A Retrospective of the 1999 World Trade Organization Riots in Seattle

Worst-case planning, resource planning, joint agency planning, among the lessons learned from seminal event in the Pacific Northwest.

by / November 30, 2009
Flickr Creative Commons

Photo: Pepper spray is applied to the crowd during the World Trade Organization protests on Nov. 30, 1999, in Seattle.

It's been 10 years since the World Trade Organization (WTO) riots, which began Nov. 30, 1999. It was a time when the economy was booming and the two events that people and agencies where preparing for were the WTO meetings in Seattle and the transition to the year 2000 (Y2K).

At the time, this author was director of the King County (Wash.) Office of Emergency Management. King County’s role was to support Seattle with resources if it needed additional staff, goods or services. The following are a number of memories and lessons learned from this seminal event in the Pacific Northwest.


The City's Big Rollout

This was to be a big rolling out party for the city. It was the first meeting of its kind to be held in Seattle, one of the gateways to trade for the United States. The WTO meetings were sought out and seen as a win for the city and region.

As with any large-scale event, there was a measure of counterdemonstration and other planning that was done by public safety agencies in preparation for the WTO Ministerial Conference. Police agencies conferred, but real joint planning wasn’t done — and the big mistake was not doing worst-case planning.

Lesson Learned: There was considerable intelligence that there were large-scale demonstrations being planned. Anarchists from Oregon were among those intending to make their mark in the streets of Seattle. Like most large organizations, the Seattle Police Department thought it could handle the event like it had past events. But the scale of the demonstrations was unknown until the first day and there were no real reserves of police officers from other jurisdictions prestaged to provide immediate support. “If we need you we’ll call” might have been the planning mantra of the day. Worst-case planning would have helped in leveraging regional resources and then being able to logistically support the department.

Conversely Seattle Fire had the forethought to ask for state fire mobilization. This was the first time it had been requested or granted for a planned event of this nature. Normally fire mobilization was used for wildland fires in eastern Washington. This advanced planning put an incident management team in place well before the first day of the demonstration. It was co-located at the King County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the “delegation of authority” was executed between the incident management team and King County government.

Lesson Learned: Although the advanced declaration of fire mobilization cost money, the decision was instrumental in providing logistical support to regional law enforcement personnel supporting the Seattle Police Department and in the end its own officers. Before it was clear that additional fire resources were needed, six strike teams were prestaged and ready to respond at the request of the Seattle Fire Department. These teams were never used for firefighting purposes. Law enforcement mobilization legislation was not in place at the time, but was passed following the riots.

The WTO riots started with a bang. Seattle Police resources were immediately overwhelmed and the call went out to regional law enforcement agencies to send help. One of the reasons this happened was that the protestors had free reign of the streets. Thus they were able to shut down the start of the WTO meetings, preventing delegates from attending the opening ceremony and many subsequent meetings.

Lesson Learned: Seattle Police have shared this with many other police agencies around the country and the world. You must contain protestors to one specific area. Then Seattle Mayor Paul Schell wanted to allow demonstrators to have freedom of speech. It cost him his elected office. There are consequences when sticking to your principles — good and bad. The other lesson learned was that “if you call” they will come. Law enforcement agencies quickly sent reinforcements, some highly trained and equipped for civil disturbance calls and others with little experience in these incidents.

Besides not having the personnel needed, the city lacked a logistics plan to support the widely dispersed officers who were on the street for multiple shifts without food or drink, or an opportunity for a break. Every commodity was immediately in short supply, including tear gas. Emergency supplies of tear gas (pallets) were flown into the region from other states.

It takes a long time for almost any organization to recognize that it’s overwhelmed and to ask for help. People think, “If I just get through this shift, this day, things are bound to get better.” When you do offer to throw them a “resource rope” they sometimes think it's a “snake” and something to be avoided at all costs. It’s as if taking assistance means failure on their part; we've all done that ourselves on home projects. Such was the case with the logistical support of troops deployed in the streets of Seattle.

