WTO Protestors Win Class Action Suit
by Steven Penn

From November 30 - December 4, 1999 a coalition of global justice and environmental activists shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle. Protestors from around the country, including Syracuse, took action to prevent the barons of capitalism from expanding their control over the world's workers and resources.

Under the banner of the Direct Action Network, protestors engaged in a nonviolent direct action blockade that cancelled the first day of the WTO meeting. The protest shifted the meeting's subsequent debate to the concerns of developing nations, and it is widely credited for the failure of the WTO Millennium agreement.

The city responded to the mass action by declaring martial law and banning all forms of protest in the city center. It called in the riot police and National Guard, who cleared the streets using batons, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades and tanks. Police arrested anyone in the city center wearing buttons, holding signs, or marching peacefully. In all, about 600 people were arrested and held. The largest arrest was in Westlake Park on December 1. That morning 200 people marched through downtown repeatedly announcing their peaceful intentions. Mounted police surrounded them, corralled them into the park, and arrested them as they sat singing and chanting. Protestors who engaged in nonviolent noncooperation were beaten and peppersprayed. They were held in prison in for five days, and denied contact with lawyers until the fourth day.

Since 1999, every city hosting a pro-globalization meeting has used similar police-state tactics. Governments now routinely use police and military force to suppress people's right to protest. The public is barred from meetings of global economic policy.

This January, seven years after "Seattle," a jury ruled in favor of the Westlake Park protestors' class action suit for wrongful arrest. Barring an appeal by the city, the trial will now proceed to the awards stage. The 200 protestors may well be awarded millions of dollars in damages.

The Seattle protest was a brief vision of the liberation that is possible through collective action. But in the current culture of fear and surveillance in the US, it is disturbing that the jury in the Westlake Park case ruled that Seattle's ban on protest did not violate the protestors' freedom of speech. While the Westlake Park case is an important victory, it is also a sobering reminder of the challenges that remain.


Steve Penn, a physics professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, is part of the Westlake Park class action suit.