Eight Hours Of Outrage -- Council Hears Marathon Of WTO `Horror Stories'

By the end of the evening, even the most outrageous stories seemed dulled by repetition: beatings in jail, business owners tear-gassed outside their stores, innocent bystanders arrested, peaceful protesters silenced.

Seattle City Council President Sue Donaldson convened last night's unprecedented eight-hour public hearing to give people a chance to tell city officials what happened on the streets and in the jails during last week's World Trade Organization meeting.

But the marathon of testimony by some 120 people will provide a powerful backdrop of anger and frustration as a task force of three council members launches what could be one of the most explosive investigations in the city's history.

"It galvanized my determination to get some answers for what the hell went wrong," said Councilman Jim Compton, who will chair the ad hoc committee doing the investigation. "There were some genuine horror stories I heard."

Hundreds of people packed the downtown library's woefully inadequate auditorium for a chance to complain about their treatment.

The ground rules were simple: three minutes to speak out.

By 4 p.m., as the public hearing got under way, the line of speakers stretched out the library's Fifth Avenue doors and around the block. Even the pouring rain and long wait did little to discourage those who came to speak their piece.

"I feel it is important for everyone to learn what happened," said Russ Wilson, 30, of Seattle. "When we get together, it seems our voices can be heard."

But the crowd quickly grew restless. A broken cable cut sound to the loudspeaker outside. Dozens of people crowded around the smoked-glass windows of the auditorium to watch. There were heated exchanges at the doors as security guards refused to let any more people inside.

"This is very symbolic to me: the whole issue is about being heard," fumed Sam Eliason, 36, who took the day off work to attend. "There has got to be a room around here that could fit everyone. How about the stadium? We bought it."

In a bid to defuse tensions over the inadequate space, Donaldson hastily scheduled a second public hearing at Seattle Center on Tuesday. The exact location will be determined later, but the meeting will begin at 4 p.m.

Not all the council was there

Only five of the City Council members stayed for all or at least most of the public hearing. Margaret Pageler did not attend at all.

Peter Clarke, Pageler's legislative aide, said she could not attend because she had two other committments, including a meeting with the state Board of Health.

Richard McIver and Jan Drago left early to attend a dinner in honor of former South African President Nelson Mandela, who is visiting Seattle. Retiring Councilwoman Tina Podlodowski left early to pick up her children and did not return.

The sight of just five council members on stage clearly disappointed many speakers, leading some to wonder if dining with a foreign dignitary, even one of Mandela's stature, was more important than listening to the outrage of citizens.

"Where are the other City Council members?" asked Mark Canfield, as those outside the library pounded the windows in support.

Others asked where Mayor Paul Schell was.

The mayor-council rift

In some ways, it was probably a good thing the city's top politician wasn't around; he might have been booed from the room. More than a dozen speakers called for his resignation, and the rest of the audience seemed to like the idea.

The mayor had asked to attend the public hearing, but Donaldson told him this was a "council event." The exchange is the latest sign of the worsening relationship between the mayor and council, a battle that will likely be played out repeatedly in the months ahead.

Seattle is largely considered a strong-mayor, strong-council form of government. Like the mayor, all nine City Council members are elected citywide. As the legislative body, the council often acts independently of the mayor.

Last night's public hearing was, in one sense, a bid by the City Council to affirm its role as an independent check on the mayor, much like a hostile Congress often holds hearings or investigates actions by the White House.

Council members Nick Licata, Jan Drago and Compton are leading the wide-ranging inquiry into the city's handling of the WTO meeting and the demonstration that closed the downtown for much of last week and led to spectacular clashes in the city's most populated neighborhood, Capitol Hill.

The meeting of the international trade body in Seattle last week drew thousands of protesters to the city. Police in riot gear used tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets to clear them from the streets. About 600 people were arrested before the WTO meeting ended.

Schell and Police Chief Norm Stamper, who announced this week that he was retiring, have been criticized for how the WTO and protests were handled. The City Council's investigation is one of many promised.

Council gets subpoena power

The council's task force learned yesterday that it would have the power to subpoena witnesses, a potent weapon that the council has rarely if ever used.

Reacting to the stories at last night's hearing, Licata raised the stakes even higher, saying he would ask Amnesty International to be involved in the council's investigation. He wants the human-rights group to look into several issues, including the use of nonlethal weapons and the treatment of those arrested.

Licata said he was struck by the makeup of last night's crowd, which he described as largely middle-class and politically liberal.

In other words, a lot like Seattle.

Police officer interrupted

Last night's testimony was often vivid and emotional. Anger rose in many voices and boomed through the crowded room. Many were filled with righteous indignation at police misconduct brought down on them or a friend.

One police officer who tried to give testimony was initially shouted down by audience members, many of whom had spoken out about violation of their free-speech rights last week.

The public venting was punctuated with occasional humor and, at times, the bizarre. Bejamin Handstand Festival, of Miami, ended his testimony with three spiritual howls.

It wasn't difficult for many audience members to be swept up in the mood, which at time approached the fevered pitch of a religious revival. Shouts of "That's right" and whooping cheers often followed a particularly well-phrased jab at the powers before them.

One group, Independent Media Center, played a graphic video of the harsh tactics used by police on protesters who refused to move.

The council was prepared for a much rowdier crowd, with escape routes mapped out if the situation became hostile. It never did. While the audience was often loud and raucous, it was mostly well-behaved.

A one-sided gathering

Listening to last night's crowd, it might seem as though the entire city was gearing up to recall Schell, throw the council out of office, and impeach City Attorney Mark Sidran and King County Executive Ron Sims for good measure.

But Licata cautioned against that generalization.

"The people who are going to show up are the people who were hurt or knew people who were hurt," he said. "But there are a lot of people who are silent, who were supportive of the police, and they aren't the kind who are going to show up. That is something the council needs to recognize."

Across the street from the library, the Direct Action Network organized a rally that turned into a sort of people's hearing. On a sound system draped in plastic garbage bags and raincoats to protect it from the weather, speakers took the microphone to give testimony virtually indistinguishable from that going on inside the library.

At the end of the hearing, council members said they got the message, loud and clear.

"I heard a number of stories tonight that were truly compelling," said Councilman Richard Conlin. He said his job now was to sort out the reality from so many conflicting reports.

Some of those arrested told of abuse, but Conlin said jail officials were telling him a different story. And while many people told the council that police repeatedly used tear gas with no warning, Conlin said police commanders told him they gave warnings, and even provided him with precise accounts of the time and wording of those warnings.

Councilman Peter Steinbrueck said, "This has been absolutely riveting for me for the last seven and a half hours."

Responding to one speaker's charge that there were many glazed eyes on the council, Steinbrueck said if his eyes seemed that way, it was only because he was holding back tears.

"I would have stayed here all night if necessary to listen to you. You've convinced me."

Seattle Times staff reporters Joshua Robin and Jeff Hodson contributed to this report.

J. Martin McOmber's phone message number is 206-515-5628. His e-mail address is mmcomber@seattletimes.com


Another hearing on Tuesday.

A second public hearing on events surrounding last week's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle will be held Tuesday at Seattle Center. The exact location will be determined later, but the meeting will begin at 4 p.m.