Report From the Front

Report From the Front

It is incredible here.



It is incredible here.

I don’t know what you’ve read or heard about Seattle. (Check out for real coverage) But the big newspapers have been lousy. I have more impressions and stories than I can write in one e-mail, but here are highlights.

Ok, the protests: it’s a police state around here. There’s been pepper spray and teargas and the National Guard hanging out with their batons and fatigues and gas masks and shotguns on every other corner. There’s a curfew. The police are asking people for ID and an explanation of where they’re going, only letting people with particular “legitimate” destinations through. Today things are a little more mellow because the past two days have made the police look so horrible that I think they are under new orders NOT to attack people randomly with chemical weapons, spray paint, or physical assault. So that’s nice.

We were not expecting anything like this. The Direct Action Network had been giving trainings in nonviolent civil disobedience, legal issues, and jail solidarity all weekend out of this unbelievable warehouse center with a soup kitchen, puppet making area, music, and meeting space. Many people planned to get arrested on Tuesday to call attention to their objections to the trade ministers’ agendas. But the police decided not to arrest people since it is more convenient just to blast away at them until they leave on their own without paperwork. It didn’t work.

On Monday, the protest scene felt like a party. We made a three-layers-deep human chain around the convention center where trade ministers were having cocktails and then trooped off to an event on the other side of town. No one knew where to go, so a van with a sound system drove around letting people know. Eventually it led a kind of celebration of mostly young people down the middle of 1st Avenue. The van had music and a megaphone. The guy inside repeated over a hip hop beat, “Ain’t no power like the power of the people cause the power of the people don’t stop!” A line of slowly walking people holding hands kept three police cars from pulling the van over and dispersing the crowd. Eventually another line of people formed across from them and they played Red Rover most of the way down 1st. Very cute, right?

Early Tuesday plenty of people were already downtown beginning their sit-ins and I was following the RadioNation people around in the crowd that was gathering with puppets in a park before marching down to the police lines around the convention center. There were many, many quality conversations going on everywhere among all kinds of people, especially teenagers. People were very informed and aware about the WTO issues. The shuttle driver who picked me up from the airport gave me a lecture about intellectual property rights. I’ve been passing fifteen-year olds talking about trade’s effect on working conditions in the first and third worlds. Old women talking about the problem of relying on a regular market model to handle conservation issues and farm prices. Union guys talking about the breaches of first amendment rights and human rights that the police have been making.

Oh yes, so when we got downtown, some REALLY well-organized anarchist kids (cell phones, pods, great coordination and response time) helped the Direct Action Network non-violent protesters form a human chain locking the delegates out of several of their venues. The police kind of let them since they didn’t seem to know what else to do. The delegates hung around in the street looking miffed. Some of them talked with the protesters. A delegate from the Dominican Republic agreed with all the complaints on a list shown to him and even began chanting “Hell no! WTO!” with the crowd around him.

(There were some good chants. My Nation boss’ favorite was an anarchist one: “Capitalism, no thanks! We’ll burn your fucking banks!”)

At first the police seemed unwilling to use violence and allowed a strong chain to block off the Sheraton hotel. They stayed still in formation when a group of people sat down in the middle of a big intersection and locked arms. More and more people massed in the intersection and finally the police declared it an “unlawful assembly” and said we had 5 minutes to disperse. No one moved. More people sat down. The police charged with nightsticks and used the ends to jab people in the stomach. The protesters moved back, but not much and when the police stepped back they were basically right where they started. A few more minutes passed and all the police put on gas masks and backed up their horses and an armored car came up and from two sides they started spraying the crowd and firing rubber bullets point blank at seated protesters. Even with that it took a long time to clear the intersection.

This was before any windows were broken. This was not in response to any violence from the crowd.

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.

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.

I discovered the Independent Media Center trying to avoid going home alone. That’s where I am now, typing e-mail and listening to reports of police brutality being wired in from around town. It’s grim, but a very exciting place. It’s full of committed people doing really good documentary work and reporting. Their Web site coverage has gotten 500,000 hits so far and it’s a week old. Something is starting. They gave me a press pass which made today much easier. As I was going home yesterday they were getting calls that the police were using pepper spray jelly, gas, and bullets on a group of about 800 people walking outside the no protest zone to express outrage over the brutality and reassert their positions on WTO issues. We heard over the Cairo reporter’s cell phone “They’re shooting everyone!” and screaming. Some of the residents in that area got gas in their apartments. Apparently some police even pepper sprayed a district court judge bicycling home. Black-bottomed helicopters have been circling overhead shining spotlights on the streets, tracking down extra people. Totally out of control.

