This article was originally published in the April 19, 2004 issue of The Nation. Its subject–police and media hysteria on the eve of major protests–appears newly relevant as New York City prepares for the Republican National Convention.–The Editors
It is a little-known fact that no one at an anti-globalization protest in the United States has ever thrown a Molotov cocktail. Nor is there reason to believe global justice activists have planted bombs, pelted cops with bags of excrement or ripped up sidewalks to pummel them with chunks of concrete, thrown acid in policemen’s faces or shot at them with wrist-rockets or water pistols full of urine or bleach. Certainly, none have ever been arrested for doing so. Yet somehow, every time there is a major mobilization, police and government officials begin warning the public that this is exactly what they should expect. Every one of these claims was broached in discussions of the protests against the Summit of the Americas in Miami in November and used to justify extreme police tactics, and we can expect to be hearing them again in the months before the Republican convention protests in New York.
Such claims have an interesting history. They first emerged in the months immediately following the WTO protests in Seattle in November 1999, with a series of pre-emptive police strikes against activist threats that, much like Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, never quite materialized:
April 2000, Washington, DC. Hours before the protests against the IMF and World Bank are to begin, police seize the activists’ Convergence Center. Chief Charles Ramsey loudly claims to have discovered a workshop there for manufacturing Molotov cocktails and homemade pepper spray. DC police later admit no such workshop existed (in reality, they’d found paint thinner used in art projects and peppers being used for the manufacture of gazpacho); however, the center remains closed, and much of the art, including the puppets, has been appropriated.
July 2000, Minneapolis. Days before a scheduled protest against the International Society of Animal Geneticists, local police claim that activists detonated a cyanide bomb at a local McDonald’s and might have their hands on stolen explosives. The next day the Drug Enforcement Administration raids a house used by organizers, drags off the bloodied inhabitants and appropriates their computers and outreach materials. Police later admit there never was a cyanide bomb and they had no reason to believe activists were in possession of explosives.
August 2000, Philadelphia. Hours before protests against the Republican convention are to begin, police, claiming to be acting on a tip, seize the warehouse where art, banners and puppets are being prepared, arresting the seventy activists inside. Chief John Timoney announces the discovery of C4 explosives and water balloons full of hydrochloric acid. Police later admit that no explosives or acid were found; those arrested are not, however, released. All of the puppets, banners, art and literature to be used in the protest are destroyed.
While it is possible that we are dealing with a remarkable series of honest mistakes, this looks more like a series of attacks on the materials activists were intending to use to get their message out to the public. Certainly that’s how the activists interpreted the raids. One of the big discussions before every new mobilization has now become where to hide the giant puppets. In Miami the City Council actually made the display of puppets illegal during the month of the summit–ostensibly because they could be used to conceal weapons–and the police strategy consisted almost entirely of pre-emptive strikes against activists, hundreds of whom were swept up and charged with planning, but never quite actually performing, unspeakable acts.