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Sleepless in Seattle

by Mike Albers

The tear gas grenade sailed over the line of coughing demonstrators and skipped across the damp blacktop, casting a billowing line of smoke in its path. It bounced off the concrete curb and stopped, left in peace to belch its noxious contents into the air. A second smacked down on the sidewalk across the street from me and a third ricocheted off a young hippie's chest. He collapsed to the pavement moaning as clouds of teargas plumed skyward. The crowd coughed and screamed before stumbling their way back towards clean air. A person wearing black from head to toe and a gas mask across their face seized the chaos and concealment of the gas as an opportunity to smash out two bank windows with a hammer. As if reminding the individual of the heavily armed cops standing less than 50 feet away, a tear gas grenade struck down a few feet from their boots. With the grace of an olympic skater, the figure stooped down, picked up the burning cartridge and lobbed it back at the police. A hail of rubber bullets from a 12 gauge answered back. But before they could strike human flesh, the figure had vanished back into the crowd.

By the time I managed to navigate a path through the crowd of panicked demonstrators into the open "square," my lungs felt as though they had inhaled a small blast furnace and my dry eyes smarted with pain. "Tear gas sucks..." I thought as I vainly attempted to spit the sour spice of gas from my mouth, nose and throat. After a few minutes of crying and hacking, enough composure was salvaged to take a good look around the streets. A smile crossed my face.

Since around 8 a.m. that morning, I and 50,000 of my closest friends had been occupying a ten block area of downtown Seattle in a protest against the ministerial summit of the World Trade Organization. The international agency was supposed to have been meeting in the large brown building before me but a literal wall of demonstrators circling the building had thus far prevented any delegates from entering. Those who tried were either physically blocked by the forceful bodies of nonviolent protesters or frightened away by the hundred or so masked members of the "black block" who were running around breaking things.

"Affinity groups" of like minded activists had seized every significant intersection surrounding the Seattle Convention Center Sheraton. At each of these intersections protest geometry was in full effect, with lines of riot cops squaring off against lines of protesters. However, aside from the police sailing tear gas grenades into the crowd, shooting rubber bullets and beating the occasional protester with clubs, the lines remained more or less static and the rest of the ten blocks were left free of uniformed cops.

Once out of tear gas grenade range and away from the paramilitary battalions of riot police on the other side of the demo, the area formerly known as downtown Seattle assumed a festive, almost quaint vibe. Lovers walked hand in hand through the traffic free streets while two different marching bands hammered off renditions of patriotic labor songs. A gang of Santa Clauses walked by chanting "Hohoho, fuck the WTO" and the sidewalks were alight with song and dance. Minus a few ideological disputes between demonstrators, every person I encountered was in good spirits.

By 10:30 a.m., the numbers of demonstrators in the ten block area swelled to somewhere around 20,000 as all present anxiously awaited the arrival of the AFL-CIO organized labor march which was to bring another 30,000 demonstrators right past "our" downtown. Occasional clouds of tear gas and rumors of martial law entertained us in the meantime.

Word soon spread through the crowd that the summit had been postponed and was mere minutes away from being canceled. Elation swelled in the crowd and the chanting and singing only got louder. A hopeful prophecy appeared on a wall in black spraypaint. "We are winning..." It seemed at that moment, we were.

However, as our conquest of downtown Seattle progressed that Tuesday, so did tensions on both sides of the lines. The police began liberalizing their use of force with more tear gas and clubs. Increasing numbers of demonstrators stumbled away from the "lines" with blood streaming down their faces and tears choking their eyes. Undercover cops began appearing at the periphery of the "liberated zone" beating and arresting random protesters while armored personnel carriers rolled through the streets. Up until that point, I had always thought the use of the term "police state" in reference to the United States as a Leftist delusion. When one is standing face to face with 500 cops in full body armor carrying MP5 submachineguns and throwing grenades at college students, it is difficult to think of a better phrase.

On our side of the lines, things were a bit more schizophrenic. The breaking of glass and defacement of buildings had driven a wedge right through the middle of the anti-WTO movement. In one corner stood the older, more liberal bastions of the resistance. In their own words, they were there to have a peaceful, orderly demonstration in the spirit of the civil rights movement and were particularly wary not to offend the sensibilities of the media or organized labor. At the other corner was the younger, more radical fringe whose disregard for political tact was only matched by their utter antipathy to the WTO and everything it represented. The latter condoned vandalism while the former considered it to be a counterproductive ingredient for failure. The vast majority of the demonstrators (myself included) straddled the fissure somewhere in the middle.

