Justice:Denied - the magazine for the wrongly convicted

What lessons did we learn about the justice system in Seattle?

The Denial of Justice is a Process

By Hans Sherrer

(Published in Justice:Denied, Volume 1, Issue 10)

In February 1943, the Gestapo arrested almost two thousand Jewish men in Berlin who had German gentile wives. Knowing the men would be taken to camps if they weren't promptly released, their wives congregated on Rosenstrasse, a street in front of the Gestapo-guarded building where the men were held. The women then did a remarkable thing. They began protesting the arrest and imprisonment of their husbands. They sang, held hands, and they chanted slogans such as, "Give us back our husbands." The Gestapo and Berlin police menaced the women, threatening to arrest them, but they refused to get off the street or stop demonstrating until the men were released. After a week of protests, the Gestapo finally relented and released the men, many of whom survived the war. Although the Rosenstrasse protest took place in the capital of Nazi Germany during wartime, not a single protester was harmed in any way or arrested by the Gestapo or the police. [1]

The significance of the Gestapo's hands-off treatment of German women protesting their Jewish husbands' imprisonment is in its sharp contrast with the behavior of police during the World Trade Organization (WTO) conference in Seattle, Washington that began on November 30, 1999. [2] Martial law was declared over a 50 square-block area of downtown Seattle on the conference's first day after a small number of people broke a few windows, burglarized a couple of stores and overturned some newspaper boxes. No one knows who started the vandalism, but people around the world saw how police used it to justify creating confrontations, to promote mayhem and violate international human rights standards. The police did this by attacking thousands of unarmed and peaceful demonstrators and bystanders with chemical agents, jack boots, truncheons, "flash-bang" grenades, wooden pellets and hard plastic bullets. [3]

Policeman shooting a plastic pellet weapon at demonstrators in seattle

The police dealt inhumanely with thousands of people over the four day conference. A young woman who crumpled to the ground after being shot in the face with a plastic bullet was arrested because she was too stunned to get up after a policeman ordered her to stand. A cab driver ferrying a Clinton Administration official was arrested for asking the police why they stopped him. A Black Seattle City Councilman driving near the downtown area was stopped for no discernible reason and menaced by police while a U.S. Congress member watched. A man standing alone on a street corner handing out literature to passersby was arrested for "failure to disperse," then driven around handcuffed for 12 hours in a police van before being taken to jail. A deaf man walking away from a group of police was arrested after failing to heed a policeman's order to stop walking. Then, on the evening of December 1st, several hundred people singing Christmas carols in a residential district near downtown Seattle were attacked by a large force of police with pepper spray and tear gas that seeped into the homes of people living in the area. [4]

Police attacking demonstrators with tear gas.

About six hundred of the estimated 50,000 demonstrators in Seattle were arbitrarily arrested for the flimsiest reasons. These people were predominantly middle class whites ranging in age from teenagers to an 83-year-old woman. At the jail, police unlawfully refused them access to lawyers and denied their requests to make phone calls. Others were denied food and water or blankets for hours. Many were not told of the charges against them, and some were physically mistreated. [5] A Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter, among those roughed-up and arrested, substantiated the claims of police abuse made by hundreds of those arrested.

After the WTO conference ended, the Seattle Times ran a page of letters to the editor from people in other parts of the U.S. and other countries. The recurring theme was an expression of shock at the brutal police attacks on unarmed and peaceful people they witnessed on television.

The injustices the police inflicted on the thousands of people in Seattle weren't related to the WTO or its policies. Demonstrators were similarly treated during the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War era. The injustices, however, had everything to do with the brutal and inhumane methods the criminal justice bureaucracy use to deny justice to people around this country every minute of every day.

The police had a tunnel vision that presumed that everyone on the streets of Seattle deserved to be treated as if they were "guilty of something," and treated them accordingly. This treatment let many middle class white people get a taste, perhaps for the first time in their lives, of what it is like for Blacks, Hispanics and poor people to be targeted by the police and prosecutors as troublemakers. Far from being isolated incidents, the events in Seattle helped illustrate how pervasive official injustice is in America.

The handful of accounts exposed in the media don't even scratch the surface of the hundreds of thousands of horror stories from around the country that could be told if the resources existed to do it.

Normally hidden from public view, the denial of justice is a process that begins the first moment a suspect is treated as if he is guilty until proved innocent. We saw how this happened in the blink of an eye to thousands of ordinary Americans in Seattle. We think of the freedom of assembly, speech, and the expression of grievances as a birthright, but the people who gathered in Seattle showed us that we can be punished for taking those freedoms seriously and putting them into action.

It may disturb our illusions that our society is somehow magically more tolerant than others, but the brazen use of the criminal justice apparatus to punish those expressing grievances in Seattle wasn't different in principle from what the Communist regime in China did to protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The reasons for the two events were different, but both involved government use of violence against people who expressed themselves in the only way they thought politically powerful people would hear them. Viewed from the perspective that this country has more people imprisoned than does Communist China, the authoritarian manner in which police dealt with demonstrators and unlucky bystanders in Seattle isn't as surprising as it otherwise might be. Police treatment of people in Seattle was also significantly more severe than the way Rosenstrasse protesters were treated in Nazi Germany.

