Seattle and the WTO Protests: An Other Side
Issue #65, January 2004
At first, none of us thought much about it. We were told that due to the protests planned for Tuesday, we should come in at six a.m. Not a morning person, I was unhappy, but I recognized why it was necessary. But by ten Tuesday morning, we were watching in shock from our sixteenth floor windows as protestors jumped on cop cars and tried to attack delegates, sent burning Dumpsters into the streets, and tore apart shops. Riots broke out in pockets around our building. Delegates tried to fight back, the cops pressed in, and it wasn't even lunchtime yet. Gone were the cute turtle protestors of the day before. Instead we had black-clad anarchists smashing windows and setting things on fire. As my building went into lockdown we were sent home, maneuvering our way through jeering crowds, shouting police, swarming bodies, sounds of popping gas canisters. Curfew was issued that evening.
None of us thought these things would happen. Initially, protests were light, peaceful, and while it was difficult to get around, it was not too much of a challenge, and you could watch protests with a positive feeling that yes, change could happen.
I started sending daily riot reports to e-mail friends. A pregnant co-worker was accidentally caught in a crowd being dispersed with gas; weary cops grew jumpy and cranky, then pushed into neighborhoods outside of downtown, putting the smackdown on people who really didn't deserve it. And yet, I couldn't completely blame them — I was jumpy and cranky, and I hadn't endured endless shifts in full riot gear with people throwing things at me or trying to hurt me or others.
News film showed a cop jabbing a protestor repeatedly in the chest with his baton — I'd seen that incident from our window — they never showed the protestor who'd started it by hitting the cop on the head with his big sign. The cameras loved the Nike-wearing kids destroying the Niketown store, the fires, the looting, cops going after the gas-mask wearers.
Turtle-outfitted protestors couldn't compete with Molotov cocktails and gas masks, and the image being created grew more skewed, encouraging more violence. It became impossible to distinguish most groups. By the time the news showed looters at Starbucks or Radio Shack, clothing had ceased to be an indicator; there were middle-aged folks in khakis, young people in Birkenstocks, anarchists with masks, gang-bangers flashing signs — all looking for a chance to take or break, not protesting anything anymore, but as one person said, looking to "party." Because "protestors" were indistinguishable, police went after anyone, surrounding crowds and trying to move them in groups away from the center of downtown or arrest them.
I'd never had the chance to see first-hand the other side of these stories. Before, I'd looked at such incidents in my usual middle-to-left-leaning way; now I saw just how narrow the picture was. When we could go out, which was rare, the streets were littered with glass, burned things, trash; shops were dark, their windows boarded. One day I stood on a quiet corner, taking in the smells of horses and manure — a smell I find peaceful and pleasant from childhood memories — and watched a melee spring up around me within what felt like picoseconds.
I've never considered myself one thing or another — while my parents were mostly straight Republicans, they didn't toe a conservative party line, and I learned to keep my politics more fluid. But it's the belief of fairness and equality for all people more often seen in the left that resonated with me, especially because I grew up in the sixties watching such things as the civil rights protests, the '68 Democratic National Convention, and Kent State on TV in my most formative years.
Despite my parents' conservatism, both of them had been active in some fairly forward-thinking political or charitable causes, and they taught me the value of speaking up for what you believe in. But I felt as if this lesson was being subverted, as if my own rights were being stripped away because of the actions of people using legitimate protest and freedom of speech as a weapon for their own personal gain or to let loose aggression. Why weren't the people in charge of organizing protests taking more deliberate action against the violent? The left I'd identified with before suddenly seemed like disorganized, weak-willed cowards who thought looking the other way was safer (and I was deeply ashamed of the people who spoke out in support of the violence simply because they were protestors or had been arrested). At work we joked about needing a little Richard Daley-style intervention in Seattle.
What made it more baffling was the professionalism of the AFL-CIO march. With tens of thousands of members marching over miles of downtown Seattle, they showed that chaos didn't have to be the order of the day. They planned their rally so we all had fair warning of how it would affect us, they kept troublemakers out and kept traffic carefully organized and moving, and whenever trouble looked like it might break out, they dealt with it firmly. I couldn't understand why the city of Seattle, why all these other protest organizers, couldn't do what this organization had done with far more people to manage.
A little organizing might have reduced some of my anger. Each night was a surrealist experiment in trying to find a way home. Bus service was suspended without warnings, but parking in the core area was a crapshoot because you never knew when a block would be shut down by protests; cabs were almost non-existent in our block. My company had projects to complete and clients outside the area who would not understand why we couldn't complete them - there was no choice but to go to work. I kept my ID on me at all times, submitted to being patted down, pulled over, questioned. Where most people I know — including myself — would immediately place blame on the police, my resentment at this treatment was tempered by the hope that a crackdown might allow me to go home without getting hit by a rock.
Helicopters buzzed overhead continuously. FBI sharpshooters ringed the roofs of the buildings around us, at our floor level, when President Clinton came to town. One night we heard a rumor that bus service had been restored downtown, so my co-worker and I tried to catch one, only to find there were none. Then, out of nowhere a bus appeared like an apparition. He picked everyone up even though he was on a different route and not supposed to be there. As we piled on, I noticed that everyone had the same exhausted, glassy-eyed, desperate quality about them I was sure I had. We simply wanted out.
