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The WTO’s Mean Streets

This is what I remember about the violence. There was almost none until police attacked demonstrators that Tuesday in Seattle. Michael Meacher, environment minister of the United Kingdom, said afterward, “What we hadn't reckoned with was the Seattle Police Department who single-handedly managed to turn a peaceful protest into a riot.” There was no police restraint, despite what Mayor Paul Schell kept proudly assuring television viewers all day. Instead, there were rubber bullets, which Schell kept denying all day. In the end, more copy and video was given to broken windows than broken teeth.

Opening ceremonies for the World Trade Organization's Third Ministerial were to have been held that morning at the Paramount Theater near the Convention Center. Police had ringed the theater with Metro buses touching bumper to bumper. The protesters surrounded the outside of that steel circle. Only a few hundred of the 5,000 delegates made it inside, as police were unable to provide safe corridors for members and ambassadors. The theater was virtually empty when US trade representative and meeting co-chair Charlene Barshevsky was to have delivered the opening keynote. Instead, she was captive in her hotel room a block from the meeting site.

The Direct Action Network's plan was working brilliantly on the outside of the Convention Center. The plan was simple: insert groups of trained non-violent activists into key points downtown, making it impossible for delegates to move. DAN had hoped that 1,500 people would show up. Close to 10,000 did. The 2,000 people who began the march to the Convention Center at 7am from Victor Steinbrueck Park and Seattle Central Community College were composed of affinity groups and clusters whose responsibility was to block key intersections and entrances. Participants had trained for many weeks in some cases, for many hours in others. Each affinity group had its own mission and was self-organized. The streets around the Convention Center were divided into 13 sections and individual groups and clusters were responsible for holding these sections. There were also “flying groups” that moved at will from section to section, backing up groups under attack as needed. The groups were further divided into those willing to be arrested, and those who were not. As protestors were beaten, gassed, clubbed, and pushed back, a new group would replace them. Throughout most of the day, using a variety of techniques, groups held intersections and key areas downtown. The protests were organized through a network of cell phones, bullhorns, and signals. All decisions prior to the demonstrations were reached by consensus. Minority views were heeded and included. The one agreement shared by all was no violence, physical or verbal, no weapons, no drugs or alcohol. There were no charismatic leaders barking orders. There was no command chain. There was no one in charge. Police said that they were not prepared for the level of violence, but in fact they were unprepared for a network of non-violent protestors totally committed to one task — shutting down the WTO. 

Up Pike toward Seventh and to my right on Sixth, protestors faced armored cars, horses, and police in full riot gear. In between, demonstrators ringed the Sheraton to prevent an alternative entry to the Convention Center. At one point, police guarding the steps to the lobby pummeled and broke through a crowd of protestors to let eight delegates in.  

On Sixth Street, Sergeant Richard Goldstein asked demonstrators seated on the street in front of the police line “to cooperate” and move back 40 feet. No one understood why, but that hardly mattered. No one was going to move. He announced that “chemical irritants” would be used if they did not leave. The police were anonymous, black ghosts. No facial expressions, no face. You could not see their eyes. They were masked Hollywood caricatures burdened with 60 to 70 pounds of weaponry. These were not the men and women of the 6th precinct. They were the Gang Squads and the SWAT teams of the Tactical Operations Divisions, closer in training to soldiers from the School of the Americas than local cops on the beat. Behind them and around were special forces from the FBI, the Secret Service, even the CIA.  

The police were equipped with US military standard M40A1 double canister gas masks; uncalibrated, semi-automatic, high velocity autocockers loaded with solid plastic shot; Monadnock disposable plastic cuffs, Nomex slash-resistant gloves, Commando boots, Centurion tactical leg guards, combat harnesses, DK5-H pivot-and-lock riot face shields, black Monadnock P24 polycarbonate riot batons with TrumBull stop side handles, No.2 continuous discharge CS chemical grenades, M651 CN pyrotechnic grenades, T16 Flameless OC Expulsion Grenades, DTCA rubber bullet grenades (Stingers), M-203 (40mm) grenade launchers, First Defense MK-46 Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) aerosol tanks with hose and wands, .60 caliber rubber ball impact munitions, lightweight tactical Kevlar composite ballistic helmets, combat butt packs, 30 cal. 30-round mag pouches, and Kevlar body armor. None of the police had visible badges or forms of identification.  

The demonstrators seated in front of the black-clad ranks were equipped with hooded jackets for protection against rain and chemicals. They carried toothpaste and baking powder for protection of their skin, and wet cotton cloths impregnated with vinegar to cover their mouths and noses after a tear-gas release. In their backpacks were bottled water and food for the day ahead.  

Ten Koreans came around the corner carrying a 10-foot banner protesting genetically modified foods. They were impeccable in white robes, sashes, and headbands. One was a priest. They played flutes and drums and marched straight toward the police and behind the seated demonstrators. Everyone cheered at the sight and chanted “The whole world is watching.” The sun broke through the gauzy clouds. It was a beautiful day. Over cellphones, we could hear the cheers coming from the labor rally at the football stadium. The air was still and quiet. We waited.  

