“Beginning early that morning, local, state and federal officials — including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Attorney General Janet Reno — began pressuring reluctant Seattle officials to crack down on the protests. Albright fumed in a phone call to Gov. Gary Locke's staff that she was trapped in her hotel and demanded that police regain control.”
— Seattle Times, December 16, 1999
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: spit-polished, 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 WTO, that Star Chamber for global capitalists. On this week Seattle was so tightly wound that it primed to crack. The city, which practiced 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 neighborhoods. 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 10pm, I wondered down to the Speakeasy Cafe, 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 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 concussions. Hundreds of copies had been printed and would be passed out to volunteer medics and protesters before the big march on Tuesday.
“Do you think it will come to that?” I asked.
“Well, I hope not,” Murphy said. “But if it doesn't, we probably won't have accomplished much, eh?”
Murphy told me that the direct action crowd was assembled at a warehouse on East Denny, up toward Seattle Community College. It was a 20-minute walk and I arrived at midnight to a scene of controlled chaos. The Denny Street warehouse was far more than a meeting place; it was part factory, part barracks, part command and control center. Later on it would become an infirmary.
Inside affinity groups were planning their separate direct actions; others were constructing giant street puppets, bearing the likeness of corporate titans and politicians, such as Clinton and Charles Hurwitz; and another group, led by Earth First!ers from Eugene, were constructing what one referred to as the Trojan Horse, a twenty foot-tall, armored siege tower on wheels, capable of holding 14 people. It was meant to be rolled up near the convention center, allowing the people inside to climb out a hatch in the roof and scale over the Metro buses, which the security forces had parked as barricades near the building. I knew the chief architect of this creation and asked him if he wasn't wasting time and money on such an easy target, like Saddam Hussein had done with his giant, billion dollar cannon destroyed in the first air strike of the Gulf War. “Just wait,” he said, a spark of mischief in his eye.
And the revolution will be started by… sea turtles. At noon about 2,000 people massed at the United Methodist Church, the HQ of the grassroots NGOs, for a march to the convention center. It was environment day and the Earth Island Institute had prepared more than 500 sea turtle costumes for marchers to wear. The sea turtle became the prime symbol of the WTO's threats to environmental laws, when the WTO tribunal ruled that the US Endangered Species Act, which requires shrimp to be caught with turtle excluder devices, was an unfair trade barrier.
But the environmentalists weren't the only ones on the street Monday morning. In the first showing of a new solidarity, labor union members from the Steelworkers and the Longshoremen showed up to join the march. In fact, Steelworker Don Kegley led the march, alongside environmentalist Ben White. (White was later clubbed in the back of the head by a young man who was apparently angry that he couldn't complete his Christmas shopping. The police pulled the youth away from White, but the man wasn't arrested. And White late played down the incident.) The throng of sea turtles and blue-jacketed union folk took off to the rhythm of a chant that would echo down the streets of Seattle for days: “The people united will never be divided!”
I walked next to Brad Spann, a burly Longshoreman from Tacoma, who held up one of my favorite signs of the entire week: “Teamsters and TurtlesTogether At Last!” Brad winked at me and said, “What the hell do you think old Hoffa thinks of that?”
The march, which was too fast and courteous for my taste, was escorted by motorcycle police and ended essentially in a cage, a fenced in area next to a construction site near the convention center. A small stage had been erected there hours earlier and Carl Pope, the director of the Sierra Club, was called forth to give the opening speech.
I'd never met Carl Pope before and was surprised by what I encountered. He is a tiny man, with a shrill and squeaky voice, who affects the look and hair-flipping mannerisms of RFK circa 1968. Nearing 90, Dave Brower still has the look of a mountain climber, Pope looks like the only climbing he does is on a StairMaster. I couldn't follow much of what Pope had to say, except that he failed to utter the names of Clinton or Gore. The speech was delivered with a smugness that most of the labor people must have heard as confirmation of their worst fears about the true nature of environmentalists in suits.
