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Report From the Front | The Nation

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Report From the Front

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Gas and pepper spray eventually cleared out the entrance to the Sheraton as well. But there were too many people and they were too angry and determined and many intersections were held even though the police tried everything to break them up. Some people had locked arms inside "dragon boxes" or locked bike locks around their necks and attached themselves to a large plastic platform where people stood and sang most of the day. A big labor rally was going on uptown with maybe 30,000 people. Several thousand were already downtown. Probably a few thousand more were participating in teach-ins. There was no clearing the streets.

About the Author

Stephanie Greenwood
Stephanie Greenwood was a winter 1999 Nation intern.

By afternoon some of the anarchists had broken some shop windows (selectively, mind you: McDonalds, the GAP, Banana Republic, Starbucks, The Bank of America) taken the sign off Niketown, removed most of the WTO promotional flags from the streetlights, and sprayed anti-capitalist graffiti on windows and walls (someone wrote "corporate propaganda" over the newspaper kiosks). No small shops were damaged. No people were attacked. Maybe twenty kids accounted for the whole thing. It made the mainstream press and the police go nuts, though. There were no warnings all the rest of that day. We just figured out that when they put on gas masks and backed up their horses you knew what was coming. I didn't get caught that badly, mostly because I kept running away at the last minute down side streets. The people holding their ground were shouting about the WTO, about their right to protest, about some particular issues. A few were circulating with warnings before spraying began. ("They've put on their masks. If you have small children, get them out of here. Link arms and Walk, DO NOT RUN, in the other direction.") Or during and after the spraying passing out water, bandanas, apple cider vinegar, which turns out, along with baking soda, to be useful for coping with tear gas. Some of the protesters worked at protecting the stores from getting their windows broken. Lines of people held hands in front of Levi's, and kept on holding hands even after one kid got beamed on the forehead with a metal thing tossed by a window-breaker and started bleeding. He kept his eyes closed and repeated "peaceful protest, peaceful protest". Some people brought kids who had kicked windows in over to the cops and asked them to arrest them. The cops refused. They used the few window breakers as their excuse to be violent with the whole mass of thousands of demonstrators. By 5pm the streets were still almost totally full. Word was that only 5% of the trade ministers had managed to meet. The curfew was declared along with a state of emergency. We had to get special dispensation to hold a long-planned debate with Ralph Nader, Vandana Shiva, Professor Bahgwati of Colombia, and some trade official types. The buses weren't running and a good Samaritan gave me a ride back to my hosts.

The next day the police were everywhere and all of downtown was declared a "no protest zone." In an amazing playground bully maneuver, it was made illegal for non-police to wear gas masks. People still came out. The steelworkers held a rally on the docks that a lot of students attended. Towards the end of the rally a mass of students headed for downtown to join some protesters that had been getting arrested there all morning for sitting down peacefully in the streets. We walked outside the no protest zone in the street. Some of the chants were pretty economically advanced, I thought. ("Bullshit! Come off it! The enemy is profit! Unemployment and inflation are not caused by immigration!") Some were just basic. ("Assembly is a right!") We were headed off by riot police who sped up and fired teargas canisters way back into the crowd, a more powerful grade they had gotten permission to use overnight. We all tried to walk, rather than stampede and get the hell away. Everyone was generous with water and bandanas. There were self-appointed medics in the crowd wearing red cross arm bands.

I took off to meet my Nation boss and just barely got out before the rest of the crowd was more or less cornered by police who not only gassed the whole big crowd from three directions at once so there was no clear place to run, they followed individual kids with pepper spray bottles. They had somehow managed to get a declaration through that nonpolice were not permitted to wear gas masks, so the kids with masks had them ripped off before they were pepper sprayed. Some were hit with paintballs and later targeted for police harassment.

Some steelworkers, who had followed the students in support, also got gassed. (Big mistake. Big.) Rubber pellets, which the police would not say they were using, were everywhere. A kid got his bottom teeth broken because he was hit in the chin. Supposedly rubber bullets are designed to ricochet off the ground and hit people in the legs, breaking them or making it hard to run. These police were firing them levelly at the crowd. At the church where The Nation was broadcasting from, I found some other people who had just got out and they joined an on-going panel on gender and development which immediately revised its business to address the crisis in the street. The leader drew up a declaration of condemnation. Someone raised the point that in the Philippines, before an APEC conference, an entire area was gassed to clear the people out in order to "beautify" it for the ministers. Two people were killed: an old woman had a heart attack, and a baby suffocated. Someone else said it was good this craziness was happening in the US since people getting killed in other countries didn't make the news, but if a MacDonald's window in Seattle gets broken the whole world stops. People agreed that violence and repression seems to follow these trade meetings around.

I spent that evening at a women's organization meeting where the "Raging Grannies" sang us a concert. They are the most wonderful group! They are all old Seattle women with a sign that is purple trimmed with lace with a picture of an old woman's profile lifting up an umbrella. They sing radical lyrics to common tunes. (For example, to "Row row row your boat": "WTO will rule the world, that's the corporate scheme. Profits and profits and profits and profits, democracy's a dream...") Then they had a candlelight walk afterwards, all these old women and some of us audience, singing "Peace, peace, peace, peace, wars must end and wars must cease. We must learn to live together. Peace, peace, peace." They turned down a street blocked by a line of riot police who marched up in formation, put out their nightsticks and said "Halt!" The women walked right up to the line. They tried to talk their way in but were told "Move back! You must move back." They went another way. The cops didn't even crack a smile. I couldn't believe it.

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