autumn Seattle's bummin'
Four days of W-T-O!"

* * *

I love the smell of tear gas in the evening... Smells like... industrial chemicals...

After 32 years of well-insulated armchair semi-liberalism, I can finally say I have experienced the honor of having chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (a.k.a. "CS" or "tear" gas) inhaled into my lungs. Another milestone! For most of my life, I've lived in or around Washington, D.C., the nerve center of American political protest, but I had to move to the not-so-Pacific Northwest before I could sample my first bitter taste of chemical warfare. My mother, a lifelong Democrat, will be so proud...

It all started peacefully enough -- about 4,000 Woodstock-wannabe posers and "green" eco-activists joined up in sleepy downtown Seattle with 25,000 card-carryin' AFL-CIO union members (with actual jobs at stake), 1,500 riot-gear-clad police, about 150 or so self-styled "anarchists" and a few thousand extra "innocent" bystanders, including Yours Truly. Our simple goal was to exercise our 1st Amendment right to make a disgusting, embarrassing mess out of one of the prettiest, nicest cities you'll ever see in North America. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?


"...Nothing Officially Ever Happens Except Rain..."

My office is about three blocks from where most of the "unpleasantness" occurred Nov. 30, 1999 -- the date much of the Seattle City Council figured would be a banner day for this desperately ambitious town. In a two-year effort to shed Seattle's long-standing inferiority complex, the wise city elders had doggedly courted the "WTO," the World Trade Organization, which was looking for a site for its annual meeting. After beating out other cities such as Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Honolulu and San Diego, we, in our infinite wisdom, agreed to kick-off this capitalism fest on the heels of Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping and travel weekend of the year. All eyes of the world would finally gaze upon our rain-soaked splendor, much to the joy of the city council. What they didn't count on were the raised eyebrows that soon followed.

The until-recently unpublicized WTO, a cabal of un-elected trade representatives from 135 member nations, is almost tailor-made for conspiracy theorists of all persuasions. The simplified function of the group is to set rules of trade among the nations in the increasingly "globalized" marketplace. To various factions of the left wing, the WTO is little more than a rationalization to allow the largest multi-national corporations to dispense with this silly "government" business and just dictate to the world how trade should be organized and where goods should be produced, usually at the expense of third-world human rights and U.S. jobs. To elements of the isolationist right wing, the WTO is the very embodiment of the fabled "New World Order," in which a global government uses "Big Brother" tactics and spying "black helicopters" to interfere in the lives of decent, God-fearing Americans. While most of these conservative opponents of the WTO wouldn't be caught dead mixing with the crunchy nouveau-hippies flooding into the Emerald City, their protectionist message was right there, between the lines of the cuddly, liberal "Save the Sea Turtles" placards.


"Then, at about noon, from our bird's-eye view..."

On a strangely sunny late-November day, this hodge-podge of inflammatory rhetoric espoused by both factions, the strangest of bedfellows, descended on my fair city's complacent, squeaky-clean streets. We were warned well in advance, yet taken completely by surprise.

Early on the morning of Nov. 30, I did notice a few more college-age, face-pierced "tourists" than normal on the bus to work, especially for a Tuesday, but most people would hardly suspect that a major protest was in the making. A few minor, peaceful protest rallies had already taken place the day before, accomplishing little more than the complete annoyance of passers-by with incessant "Hey-Hey, Ho-Ho, (fill in the blank) has got to go!" chants. Up on the 33rd floor where I work, I only heard a few more sirens than usual on the streets, and maybe an extra traffic helicopter or two.

Then, at about noon, from our bird's-eye view, we started noticing a few small parades of sign-wielding, slogan-shouting kids moving up 4th Ave. (right past my building) to join up with the main parade on Pike Street, namesake of our famous Pike Street Market and fish-throwing clinic. Intrigued, I decided it was time to go to lunch. Down at the street level, there were still no immediate signs of unrest, so I went and got a sandwich at a deli. Like most downtown parts that afternoon, the lines in the stores were short and street parking was ample, since half of the work force was scared away by the media's obsessive hand-wringing about the imminent chaos that was the WTO.


"I started hearing some darker reports..."