Standing near the stage I saw Brent Blackwelder, the head of Friends of the Earth. Behind his glasses and somewhat shambling manner, Blackwelder looks ever so professorial. And he is by far the smartest of the environmental CEOs. But he is also the most radical politically, the most willing to challenge the tired complacency of his fellow green executives. I told him: “Brent, you're the Chomsky of the environmental movement.” He chuckled, evidently pleased at the comparison.
He was slated to give the next talk and I asked him what he thought of following Carl Pope, a Gore promoter, whose staffers had just plunged a few knives in Blackwelder's back following Friends of the Earth's endorsement of Bill Bradley over Al Gore. He shrugged. “We did our damage,” Blackwelder said. “Our endorsement of Bradley stung the Sierra Club almost as much as it did Gore.” But Blackwelder isn't under any illusions about Bradley, either. “Bradley's a free trader,” Blackwelder said. “We pleaded with him to at least make a strong statement in opposition to the US position on the timber tariff issue. But he wouldn't budge. There was a real opportunity for him to stick it to Gore and prove himself as the better green.”
Blackwelder's speech was a good one, strong and defiant. He excoriated the WTO as a kind of global security force for transnational corporations whose mission is “to stuff unwanted products, like genetically engineered foods, down our throats.” Afterwards, I asked Blackwelder what would happen if Clinton announced some environmental sideboard. “The plague of Clinton is to say one thing and do another,” Blackwelder said. “He talked this line before with NAFTA. But even with the sideboards, everything we said about NAFTA has come true, only worse.” I told Blackwelder that I had heard Clinton was going to meet in Seattle on Wednesday with the heads of the National Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund and the Sierra Club. “That's what I hear, too,” Blackwelder said. “But he won't meet with us, because he knows we'd call his bluff.”
After the speechifying most of the marchers headed back to the church. But a contingent of about 200 ended up in front of McDonald's where a group of French farmers had mustered to denounce US policy on biotech foods. Their leader was Jose Bove, a sheep farmer from Millau in southwest France and a leader of ConfAedAeration Paysanne, a French environmental group. In August, Bove had been jailed in France for leading a raid on a McDonald's restaurant under construction in Larzac. At the time, Bove was awaiting trial on charges that he destroyed a cache of Novartis' genetically-engineered corn. Bove said his raid on the Larzac McDonald's was in response to the US's decision to impose a heavy tariff on Roquefort cheese in retaliation for the European Union's refusal to import American hormone-treated beef. Bove's act of defiance earned him the praise of Jacques Chirac and Friends of the Earth. Bove said he was prepared to start a militant worldwide campaign against “Frankenstein” foods. “These actions will only stop when this mad logic comes to a halt,” said Bove. “I don't demand clemency but justice.”
Bove showed up at the Seattle McDonald's with rounds of Roquefort cheese, which he handed out to the crowd. After a rousing speech against the evils of Monsanto, and its bovine growth hormone and Round-Up Ready soybeans, the crowd stormed the McDonald's, breaking its windows and urging the customers and workers to join the marchers on the streets. This was the first shot in the battle for Seattle. Moments later the block was surrounded by Seattle police, attired in full riot gear. Many of them arrived on armored personal carriers, a black military truck referred to affectionately by the TV anchors on the nightly news as “the Peacekeeper.” But this time cops held their distance, merely making sure that no one had been injured. They cordoned off the block until the crowd dispersed on its own in about an hour. At this point, there was still lightness in the air. A big Samoan cop cracked a smile as a protester waved a hunk of stinky cheese in front of his face.
I returned to my hotel early that night. Too exhilarated and exhausted to sleep, I fell back on the bed and flipped on the television. A newscaster was interviewing Michael Moore, the pudgy-faced director of the WTO. “I've always been on the side of the little guy,” Moore proclaimed.
Less than 12 hours later, Seattle was under civic emergency, a step away from martial law. National Guard helicopters hovered over downtown, sweeping the city with searchlights. A 7pm curfew had been imposed and was being flouted by thousands — those same thousands who captured the streets, sustained clouds of tears gas, volleys of rubber bullets, concussion 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. Labor's 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 talked tough but accepted a cheap 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.” So instead of joining the throngs bent on shutting down the opening of the WTO, the big labor rally took place at noon around the Space Needle, some fifteen to twenty blocks from the convention center where the protesters on the front lines were taking their stand. When the labor march finally got under way around 1pm, its marshals directed most of the marchers away from the battle zones down by the convention center.