Lesson Learned: It’s not enough to plan on how you will use operational resources; you also need to plan for the logistical support of those resources when deployed. It’s said that an army runs on its stomach — it was not much different during these trying times in Seattle. The King County EOC was activated and with the assistance of the incident management team located down the hallway, Camp Kingdome fed and offered a place of respite to the beleaguered officers within four hours of being given the “go.” Getting that OK also meant that the King County executive had to give his personal approval to fund the expenditure of county funds without any guarantee of being reimbursed by the city. The final bill tallied more than $100,000 and wasn’t an inconsequential decision in itself. Doing the right thing prevailed. Lastly the idea for using the Kingdome came from a public information officer serving in the information center at the King County EOC. Good ideas can come from anywhere when you have the right people in the EOC.

There were many operations centers functioning. Within Seattle there was the Seattle Police Operations Center, the Multi-Agency Coordination Group (MAC) and the Seattle EOC. There was also a Joint Operations Center set up by the feds and run by the FBI. King County and Washington State EOCs also were activated in a support role. It wasn’t clear which location in Seattle was in charge of the event. Certainly the Seattle Police Operations Center was trying to manage the deployment of forces in the streets, but at times the anarchists were more organized than the police and had officers running in circles. The MAC with multiple law enforcement agencies present helped with the interagency coordination, but there was little information to be had or shared.

Lesson Learned: Personally I don’t think much has been learned from this. There’s much talk about using Joint Information Centers (JIC) for public information sharing between agencies and also having operations centers with unified command and multiple agencies represented and sharing in either the decision-making or at least the information sharing. Still, for most large-scale events from political conventions to the Olympics you will see a multitude of operations centers that are “in communications” with one another. Their weakness in coordination and execution won’t be displayed until there’s a significant event. Even then, it’s hard for people and agencies to change their ways. While much lip service is given to the amount of coordination being done, we still haven’t solved this vexing issue of operating as a single joint entity — and that’s how many people like it.

After a couple of days of rioting, to the world it looked like chaos in the streets of Seattle. It was reported that then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was trapped in her hotel and fuming over the state of affairs. Albright, probably wearing one of her signature pins, had a meeting and read “the riot act” to Gov. Gary Locke and Mayor Schell, telling them to get control or else. This message got immediate action from the governor. Police troopers drove at “very high speeds” from eastern Washington and joined forces with the Washington National Guard. By the next morning, Seattle woke up to what looked like an armed camp in downtown with National Guardsmen paired with state and local law enforcement on every corner downtown.

Lesson Learned: Overwhelming force applied quickly and tactfully can be the winning combination. When I walked the streets of Seattle early the morning after these forces were deployed, it looked more like something out of a movie with martial law being declared (which it wasn’t and I don’t believe will be employed in the United States). As a former Airborne Ranger, infantryman with 20 years of service including armored divisions, I couldn’t imagine anyone not being intimidated by this show of force. As an armored car with Seattle SWAT team members hanging onto it rolled by, even I was careful to not jaywalk.

Sometime in the middle of all the action, there were accusations of inappropriate use of force by law enforcement. The mayor didn’t express full support for his police department and officers, which doomed him in the eyes of his police force. King County Sheriff Dave Reichert called a news conference in which he pledged his total support for his officers and the job they were doing. And there was a great deal of restraint shown by officers who had urine and firebombs thrown on them. There ensued a war of words played out publically by the sheriff and the mayor, both elected leaders.

Lesson Learned: I wonder if the city had operated a JIC with multiple agencies present and had orchestrated joint news conferences with other elected officials, if this would have played out the way it did. The sheriff was right to stand up for his officers. Would it have turned out the same way if there had been more coordination between the two agencies, since they were co-located at the MAC, but not at the Seattle JIC?

The Seattle police chief was an immediate casualty of the riots, resigning soon after; and as noted earlier, after the riot the mayor could not seem to do anything right in the eyes of the media or the public and wasn’t re-elected.

Worst-case planning, resource planning, joint agency planning and having integrated operations with a single command/coordination center, joint public information, prestaging of resources like was done under fire mobilization, massive displays of force to take control of the streets, and having designated demonstration areas — all are lessons to be learned by anyone taking the time to incorporate them to your own events and particular situations.
[Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/djbones/ / CC BY-SA 2.0.]

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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