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Labor's U-turn

by Paul de Armond

Would police dare cancel union parade?
By 11AM, the rally at Memorial stadium had been underway for an hour. Roughly 20,000 people only half-filled the stadium. The union numbers were swelled by the anti-WTO organizations which had opted not to engage in the direct action to shut down the conference. Environmentalists have received most of the media coverage for their participation in the labor parade, but the role of human-rights organizations, particularly those working through churches in a "faith-based" network, got even shorter shrift from the media than the unions. Human rights groups are the critical bond between labor and the left. If the labor alliance fractures, it will be along these lines, not because of any action taken by "mainstream" environmental groups.

The rally at the Seattle Center represented a major turn to the left on the part of organized labor. There will be considerable attention to how this new alliance proceeds in the coming months. Fault lines run through it in every direction, but the fact remains that when the AFL-CIO brought their national agenda to Seattle, they looked to the right and saw Pat Buchanan standing alone and without meaningful support, while on the left was a broad array of grassroots support reaching not only across America, but around the world. How this alliance proceeds will hinge on the ability of labor leaders to shift their overtly nationalist agenda to a more international viewpoint.

The disorder spreading through the streets downtown was instantly communicated to the crowd through cell phones, radios and the rest of the infosphere. Behind the scenes, furious activity was taking place to prevent the parade from being canceled by city authorities.

Chaos at police command center
Meanwhile, back at the police command center, Assistant Chief Ed Joiner was turning down demands from his field commanders to declare a state of civil emergency which would cancel the parade.

Joiner said he overruled a recommendation by Assistant Chief John Pirak to declare a state of emergency Tuesday about 11AM. The veto, Joiner said, was made in consideration of plans for the AFL-CIO march towards downtown. "I felt declaring a state of emergency at that time, before the march ever got under way, was going to send a very strong public message that we already had major difficulties as a city," Joiner said.

Joiner's statement underscores the widespread fantasy on the part of city officials that the uproar which followed the decision to deploy tear gas was somehow a secret which they could keep. This air of unreality was demonstrated by Seattle's KOMO TV, which tried to implement a censorship policy by not covering the news as it unfolded in the streets. KOMO has received richly deserved ridicule for their censorship of "illegal demonstrations", but the attitude was not theirs alone. Anyone with an internet connection could plug into live video and audio feeds from the street battles from the alternative media. The commercial media struggled to keep up, but was continuously hampered by their inability to understand what was going on.

The whereabouts and activities of Mayor Schell and Chief Stamper continue to somewhat mysterious during this period. Given the intense concern centering on the AFL-CIO parade on the part of law enforcement officials, it is a reasonable guess that much of the mayor and chief's time between 11AM and 1PM was devoted to negotiations with the labor leaders. The post-WTO investigations by the Seattle City Council and the ACLU lawsuit over the constitutionality of the city's civil emergency law may lift some of the veil which currently hides this period.

The final decision was to allow the AFL-CIO parade from the Seattle Center to downtown. This sealed the fate of the street actions as a victory for the Direct Action Network. If the march had been canceled and the additional protesters had been prevented from joining in the chaos downtown, the city stood a better chance of restoring order. Instead, the strategy of using the AFL-CIO to contain and neutralize the Direct Action Network protests was drastically modified. The city's capitulation to the protests was underscored at 1PM by the announcement from the WTO that it was canceling the opening ceremonies.

The decision by Mayor Schell and Chief Stamper to allow the march was bizarre. A December 16 story by Seattle Times reporters Mike Carter and David Postman chronicled the decision:

About 11AM, SPD Assistant Chief Pirak -- watching events unfold from the city's emergency operation center -- called Joiner at the MACC and "asked whether we wanted to ask the mayor if we wanted to declare a state of emergency," Joiner said.

Despite the fact "we were getting hit with much larger numbers of protesters than we had anticipated," Joiner refused.

Instead, he opted to let the AFL-CIO march proceed, a move that aimed as many as 20,000 more people toward downtown as skirmishes between police, demonstrators and anarchist vandals were escalating.

Joiner believed the march would actually work in favor of his stretched police lines. The strategy, he said, was for the peaceful march to sweep the other demonstrators into its ranks and deposit them several blocks away... toward a "dispersal point" [where] the police intended to move in behind the demonstrators and expand the perimeter around the hotels and convention center.

Instead, thousands of the demonstrators turned into town and chaos ensued.

"I still believe we could have controlled what we were dealing with at that time had the march turned," Joiner said. "It was not going to be clean. It would have been messy. But I think we would have been able to open a corridor to get delegates in and out."

In other words, the Direct Action Network protesters were expected to abandon the streets and leave downtown when they saw their reinforcements arrive. Assistant Chief Joiner's explanation is simply not credible, as the WTO ceremonies had been canceled before the parade began. Whatever the level of chaos and unreality at the command center, it is unlikely that anyone thought a column of twenty thousand people would march downtown and then "sweep the other demonstrators into its ranks."

Whoever was going to be gassed or pepper-sprayed in Seattle, it wasn't going to be the labor leaders
Several factors affected the decision to allow the AFL-CIO parade to proceed. First of all, the police were running short of tear gas and needed time to obtain new supplies and deliver them downtown. Second, they were not prepared to arrest marchers at the Seattle Center -- due to both political and logistical reasons. If the police tried and failed to prevent the march, things would clearly take a turn for the worse. Third, if the parade was canceled, the AFL-CIO would be denied any credit for the outcome of the protests. Finally, whoever was going to be gassed or pepper-sprayed in Seattle, it wasn't going to be the labor leaders.

Greta Gaard had ridden to the rally on a labor bus from Bellingham, one hundred miles to the north of Seattle. She reports in Bellingham's Every Other Weekly that the "rainbow flag" (non-union) participants at the rally decided around noon that they were going to leave the stadium and march downtown. The word of the street battles had reached the stadium only minutes after the first gas was released at 10AM. It took an hour before the crowd was lined up in the streets, chanting "We want to march!" The walk towards downtown was oddly quiet. "There were no police, media or crowd-watchers in sight," wrote Gaard. "Then the answer hit me: we weren't a threat."

A sheet-metal union member, Mike Ottoloino, got into a confrontation with the AFL-CIO marshals, saying, "This isn't a march, this is a parade!"

As the parade arrived at 4th and Pike, AFL-CIO marshals began blocking progress towards the convention center, saying "The route has been changed. Circle around here." Police were massing several blocks away, but were not visible to the people arriving from the Seattle Center. Gaard and several thousand others turned away from the march, just in time to run into the renewed police push to move people away from the convention center. The momentum of the thousands leaving the march and moving towards the Convention Center carried several blocks beyond the parade's pivot at 4th and Pike. Gaard and her friends found themselves at 6th and Pike, one of the most fiercely contested intersections of the battle, but temporarily an island of relative calm due to the absence of police. Behind them, the labor parade moved away from downtown and back towards the Seattle Center, unmolested by police.

Though Gaard didn't know it, the unsuccessful police push was timed to herd people into the parade. However, as had been the case all day, the size of the crowds blocked movement and the police ceased advancing when the now-expanded and enlarged crowd could not fall back any further. As shown by Gaard's relatively easy progress to within a block of the Convention Center, the reinforcements strengthened the moving blockade ringing the WTO conference.

The AFL-CIO parade delivered crucial reinforcements to the protesters, instead of sweeping them out of downtown. As marchers left the parade, this completely crushed any police fantasies that the demonstrators would abandon the downtown and return control of the streets to the police.

NEXT: Terrain of the Battlefield

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Albion Monitor February 29, 2000 (

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