For the direct action folks, the morning began in the pre-dawn hours, in a steady rain. More than 2,000 people assembled in Victor Steinbrueck Park, on the waterfront north of Pike's Place market. Once again, steelworkers and Earth First!ers led the way, carrying a banner with the image of a redwood tree and a spotted owl. The march featured giant puppets, hundreds of signs, the ubiquitous sea turtles, singing, chanting and an ominous drumming.
As the sky finally lightened, I found myself next to a group of black men and women trailing a white van. They turned out to be one of the more creative groups in the march, a collection of hip-hop artists from across the country. The van, dubbed the Rap Wagon, carried a powerful sound system capable of rocking the streets. The rappers were led by Chuckie E from New York, who improvised a rap called “TKO the WTO.” Walking with me up Pine Street to the Roosevelt Hotel was an 18-year old from South Central LA named Thomas. I asked him why he was here. “I like turtles and I hate that fucker Bill Gates,” he said. Thomas and I held hands, forming a human chain at the intersection of 7th and Pine, intent on keeping the WTO delegates from reaching their meetings.
A British delegate was prevented from entering the convention center after he left the Roosevelt Hotel. He tried to bust through the human chain and was repulsed. Angered, he slugged one of the protesters in the chest and ran down the block toward where we were standing. When he reached the corner a tiny black woman confronted him, shouting in his face: “You hit somebody! I saw you.” Whack. The delegate punched the black woman in the face, sending her sprawling back into Thomas and me. The scene could have turned ugly, as protesters rushed to protect the woman. But the lead organizer at the corner took control, ushering the delegate outside the protest area.
Meanwhile, a block down the street another frustrated WTO delegate pulled a revolver from his coat pocket and aimed it at protesters blocking the entrance to the Paramount Hotel, where the opening ceremonies were scheduled. The police rushed in with their clubs and pushed the protesters away from the gun-wielding man, who was neither detained nor stripped of his weapon.
Around 10am, my friend Michael Donnelly and I found ourselves at 6th and Union, the site of the first major attack by police on protesters. This was hours before any acts of vandalism had occurred. A band of about 200 protesters had occupied the intersection and refused to move after the police gave an order to disperse. About ten minutes later, a Peacekeeper vehicle arrived. Tear gas canisters were unloaded and then five or six of them were fired into the crowd. One of the protesters nearest the cops was a young, petite woman. She rose up, obviously disoriented from the gas, and a Seattle policeman, crouched less than 10 feet away, shot her in the knee with a rubber bullet. She fell to the pavement, grabbing her leg and screaming in pain. Then, moments later, one of her comrades, maddened by the unprovoked attack, charged the police line, Kamikaze-style. Two cops beat him to the ground with their batons, hitting him at least 20 times. As the cops flailed away with their four-foot long clubs, the crowd chanted, “the whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.” Soon the man started to rise and he was immediately shot in the back by a cop who was standing over him, cuffed and hauled away.
By now another five or six cans of tear gas had been thrown into the crowd and the intersection was clotted with fumes. At first I was stunned, staring at the scene with the glazed look of the freshly lobotomized. Then my eyes began to boil in my head, my lips burned and it seemed impossible to draw a breath. When it's raining, the chemical agents hug close to the ground, taking longer to dissolve into the air. This compounds the tear gas' stinging power, its immobilizing effect. I staggered back up 6th Avenue toward University, where I stumbled into a cop decked out in his Star Wars storm trooper gear. He turned and gave me a swift whack to my side with his riot club. I feel to my knees and covered my head, fearing a tumult of blows. But the blows never came and soon I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder and woman's voice say, “Come here.”