This debate over property destruction is hardly a new one in political activism. In Seattle the debate wasn't taking place in verbose editorial columns or stuffy group meetings, but in the streets with tear gas and rubber bullets flying by. As the day progressed and the tear gas became more intense, so did the vandalism. First, slogans and symbols started mysteriously appearing on walls. Then dumpsters and newspaper boxes began appearing in the middle of streets. And by noon, windows in Starbucks, the Gap, Nike, and Old Navy were shattered. The police were apparently less concerned with the vandalism than they were with the chanting mobs of demonstrators before them, as not a single vandal was apprehended and more than 500 demonstrators would be arrested before week's end.

Although the police didn't seem too phased by some broken glass and graffiti, this unrestrained vandalism was too much for some of the "nonviolent" demonstrators to handle and a few began taking matters into their own hands as self appointed vigilante protest police. I myself experienced more than a dozen episodes in which vandals or suspected vandals were physically assaulted by other demonstrators (who ironically enough were shouting "This is a non-violent protest" while swinging fists or sticks). It is one thing to sit back and watch a cop beat the hell out of a demonstrator as it must be at least somewhat expected. It is something entirely different to watch demonstrators turn on each other; something frightfully confusing. These tensions would only intensify as the week went on. At 12:45 p.m. it was announced over the radio that opening day of the World Trade Organization summit had been canceled due to civil unrest. A triumphant cheer went out from the crowd. It seemed that if only for a day, we had won.

Adding more fuel to the fire, the AFL-CIO march, an unbroken line of people almost a mile long, came into view. Cheers went up from the crowd as an estimated 40,000 individuals from the steelworker, teamster, electrician, and longshoremen unions marched into sight. Processions from Vietnamese and Tibetan human rights movements, representatives of the Falun Gong, a religion outlawed in China, and the usual assortment of communist, socialist and Marxist ideologues were in the midst of barrel-chested workers and construction helmets.

Unfortunately, the union march passed right by our little liberated zone without stopping and cast a bit of doubt on the precarious alliances that had recently been formed between organized labor and environmentalists. However, several thousand more people, mostly curious onlookers and bored teenagers, joined in the demo milling through the still obstructed streets, excited by the chaos.

The entire crowd was afire with enthusiasm and energy and almost all present were convinced this was the most amazing demonstration they had ever seen.

I strolled along the streets beaming with happiness as the sun began to plummet towards the West. As an environmentalist who does most of his work in areas where a good turnout for a demo is double digits and most of the population would rather shoot you than look at you, the thought of being in the midst of 40,000 people changing history made me ecstatic. If for only a day, we had won. We had gotten together, organized and showed global power that we weren't going to sit on our duffs while they dragged us, our rights and the Earth down their unobstructed trade path to hell. But the struggle was far from over.

As the shadows grew long and the singing died out, the situation began changing. The mayor declared a 7 p.m. curfew and the lines of riot cops were beginning to thicken, while the demonstration itself began to change. The older demonstrators had ventured homeward leaving a younger, more angry and more racially diverse crowd to try and hold the streets. The fun, festive city we had controlled only hours earlier had become a war zone. Windows were either boarded up or broken, the streets littered with flaming dumpsters and empty tear gas canisters; every bare wall was covered with graffiti. For the anti-civilization anarchist types in our midst, it was like a post-apocalyptic wet dream.

Shortly after 7 p.m., the dream erupted into a flurry of rubber bullets and tear gas as the police charged and broke apart the remnants of the protest. Concussion grenades echoed through the night while people fled for refuge from the clouds of tear gas wafting down the streets. Seeing the cop-to-demonstrator ratio tipping dangerously in favor of the former and not wanting to be trapped in the city after the curfew, I hastened my retreat out of downtown.

I worked my way back to a warehouse on Capital Hill to try and locate some missing friends only to find a huge meeting in progress. Inside, the tension was high. People argued back and forth about the day's activities, particularly the "violence" of vandalism. Apparently much of the anti-WTO movement had sided with the media's and police's use of the word "violence" to describe the day's vandalism and was scrambling to distance itself from the black-clad vandals. Some made proposals to keep anyone wearing black from entering the "public" warehouse space and to form a brigade to repair the damaged remains of downtown. The sound of demonstrators siding with corporate media and the gas-happy police against their fellow demonstrators created a nauseous feeling in my stomach and sent my blood pressure soaring. The movement which had shut down the WTO for a day and forged the largest demonstration since the 1970s was splitting apart from within. Luckily, my friend Wayne came to the rescue by whispering in my ear. "Dude, there's shit going down a block a way. We need your help."

