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Seattle Siege: Learning From the Chaos

As one officer close to the incident said, "This is what happens when your command structure and city management do not plan ahead and refuse to pay attention to known negative intelligence."

April 01, 2000  |  by Joseph Henderson

As one officer close to the incident said: "This is what happens when your command structure and city management do not plan ahead and refuse to pay attention to known negative intelligence."

At about 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 1999, Seattle police officers and city employees were setting up barriers they hoped would hold back thousands of World Trade Organization (WTO) protesters they knew were coming.  Their first line of defense was a "web construction type" of black fencing.  The second line of defense was a tightly parked row of commuter buses lined up in an "L" shape around the Paramount Theater, at Ninth and Pine.

The safety measures-two lines of rather passive defense-were in place to protect the scheduled 10 a.m. opening ceremonies for the hundreds of delegates and other public officials from more than 135 countries.

At the very same time, thousands of demonstrators were also getting ready to begin their week of protests. Both the city and protestor activities were being reported LIVE on local television stations.  The four-day conference was scheduled was scheduled to take place at the Seattle Convention Center, which is located just about one block south of the Paramount Theater. 

The so-called "safety measures"—feeble at best and woefully inadequate for what was to follow—never held.

By the time order was restored later in the week after some of the worst rioting on American soil in recent memory, several assisting agencies had taken matters into their own hands, bypassing paralyzed, impotent Seattle city and police department leadership at the very top in order to quell the violence.

Many have said it was a miracle that no officers or civilians were killed.


It was common knowledge in the Northwest law enforcement community that the WTO would not only bring protests, but violence as well.  Legitimate protestors had been in contact and negotiations with Seattle city and Seattle police officials for months in advance of the conference.  Seattle had been promised a peaceful march on Tuesday, the first day of the conference, by labor groups, Earth First, Farm Workers and other protest groups.

Assistant Police Chief Ed Joiner in pre-WTO media briefings, stated that he knew of reports of 100,000 protestors bringing havoc and destruction to the conference.  His response to the information was: "Quite frankly, I don't put a lot of stock in it."

The Direct Action Network (DAN) was involved in the organizing of the protest. Organizers went public with their intentions several months in advance of the conference. North of Seattle, near Marysville, they had set up a training camp for the protesters coming in from all over the nation.  In September 1999, they invited the media to watch repelling practice, and showed how protesters planned to lock themselves together. Their intention was very clear: to shut down the WTO.

In June of 1999, a group known as the Anarchists or the Black Block, whose trademark is wearing black or other dark clothing, and ski masks or scarves, had a virtual rehearsal in their hometown of Eugene, Ore. The Eugene riots were in protest of planned trade talks in London, England.

POLICE did some research about the WTO and found that the June conference in London, resulted in not only protests, bit also riots. The same disruptions occurred at the conference before that and the one prior to that.

The research wasn't difficult; the information was even posted on the Internet.

Many agencies throughout the Northwest were in training for possible problems related to Y2K. Agencies had formed Mobile Field Force Teams or Riot and Crowd Control Teams. According to King County Deputy John Urquhart, aide to King County Sheriff Dave Reichart, "Our role was as backup, not as a joint operation with Seattle. We were preparing for the need of our assistance, even though they had not requested it."

Pierce (PCSD) and Snohomish (SCSO) Counties, immediately south and north of the Seattle/King County Metro area, and many other agencies in the region did the same as the KCSO. To that end, offers of assistance and inquiries went to the leadership of the city of Seattle and the Seattle Police Department (SPD), through formal and informal channels.

Seattle Police Officer Jeff Geoghagen, currently assigned as an academy instructor, had firsthand knowledge. He told POLICE, "My brother is a Snohomish County Deputy on the Civil Disturbance Unit; they offered help and were turned down."

Seattle told agencies that their direct assistance would not be needed to control the crowds. Even when presented with the intelligence and information that problems would occur, it appeared that Seattle leadership was choosing to ignore it, instead telling agencies that they had assurances that there would be no violence. The city chose only to train with the Washington State Patrol, who would be responsible for security of Interstate 5, which runs under the Seattle Convention Center and the on-and offramps within the city.

Some other agencies did have specific venues assigned, such as Boeing Field where a dinner was planned. Initially the King County Sheriff's Office (KCSO) and the city of Tukwila Police Department (TPD) shared that responsibility. KCSO's Deputy Urquhart said that periodically they would get together with Seattle and compare notes. "But we never actually trained together," he added.

Several other area law enforcement, fore and emergency management agencies confided that Seattle was not talking about their plans. The final sign that there was trouble ahead came on Monday, Nov. 28, 1999. In downtown Seattle, a planned march broke into a mob scene that required a mass response by law enforcement. A pre-protest so to speak, included some violence and property damage.

Given the WTO's history, the information given to Seattle, and planning with the demonstrators, Seattle's leaders still did not see fit to ask for help, even one day in advance. Some law enforcement officers who are also in the Washington National Guard have told POLICE that they were given advance warning to be on alert as they may be called up to help Seattle. However, the Guard was not put on actual standby.

There is no question, that for reasons only known to Seattle, officials there chose not to call on available resources until after things had turned ugly.

Plans Gone Awry

Within a very short time on Tuesday morning, the "fencing" was down and protesters were standing and jumping atop the line of buses at the Paramount Theater. While Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and Police Chief Norm Stamper went on local television telling the public that they had the situation under control, in reality, prior to and while doing the news briefing, Seattle had sent out a statewide call for immediate assistance from other agencies.

Meanwhile, the mayor had been told by the Secret Service that the situation was too unstable. They were unwilling to allow the Secretary of State Madeline Albright to be moved from her hotel to the ceremonies.

The scheduled opening ceremony on Tuesday was a total failure. Very few of the delegates actually made it through the mob of protesters to attend it. Many delegates felt it unsafe to leave their hotels, while others, who did try to make it to the theater, literally had to fight their way through the crowds.

At the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Seattle, plainclothes King County Sheriff's deputies were involved in fistfights with protesters who were trying to stop delegates on their way to the opening ceremonies. The officers called out for priority aid saying, "We are being overrun," said King County Deputy Urquhart.

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