Today more arrests were made, and there was a big farmers rally downtown. I think the police got in trouble for being crazy hooligans yesterday. When a march of students left the farmer’s rally to go through town, the police standoff ended in a resolution that we would be escorted to the courthouse where the arrested people were being held.

We had puppets and a beautiful sunny day and lots of overt pacifism on our side. The police had their PR problem. Everything was great. No one was gassed. We walked up to the courthouse, maybe 1500 of us, chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” to drums. The drummers this week have been essential.

At the courthouse we made a circle all around it and shouted up at the people held in the windows who put up paper signs for us to read and waved down. Then everyone just camped out for the rest of the afternoon and early evening in the entrance of the building, singing and playing drums and dancing around and having discussions. The police were chill. I was running back and forth for the Nation people. The crowd decided to stay until they worked something out about the release of those arrested.

It wasn’t just kids, either. A councilman was there, doing negotiation. Lots of community people who were pissed off by the police turned up, as did lots of news people. By 7 pm an agreement had been reached to process everyone tonight, and if not then the sit-in would resume. Those getting out have been coming to the Media Center with stories of being beat up, intimidated, threatened with rape, in one case, tied to a chair, sprayed with pepper spray even after telling the police she had asthma… Doesn’t seem good. Lawsuits are being planned and press conferences held. Tomorrow a big march by labor people is planned to protest the police tactics.

Altogether the idea that people could be kept off the streets with chemical weapons seems to have failed dismally. People are proud and angry and continuing to talk about the WTO and issues of sovereignty, environment, workers, biodiversity, agriculture, etc. even if the mainstream news has been trying to make an icon out of the one schmuck kid standing on a burning dumpster throwing trash.

What’s weird is how quickly the massive police presence gets absorbed. Most people have begun ignoring them and are going to work or shopping as normal. And the police today have been basically friendly. Amazing how quickly the flip can be made from normal personal interaction to insane war zone.

No one is talking about what the delegates are doing, but people really are talking about WTO issues. Lots about how Clinton is full of it, trying to seem like he’s working for incorporating these issues of labor rights and environmental rights.

And all week some fantastic seminars and teach-ins have been playing to full audiences, even though tens of thousands of people have been in the streets. Very fancy people are talking. Academics and movement builders and all kinds. There was a day for labor, for environment, for gender, for food and agriculture, for indigenous peoples, for forestry. The divisive issues have not really been focused on. Everyone is too pissed off about the WTO and police. There were a few dips into USA-ism from some of the steelworkers at the rally, but everyone else has been pretty nuanced.

A lot of speeches are translated. A big favorite is José Bové, the French farmer that trashed a MacDonald’s with tomatoes and expensive cheese and spent a few days in jail for it. He’s great. Very funny guy. Gave the Nation people some free illegally imported Roquefort cheese that they gave to me. A lot of speakers are talking about how thrilled they are to see so many people passionate about issues they’ve been studying for years in isolation. Everyone says this feels like the beginning of something exciting–a very inter-issue, inter-national movement for economic change. Different ways of making trade policy. I really can’t believe it myself–how many people care so much about trade issues which I usually think bore everyone silly. And kids! And very old people! People keep saying how it’s good to have this chance to come together and discuss and celebrate and fight. Nice of the WTO to meet every two years and provide a focused enemy for everyone… So many people willing to demonstrate day after day. So many people getting up early to go to meetings about seed saving or something like that. Amazing. Altogether the last four days have restored my faith in the powers of good and evil and democratic organizing.

Ok, democratic fervor has made some people a little dumb, it’s true. Standoffs with police tonight happened because kids were sitting in intersections to protest the violence of last night. No teargas today, but a feeling of protesting for protesting sake, without organization. We’ll see. Most of the demonstrations have been tight. Major political organizing efforts seem to be coming together.

I could go on and on. I have pictures. I have details on the talks and debates. I have information on how to get videos of the week and copies of literature from various groups and contact stuff for future events. Check out the Independent Media Center for more info.

I’m sad to have to leave tomorrow when the activity is still going on. The trade ministers will meet through Saturday to make up for some lost time. Hopefully there will be more communication between some of the discontents among them and the protesters soon. And ongoing communication among everyone who showed up here…

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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