To Seattle and Back

A reporter’s notebook of the WTO protests


Day One

It’s a cool, foggy Missoula morning when our group of two dozen environmentalists, ’60s radicals, and sundry other advocates from western Montana congregate outside the Kingfisher in Missoula. Though I’m pulling for a luxury tour bus to ferry us to Seattle to join the 50,000 or more other protesters who plan to shut down this week’s World Trade Organization (WTO) conference, my pessimism proves well-founded. I’m greeted instead by a rickety yellow school bus used for shuttling whitewater rafters. With the back seats loaded chest high with backpacks, sleeping bags, and hand-painted picket signs, and the local TV crews fed their obligatory 30-second sound bite, our bus lurches up the I-90 entrance ramp for our 500-mile westward haul.

Even before the bus clears the Missoula city limits, someone mentions that the mayor of Seattle has announced that he’s prepared to arrest 100,000 protesters if need be, and has reserved the Seattle Kingdome for the task. While I’m being jostled in my rickety seat, I’m already wondering if this bumpy ride is an omen of events to come.

As members of a captive but cooperative audience with nothing but hours across asphalt ahead of us, we’re enlisted by Jim Olson of Friends of the Bitterroot to stamp and label a mailing to a few hundred supporters to help protect 60 million acres of roadless wildlands in our national forests. The tedious chore allows plenty of get-acquainted time. There’s Mark Schofield of the Missoula New Party and Katie Crawley, a UM junior who last month founded the student group Students for Justice, Freedom and Humanity. There’s Native Forest Network’s Matt McGovern-Rowen who, along with Bryony Schwan of Women’s Voices for the Earth, organized this excursion.

By Wallace, Idaho, the sun has burned off the clouds, the mailing is complete and the bus has demonstrated that it’s incapable of more than 30 miles per hour over the mountain passes. As I abandon any pretense of stealing a nap, Idaho’s Silver Valley provides a reminder of why we’re on the bus. There’s a sign for Kellogg, Idaho, one of the nation’s worst toxic waste sites. It’s places like this—and countless others throughout the world—that may fall victim to environmental policies set by nameless, faceless bureaucrats who are answerable to no one, governed by no public disclosure rules and who have repeatedly demonstrated that the bottom line is their top priority.

I ask Lireva Wall of Bozeman why she’s on the bus. Lireva isn’t representing any particular group, though her mom (also with us) works with Alliance for Democracy. Lireva fixes antique clocks for a living.

“You draw a line in the sand, and you stand on one side or the other,” she says, a succinct assessment from someone who tinkers with time for a living.

After 10 kidney-rattling hours of political discussion and storytelling, we arrive in Seattle, home of the Space Needle and the world’s richest man.

Our accommodations are hardly glamorous: an abandoned day-care center in north Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. The house looks like a cross between a hippie commune and a crack den. Slated for demolition in January, it has toilets and some heat but no hot water. The revolution may be televised. It just won’t be climate controlled.

Greg, our Seattle host, has provided us with bus maps and schedules, agendas and written advice on a backboard and the walls: “Green flags=safe areas,” and “1 pm: legal solidarity training. If you are risking arrest you should go to this.” After finding a quiet corner to bed down, I nod off overhearing that a contingent of French farmers is planning to hurl excrement at a downtown McDonald’s.

Day Two

The house is awake at first light. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer runs a front page photo of protesters burning clothes outside The Gap, and Greg tells us that Seattle has imposed a $250 fine for hanging anti-WTO posters on telephone poles and mailboxes. At 9 a.m., we catch a packed city bus downtown which turns into an rolling political debate with the locals. I spot a worker scrubbing anti-WTO graffiti off a Microsoft billboard.

Our first stop is a panel discussion and rally at the First United Methodist Church, where international representatives are discussing “The Human Face of Trade: Health and the Environment” to a packed house of labor activists and people dressed as green sea turtles. There’s a barrage of testimony on how WTO policies have promoted “biopiracy” of native plants in Latin America, undermined France’s ban on asbestos, displaced indigenous peoples to promote cyanide heap-leach mining in Ghana, and left Pakistani children to die because their parents can’t afford the 12 cents it costs for vaccines. All testimony, by the way, that will never be heard by WTO delegates under the organization’s current rules.

I join the throng of protesters who spill into the streets and down Sixth Avenue to Union Way and into the bowels of corporate America; past Niketown and Old Navy, Tiffany and Co. and The Gap. The march ends at Eighth and Pike at a makeshift stage two blocks from the Convention Center where the WTO will meet.

“The road to Seattle is paved with broken promises, fractured laws, treachery and deceit, with more to come,” says Patricia Forkan of the Humane Society of the United States. “The road to Seattle is a harbinger of what happens when trade, unfettered by ethics, uncontrolled by rules of civil society, blind to what constitutes our humane society, is allowed to become the law.”