I retreated into a narrow alley and saw the blurry outline of a young woman wearing a Stetson cowboy hat and a gas mask. “Lean your head back, so that I can wash the chemicals out of your eyes,” she said. The water was cool and within seconds I could see again. “Who are you?” I asked. “Osprey,” she said, and disappeared into the chemical mist. Osprey… the familiar, totemic name of an Earth First!er. Thank god for Edward Abbey, I said to myself.
But the battle going on at 6th and University was far from over. The police moved in on a group of protesters from Humboldt County who had locked themselves down, and thus immobilized themselves in the middle of the intersection. They were ordered to evacuate the area, which of course they couldn't and wouldn't do. Suddenly, the cops attacked ferociously, dousing them in the face with spurts of pepper spray and then dropping tear gas canisters almost on top of them. Then the valiant police fell upon the helpless protesters with their batons. Two of the dozen or so protesters were knocked unconscious, but the group held its ground hours and by 2pm the cops had backed off. The University intersection had been held.
Who were these 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), Food Not Bombs, Global Exchange and a small contingent of 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. A group of Britons cornered two Monsanto lobbyists behind an abandoned truck carrying an ad for the Financial Times 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 enemy’s hands, the profound necessity for decorous — i.e., passive — comportment. 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 noon, around the convention center, the situation was desperate. The Seattle police, initially comparatively restrained, were now losing control. They were soon supplemented by the Kings County sheriffs' department, a rough mob, which seem to get their kicks from throwing concussion grenades into crowds, with the M-80-like devices often exploding only inches above the heads of people.
As the day 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. The marshals for the union march steered the big crowds away from the action and the isolation of the street protesters allowed the cops to get far more violent. Eventually, several phalanxes of union marchers skirted their herders and headed up 4th Avenue to the battlegrounds at Pine and Pike. Most of them seemed to be from the more militant unions, the Steelworkers, IBEW and the Longshoremen. And they seemed to be pissed at the political penury of their leaders. Randal McCarthy, a Longshoreman from Kelso, Washington, told me: “That fucker, Sweeney. No wonder we keep getting rolled. If he were any dumber, he'd be in management.”
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 30,000 union people had reinforced them? Downtown could have been held all night, and the convention center sealed off. Maybe even President Bill would have been forced to stay away.
Oh, yeah, what about that siege tower? Well, it turned out to be an excellent diversionary tactic. When the Seattle police's SWAT teams converged to disable the Earth First!ers strange contraption, it gave the direct action groups time to secure their positions, successfully encircling the convention center, the nearby hotels and WTO venues. In an odd way it may have been a key to the great victory of the day.
Wednesday was the turning point of the week. After the vicious crackdown of Tuesday night, where even Christmas carolers in a residential area were gassed, many of us wondered who would show up to confront the WTO, Bill Clinton, the police and the national guard the next morning. More than a thousand, it turned out. And the numbers grew as the day wore on. The resistance had proved its resilience.
The morning's first march headed down Denny Street from Seattle Community College toward downtown. The 250 marchers were met at about 7am by a line of cops in riot gear at 8th avenue. A sobering sign that things had become more serious was the sight of cops armed with AR-15 assault rifles. Some brave soul went up to one of the deputies and asked, “Do those shoot rubber bullets?” “Nope,” the cop replied through a Darth Vader-like microphone embedded in his gas mask. “This is the real thing.” Dozens of protesters were arrested immediately, placed in plastic wrist cuffs and left sitting on the street for hours — more than were arrested all day on Tuesday.
I can't extend enough praise to the National Lawyer's Guild, which sent dozens of legal observers to Seattle to record incidents of police brutality and advise demonstrators on how to act after being arrested. On Denny Street that morning I met Marge Buckley, a lawyer from Los Angeles. She was wearing a white t-shirt with “NLG Legal Observer” printed across the front and was furiously writing notes on a pad. Buckley said she had filled several notepads on Tuesday with tales of unwarranted shootings, gassings and beatings.
