by Mark Hosler of Negativland
On Tuesday, November 30th, 1999 (and shortly before moving from Olympia, Washington to Santa Fe, New Mexico), I was part of the march and direct action protest against the WTO that was organized by the DIRECT ACTION NETWORK in Seattle.
Personally, I have never been comfortable with huge protests and chanting simplistic slogans, preferring to deal with political and anti-corporate issues through the music/performance group I am a part of (Negativland). But the issues surrounding the WTO are so compelling and frightening that I felt I had to be there. I was willing to risk arrest but was unprepared for how violent and aggressive the police would be towards peaceful protesters.
The DIRECT ACTION NETWORK itself was incredibly well organized, totally committed to nonviolent protest, and the group organized thousand’s into an action that successfully blocked every single street surrounding the WTO convention building. No one could get in or out!
The organizational structure and plans for the DIRECT ACTION NETWORK for this day were very cool ……there were small affinity groups (5 to 15 people at most), larger clusters of affinity groups, and finally huge wedges made of the clusters. Each “wedge” was assigned a specific street to block. There was nothing random about how this action happened! The DIRECT ACTION NETWORK itself, the wedges, clusters, and affinity groups were all decentralized and made decisions by consensus. There were no “leaders”.
We were out there by 7 a.m. and arrived in downtown by 8 a.m. I had assumed that the police would have had undercover folks at many of the planning meetings of the DIRECT ACTION NETWORK so that they would know exactly what was planned and have a way to head it off. These meetings were open to the public and for months D.A.N. had been making it very clear to Seattle police and officials what they planned to do. To my surprise, the various wedges spun off from the main march and got into position exactly as planned! There were D.A.N. volunteer medics, lawyers, legal observers and action co-ordinators with each wedge at their respective locked down intersections.
Communicators on bikes moved from wedge to wedge to keep everyone informed, and they also would pull folks from overly crowded areas to help the blockades at the weaker links. And of course, EVERYONE seemed to have a cell phone or was taping the events with their video camera. About 20 streets were blocked in all.
It was all very peaceful until I guess the cops got freaked out about being completely surrounded and closed in by the action. It was as if they were caught off guard by how successful the whole thing was and how many people came (what we later heard from the Mayor of Seattle was that the Secret Service was also freaking out and that about 10:30 a.m. they ordered the police to clear and “take control” of the streets). So many delegates were kept out that the entire day was basically a loss for the WTO. Some meetings went on but had so few major players in attendance that, for all effective purposes, the WTO WAS successfully shut down for the day. Even Madeline Albright, UN Secretary Kofi Annan and U.S. Trade Rep Catherine Barshefsky were trapped in their hotels (and tear gas got sucked into the air systems of the Sheraton Hotel, so they go gassed as well!)
There was a LOT of completely unprovoked firing of rubber bullets, concussion grenades, tear gas and pepper spray in the eyes of protesters who were peacefully sitting or standing in rows with their arms linked together. I never heard ANY warnings whatsoever before the police did this. My friend witnessed a police officer lean down to a seated protester, pull her goggles from her eyes, pull her head back, forcing her eyes open and spray pepper spray directly into her eyes. This happened many times. I got tear gassed and had concussion grenades tossed at me and rubber bullets were being fired at us. You may have read that the police only became violent after the protesters did. But the opposite is true. The police were firing on us for FOUR HOURS before any windows were broken by protesters.
STARBUCKS, NIKETOWN, BANANA REPUBLIC, WARNER BROTHERS, THE GAP, BANK OF AMERICA and NORDSTROM’S were all smashed up and spray painted. No local businesses were targeted, only huge corporate chains and banks. A very small minority did this — and I guess it looks bad in the press as that is what they will focus on, but it was fun to see PLANET HOLLYWOOD completely covered with anarchy symbols, eggs and spray paint all over NIKETOWN, all of STARBUCKS windows smashed, etc.
As I saw with my own eyes, the police provoked almost everything. It was so incredibly stupid. Its approaching winter here in the U.S., so they could have sprayed us with water and let us be wet and miserable. They could have just maintained a standoff until all the protesters got tired and went home. But they chose the violent response. And if you don’t already know, a civil emergency and curfew were declared and the National Guard came in. The violence is unfortunate, but since there were 3,000 (!!!!) media people in the city, I have to assume that if the average person doesn’t know about the WTO and that, for *some * darn reason, people are against it, they do now!!
I had some amazing and thoughtful conversations with delegates and NGO’s that we were blocked from getting in. Most of the NGO’s feel that they are on “our” side. They want the same things we do and wanted us to let them in so they could make their voice heard at the WTO meeting. They are the “liberal” voice inside the WTO. I responded that though I honored their good intentions and wished them no ill will, that the very nature of the WTO is so un-democratic, that it cannot be “fixed” and that today was a vote of NO CONFIDENCE in the WTO. As sorry as I was to inconvenience them, in order to make the statement the action was meant to make, no one could be let in or out.
