ACLU Sees Lessons in Seattle WTO Protests: "The City Needs to Get it Right"

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
November 21, 2000 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Washington
Media Contact
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New York, NY 10004
United States


SEATTLE–As we approach the one-year anniversary of the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests and a new series of rallies, the City of Seattle needs to show that it has learned the right lessons from last year’s demonstrations.

This year, we hope things go differently. Whatever the activity on Seattle streets, sidewalks, parks, or plazas, we expect the police to respond in appropriate yet restrained ways. The solution to the problems of last year’s WTO activities is not to crack down harder on demonstrators – it is to preserve civil liberties and public safety.

First and foremost: The exercise of freedom of speech in a democracy is not always neat and orderly. People engaged in protest are often noisy and unruly. But demonstrators milling boisterously in the streets do not constitute a riot, and they do not warrant heavy-handed tactics by police.

Any response by police must ensure that the rights to peacefully assemble and to express political views are respected. Unlawful conduct by a few should not be used as an excuse to restrict the lawful conduct of others. A small number of people who destroy property can be arrested without punishing everyone else in a peaceful march.

Secondly: When dealing with individuals who are breaking the law, police must use force proportionately and with discretion. Using more force than is necessary to maintain order is likely to inflame a crowd and escalate a confrontation. It also may jeopardize the safety of bystanders. Tear gas and pepper spray are not appropriate weapons to use against people who pose no threat to officer or public safety.

After months of study and scores of recommendations, the City has adopted just one ordinance requiring Seattle Police officers to wear identification on their outer-most layer of clothing – a key problem last year when riot gear and rain ponchos concealed officers’ identities.

Yet many more reforms are needed, from suspending the use of tear gas and pepper spray until their health effects have been fully studied to requiring the City Council to ratify any declaration of civil emergency within 48 hours.

The ACLU has urged the Seattle Police Department to develop a comprehensive crowd control manual outlining the proper way to handle gatherings and disturbances – something that the department still lacks. Police officials needs to make sure that officer understand the importance of safeguarding free speech and are trained in how to protect public safety and civil liberties.

Last year’s events highlighted more than ever the need for an open and responsive system for investigating allegations of misconduct by police officers. Nearly a year after the City Council adopted measures creating an Office of Professional Accountability with civilian oversight, there is still no such structure in place. Citizens deserve a fair way to address the actions of officers who used excessive force last year. It is high time Seattle completed implementation of this Office to ensure accountability and public trust.

The ACLU currently is pursuing a lawsuit challenging last year’s WTO “no protest zone” for violating the First Amendment rights of citizens. Plaintiffs include individuals who were either silenced or forced out of the “no protest zone” solely because they had anti-WTO cartoons, buttons, stickers, or signs. In August, three clients in the lawsuit accepted offers of judgment from the City and received $5,000 each; the suit is proceeding on behalf of four other plaintiffs.

The ACLU also has submitted to the City an in-depth report on the handling of WTO demonstrations, Out of Control: Seattle’s Flawed Response to Protests Against the World Trade Organization, available on the ACLU Website at

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