“Look!” Buckley said, as we trotted down the sidewalk to catch up with the marchers who had abandoned Denny Street, seeking another entry point into city center. “How weird. The people are obeying traffic signals on their way to a civil disobedience action.” A few moments later I lost track of Buckley, when the police, including a group mounted on horses, encircled the marchers at Rainier Square. I slipped through the line just as the Seattle police sergeant yelled, “Gas!” Someone later said she had been arrested.
I wouldn't be surprised if Buckley had been nabbed. The police had begun targeting the “command-and-control” of the demonstrators — people with cellphones, bullhorns, the known faces and suspected organizers, medics and legal observers. Several of the plainclothes cops at the Denny Street encounter had photos in their hands and were scanning them to identify the lead organizers. As the marchers occupied the intersection singing “We Shall Overcome,” about 20 police formed into a wedge and quickly attacked the protesters, seized a bald-headed man talking on a cellphone (it seemed nearly everyone in Seattle had a cellphone and a camera) and dragged him back to the police line. The man was John Sellers, director of the Ruckus Society.
On Wednesday afternoon, I encountered Kirk Murphy, the doctor. His Earth First! t-shirt had been replaced by a business suit and a rain jacket. I raised my eyebrows at him. He said, “I'm trying hard not to look like part of the support team. They've arrested a lot of our medics and I need to stay out of jail to help the injured.”
These targeted arrests may have been meant to turn the protests into the chaotic mess the city's pr people were characterizing it as to the media. But it didn't happen. The various groups of protesters, sometimes in the hundreds, huddled together and decided their next course of action by a rudimentary form of consensus. Everyone was given a chance to have a say and then a vote was taken on what to do next and, usually, the will of the majority was followed without significant disruptions. The problem was that it slowed down the marches, allowing the police and National Guard troops to box in the protesters, most tragically later Wednesday evening at Pike's Place Market.
As the march turned up toward the Sheraton and was beaten back by cops on horses, I teamed up with Etienne Vernet and Ronnie Cummings. Cummings is the head of one of the feistiest groups in the US, the PureFood Campaign, Monsanto's chief pain in the ass. Cummings hails from the oil town of Port Arthur, Texas. He went to Cambridge with that other great foe of industrial agriculture, Prince Charles. Cummings was a civil rights organizer in Houston during the mid-sixties. “The energy here is incredible. Black and white, labor and green, Americans, Europeans, Africans and Asians arm-in-arm. It's the most hopeful I've felt since the height of the civil rights movement.”
Vernet lives in Paris, where he is a leading organizer for the radical green group EcoRopa. At that very moment the European Union delegates inside the convention were capitulating on a key issue: the EU, which had banned import of genetically engineered crops and hormone-treated beef, had agreed to a US proposal to establish a scientific committee to evaluate the health and environmental risks of biotech foods, a sure first step toward undermining the moratorium. Still Vernet was in a jolly mood, lively and invigorated, if a little bemused by the decorous nature of the crowd. “Americans seem to have been out of practice in these things,” he told me. “Everyone's so polite. The only things that are burning are dumpsters filled with refuse.” He pointed to a shiny black Lexus parked on Pine Street, which the throngs of protesters had scrupulously avoided. In the windshield was a placard identifying it as belonging to a WTO delegate. “In Paris that car would be burning.”
Somehow Etienne and I made it through four police barricades all the way across town to the International Media Center, a briefing area hosted by Public Citizen in the Seattle Center, a cramped Greek Revival-style structure. I was there to interview my old friend, Dave Brower and Steelworker David Foster. The Dave's were late and to pass time I sat down in front of a TV. There was Bill Clinton speaking at the Port of Seattle. His verbal sleight-of-hand routine was in masterful form. He denounced Tuesday's violence, but said the WTO delegates should listen to the “legitimate” protesters. He said he disagreed with most of their views, but said that should at least be permitted to observe the proceedings. Later that day Clinton met with the obeisant green leaders, including National Wildlife's Mark van Puten, the Sierra Club's Carl Pope and World Resources Institute chairman William Ruckleshaus. Ruckleshaus is also a longtime board member of Weyerhaeuser, the Seattle-based transnational timber company. On Thursday, environmentalists held a large demonstration outside the downtown offices of the timber company's realty wing. Needless to say, Carl Pope didn't show up for that one.
