30 November 1999 saw worldwide protests against global capital, and specifically, against the millennium World Trade Organisation talks in Seattle, USA. The tens of thousands of protesters on Seattle's streets came together from a huge spectrum of political and social backgrounds, including trade unionists, anarchists, pacifists, environmentalists, anti-racist activists, liberals, communists and local residents. Given the diverse (and often conflicting) views, aims and choice of tactics represented in this mass of people, the result (total shutdown and ultimate failure of the WTO talks), was quite an achievement.
Sheer force of numbers meant that, despite the declaration of a State of Emergency and the best efforts of a police force armed to the hilt and dressed like extras in Robocop, the demonstrators were able to block entry to the conference venue and close downtown Seattle for hours on end. Tactics were, in the main, non-violent. The police response was anything but. Whilst the cops were busy teargassing and beating the shit out of the crowds (and local residents), a small, but plucky group of anarchists (the `Black Block') seized the opportunity to do a bit of proletarian shopping! Their efforts do not appear to have been universally appreciated...
Thousands were arrested, but used their predicament to cause virtual shutdown of the penal system. Arrestees refused to co-operate — refusing to give names or statements, refusing to get out of police vehicles and making thorough nuisances of themselves. The state's response was predictable: more beatings and worse inside the jails. We reproduce below various eyewitness accounts of the actions in Seattle and in the rest of the world. We also include a brief piece on the tactics of (and rather peculiar response of some protesters to) the Black Block.
FOUR DAYS OF PROTEST
It kicked off in Seattle on the Sunday with a protest rally of solidarity. The next day the rallies got bigger. On these two days it looked like the policing was being handled by the young cops and trainees. Tuesday (the 30th) saw the biggest crowds, tens of thousands — a truly enormous carnival —human chains blocking the World Trade Centre. It was then that the cops got jumpy — only about 27 delegates got into WTO, mostly US and British. A new group of police — tactical police —moved in and gassed people, shooting rubber bullets. Young kids, maybe 100, hit back by breaking some windows in retaliation.
That night the police gassed all of downtown from 3pm till 6pm. The kids broke some windows — McDonald's, Starbucks —they burned a few garbage cans. At 6pm a State of Emergency was declared. The police chased the kids outside the city limits, and started gassing that area too, gassing the neighbourhoods where the regular people live. The local people got mad too and joined those who had been herded out of the city. Soon there were 500, including the neighbourhood people all very angry. Then people set up barricades at Seattle Central Community College. The cops spent about an hour getting themselves together before moving in and gassing the area.
On Wednesday the Longshoremen's Union held a union rally down at the docks and then marched to Third Avenue. As soon as they got there the cops started gassing them. There was an old lady there. She had gone downtown by bus to buy something. This lady was in her seventies and I saw her trying to run, but she couldn't breathe. She was in shock.
Wednesday saw mass arrests. Clinton was on his way, weeping crocodile tears about how he just LOVES peaceful protest. This police attack was US foreign policy, not some action decided by some bureaucrat in Seattle. This was the State Department.
On the Wednesday the police decided to limit any assembly close to the WTO convention. I went downtown and joined a group of about 200 protesters sitting and holding hands in a public square, surrounded by robocops dressed in full riot gear. We were all arrested. Because we were not charged and hadn't seen a lawyer, we decided not to let them process us and bottle-necked the system. At the same time the next lot to be brought to the cop shop simply refused to get off the buses. After ten hours of delay they finally let us see our legal team who told us 510 arrests had been made that day.
Some of us were dragged violently to have our pictures and fingerprints taken. Then our feet and hands were chained, and we were taken to the jail bus again. On our way out we saw that the other groups were still in the buses (15 hours later!) They later told us that they built a 'toilet' using banners as walls, around a gap between the bus stairs and back doors. They also got rid of the plastic handcuffs using nail clippers. The police finally used tear gas inside the bus to evacuate them.
”I want to emphasise, these protestors were not violent people. They were the most non-violent people I have ever seen. Even when I was screaming at a cop, this girl came up to me and said ‘Do not scream. This is non-violent.’ These people were too much to believe. They must meditate all the time, I don’t know.”
At 11pm our group finally arrived at the jail. They put us in a closed concrete cell for four hours, before letting us into our cells to sleep. I later heard that when one of our group refused to move until he saw a lawyer, the screw hit him, chained him to a chair, pepper sprayed his face, and covered it with cloth so he couldn't avoid the spray.
The next day at noon we were chained again and taken to court. At around 4pm we heard the 1000-strong support crowd outside the courts shouting, "Let Them Go!" The prosecutor was totally confused as our personal numbers (none of us gave names) and the police report file numbers didn't match. Some could have got away at this point, but to maintain solidarity with each other, everyone stayed. The idea was to stay in the system, clog it up and demand the same charges for everyone.
The next day we were again brought before the judge, while our legal team negotiated with the District Attorney. After two days the negotiations stopped and we were released on bail. The demonstrations went on for the duration of these four days, and tents were erected outside the courthouse. They were dismantled when all of us were finally processed out of the 'justice' system. During the days that we spent in jail, there were hundreds people demonstrating and blocking the court entrances.
