Saturday, April 14, 2007

A no-win situation

By L.A. Kauffman

SEATTLE -- Tuesday's World Trade Organization riot can be summed up by the story of Craig Webster, a friend I know from activist circles in New York. First he was shot with rubber bullets when police opened fire on peaceful demonstrators at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Union Street, and he has nasty welts to show for it. Then later in the day, he was slugged in the jaw by a rioter, while he and some other nonviolent activists tried to prevent the Niketown store from being looted.
Craig's bad luck encapsulated the experience of nonviolent protesters who came to Seattle to focus world attention on WTO -- they got upstaged by violent anarchists and attacked by police, who did nothing until late in the day to stop the rioting. While peaceful protesters vastly outnumbered the hooligans, there were 300 to 400 hardcore anarchists intent on clashing with police, most with scarves over their faces, some carrying hammers, crowbars and spray paint in their bags.

On Wednesday, police arrested more than 300 people, most of them non-violent demonstrators, in a change of tactics designed to clear the streets for President Clinton's visit. Wednesday night, police used tear gas again, to disperse a crowd that began to gather downtown.

But on Tuesday, police allowed the so-called revolutionaries bent on violence to gain the upper hand. Early Tuesday morning, �a few blocks away from the nonviolent blockade, small roving groups of violent protesters began tossing newspaper boxes into an intersection, dragging trash bins into the street and trying -- without success at that point -- to smash the windows of downtown stores.

The police pretty much let them do as they pleased. One squad of about a dozen officers in riot gear briefly marched into the crowd at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Pike Street, but retreated almost immediately, when it became clear that the protesters wouldn't disperse. A little after 9 a.m., I saw two cops grab a demonstrator who was tipping over a trash bin on Pike Street. But they didn't hold him for long: 20 of the rioters rushed the police and brawled with them until they got their comrade free.

But later, I watched as thousands of people blocked the western entrance to the convention center and marveled at their defiant yet peaceful demeanor. Linked arm-in-arm in a huge perimeter around the meeting site, or sitting cross-legged in key intersections, the protesters were achieving their goal of preventing the trade body's meeting, and in a spirit of complete nonviolence. Soon, with no provocation, they were pepper-sprayed by police.

It was no secret -- not to me, and certainly not to the Seattle police -- that this conference would be met with violence in the streets. Rioting had broken out at a "Reclaim the Streets" protest in Eugene, Ore., in June, and in the intervening five months, anarchist militants had been circulating apocalyptic manifestos promising more fights to come. A pre-WTO article in a Eugene 'zine called the Black-Clad Messenger warned, "Tilting at the excesses of the system never gets down to the rotten, death-culture foundations of the system ... Anarchy says it is time to face reality and destroy the global (and local) machine. Phony half-measures and pseudo-critiques and submissive demos are no advance at all. SEE YOU IN SEATTLE!"

And indeed, in Seattle, at�a huge public meeting of people planning to blockade the convention center, a young woman announced that 100 gas masks had been ordered in preparation for Tuesday's protest and were available at cost. (Tuesday, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell banned possession or use of gas masks.)

But the police took no action to contain the mayhem that was obviously on the agenda. Instead, they let the rioters run wild while assaulting peaceful protesters with pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets.