Lying in Wait

Lying in Wait

On the eve of mass protests, police tell tales that turn out not to be true.


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.

The press, meanwhile, has been airing increasingly outlandish accounts of what happened at Seattle. During the WTO protests themselves, no one, including the police, claimed that anyone had done anything more militant than break a plate-glass window. Yet just three months later, the Boston Herald reported that officers from Seattle had come to brief the local police on how to deal with “Seattle tactics,” such as attacking police with “chunks of concrete, BB guns, wrist rockets and large capacity squirt guns loaded with bleach and urine.” When a few months later New York Times reporter Nichole Christian, apparently relying on police sources in Detroit, claimed that Seattle demonstrators had “hurled Molotov cocktails, rocks and excrement at delegates and police officers,” the Times had to run a retraction, admitting that Seattle authorities confirmed no objects had been thrown at human beings. Yet somehow the exact same claims continue to resurface. Before the Miami protests, for example, circulars distributed to local businessmen and civic groups, attributed to “police intelligence” sources, listed every one of these “Seattle tactics” as what should be expected, insuring that when the protests began, most of downtown Miami lay shuttered and abandoned.

Some police officials have become notorious among activists for their Gothic imaginations. Timoney, the former Philadelphia police chief who took over Miami’s department before last fall’s protests, is fond of peppering his press conferences with stories of activists caught planning to release poisonous snakes and reptiles among the citizenry, officers hospitalized because of acid attacks and activists assaulting his troops with a variety of bodily fluids. Such charges invariably make splashy headlines at the time, only to be later exposed as false or fade away for lack of evidence. Timoney has also become notorious for brutal tactics: In Miami his men opened fire on activists with an array of wooden, rubber and plastic bullets, tazer guns, concussion grenades and a variety of chemical weapons.Despite calls from groups ranging from the United Steelworkers to Amnesty International for an investigation, Timoney continues to be hired as a security consultant for major protests and appears on television frequently as an expert on protest movements.

Probably one of the police’s purposes is simply to rally the troops. As commanders discovered in Seattle, police often feel a little uncomfortable about orders to conduct a baton charge against a group of unarmed 16-year-old girls. A deeper reason, though, may have been a perceived need to address a crisis in public perception. To the frustration of high-level officials who were finding their meetings regularly ruined by acts of civil disobedience, the American public largely refused to see the global justice movement as a menace to society. True, the media tried to create hysteria over a few broken windows, but to surprisingly little effect. The question then became, What would it take to cast protesters in the role of the villain? The answer appears to have been a calculated campaign of symbolic warfare: Remove the images of colorful floats and puppets; replace them with images of bombs and hydrochloric acid. And if it has worked–which seems to be the case, considering the public’s relative indifference to police destruction of protest art and banners in Philadelphia, or to the extraordinary pre-emptive violence in Miami–it is because on matters of public security, it rarely occurs to most Americans that so many of the officials charged with protecting them could be intentionally, systematically lying.

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