The “Make Trade Clean, Green and Fair” rally feels somewhat marginalized to me, sandwiched between a construction site and the “Gameworks,” where MTV videos of the Backstreet Boys play in the window. But the crowd is fired up, despite the falling rain.

Two blocks away, a less orderly demonstration is underway. French farmers are pounding the windows of McDonald’s, and while none of the rumored airborne excrement has materialized, protesters are distributing hunks of illegally imported Roquefort cheese to protest U.S. import tariffs, while protesters burn fake money and dance on top of city buses.

Meanwhile, Seattle police in riot gear have drawn an arbitrary line in the sand, barricading Second Avenue to prevent the marchers from shutting down all north-south traffic routes. As the marchers approach, the scene becomes a classic ’90s photo op: Cops in riot gear positioned in the crosswalk, while hordes of people flood around them onto Second Avenue waiting to photograph the confrontation that never occurs. With police effectively defending nothing but their pride, the stand-off becomes surreal, like the Marines storming the beaches of Grenada only to meet a force of TV news crews.

Hours later, Mark Schofield and I escape the rain and some ugliness outside of Niketown and head to an environmental workshop called “On the Chopping Block: Forests and the WTO.” There, forest activists from Japan, Mexico and Chile talk about the Global Free Logging Agreement, euphemistically called “tariff liberalization.” Due to be signed this week, the agreement eliminates export bans on raw logs, resulting in a projected three-to four-percent increase in worldwide timber consumption. The event is informative until a man introduces himself as the second coming of Christ, at which point we exit for dinner.

Later that evening, the Jubilee 2000 Third World debt relief rally plans to encircle the Kingdome in a human chain. Organizers expect 4,000 and get 15,000, who form a ring around the mayor’s holding cell six-deep. I opt instead for the free concert in Key Arena, featuring the Laura Love Band and Spearhead, and appearances by Austin radio personality Jim Hightower and Michael Moore of Roger and Me fame. The event is equal parts after-hours party and political rally.

Day Thre

The day begins with a mixed forecast of scattered showers and sun. Among our Montana contingent is UM freshman Ressa Charter, whose sign reads: “Industrial Agriculture wants to take my ranch and take over your food supply! What do you want? Shut down the WTO. End corporate dominance.” Ressa’s family owns a cattle ranch outside Billings. He told me he’d love to take over the ranch one day but doesn’t expect he ever will.

Our bus hits downtown and police testosterone is immediately palpable. Cops in riot gear carry machine guns and move about in armored personnel carriers. One well-dressed man (not a protester) says, “I’ve been to protests for 30 years. I’ve never seen anything like this except in Northern Ireland.”

We turn a corner and land instantly at ground zero, where protesters are linking arms to bar all entrance into the Convention Center. A rumor spreads that Seattle emergency rooms have been directed to prepare for biological warfare. At 10:30, we move to the south side of the Convention Center to firm up a hole in the human barricade. Reports trickle in of tear gas fired where we’d been.

This cat-and-mouse game between police and protesters continues through most of the morning. At 11, we encounter an inflatable blue whale blocking Sixth Avenue where police are pepper-spraying seated protesters. A woman watching the mayhem turns to me and says, “There’s an expression in Spanish that when it’s rainy and sunny at the same time, the devil is paying his dues.”

A half-block away, I encounter two Norwegian WTO delegates who can’t get inside, surrounded by 12 protesters. No yelling, cursing or shoving, just a peaceful dialogue. “A lot of the opposition is based on misunderstanding, and we’d eradicate a lot of that misunderstanding if we just opened up this organization,” Norwegian Ole Lundby admits.

12:30 p.m. It’s gloriously sunny. While the TV news reports are focused on Pike Street, where black-hooded gangs of anarchists are spraying graffiti, overturning trash cans and smashing windows at Bank of America, Starbucks and Nordstrom, very little attention is given to the peaceful march by tens of thousands of union workers, including the Seattle longshoremen, who have completely shut down the Port of Seattle for the day.

By 2:30, our group has to head back to Missoula, leaving the march literally in mid-stride. The bad news: We lose three of our group, who never returned to the bus and whose whereabouts are unknown. The good news: Three Montana marchers made the front page of the New York Times, including one of Native Forest Network’s founder Phil Knight and Matt McGovern-Rowen.

In the days to come, the mainstream press will likely play up images of riot gear, graffiti and smashed windows. Although the smell and taste of tear gas may be difficult to shake, what will linger longer in the memory of those who attended were the messages sent to the world, that undemocratic policies are not inevitable, and that momentum is building toward change that is yet to come.

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