Fortunately, for people with stamina and a sense of righteousness, denying justice in this country consists of many stages and involves multiple bureaucracies. The many innocent people exonerated after spending years navigating the system waiting on death row to be executed know this most intimately.

In a less dramatic way, many who are contesting their arrests in Seattle may find that the indignities and injuries they suffered will be recognized as unjustified, and they will be exonerated by a dismissal or an acquittal of the charges against them. Charges have already been dropped against all but about 40 of the hundreds of protestors arrested, as of this writing. Of the hundreds of misdemeanor charges brought during the protests, mostly for "failure to disperse," the vast majority were so weak that prosecutors knew they'd never win a conviction.


[1] "Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany," Nathan Stoltzfus, W. W. Norton, New York, 1996.[back to story]

[2] "The Day The WTO Stood Still," Geov Parrish, Seattle Weekly, Seattle, WA, December 2-8, 1999; and, "Group Want Summit Focus on Human Rights Abuses," Phuong Le (staff reporter), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 1, 1999.[back to story]

[3] "Amnesty International Calls For WTO Inquiry: Reports of police abuses deeply disturbing," Phuong Le (staff reporter), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 11, 1999; "Amnesty Group Lodges Protest," Jeff Hodson (staff writer), Seattle Times, December 18, 1999; "Riot Journal," Eric Scigliano, Seattle Weekly, Seattle, WA, December 2-8, 1999; and, "Deltas Down With It: The Justice Department and the elite Delta Force pushed Seattle crackdown against WTO protesters," Rick Anderson, Seattle Weekly, Seattle, WA, December 23-29, 1999. [back to story]

[4] "How the Battle of Capitol Hill Unfolded," staff writers, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 3, 1999. [back to story]

[5] "Justice on Ice: The WTO Jail Brutality Cases," Mark D. Fefer, Seattle Weekly, Seattle, WA, p. 15-17. [back to story]


By Hans Sherrer

(Hans Sherrer makes some observations about the decision not to prosecute hundreds of people who were arrested and jailed in Seattle.)

Observations by Hans Sherrer

After this article was submitted, the Seattle City Attorney announced that only 40 of the people arrested during Seattle's WTO convention would be criminally prosecuted. On the surface this seems like only good news to the over 500 people arrested who won't be prosecuted, but it has troubling aspects.

First, the vast majority of people were apparently arrested without there being a reasonable belief that they broke any specific law. This is indicated by the failure of police to comply with the arrest procedures necessary to prosecute the hundreds of people forced to endure being arrested, roughed-up, handcuffed, taken to jail, and then mistreated in jail. The professionally trained police in Seattle failed to follow the rules in hundreds of cases. They failed to file arrest reports, did not adequately identify arrested people, and did not identify the alleged offense of the arrested. In addition, the arresting officer wasn't identified, and the time and place of an arrested person's alleged offense wasn't recorded. [1] The difficulty in believing that these "rookie" type errors were accidental is that there are indications that the arrests were partly intended to diffuse the demonstrators' effectiveness to convey their messages.

Second, dropping charges against almost all those arrested has the effect of sweeping the behavior of the police and political officials under the rug. It also eliminates the public impact of the hundreds of acquittals there would have been, because prosecutors would not be able to prove that these people had committed a crime.

Third, a drastically reduced number of prosecutions might tend to increase the possibility that the full extent of the federal government's involvement in triggering some of the Seattle events will remain hidden. However, it has already been disclosed that FBI agents mingled in the crowds of people dressed in black to look like the so-called anarchists from Eugene, Oregon. It has also been uncovered that members of the U.S. Army's elite Delta Force dressed as demonstrators, and were sending television images to a command center from tiny transmitters while they pretended to be involved in the street activities. [2]

Fourth, the prosecution of only a handful of cases that may end in acquittals doesn't undo the gross indignities and injustices suffered by everyone who was arrested and not prosecuted. It does show, however, that in spite of its many deficiencies the criminal process in this country can sometimes at least partly work to limit injustices when law enforcement personnel overtly fail to follow the basic procedures governing prosecutions.

[1] "City Drops most cases against protesters: WTO misdemeanors too flawed to prosecute," Lise Olsen (staff reporter), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 4, 1999, pp. A1, A4; and "Most of those arrested during WTO from here; many still angry," Lise Olsen (staff reporter), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 6, 1999, pp. A1, A7. [back to story]

[2] "Deltas Down With It: The Justice Department and the elite Delta Force pushed Seattle crackdown against WTO protesters," Rick Anderson, Seattle Weekly, Seattle, WA, December 23-29, 1999.[back to story]

Disclaimer: Justice: Denied takes no stand regarding the World Trade Organization. Writer Hans Sherrer sees parallels between the treatment of protestors in Seattle and abuses further "downstream" in the justice system. -- The Editor

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