SEATTLE -- Tuesday evening, this city is under martial law. National Guard helicopters are hovering over downtown and sweeping the city with searchlights. There was a 7pm curfew flouted by thousands -- those same thousands who captured the streets, sustained clouds of tears gas, volleys of rubber bullets, concussive grenades, high powered bean cannons and straightforward beatings with riot batons. The bravery of the street warriors had its tremendous triumph: they held the streets long enough to force the WTO to cancel their opening day. This had been the stated objective of the direct action strategists, and they attained it.
At dawn of Tuesday the predicted scenario was somewhat different. There was to be the great march of organized labor, led by the panjandrums of the AFL-CIO, with James Hoffa Jr in a starring role. Labors legions -- a predicted 50,000 -- were to march from the Space Needle to the Convention Center and peacefully prevent the WTO delegates from assembling.
It never happened. Instead the labor chiefs accepted a deal. They would get a Wednesday meeting with Bill Clinton, with the promise that at future such WTO conclaves they would get “a seat at the table.” In return for this, they would not march downtown. Instead the big labor rally took place around the space needle, some fifteen to twenty blocs from the convention center where the protesters on the front lines were taking their stand.
By noon, around the convention center, the situation was desperate. The Seattle police, initially comparatively restrained, were now losing control and were also supplemented by the Kings County sheriffs department, a rough mob. Already by 7am the protesters had formed human chains at the streets leading to the convention center, and had also barricaded the Sheraton, the Richmond and the other big hotels. The police attacked them furiously at two intersections, with the aim of creating a WTO travel corridor to allow the delegates through.
As the morning ticked away the street protesters kept asking, “Where are the labor marchers,” expecting that at any moment thousands of longshoremen and teamsters would reinforce them in the fray. The absent masses never came, and the isolation of the street protesters allowed the cops to get far more violent. In many instances rubber bullets were fired at a range of a few feet. We saw Kris Manes, an Earth First!-er, shot in the leg with a rubber bullet at point blank range. In the same clash, one of Manes’s comrades charged the police line and was beaten savagely by two Seattle cops, then shot in the back with a rubber bullet.
At the same time, a block away, the police attacked a group of protesters from Humboldt County who had locked themselves down, and thus immobilized themselves inn the middle of the intersection. They were ordered to disperse, which of course they couldn’t and wouldn’t do, then attacked ferociously, doused with spurts of pepper spray. Then the valiant police fell upon the helpless protesters with their batons.
Who were the direct action warriors, on the front lines? Earth First!, the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment ( the new enviro-steelworker alliance ), the Ruckus Society ( a direct action training center) and the Anarchists, dressed in black, with black masks, plus a hefty international contingent including French farmers, Korean greens, Canadian wheat growers and British campaigners against genetically modified foods. These Britons cornered two Monsanto lobbyists at the very moment of police onslaught, and at last glimpse the Monsanto men were covering their eyes with their neckties and fleeing back to their hotels.
Even in the run-up to WTO week in Seattle, the genteel element -- foundation careerists, NGO bureaucrats, policy wonks -- were all raising cautionary fingers, saying that the one thing to be feared in Seattle this week was...active protest. The internet was thick with tremulous admonitions about the need for good behavior, the perils of playing into the enemies hands, the profound necessity for decorous -- i.e., passive -- comportment. These people, even on Monday, declined to join in one of the first marches, preferring the sanctity of their redoubt in the Sheraton hotel. Their fondest hope is to attend -- in mildly critical posture -- not only the WTO conclave in Seattle, but all future ones. This too is the posture of labor. In answer to a question from CNN’s Bernard Shaw, whether labor wanted to kill the WTO, James Hoffa Jr. replied, “No. We want to get labor a seat at the table.”
By darkness on Tuesday the 2,000 or so street warriors had won the day, even though they were finally forced to retreat north and east out of the center. Suppose they had been reinforced by 30,000 union people? Downtown could have been held all night, and the convention center sealed off. Maybe even President Bill would have been forced to stay away.