WTO Protest

Creative Nonfiction

by Abigail Singer

It was overcast in Seattle on November 30th; as I walked down Pike street I felt the slight drizzle of raindrops on my face. But, while the Northwest weather was doing its usual thing, the scene unfolding downtown was far from ordinary. The usual hustle and bustle of shoppers was replaced by over 50,000 angry protesters marching, chanting, and locking down in pre-planned affinity groups with one purpose: to shut down the WTO. Unable to risk arrest myself, I flowed freely from intersection to intersection, participating in marches and sitting in on human blockades when necessary. The day before, I had dressed up and marched with a group of roughly 300 sea turtles, representing the 150,000 sea-dwelling victims who are killed each year by shrimping boats without escape hatches (an environmental law that was overturned by the WTO).

The turtles were out today, too, in their large green and blue costumes. Joining them were monarch butterflies (the victims of widespread pesticide poisoning), ears of corn (which are now mostly genetically engineered), and cows infected with Bovine Growth Hormones. Several international groups gave performances throughout the day, with drumming and dance native to their respective cultures, many of which are being put in increasing jeopardy as globalization plants monocultures on their land and patents generations of indigenous knowledge. For much of the day, the streets held a festive atmosphere; the demonstration was not only a protest, but also a celebration of life and reclamation of our streets.

Of course, the degree of festivity depended on what corner you were on and when. The first tear-gassing was at 10:00 in the morning, when a line of police in full riot gear fired canisters into a crowd of nonviolent protesters. The chants of "Fair trade, not free trade" quickly turned to screams of pain and panic. Medics in gas masks rushed to aid the blinded and disoriented protesters, bringing them to safety and flushing their eyes with water. Those who could escape themselves ran from the front line as the cloud of tear gas expanded, slowly engulfing the rest of the intersection. These "police," having been specially trained for the occasion, where actually a mix of Seattle's finest, FBI, CIA, Gang squads, SWAT teams, and eventually the National Guard; thus, the wide array of chemical warfare. Periodic gassing to keep the protesters in line and "maintain public safety" was just the beginning.

These anonymous soldiers, dressed head to toe in black Teflon body armor, carried specially made bats and pouches of concussion grenades. They positioned themselves in lines at intersections around the Convention Center to block access to the meeting. Completely unprovoked, they mercilessly beat protesters, shot them at point-blank range with tear gas canisters and "rubber" bullets (which are really made of hard plastic), sprayed hoses of pepper spray indiscriminately into the crowd, and in one instance, drove over locked-down people with a motorcycle. These were not local cops that the city unleashed on the protesters; they were hard-core military, the iron-fisted enforcers of globalization. And the people on the receiving end were not only activists doing direct action; they were parents, children, teachers, church groups, and countless others taking a stand for human rights.

The mainstream media's scapegoat for the violence was a group of about 50 anarchists (a small minority in the vast diversity of demonstrators). This small group, dressed all in black with bandanas over their faces, held their own marches and protested in their own way: by destroying property. It wasn't just any property, though; it was Niketown, the Gap, Old Navy, Starbucks: in short, the corporations that are causing the most social and environmental devastation worldwide through sweatshops, union-busters, rainforest destruction, etc. One of these protesters gave me a newsletter entitled "The Black-Clad Messenger" explaining their tactics and philosophy. The gist was that you cannot fix an inherently evil system (capitalism) by working in channels provided by that system (i.e., nonprofits, initiatives, and registered marches). By working legally to change the system, you are validating and condoning it. Instead, this group rejects the system altogether, and chooses to protest on their terms. By breaking windows and spray-painting buildings, damage that is nothing compared to the destruction and oppression that these corporations bring to countries and cultures around the world, the anarchists are making their statement while in no way participating in the system itself. What's most troubling about their use as a scapegoat (besides the fact that they were a tiny fraction of the protesters present and that property destruction should never warrant the kind of violence, and in some cases torture, of human beings that the police inflicted) is that there were virtually no attempts made to stop them. The bulk of the violence was instead reserved for those who chose to protest non-violently.

However, the media took aim at the broken glass covering the sidewalks and the spray paint on the walls. "Enslavement" was scrawled across the windows of Old Navy and Anarchy signs appeared just about everywhere, including buildings, windows, police cars, and limousines. People climbed traffic light poles onto overhangs to spray paint and hang banners. Everyone protested in their own, unique way.

The labor march arrived early in the afternoon; estimates of that crowd alone were around 50,000. Like the march the day before, these protesters donned signs from unions, environmental groups, organizations against bioengineering, and a host of other movements striving for social change and a better environment. There were giant puppets portraying the WTO in street theatre, with oversized white men in suits repressing workers and dumping pollutants into community watersheds. A smaller march contained a float which was a "pyramid of oppression," illustrating the many effects of WTO rulings.

Food Not Bombs was there, sending the smell of good cooking down the street and drawing in hungry protesters for a free meal. It was around this corner that a WTO delegate walked to his car and attempted to drive to the meeting. The crowd responded instantly with an impromptu human chain to block the exit of the parking lot. A police car forced a hole in the group, but as soon as the delegate's car attempted to pass, the blockade immediately re-formed. The enforcers in black situated themselves around the perimeter of the lot, but the delegate never got to the meeting.

I then returned to the more central intersection of 6th and Pike, where a group of forest activists (some of whom were friends I worked with) were doing a lockdown. People were breaking windows of Niketown only about 100 ft. away, which could have been disastrous, had the police all around us decided to take action. "If there is gassing," the spokesperson for the affinity group said over the megaphone, "Do not run in this direction. There are people who cannot move." She repeated this over and over, having the crowd echo her so that people beyond the reach of the megaphone would get the message.

News was given about who needed backup where, and people in the lockdown passed around water, fruit, and trailmix. We exchanged information on what was going on at different intersections, and finally someone confirmed the news we had been waiting to hear all day. "The WTO did not meet today! We shut down the WTO!" Cheers erupted from the crowd. Months of hard work and preparation had produced the scale of organization and solidarity necessary to overcome the violent police and prevent the majority of delegates from entering the convention center. We had shut down the world's most wide reaching and devastating force, if only for a day.

Some intended to stay the night, but I left downtown about an hour after our victory. The sun went down, and as I watched the news from a friend's living room, the downtown streets became much more chaotic. Most of the crowd was gone, but a few die-hards with gas masks were still out and about. They returned tear gas canisters to the police as fast as they could dish them out. Mayor Schell declared Marshall law and incited a curfew. The police went on a rampage, running leftover protesters into the Capitol Hill neighborhood, where they attacked not only demonstrators, but also innocent bystanders and residents attempting to flee their homes.

Thousands of people at the protest that day were astounded and terrified by the brutality of the police. Legal observers narrated to the cameras just how blatantly illegal the entire display was. People broke down in tears when they saw the lengths this country will go to for its special interests, a country that many of them had been proud to call their home. "I can't believe this is America," one woman said, her eyes red and her voice shaking. Those who had come for a march and a casual protest for human rights left with much more. They had gotten a taste of just how much dominance the corporate world has in our government, and how far this country is willing to go to defend globalization.