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The Smoke Clears in Seattle
- But the WTO is now firmly on the cards
by urban75's Seattle correspondent Si Mitchell
3rd December 1999
As the planet chokes its way towards the end of the century, the direct activists of the world have sent a message out to those dirtiest of dogs who think they can pollute the lands and the waters, enslave the people, steel the freedoms and destroy the disparate beauty of a thousand cultures. The message is loud and clear: We 'aint takin' no more bullshit. There's gonna be some changes round here buddy!
The venue was Seattle, a city still reeling from a week of some of the most well co-ordinated anti corporate activism of the decade. Tens of thousands of justly pissed off people descended on the city that chose to play host to the World Trade Organisation.
Chilean farmers stood side by side with US dockers, African libertarians, European environmentalists, Tibetan freedom fighters and the Zapatistas of Chiapas. Even the city's cab drivers came out on strike for the day.
Their aim was to shut the crafty little carve up that is the WTO. To prevent further corporate pandering trade tariffs to be pushed through on the nod of puppet politicians - a goal to some extent achieved. A brutal and bloody police backlash might have ensured that the show stumbled on, but between November 28 and December 2, the city was ours. A spanner, raided from the toolbox of the gods, was hurled directly into the machinations of the New World Order.
In a vain attempt to protect its corporate, greed driven self interests, the streets of a peaceful city were flooded with armed riot police, soldiers, guns and tanks. A state of martial law was declared, suspending the constitutional rights of those trying to make their voices heard. But nothing unites a crowd and creates instant lifelong bonds between total strangers than being tear gassed, shot at and bombed by mindless asshole cops.
The week had kicked off, with a critical mass of cyclists shutting down one downtown intersection after another. Daily banner drops greeted waking residents: WTO this way, Democracy that way, read the hundred foot message hanging from a downtown crane (courtesy of the rainforest action network). A thousand people marched on Sunday: Rise Up, they spelt out with their bodies in the streets before heading down to the Gap clothes shop to have a mass anti-sweatshop demo. Only in Seattle could a thousand people simultaneously chant: Close the wage Gap - www.globalexchange.org.
On Monday thousands more took to the streets, closing down 3rd Avenue and Mcdonalds in unity with the French farmers. Workers' icon Jose Bove addressed the frenzied crowd (managing - to a certain extent - to shrug off the 'organiser' who kept urging him to Tell them its non violent. Bove's capitulation was unconvincing from a man who cut his activist teeth in the streets of Paris, 1968.) The first show of black clad gas masked riot cops, sixteen stone brainless Neanderthals to a man (they took and held a zebra crossing for an hour) was quickly repelled by the joyous mob.
Before sun-up on Tuesday the city was ours, the trade talks were off, and fifty thousand voices as one took to the streets to say: Hell no WTO! and lots more unprintable things (not offensive, just a bit embarrassing).
The police storm troopers wasted no time in loosing off their arsenal, and once the initial shock of being shot with rubber bullets and tear gas wore off, the value of these weapons - as a threat - was gone.
The co-ordination of the activists was second to none. Communication, Medic, Legal and Video teams co-ordinated by a system of two way radios and dispatchers moved fluidly among the crowd. Everyone was kept informed of what was going down, a camera and lawyer haunted every police attack. An independent media centre, http://www.indymedia.org, of four hundred international underground journalists was established to counter the predictable mainstream media's reactionary spin.
The Urban75 posse were equipped with radios and cameras and when batteries or film ran out, dispatchers were sent with replacements (Despite repeated requests, pizza and beer was never forthcoming - a note for next year fellas).
To prevent the rest of America finding out what was being hurled at their countrymen and women in Washington State , a 24 hour news blackout was (self) enforced by the major corporate news networks. The First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and of the press had gone out the window. Despite scores of obvious undercover Federal and City spooks mingling with the crowds, their intelligence was pathetic.
What's your strategy? I asked a police sergeant. We have no strategy, came the reply. No shit sherlock - as another volley of rib breakers send the crowd scurrying. The police's tactics yo-yo'd from one end of the lunatic scale to the other. There were less than fifty arrests on the 30th, but over five hundred the following day (see report of Capitol Hill Incident - link please Jim) when police and National Guardsmen bombed and tear gassed protesters, shoppers and residents indiscriminately, roaming the city with sirens blaring to let everyone know the 7pm curfew was kicking in.
Protest was banned, but the people said: Fuck You! (Straight up - I'm quoting ok). A five thousand strong crowd met, the next day, to rally against GM food and deforestation before marching into the curfew zone (24 hour by now) to have a pop at the headquarters of, global defroster, Westerhouse.
From there they hiked to the jail, surrounding the building and refusing to leave until their comrades (numbering around 600 by now, all held without charge and without having been allowed access to lawyers) were released. The American Civil Liberties Union applied in vain to have the curfew lifted. Though they (and at least three other individuals Urban75 spoke to) plan to sue the City for police brutality. Calls came from every quarter for the resignation of Seattle's Mayor, Paul Schell, and Police Chief, Norm Stamper, who laughably commended his officers' restraint.
