Although they occurred 15 years ago, the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle continue to generate much passion and discussion.
That was certainly evident at a recent event, co-sponsored by LSJ and the Harry Bridges Labor Center. The event, officially titled “Militarized policing and public protest: from the WTO protests to Ferguson,” drew an overflowing crowd to the Ethnic and Cultural Center’s Unity Room.
Discussion surrounded the militarization of the police, particularly in the context of the WTO protests. The current debates and protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner caused emotions to run high throughout the evening.
The event began with a screening of 2000 documentary, “This is What Democracy Looks Like.” The film provides an in-depth account of the Seattle WTO protests, which are often referred to as “The Battle in Seattle.” The Seattle Police Department was particularly aggressive in their attempts to clear the streets during these protests.
Officers fired pepper spray, tear gas, and stun grenades at protestors, with permission from SPD Chief Norm Stamper.
Stamper attended the panel that directly followed the film screening. Tyler Weaver, an attorney who successfully sued Stamper’s police department for the wrongful arrest of 150 peaceful protesters, and Robbie Stern, formerly of the Washington State Labor Council, joined Stamper to discuss these landmark events.
Stamper, who worked in policing for 34 years, was apologetic, claiming he regrets the decisions that were made under his discretion.
“I believed we had no choice, I believed we needed to do what we did,” he said. “I have now come to a different conclusion.”
Stamper is referring to the use of chemical agents to control the massive crowds that exceeded 40,000. He holds himself completely responsible for the use of such tactics.
“It is so sad that American law enforcement didn’t learn from my mistakes in 1999,” he said. “We should have acknowledged that the streets belong to the people. I fear for this country, I fear for every single young African-American male in particular who encounters far too many police offers.”
Robbie Stern, who was an extremely active protestor back in 1999 says he had no idea so many people would come to Seattle to participate in the protests.
He asked for a show of hands to determine how many in the audience had participated in the protests, and at least 15 attendees responded. Some publicly recalled their experiences.
Stern says one thing he learned from the WTO protests was that “you can’t have one battle and think the war is over.”
He added, “It’s very important for us to distinguish between a riot and a rebellion. What you saw in downtown Seattle, what you are seeing in Ferguson, was a rebellion. We will not tolerate the injustices anymore and we are going to fight back.”
Stamper ended the panel with a call-to-action: “We must confront police militarization by demanding a major overhaul. If we want to turn it around, it has to come from a mobilized, aroused, informed citizenry, insisting on transparency and accountability that you get only with civilian oversight.”
The evening concluded with a lecture given by Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University's School of Justice Studies, whose research focuses on the increased militarization of police.
He argued that the police are too militarized. He cited much evidence, including the fact that 65,000 SWAT raids that occur each year, mostly for low-level crimes.
He said one can observe the level of militarization not just in the aggressive policing tactics and war-like weaponry, but through the police’s uniforms and haircuts as well, factors that Kraska calls “cultural indicators.”
“I can’t tell you how many cops there are now that have their hair completely shaved, that’s the militaristic culture,” Kraska said. “The cultural part may be the most important indicator.”
Student Communications Assistant | Kate Clark