This being Seattle, Where Nothing Officially Ever Happens Except Rain (our slogan to keep tourists from moving here for good), most of the public shrugged off the idea of anarchy on the streets. "We're too nice for that," we all said, simultaneously, in a slow monotone. "This whole 'protest' thing is just typical hyperbolic over-reaction by the press." Besides, the cloudy, rainy sky that usually persists here from October to June, broke, astonishingly, into patches of clear azure by the late morning, producing a phenomenon known in Seattle as "sun breaks." It was turning out to be a lovely, unseasonably warm day -- even the reclusive Mt. Rainier briefly became visible. As I brought my lunch back to my building, I happened to hear the deli proprietor mention something about how a police sergeant would be coming by soon to tell them when they should close the downtown establishments under civil emergency procedures. "Ha!" I said as I walked along the sunny, drying sidewalk. Overhead, almost too perfectly, a rainbow slowly emerged in the clearing sky.

After lunch, I started hearing some darker reports from outside our ebony office tower. Our accountant had gone to lunch closer to the throngs of protesters and said something about police in riot gear. She also said she could smell something like pepper spray or tear gas in the air. "Oh, come on," I thought, the Archie Bunker in me rising to the surface. "It's just a bunch of faux-hippies finding an excuse to party and smoke some killer weed." Looking down 4th Ave. from our window, however, I could see how crowded it was getting down by the fancy-schmancy shops in the Westlake Center. The city had cordoned off the street a couple blocks from us, but I couldn't see many police standing about. In the slivers of streets I could glimpse between the buildings, it looked crowded but orderly, with people mostly milling around.


"Are they going to pull a Tiananmen Square...?"

By about 1:00, the first curious event happened. We noticed a huge yellow front-end loader construction vehicle rumbling up a side street next to our building, followed by a large dump truck. Surprisingly, the loader and truck turned left and headed up 4th Ave. toward the crowd. One block away from the demonstrators, the loader crossed the intersection -- as some uniformed guy hastily removed the orange traffic cones in its path -- stopped in the middle of the street and lowered its empty bucket to the pavement. The crowd, finally noticing this apparent challenge, started turning around, and a few of the protestors started walking towards the yellow behemoth, chanting something we couldn't hear from our high perch. "What the hell is this?" I thought. "Are they going to pull a Tiananmen Square and scoop all the protesters into the dump truck and haul them off to the landfill?" I couldn't tell if the drivers were part of the police barricade strategy or just a couple of lost construction workers trying to find a way to their work site.

Soon, more emboldened protestors linked arms and slowly moved forward toward the machine in a bizarre parody of the Old West gunfight myth -- the white-hatted, good-guy, pro-environment crowd versus the evil, black-hatted symbol of unchecked development and corporate greed. In front of the protest line, a few renegade bicyclists started doing slow figure-8's in front of the machine, waving their fists and shouting something in unison. At one point, a protestor climbed up to the cab and starting shouting back to the crowd, who were growing more agitated by the moment. Eventually, after about 15 minutes of this weird stand-off, the truck and the front-end loader slowly backed up, and went back down the route they originally came. In the trucks' wake, the protestors jumped for joy and started high-fiving, apparently celebrating any kind of victory they could find.

"O.K.," I said, "I've got to see some of this surrealism first-hand."


"...the SWAT team... had M-16 military assault rifles at the ready."

Down on the mean streets with Aaron, one of my co-workers, we went down to see what all the fuss was about. One group of crunchy granolas had commandeered an intersection a few blocks away and had formed a ring surrounding a couple dozen chanting, face-painted college kids, wearing typical grungy '60s-style clothes and sandals (natch). This ring, however, was more high-tech than we thought -- instead of just holding hands, each ring member was attached to the others via a duct-tape-covered tube (yet another use for that miracle tape), which fit snugly on each person's forearm. I later found out that, under the duct tape, these tubes were made of high-strength steel. By taping these contraptions firmly to the protestors' arms, it makes it very difficult for police to break up the ring by merely pulling the people apart. According to one source I overheard: "You have to, like, pull their arms off, or else get a power saw to cut them out of it." 1960s protesting meets 1990s technology...

