by Roni Krouzman
Seattle looked more like a war zone than a
major American city today, as tens of thousands of demonstrators seized a
large section of downtown, securing at least 13 key intersections and
forcing the cancellation of the World Trade Organization's (WTO) opening
Police retaliated to the largely nonviolent protests with force instead of mass arrests, firing tear gas at the crowds, spraying protesters with pepper spray, and even shooting rubber bullets at several demonstrators, causing minor injury to at least two. By late afternoon, the clashes had died down, but were by no means over. With several areas of downtown still under the demonstrators' control, a Civil Emergency was declared by the mayor and the National Guard was mobilized.
The day began early for many activists, who gathered for a pre-dawn demonstration at Victor Steinbrueck Park. Thousands sang and chanted, their spirits buoyed by an announcement that dock workers from California to the Canadian border would engage in a work stoppage later that day.
While thousands of radicals and a contingent of longshoremen and steelworkers were enduring the rain-soaked rally, dozens of direct action teams secured positions throughout the city, especially near the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, where WTO trade representatives from 135 countries were to begin a week of negotiations.
Soon after the direct action teams had taken their positions, several thousand students, union members, environmentalists, and social justice organizers left Steinbrueck Park and marched to each of the 13 key intersections. Activists formed human chains around each of the every street leading to the Convention Center, preventing thousands of delegates from reaching their meetings, though some attempted to push their way through.
By 9AM, the number of protesters had surpassed 5,000. The main march had broken off into several smaller processions of at least 500 people each, which criss-crossed the downtown area and engulfed six-block long sections of 4th and Pine streets in a sea of sign-waving, drum-beating, and costumed protestors.
At 10:30AM, the police went on the offensive, demanding that a mass of at least one thousand demonstrators disperse to make way for WTO delegates. The demonstrators did not, and as they sat down in front of the police line, a squadron of ten officers carrying what appeared to be automatic machine guns charged over them from behind, trampling several.
The crowd booed and jeered, chanting, "We're nonviolent, how about you?" Police in riot gear responded with a barrage of tear gas, overcoming dozens with noxious fumes and causing hundreds to flee the intersection. Some protesters quickly donned gas masks, refusing to leave, and were met with a hail of rubber bullets. At least two were struck, one in the leg and one in the mouth. Legal observers reported that neither was seriously injured. Thousands chanted, "Shame!" and "The World is Watching!" amidst an eerie cloud of white gas and the steady hum of helicopters flying overhead.
By late morning, Seattle's coffee shops were buzzing with talk of the actions, which had now drawn over 10,000 demonstrators and hundreds of police, and diverted car and bus traffic from half the downtown area. As the day progressed and tensions mounted, some protesters adopted more aggressive tactics. Several young activists rolled van-sized garbage containers into alleyways and intersections. At noon, police ordered a raucous crowd at Fourth and University to disperse, and fired tear gas canisters when it refused.
On the northern side of the Convention Center, along Pike Street, several small groups of youths dressed in black and donning ski masks or bandanas damaged property at stores including Nike Town, Old Navy, and Planet Hollywood. To the chagrin of activists who had attempted to enforce a code of nonviolence, they scrolled anti-corporate graffiti on walls and displays, and smashed corporate store windows with hammers, crowbars, and street signs, destroying a Starbucks storefront. However, the overwhelming majority of activists did not engage in violence, and only blocked access to the Convention Center for 2500 to 3000 delegates through nonviolent civil disobedience.
At 2PM, an estimated 25,000 activists, mainly union rank and file, marched into downtown from a rally at Memorial Stadium, joining the ten thousand or so direct action activists who had seized control of the city. The demonstrations displayed a level of diversity rare in American movements, as anarchists, environmentalists, and vegan hippies marched side by side with teamsters and steelworkers. The success of the protests had a lot to do with the activists' grassroots organizing processes and structures, made evident by a week of teach-ins, human chains, and grassroots mobilizations. But it also had a lot to do with the issue. The WTO has managed to bring many different -- and in the past, conflicting -- interests together because its policies affect all cross sections of the American public. Seattle 1999 may very well have been the first "shot across the bow" grassroots organizers had hoped for.
As this article goes to press on Monday, downtown Seattle is under nighttime curfew. The National Guard has reportedly been mobilized, and civil liberties may be greatly restricted on Wednesday, when thousands return to the streets in an attempt to block another WTO session. Whatever happens tomorrow, activists here are confident they have made history.
December 1, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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