Seattle's 'Disastrous' Response to the '99 WTO Protests Is A Cautionary Tale for NYPD | Sojourners

Seattle's 'Disastrous' Response to the '99 WTO Protests Is A Cautionary Tale for NYPD

WTO protests in Seattle, November 30, 1999. Pepper spray is applied to the crowd.

Writing in the Nov. 29, 2011 issue of The Nation, Norm Stamper, who served as Seattle's police chief during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, says his "disastrous response" a dozen years ago should have been a cautionary tale. "Yet our police forces have only become more militarized."

Stamper, who retired from the Seattle police force in 2000 and went on to write Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing begins his piece in The Nation by describing the first day of the WTO meetings in 1999, when thousands of protesters from around the globe descended in his city. That first day, Seatte police were praised for being measured — even friendly — toward the demonstrators.

But that changed on the second day of the protests, when demonstrators blocked one of the city's major intersections. Police felt they needed to clear the intersection. That's what they do. Restore order, etc. Stamper, too, agreed that the intersection should be cleared. He now regrets that decision because not long after police arrived to clear the intersection, the tear gas cannisters began to fly.

Stamper writes:

My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose. Rocks, bottles and newspaper racks went flying. Windows were smashed, stores were looted, fires lighted; and more gas filled the streets, with some cops clearly overreacting, escalating and prolonging the conflict. The “Battle in Seattle,” as the WTO protests and their aftermath came to be known, was a huge setback — for the protesters, my cops, the community.

More than a decade later, the police response to the Occupy movement, most disturbingly visible in Oakland — where scenes resembled a war zone and where a marine remains in serious condition from a police projectile — brings into sharp relief the acute and chronic problems of American law enforcement. Seattle might have served as a cautionary tale, but instead, U.S. police forces have become increasingly militarized, and it’s showing in cities everywhere: the NYPD “white shirt” coating innocent people with pepper spray, the arrests of two student journalists at Occupy Atlanta, the declaration of public property as off-limits and the arrests of protesters for “trespassing.”

The paramilitary bureaucracy and the culture it engenders — a black-and-white world in which police unions serve above all to protect the brotherhood — is worse today than it was in the 1990s. Such agencies inevitably view protesters as the enemy. And young people, poor people and people of color will forever experience the institution as an abusive, militaristic force — not just during demonstrations but every day, in neighborhoods across the country.

Much of the policing in the United States today is mired in what Stamper calls "archaic internal systems of authority whose rules emphasize bureaucratic regulations over conduct on the streets." While surely there are instances when police should and do respond with physical force — even deadly force — and militaristic strategizing (think a school under siege by crazed gunmen, an armed hostage situation, or a violent crime in progress). 

But, Stamper says, "most of what police are called upon to do, day in and day out, requires patience, diplomacy and interpersonal skills."

The "bad apples" have to be removed from police departments throughout the nation before true reform will occur, Stamper says, but he believes change is possible and a "progressive" police force can be created through "radical structural reform."

It would appear that Stamper wrote his piece for the Nation before today's events at Occupy Wall Street in New York City transpired. His closing thoughts are prescient.

"Imagine the community and its cops united in the effort to responsibly 'police' the Occupy movement," Stamper writes. "Picture thousands of people gathered to press grievances against their government and the corporations, under the watchful, sympathetic protection of their partners in blue."

May such a vision become a reality sooner than later, and may peace and calm return to Zuccotti Park — and prevail throughout all of the hundreds of Occupy sites worldwide.


Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.