Seattle has always struck me as a suspiciously clean city, manifesting a tidiness that verges on the compulsive. It is the Singapore of the United States: spitpolished, glossy, and eerily beautiful. Indeed, there is, perhaps, no more scenic setting for a city set next to Elliot Bay on Puget Sound, with the serrated tips of the Olympic Mountains on the western skyline and, hulking over it all, the cool blue hump of Mt. Rainier.

But Seattle is also a city that hides its past in the underground. It is literally built on layers of engineered muck, like a soggy Ilium. The new opulence brought by the likes of Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks and rei is neatly segregated from the old economic engines, the working docks and the steamy mills of chemical plants of south Seattle and Tacoma. It is a city that is both uptight and laid-back, a city of deeply repressed desires and rages. It was the best and the worst of places to convene the World Trade Organization (wto), that Star Chamber for global capitalists. This week, Seattle was so tightly wound that it was primed to crack. The city, which practised drills to prepare itself against possible biological or chemical warfare by wto opponents, was about to witness its own police department gas its streets and neighbourhoods. By the end of the week, much of Seattle’s shiny veneer had been scratched off, the wto talks had collapsed in futility and acrimony and a new multinational popular resistance had blackened the eyes of global capitalism and its shock troops, if only for a few raucous days and nights.

I arrived in Seattle at dusk and settled into the King’s Inn, my ratty hotel on Fifth Avenue, two blocks up from the ugly Doric column of the Westin, the hq of the us trade delegation and, on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the high-rise hovel of Bill Clinton. On the drive up from Portland, I had decided to forego the press briefings, ngo policy sessions and staged debates slated at dozens of venues around Seattle. Instead, I was determined to pitch my tent with the activists who had vowed in January to shut down Seattle during wto week. After all, the plan seemed remotely possible. The city with its overburdened streets and constricted geography does half the job itself. And, in an act of self-interested solidarity, the cabbies, who held festering grudges against the city on a variety of claims, had just announced plans to time a taxi strike to coincide with the protest.

Around 10 pm, I wondered down to the Speakeasy Café, in the Belltown District, which I’d heard was to be a staging area for grassroots greens. On this warm late November night, there were stars in the Seattle sky, surely a once-in-a-decade experience. I took it as an omen. But I was clueless as to its portent.

The Speakeasy is a fully-wired redoubt for radicals: it serves beer, herbal tea, veggie dishes and, for a $10 fee, access to a bank of computers where dozens of people checked their email and the latest news, from Le Monde to the bbc, from wtowatch.com to the New York Times. I ran into Kirk Murphy, a doctor who teaches at the ucla medical school. I’d gotten to know Murphy slightly during the great battles to fight DreamWorks and its ill-fated plan to bury the Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles under acres of concrete, glass and steel. The doctor was wearing an Earth First! T-shirt and drinking a Black Butte Porter, the microbrew of choice for the radical environmental movement. Dr. Murphy knows a lot about treating victims of police brutality and he had prepared a handbook for protesters on how to deal with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and concussion grenades. Hundreds of copies had been printed and would be passed out to volunteer medics and protesters before the big march on Tuesday.