Out of Control: Seattle's Flawed Response to Protests Against the World Trade Organization

Introduction, Executive Summary, and Recommendations


They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety.
Benjamin Franklin
Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759 

The World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference which began in late November, 1999 inspired one of the largest political protests ever seen in Seattle. Poorly prepared for what was likely to occur, the City of Seattle exacerbated its problems and violated civil liberties through a string of mistakes in judgement and practice.

Largely due to poor planning, City officials did not protect conference delegates’ right to assemble at the opening meeting. Realizing it had lost control of the situation, the City then over-reacted. It violated free speech rights in a large part of downtown. Under the direction of the Seattle Police Department, police from Seattle and nearby jurisdictions used chemical weapons on peaceful crowds and people walking by. Losing discipline, police officers committed individual acts of brutality. Protesters were improperly arrested and mistreated in custody.

On Tuesday, November 30 – the opening day of the WTO conference – people started calling the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington office to complain about police conduct. Deluged with calls, we quickly created a web-based system to receive citizen reports about police treatment of protesters and bystanders. By Wednesday, people who had witnessed or experienced police misconduct could submit detailed reports to our web site. More than 500 people did so. We quote directly from 42 of the incident reports to convey first hand the nature, range and severity of civil liberties violations that took place in Seattle.

Civil liberties paid a dear price for poor judgment calls made by public officials and police personnel every step of the way. The City must acknowledge what went wrong and take actions to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Executive Summary

Foreign and trade ministers from 135 nations who came to Seattle for the WTO meetings in November 1999 encountered 30,000-50,000 protesters airing environmental, labor, religious, and human rights objections to WTO policies. The strategies of protesters – well publicized for months in advance – covered a wide spectrum: major and minor marches, political theater, civil disobedience, prayer vigils, teach-ins. The protests began with a festive air – people dressed in costumes, banging on drums, dancing, chanting and singing. But the atmosphere soon turned sour.

By 8:00 a.m. on the first morning of the conference, Tuesday, November 30, some of the demonstrators blocked WTO delegates from attending their meetings. At 10:00 a.m., with crowds swelling in the streets, police began to deploy chemical weapons, rubber bullets and clubs against peaceful protesters and bystanders alike. When these actions failed to clear downtown streets and intersections – and after a few dozen individuals vandalized downtown businesses while police stood by – the Mayor of Seattle declared a civil emergency. That declaration and the ensuing police activity throughout the week brought unwarranted restrictions and outright assaults on citizens and on their basic American rights.

Many people expressed surprise that the WTO, an international organization based in Geneva which sets trade rules and settles trade disputes, could evoke such strong and well-organized opposition. Yet there was both ample reason to expect large-scale protest and ample information about the tactics that various protest groups would employ to make their political statements. The WTO conference in Geneva the previous year had seen numerous arrests as police clashed with protesters. Weeks before the conference, the London Times and SeattleTimes ran articles on groups planning massive protests. The New York Times reported on October 13 that, "[t]hree hundred groups are vowing to bring 50,000 people or more to downtown Seattle to picket, demonstrate, hold teach-ins and cause general disruption . . . that could turn the city’s streets into a carnival of protest and, perhaps, a morass of gridlock."

Lack of Preparation, Overreaction

While Seattle officials could not know for certain what would happen on the streets during the conference, there had been plenty of discussion about what might happen. The City had both reason and opportunity to prepare appropriately for the range of possible situations, but it simply did not.

The Seattle Police Department, which was in charge of conference security, did not establish an effective security plan. Police officers did not receive adequate training for the operation at hand. As the conference approached, police leadership did not allow sufficient time to establish positions on the street and did not assign enough forces to do the job. Once the action began, the Department did not give officers on the line enough rest, bathroom breaks and food, and did not issue coherent orders.

Rank-and-file officers were responsible for carrying out strategies that were ill-conceived. The police forces on the street Tuesday morning could not get delegates to the start of the conference, resulting in the cancellation of the opening ceremony. Meanwhile, the police did not take action to stop and apprehend the few dozen individuals who vandalized downtown buildings.