Urban75 cornered Stamper, on a PR walkabout (him not us), outside the jail and asked him what he was going to do about his officers tear gassing pre school children on a peaceful protest. We'll have an investigation, he said. By who we asked? The Seattle police. No doubt there are some quaking cops dreading being investigated by their buddies. (The reference to the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad was lost on him - though I don't suppose he'll run for Congress this year).
Feeling a tad sheepish about black clad terminator style SWAT teams shooting middle class white teenage placard wavers at point blank range in the middle of Christmas shopping week in the heart of their palatial retail district, a special Seattle Council meeting was convened - and the deputy mayor said no more tear gas would be used.
'We ain't leaving until you release our people', said the crowd. Buoyed by their numbers and police's enforced back down they drummed, danced and chanted: This is what democracy looks like! (Presumably without the circling helicopters, national guard troops - or ten storey jail backdrop, though). The stand-off went into the night, eventually a deal was struck to allow lawyers in to see the jailed protesters and sixteen individuals were let go.
The police presence was low, they knew they'd fucked it up. 'Think global, act local', had been the motto of the WTO opposition and what had started as a global protest had indeed become localised, as Seattle's people demanded their fundamental rights (and their friends) back.
Contrary to media reports, everyone knew why they were there. Everyone I met spoke lucidly about their particular axe to grind with the global powerbrokers. From Canadian deforestation to the killing of pacific sea turtles, from the imprisonment of Mumia, Peltier or Tianamen protesters. From Nike sweatshop labour practices, to oil explorarion on the lands of the U'wa Indians of Columbia and their threatened mass suicide. They could all explain how these problems were caused or enhanced by the anti-accountable, silver suited grinning greed merchants of the WTO.
As has become the hallmark of Peoples Global Actions, everyone approached Seattle in their own inimitable ways. They were all non violent, though some, less well informed Americans (I know this sounds a touch xenophobic but shucks - that's how it was) could not see the difference between smashing the retail outlets of corporate domination, and violence against people (the only examples of which we're being orchestrated by cops).
Only in America could property generate feelings of maternal protection. As one Seattlite pointed out to Urban75, later that day: The Ammendment that precedes all others is 'The Right to have Shit'. A few 'peace police' types attacked protesters who saw it as their duty to trash the altars of greed we had come to oppose - such as McDonalds or Nike. (No violence against property - but violence against vandals of property.....Hello???). Most just stood back and cheered.
One seventeen year old girl pulled up by an aging trucker for mindlessly smashing a window of trendy clothes store Gap rounded on the redneck and subjected him to a thirty second diatribe of why she did what she did: Immigrant Asian women are lured to Saipan to work a seven day week, fenced in with barbed wire they are forbidden to even take a piss while they sew these fucking clothes, she yelled.
Teenage girls in Honduras work 14 hour shifts for 50 cents an hour and Chinese migrant women in Russia earn less than a quarter of that making these fucking rags. That asshole, Millard Dexter [GAP chief executive], earns $24,000 an hour - that's $47 million a year wiseguy - and Donald Fisher [Gap Inc Chairman] is worth $8 billion. This fucking company spends over $500 million a year advertising this shit while its workers starve. Don't call me fucking mindless. Redneck stood in stunned silence as glass rained down about him. Pick up a brick asshole, someone shouted. For a minute he looked like he was considering it.
A similar encounter happened outside swish department store, Potterybarn, where a lad, no more than eighteen, had to physically fight his way out of a mass of so-called 'non-violence' types while explaining to them that a homeless hostel had been torn down to build the shop, dispossesing 150 people. (One particularly enlightening aspect of the direct activists in Seattle was their tender age and even numbers of boys and girls. As one of the 'Eugene Brickthrowers Local 666' told Urban75: 'I don't want no woman who can't throw a half brick for me'. Urban75 refrained from asking his partner to be a dear and rustle us up a round of sandwiches.
One particularly up-for-it individual, spotted in action on N30, brought his own, fire extinguisher size, pepper spray and managed to blast a cop who was stood on the bonnet of an armoured car loosing off a flurry of rubber bullets into a crowd of peace signing sit down protesters. Slowly Seattle is creaking back towards a 'normality' it will never truly regain. Clusters of armoured cops and guardsmen still lurk on street corners - but they know, they are the assholes - their multitude of weapons are shouldered now. (Keep an eye on www.indymedia.org for the latest on those still incarcerated.)
As people leave for their hometowns and homelands their solidarity has been set in concrete. The Urban75 posse's lungs are still sticky with tear gas and our kidneys ache as they try to expel the toxins, but make no mistake, the fight will go on. Maybe we didn't shut down the WTO, but its days are numbered and changes will come. Enough growth, enough greed, enough government. Ya Basta! See you on Mayday in the Y2K.
>> see also:
Seattle under siege
Seattle's a gas
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