December 1, 1999: WTO + SPD = WTF?

Most of the historical attention lavished on the events of WTO Week in Seattle since 1999 has been focused on the turmoil downtown. But for many of us who lived in Seattle at the time, the Seattle Police Department’s paramilitary invasion of the city’s ultra-liberal Capitol Hill neighborhood on the date in focus here still stands out as vividly as the previous day’s downtown melee.

The SPD’s November 30 tear-gas free-for-all and December 1 mass arrests were already appalling enough as the 7 p.m.-to-dawn curfew imposed downtown began that evening. But when the SPD began following a large group of protesters out of the so-called “no-protest zone” decreed by Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and up Denny Way towards the Hill, it would soon lead to a new outrage: the spectacle of riot-clad police and camo-clad National Guardsmen, brandishing tear gas, flash bombs, and rubber bullets, running amok in the heart of the most densely populated West Coast urban neighborhood north of San Francisco.

Small police-protester skirmishes had already occurred on Capitol Hill the night before, but on this night the Hill hosted a major SPD assault. It all began downtown around 7 p.m., when several hundred protesters voted to march towards the Hill. Reaching Broadway around 7:45 p.m., they met another large group already demonstrating there. By 8 p.m., some 500 protesters were marching up and down Broadway, denouncing the SPD’s presence and behavior on the Hill.

The assault began around 9 p.m., when Seattle police, supported by King County police and the National Guard, began using tear gas and flash bombs against the protesters. Soon large crowds of appalled Hill residents joined the protesters, chanting, “Go home! We live here!”

Rather than leaving, the SPD and friends began attacking residents and protesters alike. The video segment that accompanies this post, taped at the corner of 10th Avenue East and East Harrison Street, shows the riot squad’s brazen behavior in full flower as, mere seconds into the segment, a riot officer sprays mace directly into the video camera being held by a Capitol Hill resident.

That night’s infamous nadir occurred when John Vanderwalker, a King County sheriff’s deputy, approached two young women sitting in a car at Broadway East and East Republican Street, who were videotaping the melee. Vanderwalker ordered the driver to roll down her window. When she complied, he doused both women with pepper spray while shouting, “Tape this, bitch!” — thus supplying one of the more noteworthy quotes of WTO Week.

For those of us who called Capitol Hill our home at the time, the question still lingers today: What the fuck were they thinking? Such an assault within the “no-protest zone” would have been understandable, though not quite commendable. But one so clearly outside the “zone”?

Long story short, the outrage publicly expressed by Capitol Hill residents in the following weeks played a great part in one of the better local legacies of WTO Week: namely, the heightened demand for police accountability that continues today, as seen most recently by the sustained public outrage over the August 30, 2010, murder of First Nations artist John T. Williams, among other recent egregious actions by officers of the Seattle Police Department.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Scott Sunde, “Second straight night of confrontations rocks Capitol Hill,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 2, 1999, p. A1; Louis Porter, “Conflict spills into Capitol Hill,” University of Washington Daily, December 2, 1999, p. 1; Kery Murakami and Heath Foster, “Outrage on Capitol Hill softens police stance,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 3, 1999, p. A1; Steve Miletich, “Police weary after a long week,” The Seattle Times, December 3, 1999, p. A22; “Countdown to chaos in Seattle,” The Seattle Times, December 5, 1999, p. B1; Joshua Robin, “Capitol Hill residents want probe,” The Seattle Times, December 6, 1999, p. B1; Nancy Bartley, “Two file WTO damage claim,” The Seattle Times, December 8, 1999, p. B1; Kimberly A. C. Wilson and Elaine Porterfield, “Brutal police behavior was recorded on video,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 9, 1999, p. A18; Kery Murakami, “Hundreds again turn out to blame the police,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 15, 1999, p. C1; Kimberly A. C. Wilson, “Deputy’s WTO role under scrutiny,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 30, 1999, p. C1; Lewis Kamb, “2 attacked in car during WTO sue officer, county,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 13, 2000, p. B4.

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About radsearem

Jeff Stevens is a Seattle native and author of the forthcoming City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle.
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