Clinton talked about having the WTO incorporate environmental sidebars into its rulemaking. But then the administration didn't back away from its Global Logging Amendment, an accelerated reduction in tariffs on the global timber trade. George Frampton, head of the Council on Environmental Quality and former head of the Wilderness Society, appeared at a press conference later in the day and stiff-armed the greens. “Knowledgeable environmentalists shouldn't have anything against the measure,” Frampton said. His voice reeked with condescension. In fact, this was the one issue on which all the big groups were united in opposition to the US position.
“This follows the tried and true Clinton formula: kiss 'em, then fuck 'em over,” Steve Spahr, a bus driver and computer repairman from Salem, Oregon told me.
Clinton called the events outside his suite in the Westin “a rather interesting hoopla.” The president expressed sympathy for the views of those in the streets at the very moment his aids were ordering Seattle Mayor Paul Shell (who people took to calling “Mayor Shellshocked”) to use all available force to clear the streets. There is now no question but that the most violent attacks by the police and the National Guard came at the request of the White House and not the mayor or the police chief. And, in fact, CNN has reported that Clinton has once again flouted the Posse Comitatus Act by sending in a contingent from the US military to the scene, More than 160 members of the Domestic Military Support Force were sent to Seattle on Tuesday, including troops from the Special Forces division. Clinton, of course, has been quite happy to blame Mayor Schell, the Seattle police, and the WTO, itself, for both the chaos and the crackdown, while offering himself as a peacemaker to the very battle he provoked.
Eventually, Clinton shut up and Brower and Foster walked into the room. Brower was breaking new ground once again by pulling together a new group of trade unionists and greens. At 87 years old, Brower, the arch druid, is finally beginning to show his age. He walks with a cane. A pacemaker regulates his heartbeat. He is fighting bladder cancer. And he can't drink as many dry martinis as he used to. But his mind is still as agile as an antelope, his intellectual vision startlingly clear and radical. “Today, the police in Seattle have proved they are the handmaidens of the corporations,” said Brower. “But something else has been proved. And that's that people are starting to stand up and say: we won't be transnational victims.”
Brower was joined by David Foster, director for District 11 of the United Steelworkers of America, one of the most articulate and unflinching labor leaders in America. Earlier this year, Brower and Foster formed an unlikely alliance, a coalition of radical environmentalists and Steelworkers called the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, which had just run an amusing ad in the New York Times asking “Have You Heard the One About the Environmentalist and the Steelworker.” The groups had found they had a common enemy: Charles Hurwitz, the corporate raider. Hurwitz owned the Pacific Lumber Company, the northern California timber firm that is slaughtering some of the last stands of ancient redwoods on the planet. At the same time, Hurwitz, who also controlled Kaiser Aluminum, had locked out 3,000 Steelworkers at Kaiser's factories in Washington, Ohio and Louisiana “The companies that attack the environment most mercilessly are often also the ones that are the most anti-union,” Foster told me. “More unites us than divides us.”
I came away thinking that for all its promise this tenuous marriage might end badly. Brower, the master of ceremonies, isn't going to be around forever to heal the wounds and cover up the divisions. There are deep, inescapable issues that will, inevitably, pit Steelworkers, fighting for their jobs in an ever-tightening economy, against greens, defending dwindling species like sockeye salmon that are being killed off by the hydrodams that power the aluminum plants. When asked about this potential both Brower and Foster danced around it skillfully. But it was a dance of denial. The tensions won't go away simply because the parties agree not to mention them in public. Indeed, they might even build, like a pressure cooker left unwatched. I shook the thought from my head. For this moment, the new, powerful solidarity was too seductive to let such broodings intrude for long.
But if anything could anneal the alliance together it was the actions of the Seattle cops and National Guard, who, until Wednesday afternoon had displayed a remarkable reluctance to crackdown on unionists. The Steelworkers had gotten permission from the mayor for a sanctioned march from the Labor Temple to the docks, where they performed a mock “Seattle Steel Party”, dumping styrofoam steel girders into the waters of Elliot Bay, then, showing their new-found green conscience, they fished back out almost immediately ).