Failures in anticipating the event do not excuse the violations of civil liberties that took place as the event unfolded. For any event that is expected to draw significant protest, the City has the duty both to accommodate lawful protest activities and to protect access to the event for delegates, press, and other attendees. City officials started out with the right idea – allowing demonstrators to be close to the targets of their protest – but they executed it badly. Their security plan led them to ignore the rights of delegates as well as the City’s legitimate security obligations. Having under-prepared, the City then over-reacted.

By Creating a "No Protest Zone," the City Violated Rights of Free Speech and Assembly

For several days, it was illegal publicly to express anti-WTO opinions in a large section of downtown Seattle.

With police unable to control the movement of protesters, and concerned over the conference’s disruption and the imminent arrival of President Clinton, the Mayor declared a civil emergency and issued an order establishing a 25-square-block "limited curfew zone" or "no protest zone" in the heart of downtown. The area was essentially a militarized zone, with entry controlled by police and barred to people expressing views critical of the WTO. The suppression of free speech was not needed to protect security, nor could the "no protest zone" have accomplished that aim.

In responding as it did to the WTO protests, the City violated fundamentals of our free society which require that any governmental restriction on speech be as narrow as possible to accomplish its legitimate purpose and be "content-neutral" – that is, not favoring any particular view. The City ignored both these principles.

Though the Mayor and other officials have insisted that the City did not unduly restrict constitutional freedoms in downtown Seattle, this assurance does not square with people’s actual experiences on the street. Scores of citizens reported being prevented by police from engaging in peaceful, lawful expression within the zone. Police ordered citizens to remove buttons or stickers from their clothing, confiscated signs and leaflets, and blocked citizen entry to the core of downtown

The City Council failed to take timely action to ratify or rescind the "no protest zone." Instead, the Council ratified all of the emergency orders the following week – after the WTO conference had adjourned and the orders expired.

The implementation and enforcement of the "no protest zone" violated rights of free speech and assembly, and did so without even the possibility of providing any real security.

Police Officials Authorized Chemical Weapons and Other Inappropriate Force Against Peaceful Crowds

Policing theory recognizes that it is sometimes better to allow crowds to mill about in streets than to employ the level of force that would be needed to clear the streets. For example, if thousands of sports fans spilled into the streets to celebrate a Seattle Mariners World Series triumph, police commanders would not order the use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets.

Despite police and media descriptions to the contrary, the protests during the WTO conference did not constitute a riot. They were noisy and disruptive, yet demonstrators were overwhelming peaceful. Not so the police.

Police commanders authorized the use of force at inappropriate times and levels, and directed it against inappropriate targets. They approved the use of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and clubs against people who were demonstrating peaceably, against demonstrators who had not received or who were trying to obey police orders, against bystanders, and to quell disturbances the police themselves had provoked. The level of force simply was not proportionate to the threat.

The Seattle Police Department used massive amounts of tear gas against crowds even when such use was not necessary to protect public safety or the safety of officers. Tear gas was used in heavily populated areas where it inevitably affected large numbers of innocent bystanders.

The Seattle Police Department used pepper spray repeatedly against nonviolent protesters who posed no threat to public safety or to the safety of officers. Police department reliance on pepper spray was misplaced. Virtually no one has published scientific research about the effects of pepper spray on human health, and no agency regulates the manufacturing process.

Rubber bullets were used against people who posed no threat. They were also used against largely nonviolent crowds and against individuals who were engaged in passive resistance or fleeing.

Acts of Abuse by Individual Officers

Beyond the bad decisions made at the command level, police discipline broke down, and rank-and-file officers engaged in acts of brutality.

Brutality was not the norm for the hundreds of officers who reported for duty, but there are widespread reports of police using excessive force against persons who posed no physical threat, were not resisting arrest, or were simply trying to leave the area. In their riot gear, officers were visually indistinguishable from one another. Lacking visible identification, some of them took advantage of their anonymity to assault protesters. And, some officers refused direct requests to provide names or badge numbers. Others tried to preserve their anonymity by targeting people carrying cameras.