A police officer tried to ram our line with his police car, smashing into the metal trash barrels we had placed in front of us. He leaped out, furious and screaming at us. The line I was in at that time was pretty thin, so we got out of his way. He grabbed one of the trash barrels and tossed it out of his way, spilling all the discarded bottles inside it onto the ground in front of his vehicle. He then drove forward, driving over the bottles and giving himself four flat tires!
At one point I was standing near a TV news reporter named Jim Foreman who was doing live coverage of the events. As I heard him tell what amounted to outright LIES about what was happening only 150 feet away from him (that the protesters provoked everything), I could not resist shouting over his shoulder into his microphone “You aren’t telling people what is really going on here! The police started all this violence! You’re lying!” Soon after, a small group started chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Jim Foreman has got to go!” and I overheard a plan being made to cut the cable going from his camera to their remote truck. (this particular reporter later physically attacked someone who would not get out of his way and called her a “hippie bitch”).
Despite what the media is showing you, there was very little real violence coming from the protesters. All it amounted to was a lot of broken windows and some graffiti. We did not hurt the police, the downtown was not set on fire. …nothing extreme like that happened….the $$ amount of destruction really amounts to very little. Considering how huge the whole thing was, I think that the incredible emphasis of D.A.N. on NON-VIOLENCE NO MATTER *WHAT * HAPPENS was a big success. The mood of the street was mostly wonderful and quite magical. Everyone was looking out for everyone else, helping each other, trying to block the few window smashers from doing more harm, finding medical assistance for those that were gassed or pepper sprayed.
When we were sprayed and shot at, everyone was yelling “WALK!! WALK!!” to make sure no one ran and got trampled. The more people got gassed and attacked, the more determined and resolved they were to not give up!! People would be temporarily dispersed from the crowd and then come right back to sit down again. It was like something I have only read about in biographies of Gandhi and it was intense and inspiring to see how amazingly caring and compassionate people could be under such extreme circumstances.
As lines of non-violent protesters sitting with their arms linked got sprayed and shot at and forced out of the way, a whole new line would take their place. People who were gassed would leave the area and come back once they had recovered (some of the things used actually wear off in about 20 minutes) The determination shown to simply NOT GIVE UP was extraordinary.
Of all things, BORDERS BOOKS (a corporate chain of bookstores that has put many small local booksellers out of business all over the U.S.), was letting people in to sit down or use their bathroom to wash off the tear gas!! BORDERS was only one-half block from some pretty crazy police violence, and I was amazed to see this happening. The manager was so distraught about what he was seeing in the streets he decided to do this (though almost all downtown businesses were closed, and this is THE major Xmas shopping area of Seattle.) I witnessed the surreal sight of seeing screaming and crying tear-gassed demonstrators streaming into the store, while through the window I could see someone at BORDERS front counter actually buying a book!
Seeing 50,000 to 85,000 people from labor, working-class folks, environmental groups, health issues folks, farmers, etc. all together was great. The range of ages crossed four generations, including lots of high school kids. Opposition to the WTO brought us all together.
POSTSCRIPT- one week later…. Seeing the difference between what I saw with my own eyes, and what the media says “really” happened, has been an incredible experience. And as more video and testimony is surfacing, the true extent of police violence is becoming clear.
Things were MUCH worse than anything I witnessed. Police spraying hundreds of innocent bystanders in residential neighborhoods and cafes in the face, using nerve agents (biological weapons) on the protesters on the second day of protests, running over protesters with motorcycles, a woman who was four months pregnant and had nothing to do with the protests was thrown down and kicked in the abdomen and miscarried, police chasing protesters so they could kick them or strike them in the groin, people being thrown face down into the pavement and having their teeth broken, a person crawling on the ground from being so incapacitated from repeated gassing and having a police officer ram his baton up their ass and gassing them again, police attacking the Independent Media Center, police knocking on the car window of a woman videotaping and, when she rolled down her window to speak to the officer, spraying her right in the face and yelling “Tape that, bitch!” ….it goes on and on….. In fact, a Seattle City Council member is bringing in Amnesty International to look at the human rights abuses that occurred during the protests.
My tips for the WTO for the next time they meet-
Never hold a meeting in the most liberal part of the USA (stay away from Seattle, Olympia, Vancouver, Bellingham, Portland, Eugene, Berkeley and San Francisco).
Never hold your meeting in the USA (try Singapore or China).
Never hold your meeting in the downtown shopping center of a major US city (because Niketown and The Gap are easy targets.)
Never hold your meeting after Thanksgiving. (everyone wants to shop, not protest you! C’mon!).
Never hold your meeting on the eve of a new millennium (it’s too symbolic).
Never hold your meeting in a city with a mayor who was a free speech/anti-war protester in the 60’s. (he won’t be prepared and may be too “soft” on the protesters).
Never underestimate how disorganized and stupid the police and the Secret Service can be.
Never underestimate how well organized and determined your opposition will be.
Never underestimate how many people will be videotaping everything that happens to them.
Never do anything to hurt sea turtles (they are too cute and kids like them and it looks bad in the press).
Never name your organization with letters that rhyme with “NO” and “GO” (It gives the protesters too many easy things to chant).
Mark Hoesler’s band Negativland was recently inducted into the Raptorial Hall of Fame.