One block further, Aaron and I went about as far as we could go. The scattered, disorganized bands of protesters had collected behind an intimidating line of police, dressed to the hilt in helmets, black body armor, riot shields, gas masks, billy clubs, pepper-spray canisters, tear gas guns and "flash-bang" stun-grenade launchers. Some of the SWAT team members even had M-16 military assault rifles at the ready. Aaron said this is probably the happiest the Seattle SWAT team has ever been, since they got to "finally wear all the cool gear that's probably been sitting in the back of their lockers for years." Across the intersection, another line of identically-clad SWAT storm troopers were holding back a much bigger contingent of chanting, singing and dancing protesters.


"...black-masked 'anarchists' roaming ominously through the crowd..."

The stand-off reminded my of an episode I witnessed in 1989 during a visit to the "Checkpoint Charlie" gate at the Berlin Wall a few months before the wall was forcibly removed. At the gate, two separate lines of nervous East and West Berlin police -- who, to a man, looked no older than 16 -- faced each other across an empty no-man's land. On the Western side, drunken West Germans from a nearby bar taunted the police, dutifully cheering each car as it drove across to the Western side, and booing each one that went "the wrong way." In the Seattle version, no-man's land was Union Street, one of the main corridors for the WTO delegates to get to the convention center, which was periodically patrolled by an armored vehicle and groups of bristling storm troopers. Their armor and gait reminded everybody in the crowd of the "Star Wars" evil empire. Some even started humming the Imperial Death March theme as they passed by.

Like most huge protests, the message the crowd was trying to make often became incomprehensible. Among the waving signs, almost every liberal cause was mentioned: "Fair Trade, Not Free Trade" "Jobs For Working Families!" "Save the Sea Turtles" "Capitalism = Death" "Anarchy is Order" "I Want to Make Sure I'm Not Eating Dolphin!" "Meat is Murder!" and, of course, various witty bon mots such as "Fuck the WTO!!" One civic-minded protester, doubtlessly a native Seattlite, merely wrote "Pick Up Your Trash!" on a white plastic bag, reminding the marchers that most of them were still guests in this town. Dozens of earnestly painted signs described the various states of the Earth's physical and economic disrepair that has apparently been caused by WTO policies. Hands were also popular -- black hands, bleeding hands, handcuffed hands, handshakes, cradling hands, iron fists, middle fingers, etc. One scruffy-looking guy, who looked like he'd hiked all the way up from Portland, wore a backpack that was fashioned into an enormous red papier-mache fist that rose several feet over and behind his head. Some folks were obviously out to just show off their performance art. Three or four people were roller-blading through the crowd wearing black and red "super hero" costumes, flowing black capes, fly-eyed masks on their faces and what appeared to be bowling trophy figures taped to their foreheads. Various circus freaks also cruised through, some juggling, some in clown make-up, some on stilts. Incense and peppermints, "wacky-tobacky" smoke and drum-circle beats floated in the air. And, of course, there were the black-clad, black-masked "anarchists" roaming ominously through the crowd, just waiting for the right moment to strike.


"As darkness fell and rain clouds moved back in, the looting was just beginning."

For about an hour, Aaron and I watched the tense standoff with several other bemused on-lookers. Though the situation was explosive, the atmosphere still seemed light. Protesters had overturned newspaper boxes and dumpsters to blockade the streets, and had sprayed socialist graffiti on most of the buildings. (My favorite was one slogan sprayed across the front of a Wendy's restaurant, saying "The Revolution Starts Here!" Really? Did the Revolution fill up on frosties and "biggie" fries before it left?) At one point, some protester tried to rush the SWAT team lines, prompting another phalanx of baton-wielding cops to descend on him. I briefly looked for an escape route behind me, in case there was a stampede, but the crowd started chanting, in unison, "No violence! No violence!" After a few nasty baton blows, the cops relented, and everything calmed back down again with no arrests made. Most of us were still joking about how this was so much ado about nothing, and how it was all just an excuse for kids to get stoned and for cops to feel macho. Then everyone would just go home and say their side had won. By about 2:30, Aaron and I gave up and headed back to work.

