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World Trade Organization: Seattle Aftermath

January 18, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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WOMAN: I want to know why our mayor isn’t here, and the chief of police! (Crowd cheering)

MIKE JAMES: Seattle residents want an accounting for the riots and protests that disrupted the World Trade Organization meeting in December. Street life is normal again in the downtown core of the city. Merchants replaced their shattered windows. Shoppers are back in the stores again. But memories of that week of tear gas and violence are still vivid, and so are these numbers: More than 500 arrests, $17 million in lost pre-Christmas shopping revenue, nearly $3 million in property damage. In the end, the city dropped most of the unresolved charges against protesters for lack of evidence, but some lawsuits are still pending. A city council investigation began the week after WTO.

SPOKESPERSON: I wanted to emphasize that the purpose of this meeting is to hear from all of you, to listen to your testimony, and to begin the process of healing that this city so desperately needs.

MIKE JAMES: In almost 20 hours of hearings, council members heard from residents, merchants, police, and protesters.

SEATTLE RESIDENT: I’m going to make this nice and sweet. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that you should take a bath on this, Mayor Schell, and go ahead and resign (Cheers) because there’s too much going on, and you’re not paying attention.

SEATTLE RESIDENT: We entrusted our businesses, our communities, and, yes, our lives to your keeping and protection, and you failed us.

MIKE JAMES: The council investigation is just beginning, but there’s already a major casualty at city hall. Chief of Police Norm Stamper resigned, and admitted in this interview that the city vastly underestimated the scale and intensity of the anti-WTO protest.

NORM STAMPER: I believed that we were ready. I think I need to openly acknowledge that. I believed that our city was ready, and in fact we were not. We weren’t ready for the depth of anti-WTO sentiment that was being expressed. We weren’t ready for the very large numbers of individuals, representing a minority of all protesters, who were bent on destruction or violence.

MIKE JAMES: Critics are asking now why the city didn’t take a tougher stand from the beginning– establish a protective perimeter for WTO delegates, reroute protest marches, and display a greater show of force from the first day. But Mayor Paul Schell, interviewed in the days after WTO, said that’s not the message he wanted to send.

MAYOR PAUL SCHELL: I wanted everybody to be heard, that we weren’t going to trample on free speech before the fact– everybody to be heard and nobody to be hurt. And I wanted the ministerial to go on. They have free speech, the right to assemble as well. And at the same time, I felt we have a tradition in our city of allowing and, in fact, encouraging people to express themselves. And it was no more complex than that.

MIKE JAMES: Police commanders now say they met frequently with protest leaders in the weeks before WTO. Officers thought they had an understanding that demonstrators would not shut down the streets. But anti-WTO leaders say they told city leaders and police time and again that they meant to disrupt and to shut down the WTO meeting. One protest leader said it again at the council hearing.

PROTEST LEADER: Whether they thought it meant colorful signs and some very clever chants, they were very, very wrong. The civil disobedience and the direct action network succeeded in their goal in shutting down the World Trade Organization.

MIKE JAMES: The deeper wound, for some, is that the WTO experience shook Seattle’s proud sense of itself as a city known for its coffee culture, tolerant lifestyle, and high-tech economy. David Brewster is a longtime publisher of a local weekly newspaper.

DAVID BREWSTER: We see a city that is very ambivalent about its charmed prominence in the world. It wants it, but it doesn’t want the costs that go with that. It is trying to decide whether to go forward into the kinds of things that produce turbulence and disputes and bitterness, and cost politicians their jobs, or to be a much more comfortable, cautious place.

MIKE JAMES: In that “comfortable, cautious” camp is Art Thiel, one of the city’s popular sports columnists, who wrote a scathing piece about Seattle’s “folly” in taking on the contentious world trade meeting.

ART THIEL: Somehow, our civic leaders have gotten this notion that unless we’re bigger and better, we’re nowhere– and that is not any part of the sensibility of the Seattle that I’ve been around professionally and personally for most of my life.

MIKE JAMES: Thiel touched a local nerve. That column, he says, got more e-mail reaction than anything he’s ever done.

ART THIEL: I knew what I was saying was validating a number of people that I’d talked to, but the breadth and the depth of the response, I have to say, was astonishing.

MIKE JAMES: One of the civic leaders singled out by Thiel is Port of Seattle Commissioner Pat Davis, a key player in bringing the WTO meeting to Seattle.

PAT DAVIS: I don’t think we were “proving ourselves.” I think we were just saying we are an international city, and this is an appropriate place for a meeting like this. If we have any hubris at all, I think it’s about the fact that we’re nice here. We don’t do things like these people did. So I suppose in a way we’ve learned a lesson that way, that we have to guard against that kind of behavior. They’re not all people who act like we do and behave like we do, who sort of get along, and I guess we’re a little bit smug about that here. And maybe we’ve grown up a little bit.

MIKE JAMES: But not soon enough for merchants in the city. Shoppers simply abandoned downtown the week of WTO. Alberta Weinberg, owner of a small specialty shop, lost six days of business just three weeks before Christmas– a huge loss in the most important month of the year.

ALBERTA WEINBERG: People – you know – want to promote Seattle as a top-flight top player, and I think Seattle isn’t. It isn’t a New York, a Chicago, or an LA, and I didn’t think it wanted to be. So I think there’s some schizophrenia here about what it really is, and what some entities want it to be– and probably need to step back and take a look at this.

MIKE JAMES: The mayor of Seattle is taking a look, but the moral he draws from WTO Week, from an experience several national newspapers now call a “fiasco,” is not to turn away from global affairs.

MAYOR PAUL SCHELL: I hope that we don’t just become safe and self-satisfied and count our money, but have the courage to step out and offer something to the community. Whether we take on mega-events like the Olympics, I think it will be a long time before this city is ready to do that. But whether we take on risky projects, or we take on efforts to help understand the world we live in, I think we’re part of the world, and we need to do that as well.

MIKE JAMES: Mayor Schell, looking back, is ready to share Seattle’s painful experience with other cities around the country.

MAYOR PAUL SCHELL: In fact, we already are, with Los Angeles and Philadelphia, who are hosting the big nominating conventions this summer, and some of the same people are going to be visiting their cities– and so, how to manage this in a way that doesn’t preclude before it begins a free and open society having a free and open debate about issues people care about. If we give that up, we give up something far more important to the health of our society.

MIKE JAMES: Seattle residents seem to agree. Local pollsters found them faulting the mayor’s judgment about WTO, for allowing the protests to overwhelm their downtown, but most residents here don’t want Seattle to give up its status as an international city. The lesson from WTO, as one local columnist wrote, is “not to give up the game, but to learn how to play it.”