How Seattle Police in 1999 Set the Terrible Example Others Have Followed Ever Since 1

Even as new protests in Seattle have Donald Trump engaging in his usual bluster, Norm Stamper, the former police chief in that city, has watched the recent images and videos of cops cracking down on nonviolent protesters with tear gas, batons, and pepper spray across the country with the same feelings of sadness and wrongness that have gripped so many Americans. But Stamper had an extra layer of frustration: “We must be suffering from some kind of learning disability,” he told me from his home on Orcas Island, Washington. “We really are incapable of learning from our experience.”

Stamper ran the Seattle Police Department during the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization, the most infamous event in Seattle policing history. On what was supposed to be the first day of WTO meetings, exceptionally well-organized left-wing activists out-maneuvered the cops, blockading downtown Seattle intersections, freeway exits, and sidewalks, sometimes dancing in joyous defiance. 

Overwhelmed, outnumbered, and worried that emergency vehicles couldn’t navigate the streets, the SPD deployed tear gas, pepper spray, bean bag rounds, and other non-lethal but aggressive means to clear the streets. Cops—some of them with their badge numbers obscured—pushed demonstrators into the nearby Capitol Hill neighborhood, where indiscriminate use of tear gas terrorized residents who had nothing to do with the protests. In the following days the SPD successfully kept protesters away from the WTO meetings, but violent clashes between cops and activists continued, and the images of riot gear, Molotov cocktails, broken windows, and brutalized citizens were widely seen as a fiasco for Seattle’s leadership.