Later, at about 4:00, I got a call from my friend Angela, asking how I was getting home, since all the fires and tear gas were in the streets. "Huh?" I said. Apparently, some of that tension we saw had broken in the intervening two hours. With the help of breathless wall-to-wall coverage from the local news stations, Angela reported to me that, beginning around 3:00, the crowd turned more hostile, and most of the downtown shop windows had been either vandalized or shattered. As darkness fell and rain clouds moved back in, the looting was just beginning. Some fires were also set in the dumpsters and intersections. The state police and the National Guard were being called out by the mayor, who also set a downtown curfew from 7:00 p.m. to dawn. I later found out it was the first time a curfew had been decreed in Seattle since the evening of Dec. 7, 1941, amid fears of another Japanese attack on American soil.

Oy vey...

"...black-masked hooligans ran past me yelling, 'Back up! Incoming!'"

I finally got out of my office at 5:15 and started heading home. On my office block, things looked quite calm in the twilight gloom, but I knew that, since the buses had stopped running at noon (due to slashed tires and human blockades), I would have to walk home directly through the riot zone. As I headed back up 4th Ave., I noted that there were less people about, but there was more noise in the streets. Also, this time the noise was not from drums, tambourines and chanting but random yelling and bullhorn squawks. Punctuating the din was an occasional "WHUMP!" from a few blocks ahead -- the sound of tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and flash-bangs being fired at the surging crowds. A few blocks further, I couldn't see the protesters too well, but I could see a haze of tear gas rising a few stories above the street. As I crossed University Street, I also noticed that hardly anyone was walking in my direction anymore. No one was running, but they were all walking briskly and calmly toward me and turning down the side streets. Apparently I had reached the barricaded dead end.

Attempting an end-around down onto 3rd Ave., I also noticed that many of the people had their jacket hoods up and hands over their faces, as if it were 20 degrees colder than it really was that night. By the time I got down to 3rd, I realized what they were doing. I suddenly felt a little scratch at the back of my throat and thought something got into my eye. Blinking hard, it dawned on me that, even though there was nothing visible in the air, the cloud of tear gas had slowly drifted toward me, away from the melee. I quickly turned back and headed down toward 1st Ave. where I could catch the waterfront breezes off Elliot Bay, but it was too late. The invisible cloud was upon me. Immediately, my eyes burned and filled with tears. My nose started running like a faucet as I grabbed for the hood of my jacket. Breathing through the edge of the hood, I could smell some nasty odor that was an unholy combination of industrial solvent and pesticide. By the time I got to 1st and started heading briskly north for home, I noticed that most folks around me were fellow Seattlites, coughing and cursing away, blinking back the tears, just trying to get home from work. Luckily I didn't get much directly into my lungs, so it only burned my eyes. It was kind of like having an extremely potent hayfever attack, with every fluid in you body seemingly draining out of your face, only without the sneezing. For a couple more blocks, I was about half-blind. The stinging finally cleared by the time I stumbled to the Pike Street Market.

By this time, I was past most of the gas and my vision and breathing improved enough for me to take off my hood. Soon after, another "WHUMP!" was heard, and about 20 or so black-masked hooligans ran past me yelling "Back up! Incoming!" I sped past the intersection, but I could not see any canister behind me -- only more thin clouds of tear-haze in the distance. On the sidewalk, a group of three or four kids, no more than 15 years old each, were smiling and laughing and running toward the fracas, with one of them yelling, "C'mon, man! Let's go fuck some more shit up!" Oh, boy, I thought. Here comes Seattle's version of "wilding."


"...There would be no more laid-back tolerance of 'free speech' that day..."

Just a few blocks outside of downtown, there was hardly any evidence of the violence occurring behind me. I made it home about a half hour later and went off to the warm, comforting sanctuary of a local bar to meet some friends of mine. The bar was lightly attended, but unless you watched the bar's TV, showing rampant looting in downtown jewelry and electronics stores, you would never have known we were under a lockdown.