At 10am the police fired the first seven canisters of tear gas into the crowd. The whitish clouds wafted slowly down the street. The seated protestors were overwhelmed, yet most did not budge. Police poured over them. Then came the truncheons, and the rubber bullets. I was standing with a couple hundred people who had ringed the hotel, arms locked. We watched as long as we could until the tear gas slowly enveloped us. We were several hundred feet from Sgt. Goldstein's 40-foot “cooperation” zone. Police pushed and truncheoned their way through and behind us. We had covered our faces with rags and cloth, snatching glimpses of the people being clubbed in the street before shutting our eyes. The gas was a fog through which people moved in slow, strange dances of shock and pain and resistance. Tear gas is a misnomer. Think about feeling asphyxiated and blinded. Breathing becomes labored. Vision is blurred. The mind is disoriented. The nose and throat burn. It's not a gas, it's a drug. Gas-masked police hit, pushed, and speared with the butt ends of their batons. We then sat down, hunched over, and locked arms more tightly. By then, the tear gas was so strong our eyes couldn't open. One by one, our heads were jerked back from the rear, and pepper was sprayed directly into each eye. It was very professional.  

Like hair spray from a stylist. Sssst. Sssst.  

Pepper spray is derived from cayenne peppers. It is food-grade, pure enough to be used in salsa. The spray used in Seattle is the strongest available, containing 10 percent to 15 percent Oleoresin Capsicum, with a 1.5 to 2.0 million Scoville heat unit rating. One to three Scoville units are when your tongue can first detect hotness. (The jalapeno pepper is rated between 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units. The Habanero, usually considered the hottest pepper in the world, is rated around 300,000 Scoville units.)

The Seattle Police had made a decision not to arrest people. Throughout the day, the affinity groups created through Direct Action stayed together. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray were used so much that by late afternoon, supplies ran low. What seemed like an afternoon lull or standoff was because police had used up all their stores. Officers combed surrounding counties for tear gas, sprays, concussion grenades, and munitions. As police restocked, the word came down from the White House to secure downtown Seattle or the WTO meeting would be called off. By late afternoon, the Mayor and Chief of Police announced a 7pm curfew, “no protest” zones, and declared the city under civil emergency. 

By evening, the police were out of control. Anger erupted, protestors were kneed and kicked in the groin, and police used their thumbs to grind the eyes of pepper-spray victims. A few demonstrators danced on burning dumpsters that were ignited by pyrotechnic tear-gas grenades (the same ones used in Waco). Taunting, jeering, protestors were defiant. Tear gas canisters were being thrown back as fast as they were launched. Drum corps marched using empty 5-gallon water bottles for instruments. Despite their steadily dwindling number, maybe 1,500 by evening, a hardy number of protestors held their ground, seated in front of heavily armed police, hands raised in peace signs, submitting to tear gas, pepper spray, and riot batons. As they retreated to the medics, new groups replaced them. Every channel covered the police riots live. On TV, the police looked absurd, frantic, and mean. No one could believe what they were seeing. Passing Metro buses filled with passengers were gassed. 

During that day, the anarchist black blocs were in full view. Numbering about one hundred, they could have been arrested at any time but the police were so weighed down by their own equipment, they literally couldn't run.

The black blocs came with tools (crowbars, hammers, acid-filled eggs) and hit lists. They knew they were going after Fidelity Investments but not Charles Schwab. Starbucks but not Tully's. The GAP but not REI. Fidelity Investments because they are large investors in Occidental Petroleum, the oil company most responsible for the violence against the U'wa tribe in Colombia. Starbuck's because of their non-support of fair-traded coffee. The GAP because of the Fisher family's purchase of Northern California forests. They targeted multinational corporations whom they see as benefiting from repression, exploitation of workers, and low wages.  

The police mandate to clear downtown was achieved by 9pm Tuesday night. But police, some of whom were fresh recruits form outlying towns, didn't want to stop there. They chased demonstrators into neighborhoods where the distinctions between protestors and citizens vanished. The police began attacking bystanders, witnesses, residents, and commuters. They had completely lost control. When President Clinton sped from Boeing airfield to the Westin at 1:30am Wednesday, his limousines entered a police-ringed city of broken glass, helicopter, and boarded windows. He was too late. The mandate for the WTO had vanished sometime that afternoon.

One Comment

  1. Douglas Coulter September 20, 2020

    To “The Monkees Theme” tune

    Here we come marching up your street
    We see the terrified looks on everyone we beat
    Doncha know we the police
    We don’t monkey around
    We come at you swinging
    And put any protest down

    We go wherever they send us
    Do what they tell us to do
    Sometimes we eat doughnuts
    After we clobber you

    We ain’t paid to be friendly
    The governments iron hand
    We work for the corporations
    And you’re standing on their land

    With our nightsticks and tasers
    Gallons of pepper spray
    Armored trucks and machine guns
    You won’t stand in our way

    Do you like my new jackboots?
    Riot uniforms are cool
    Peaceful demonstration
    Are our favorite training school

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