Although police brutality was not limited to one area, the events in the Capitol Hill neighborhood – where police invaded a residential area and gassed, pepper-sprayed, and bullied local residents and shoppers – were particularly egregious. Police officers were not making split-second decisions in emergency situations. They were simply using their weapons on people who offended them or who merely caught their attention. Officers also used clubs, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets against individual bystanders in downtown Seattle.

To date, neither the City nor any other jurisdiction involved in WTO security has acknowledged that police misconduct was more widespread than a few isolated instances. Until the problem is acknowledged, it will not be solved.

Improper Arrests and Mistreatment of People in Custody

The police made hundreds of improper arrests, detaining for days people who would never stand trial. Then, after the demonstrations were over, charges were dropped. The City Attorney doggedly pursued other charges that either were dismissed or did not lead to convictions.

Individuals arrested during the anti-WTO demonstrations were mistreated and witnessed others being mistreated by jail officers. Some of the mistreatment was directed at protesters who made demands to see their lawyer. Some officers singled out, threatened and assaulted individuals for exercising or demanding their constitutional rights. Some officers used pepper spray against non-threatening prisoners who posed no threat to officer safety.


Once is more than enough. Seattle, King County, and other jurisdictions involved in policing during the WTO Ministerial conference should learn from the mistakes of 1999, and they should incorporate these recommendations into their policies and planning:

1. In situations where there is potential for confrontation between demonstrators and others, there may be times when police need to establish corridors or security perimeters to ensure safe passage of meeting-goers. The City must ensure that it designs such security corridors and perimeters narrowly, so that they do not unduly restrict protest activities and are no larger than necessary to accomplish the specific safety aim.

2. The Seattle Municipal Code should be changed to require the City Council to ratify any declaration of civil emergency within 48 hours.

3. When a major event is to take place with a potential for large-scale demonstrations, the City should prepare an impact statement to address the resources needed for crowd management, crowd control, and the protection of civil liberties.

4. Law enforcement agencies in Washington should see to it that their police officers receive training on civil liberties as it relates to crowd management and crowd control.

5. Law enforcement agencies in Washington should suspend the use of tear gas until the presiding city or county determines that adequate studies have been conducted to prove it does not present health risks to affected individuals.

6. If the city or county accordingly authorizes the resumption of tear gas usage, tear gas should only be deployed in open spaces and where it will not affect large numbers of bystanders. The decision to use tear gas should be made at the command level, and only officers specifically trained in the use of tear gas may be authorized to carry or use it.

7. Law enforcement agencies in Washington should suspend the use of pepper spray until the presiding city or county determines that adequate studies have been conducted to prove it does not present health risks to affected individuals.

8. If the city or county accordingly authorizes the resumption of pepper spray usage, the following policies on the use of pepper spray should be adopted:

* Pepper spray may be used only when an individual poses an immediate threat to officers or others. It may not be used to disperse a crowd. It may not be used against an individual who is fleeing or complying with orders, or against a nonviolent demonstrator passively resisting arrest.

* Officers using pepper spray must comply with all other manufacturer’s recommendations, including that it not be used in bursts longer than one second, in repeated bursts against the same target, or at a range of less than three feet.

9. The Seattle City Council and other jurisdictions that were involved in WTO policing should require that their police departments develop policies and procedures for managing crowd control in ways that:

* do not unduly restrict civil liberties;

* provide clear instruction on the use and continuum of force; and

* provide adequate notice and time to disperse along a safe and clear dispersal route.

10. All police officers must at all times be clearly and readily identifiable by name and department.

* The outermost layer worn by police personnel, including riot or rain gear, should bear easily visible identification numbers.

* When outer-layer gear is issued, the department should record the name of the officer receiving each number.

11. Law enforcement agencies in Washington should have mechanisms in place to properly investigate allegations of police misconduct.

12. King County Jail officials should investigate allegations of misconduct at the jail during the WTO protests and hold accountable any personnel found to have committed acts of misconduct.

* Jail personnel must wear clearly identifiable badges or nametags at all times.

* King County Jail administrators should review their policy on the use of pepper spray, restraint chairs, and other compliance techniques by jail personnel. Pepper spray should not be used on an individual in a restraint chair.