Some friends told me about their days protesting, holding hands and singing, moving as soon as anything looked like it could get ugly. How nice for you, I thought bitterly. Overnight my political stance shifted. I'd had two jobs in the past decade working for cooperatives; suddenly I felt like right-wing woman. I didn't care about changing the world — I just wanted to feel like the world wasn't assaulting me. I wanted the mayor and the police brass to explain why Seattle was punishing its citizens by hosting this meeting in the first place, knowing what followed every meeting in every city around the world. The left looked like weak-willed hypocrites; the right like bullies who couldn't take care of their own mess. I didn't know what I believed anymore.
And in the end, the only message I heard was that of hypocrisy — the looters who stole espresso machines and electronics and used WTO as an excuse to do it; the anarchists whose goal was to destroy livelihoods, ruin property, and frighten people while other protestors weakly chanted "no violence;" the smug kids who told news-people about the evil corporations they were against while they sucked on cigarettes that poison the environment and pump millions of dollars into the coffers of the most heinous companies in the world.
Maybe I've grown complacent and conservative. Maybe the responsibilities of adulthood have turned me into a drone who doesn't care about social justice. Maybe I am one of those selfish yuppies who is outraged because she can't get her car out of the garage at night to go visit her mother during chemo, and cares less about the underprivileged than about keeping her house from foreclosure.
But at least I don't pretend otherwise. I don't set things afire and tell everyone I'm doing it for justice. I don't buy cigarettes, fancy shoes, or expensive parkas made from petroleum products and tell the world that big companies are evil. That's what I saw at WTO: not social justice, not making wages fair in other countries, not how people can band together to fix problems, just people talking big and hurting others. The change I used to believe was possible through social action seemed lost to me.
I no longer believe that people can change things through protest or peaceful resistance: terrorism, the death of the democratic system in America, the way anyone who has disagreed with the war against Iraq was treated as unpatriotic, have left me with a belief that nothing we do matters any more. All protest seems to achieve now is to shut down traffic and get people pissed off at each other. I no longer see united voices with enough power to force the world to change.
If the left wants to make their message heard — especially in this war-torn world today — they have to show that they're in control of their messages and their people. On the left, we want to give everyone a voice, to be inclusive, but we won't lay down the law against fringe groups because that wouldn't be democratic. Letting everyone live and let live, or turning a blind eye to acts of danger, only allows those who subvert the act of peaceful protest into violence to paint a picture of the left that leaves middle-grounders like me leaning away. In the end, it was an organization I see as very conservative, the AFL-CIO, that many of us stuck at the Battle in Seattle remembered positively, precisely because they did keep control of their people and their message. They were focused and efficient, virtues I admit I rarely associate with my own leftward leanings.
A few years before the Seattle meeting of the WTO, I was at work when I got a call from my father, telling me that my mother was dying and to get home as soon as I could. I remember desperately switching lanes on the freeway, speeding, getting stuck behind people in the passing lane who were going far less than the speed limit, frantic to get home, praying I could say goodbye to her. I was completely helpless, and angry over being at the mercy of other drivers clueless about my emergency.
As I drove, I remembered an incident in Seattle that had caused a furor. A mentally ill man had paralyzed a section of downtown by holding a sword and keeping the cops at bay. Because he was in front of a large parking garage, no one was allowed to enter and all the blocks around it were shut down, trapping workers who had parked there or whose buses were not allowed in the area. The "siege" ended at night, so they'd been unable to pick up their kids, make flights or appointments, or simply get home to feed their pet. Many were furious that the cops hadn't taken real steps to end the incident. One letter writer to the newspaper excoriated those people for complaining about not being able to get their vehicles out of the lot. As I struggled to get to my mom, I thought about those "selfish yuppies" and wondered how many people had been in situations like mine — less dire, of course, but people with acute needs who were prevented from dealing with them, who might be facing a crisis or serious problem they would not be able to solve because they could not get there from here.
For five days, with my building located dead center of the worst activity, I was held prisoner in my city, struggling to get to work, finding it difficult and frightening to get home from work, locked in the building, or running gauntlets of police, FBI, and Secret Service agents. I doubt most people really understand the intense anger and resentment generated by holding people hostage from their own lives, and how quickly a social change message gets lost on those same people as they frantically try to do something they can't, or feel unsafe. The political becomes personal with astonishing rapidity.
On my trip in that Tuesday morning, painfully early, dark and cold and wet, I saw people going to the big protests, loudly bragging to a bus of mostly drudgy workers like me how they were going to bring the city to its knees. One guy carried a bullhorn, and when he got off the bus I noticed he was carrying a Ralph Lauren logoed umbrella. I'm pretty sure the irony was lost on him.
A year later, as I stood waiting for a bus that wasn't coming, helicopters hovered overhead. I was meeting a friend from out of town after work — someone whose life's work has been for good causes. My bus didn't come. Finally someone who remembered it all too well, said, forget it. It's the WTO anniversary. We'll never get home. An hour later, I finally got somewhere near my neighborhood, walking in the cold, dark, wet November night, thinking about what it would have been like if one of my family were sick again. I was angry about missing dinner and the rare chance to see my friend. If there was a message in the anniversary protests, I couldn't hear it.
Gwyneth Rhys is an editor and writer in Seattle who spends entirely too much time reading, writing, and writing about writing.