When the rally broke up, hundreds of Steelworkers joined with other protesters in an impromptu march down 1st Avenue. As the crowd reached Pike Place Market, they found paramilitary riot squads waiting for them and were rocked with volleys of military-strength CS gas, flash bombs, and larger rubber bullets, about a half-inch in diameter. The carnage was indiscriminate. Holiday shoppers and Metro buses were gassed. In an effort to jack up the intimidation, the cop squads were marching in almost goose-stepping fashion, smacking their riot clubs against their shin-guards to create a sinister sound with echoes back to Munich. This was the most violent of the street battles that I witnessed, involving hundreds of police and more than 20 tear gas attacks.
There is a certain species of pacifist (often out of the Quaker tradition) who finds any outward expression of outrage embarrassing. Thus it was that demonstrators at nearly every corner and barricade where being cautioned “not to retaliate” against police attacks. They were even warned not to throw the tear gas cans back toward the police lines. But, of course, that was the safest place for them. They weren't going to hurt the cops, who were decked out in the latest chemical warfare gear.
That night at Pike Place Market a can of tear gas landed at my feet. Next to me were a young woman and her four-year-old son. As the woman pulled her child inside her raincoat to protect him from the poison gas, I reached down, grabbed the canister and heaved it back toward the advancing black wall of cops. The can was so hot it seared by hand. Expecting to be shot at, I dove behind the nearest dumpster and saw a familiar face. It was Thomas, one of the rappers I'd walked with on Tuesday morning. We huddled close together, shielding our eyes from the smoke and gas. “Now all these muthafuckas up here have a taste of what it's like in Compton nearly every night,” Thomas screamed.
When the cops are on the streets in force, black people always pay the price. As Thomas and I were ducking flash bombs and rubber bullets, Seattle police were busy harassing Richard McIver, a black Seattle City Councilman who was on his way to a WTO reception at the Westin Hotel. Even though McIver flashed the police with his embossed gold business card identifying him as a councilman, the police denied him entry. They roughly pulled him from his car and threatened to place him in handcuffs. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the Democrat, witnessed this scene from Ohio. “I'm 58 years old,” McIver said. “I had on a $400 suit, but last night I was just another nigger.”
Later that night, in the Capital Hill residential district, a Seattle cop accosted a man on the sidewalk, poked him in the chest with his baton, kicked him in the groin and then, for good measure, shot him in the neck with a rubber bullet. The man wasn't a WTO protester, but a resident who had been gassed out of his home. The image, which was caught on television cameras, helped to turn the tide against the police and, by extension, the WTO itself.
Seattle police said they responded aggressively only when their officers were hit with rocks and bottles. Well, frankly, this is bullshit. Seattle isn't Beirut. There's no rocky rubble on the streets of the Emerald City. In fact, there weren't any glass bottles, either. In the eight or nine confrontations I witnessed, the most the cops were hit with were some half-full plastic water bottles and a few lightweight sticks that had been used to hold cardboard signs.
In the end, what was vandalized? Mainly the boutiques of Sweatshop Row: Nordstrom's, Adidas, the Gap, Bank of America, Niketown, Old Navy, Banana Republic and Starbucks. The expressions of destructive outrage weren't anarchic, but extremely well-targeted. The manager of Starbucks whined about how “mindless vandals” destroyed his window and tossed bags of French Roast onto the street. But the vandals weren't mindless. They didn't bother the independent streetside coffee shop across the way. Instead, they lined up and bought cup after cup. No good riot in Seattle could proceed without a cup of espresso.
These minor acts of retribution served as a kind of Gulf of Tonkin incident. They were used to justify the repressive and violent onslaughts by the police and the National Guard. Predictably, the leaders of the NGO's were fast to condemn the protesters. The World Trade Observer is a daily tabloid produced during the convention by the mainstream environmental groups and the Nader shop. Its Wednesday morning edition contained a stern denunciation of the direct action protests that had shut down the WTO the day before. Pope repudiated the violence of the protests, saying it delegitimized the position of the NGOs. He did not see fit to criticize the actions of the police.