We skipped out of the building and over to Pine street where a full fledged riot was on the verge of erupting. At the top of the hill, about 500 people stood in the middle of the street yelling and heckling at a row of riot cops lining up at the bottom of the hill. Unlike the daylight demonstration, this was comprised not of chanting politicos, but of young, agitated locals. Consequently, the attitude of the crowd was much more confrontational; nonviolence was the last thing on anyone's mind. A pair of tear gas grenades flew through the air and landed in the midst of the crowd, inciting a flurry of bottles and stones in return. The cops fired several more tear gas and concussion grenades. The blinded, half-asphyxiated mob retreated a block back. A new hail of bottles and stones flew from the crowd, answered by a new barrage of gas grenades. This commotion lasted into the night, as the rioting cops chased the crowd from intersection to intersection in a tear gas drenched rendition of cat and mouse.

The next morning we showed up downtown expecting at least something similar to the previous day's experience. However, having been shut out one day already, the authorities had other plans for us and the WTO. Squads of riot cops were posted at beachheads on every street corner leading into downtown and armored personnel carriers patrolled the streets. Police stopped and searched pedestrians and those with gasmasks, signs or other contraband were arrested or sent the other direction. I made it through without incident and soon found myself wandering through the now busy streets searching for any sign at all of protest. Sadness filled my heart. One day these streets were alive with energy and hope that we really could have a say in our future. The next day, as national guard platoons fanned out through the streets and cops glared at me from every corner, the streets were reclaimed by the oppressiveness of everyday life, as though yesterday had never happened. A county sheriff deputy told me to go home because there wasn't going to be any protesting here today.

Not seeing my comrades anywhere in sight, I almost believed her; at least until more than 400 of my cohorts caught my eye as they marched up Fourth Street singing that old civil rights movement song "Eyes on the Prize." Just as I had given up, the familiar flame of resistance had rekindled itself.

Hope blossomed in my chest as I smirked at the cops and joined in the march. For the next 45 minutes the march wove its way through the streets of downtown Seattle while the police scrambled to set up skirmish lines to stop it. After three close calls with routes blocked by rows of cops, the march funneled into the plaza through a narrow passage between a building and a line of parked city buses. I had seen this trap sprung on marches thrice before and stepped out of the march minutes before a whole brigade of police officers cordoned off the area. 250 demonstrators were arrested, put on the buses and driven off to jail.

The bulk of the marching demonstrators had been arrested and it seemed that the protest had been quashed. Once again, I was wrong. I rounded a corner onto Fifth Street. only to find myself behind 900 or so demonstrators marching towards the labor temple. This legal march was organized by the First Methodist Church and CIO and it was conspicuously free of Johnny Law and his riot cop sidekicks. Without the presence of the police, the march was rather uneventful and lacking the eccentricities of the more radical sectors of the WTO resistance. Dare I say it was somewhat boring.

However, the sound of concussion grenades caught my ear and morbid curiosity compelled me forward. I soon found myself in front of the Pike Street market in the midst of a situation which threatened to evolve into a riot. A semicircle of riot cops waved shotguns and grenade launchers menacingly at a crowd, mostly made up of confused business people. Apparently, in an effort to stop another march from blocking the street, the police had started launching teargas grenades into the middle of rush hour traffic. Needless to say, random commuters weren't all that excited about being tear gassed and the crowd swelled both in size and anger. Police reinforcements arrived and began dispersing the crowd with additional layers of tear gas and concussion grenades. From that point until the 7 p.m. curfew, the shadowy streets of downtown Seattle were filled with the sounds of battle as multiple different demonstrations and riots escalated concurrently. Police helicopters buzzed in the air overhead, spotlights glaring. Squad cars sped through the empty streets, and the ominous sound of armored personnel carriers rumbled by. Literally hundreds of police officers and National Guard soldiers were lining the periphery of downtown in preparation for the enforcement of the 7pm curfew. Seeing that the 800 or so demonstrators were no match for such a force and once again valuing my freedom above a futile "last stand," I headed back up the hill, out of downtown.


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