The next morning, tear-gas memories still fresh in my mind, I purposely avoided much of the downtown. On the bus ride in, the scene was depressing, but much different than the night before. I could see a lot of gang-related graffiti and boarded up windows, but also a LOT more police on every corner. The main reason was President Clinton, who came into town that day to give a WTO speech. The Secret Service, no slouch when it comes to security and order, made sure nothing remotely similar to the previous night's riots would erupt while Bubba was in town. Even before I arrived for work, the National Guard had already swept through the streets, opening several cans of industrial-strength, federal whoop-ass on anyone who even remotely looked like they enjoyed granola. There would be no more laid-back tolerance of "free speech" that day -- not when violence was threatening the vital Christmas economy. To accommodate the mass arrests, Metro buses were impressed into service to round up anyone within a few blocks of the convention center who looks suspicious. The yuppie/hippie detainees were then deposited in a makeshift detention center at an abandoned U.S. naval facility -- an unsettling reminder of the Japanese-American "internment camps" that resulted from Seattle's last dalliance with civilian curfews.


"...this ugly episode was not going to end until the last WTO delegate slinked out of town..."

That evening, I was able to walk down a rapidly healing 4th Ave. on my way home. Most of the streets were deserted, except for clusters of police hanging out, looking bored, at each intersection. The smashed windows were all boarded up, as were many other intact storefronts whose owners feared a similar fate. Several other major businesses, such as Starbucks, shut down all downtown stores as a precaution. (No coffee? For Seattle, that's really hitting below the belt. You may as well take away our oxygen!) On some exposed windows, shop owners pleaded to the crowds' political sensitivities with hastily laser-printed signs, saying "This is a 100% American-Owned Business" or "We Sell Only Antique Clothing." The acrid smell of tear gas was replaced that evening with the smell of solvent, used to eradicate much of the crude graffiti on the walls of the Westlake Center. In a heartwarming act of goodwill, a small group of political demonstrators had come back to the shopping plaza that afternoon armed with brooms, scrubbing brushes and paint thinner to help city crews clean up the detritus left behind by the violent, unrepentant minority. Unfortunately, the same small groups that had caused this damage were busy several blocks away in another neighborhood, clashing yet again with the weary police for their perceived "right" to bring the city to a halt and vandalize with impunity. Clearly this ugly episode was not going to end until the last WTO delegate slinked out of town.

Eventually, as the tear gas cleared, both sides declared victory. The protesters managed to shut down most of the opening sessions on the first day of the WTO conference -- a noble feat, I must say -- and the WTO organizers insisted the slightly delayed agenda was a success. Seattle, however, is still paying the price. All this mayhem happened right in the heart of the shopping district of downtown, right when small business owners -- the ones the protesters were supposedly fighting for -- were most vulnerable. People are going to remember this, and they're going stay away in droves. Sure, I won't shed a tear knowing that behemoth, exploitive multi-nationals, such as Niketown, the Gap, Nordstrom's, Old Navy, The Warner Bros. Store, McDonald's and Starbucks took some of the biggest vandalism hits, but you know they won't have to pay a dime in repairs. It'll either come from insurers or from the small franchise owners who've had to build and furnish the stores out of their own pocket.


"...Take THAT, New York!"

The protesters can whoop 'n' holler about how they faced down Goliath and won, but they'll be heading back home in a few days, and we'll be stuck with all the mess they created and all the countless spray-painted gang "tags" they provoked, which are now being laboriously scrubbed off every exposed surface downtown. Most of the offending juveniles wouldn't know "free trade" if it marched up and billy-clubbed them over the head.

In the silver lining department, I overheard some native Seattlites discuss the aftermath of the WTO. Most were ashamed of the violence, saying we're far too civilized and polite for this to happen. However, I've also noticed a hidden undercurrent of pride in our speech and a mischievous gleam in our eyes -- sort of like the goody-two-shoes kid in school who finally finds the courage to face down a tormenting bully. We may shake our heads and universally condemn the violent acts, but we're secretly saying to ourselves, "Yeah, we're ba-a-a-ad! We got yer 'mean streets' right here! Take THAT, New York!"

"Well," one of the natives said cheerfully, "at least this'll knock us down a few rungs on the 'Most Livable City' list." Apparently, we'll support anything out here to make sure more Californians don't invade our turf -- even if it means a few missed lattes at Starbucks..



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