But even Carl Pope was outdone by Medea Benjamin, the diminutive head of Global Exchange, who her sent her troops out to protect the facades of Niketown and the Gap from being defaced by protesters. Benjamin told the New York Times: “Here we are protecting Nike, McDonald's, The Gap, and all the while I'm thinking, 'Where are the police? These anarchists should have been arrested’.” Of course, Nike is used to police intervening to protect its factories from worker actions in places like Indonesia and Vietnam and it's depressing to see Benjamin calling for such crackdowns in Seattle.
The assault on Niketown didn't begin with the anarchists, but with protesters who wanted to get a better view of the action. They got the idea from Rainforest Action Network activists who had free-climbed the side of a building across the street and unfurled a huge banner depicting a rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, with the slogan, “Don't Trade on Me.”
Occupying the intersection in front of Niketown was a group of Korean farmers and greens, several were dressed in their multicolored traditional garb. It's no secret why they picked this corner. For decades, Nike has exploited Korean workers in its Asian sweatshops. These folks cheered wildly and banged their copper kettles when a climber scaled the facade of Nike's storefront, stripped the chrome letters off the Niketown sign and tossed them to crowd, as Nike store managers in the window a floor above were eating their lunch. The action should have warmed the hearts of nearly everyone, even the Seattle Downtown Beautification Association. For one brief moment, the city of Seattle had been rid of an architectural blight. As Harper's magazine reported a few years ago the black-and-silver neo-noir stylings of Niketown outlets bear an eerie resemblance to the designs concocted by Albert Speer for the Third Reich.
That night I went to sleep with the words of John Goodman, a locked-out steelworker from Spokane, ringing in my head. “The things I've seen here in Seattle I never thought I'd see in America.”
Thursday and Beyond
By Thursday morning I was coughing up small amounts of blood, 600 demonstrators were in jail, the police were on the defensive over their tactics and the WTO conference itself was coming apart at the seams. Inside the WTO, the Africa nations were showing the same solidarity as the protesters on the streets. They refused to buckle to US demands and coaxed from US Trade Rep. Charlene Barshevsky: “I reiterated to the ministers that if we are unable to achieve that goal I fully reserve the right to also use an exclusive process to achieve a final outcome. There's no question about my right as a chair to do it or my intention to do it, but it is not the way I want this to be done.” Despite the heavy-handed bluster, the African delegates hung together and the talks collapsed.
Beyond the wildest hopes of the street warriors, five days in Seattle have brought us one victory after another. The protesters initially shunned and denounced by the respectable “inside strategists,” scorned by the press, gassed and bloodied by the cops and National Guard:
• shut down the opening ceremony;
• prevented Clinton from addressing the WTO delegates at the Wednesday night gala;
• turned the corporate press from prim denunciations of “mindless anarchy” to bitter criticisms of police brutality;
• forced the WTO to cancel its closing ceremonies and to adjourn in disorder and confusion, without an agenda for the next round.
In the annals of popular protest in America, these have been shining hours, achieved entirely outside the conventional arena of orderly protest and white paper activism and the timid bleats of the professional leadership of big labor and environmentalists. This truly was an insurgency from below in which all those who strove to moderate and deflect the turbulent flood of popular outrage managed to humiliate themselves. Of course, none of this seemed to deter the capitalists. On the week, the Dow shot up more than 500 points.
I walked out to the street one last time. The sweet stench of CS gas still flavored the morning air. As I turned to get into my car for the journey back to Portland, a black teenager grabbed my arm. Smiling, he said, “Hey, man, does this WTO thing come to town every year?” I knew immediately how the kid felt. Along with the poison, the flash bombs and the rubber bullets, there was an optimism and energy and camaraderie on the streets of Seattle that I hadn't felt in a long time. It was the perfect antidote to the crackdown by the cops and to the gaseous rhetoric of Clinton, Carl Pope and John Sweeney.