”There was impressive solidarity shown with the prisoners, with banners reading ‘Free the Seattle 500, Jail the Fortune 500’ and people camping for days and nights outside the jail. We began to hear shouts from the outside calling ‘Let Them Go!’ During the days that we spent in jail, there were hundreds of people demonstrating and blocking the court entrances.”
The police gave up arresting people in recognition that the system could not cope with any more detainees.
An IWW member, we'll call her Marie, and her partner were the first to be arrested in Seattle. Using the tactic of non-compliance, they refused to give any information to the police. The tactic was used to clog up the system and promote widespread solidarity within jail. To break Marie down, the Seattle Police Department strapped her to a chair and beat her. They then kicked her while lying prone on the floor. She was separated from her partner and they threatened to strip her naked and periodically would unbuckle the harness she was wearing intimidating her with the threat of gang rape. She continued to refuse to give any information despite being pepper-sprayed.
Another group were brought in who knew nothing about jail solidarity and gave the police all the information they asked for. When Marie and her partner began coaching the new arrestees on jail solidarity, they were again thrown into isolation, beaten and then left in solitary for 18 hours. When the entire group were brought before the court, it transpired that there were no records of Marie and her partner's arrest nor any official documentation of their presence. They were immediately released into downtown Seattle, traumatised into the middle of a riot.
”When we got here, the Steelworkers weren’t very queer-friendly. As the week went on, they got more comfortable with us. My nipples stand in solidarity with the Steelworkers and Teamsters and all labouring people!”
THE BLACK BLOCK
Nice to see young people enjoying themselves
There was considerable media hype around the group of masked-up anarcho types from Eugene (and others who joined them) who trashed some shops. The media excitement was mostly in the US and allowed an array of unhelpful tired old divisive opinions to be aired. You would think this was the first time anyone had smashed a window.
Report from one section of the anarchist Black Block
Several groups of individuals in the Black Block attacked various corporate targets in downtown Seattle. Among them were (to name just a few): Fidelity Investment, Bank of America, US Bancorp, Key Bank and Washington Mutual Bank, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Gap, Nike Town, Levi's, McDonald's, Starbucks, Warner Bros and Planet Hollywood.
The activity lasted for over five hours and involved breaking storefront windows and doors and defacing facades. Slingshots, newspaper boxes, sledgehammers, mallets, crowbars and nail-pullers were used to strategically destroy corporate property and gain access (one of the three targeted Starbucks and Nike Town were looted).
The Black Block was a loosely organised cluster of affinity groups and individuals. Unlike the vast majority of activists who were pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets, most of the Black Block escaped serious injury by remaining constantly in motion and avoiding engagement with the police. We buddied up, kept tight and watched each others' backs. Those attacked by federal thugs were un-arrested by quick-thinking comrades. The sense of solidarity was awe-inspiring.
”They are worried about a few windows being smashed. They should come and see the violence being done to our communities in the name of liberalisation of trade.”
The Peace Police
Unfortunately, the presence and persistence of the 'peace police' was quite disturbing. On at least six separate occasions, so-called `non-violent' activists physically attacked individuals who targeted corporate property. Some even went so far as to stand in front of the Nike Town superstore and tackle and shove the Black Block away. Indeed, such self-described 'peace-keepers' posed a much greater threat to individuals in the Black Block than the violent uniformed 'peace-keepers' sanctioned by the state (undercover officers have even used the cover of the activist peace-keepers to ambush those who engage in corporate property destruction).
The antics of the 'peace police' and the widespread disapproval in the US left-wing circles of the property destruction prompted the response below from Ward Churchill and others. Unlike in the UK, where the validity of attacking corporate property is hardly questioned, it's a burning issue in the US. During the campaign against the Criminal Justice Bill in Britain there were reports of uncomradely behaviour from some 'fluffy' elements, but nothing approaching the fanatical fervour of some protesters in Seattle who sunk to such depths as cleaning up the damage done to Nike Town, and beating and de-masking fellow protesters. Seriously weird!
”If you were alive, the police gassed you. People coming back from work, kids, women, everyone. People would go out of their houses to see what was happening because these tear gas guns sound like a cannon – and they would get gassed. A block away there was a Texaco gas station – they threw tear gas at the pumps, believe it or not – they were like vandals. They gassed a bus. I saw it with my own eyes. A bus. The driver, the riders, the people just abandoned it. They were also shooting this paint that you can only see with a fluorescent light. They would paint anyone and everyone and then go hunting them.”
Don't Throw the Radicals Overboard
"The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated," chanted marchers protesting the WTO summit in Seattle. However, one of the most striking elements of the protests was the level of conflict between adherents of 'non-violence', and those who preferred to express more concretely their feelings towards global capitalism. A tide of reaction has been swelling against the latter, with great arrogance on the part of the former. As a group of activist intellectuals, we feel the need to state our support for the group the media has been calling, only somewhat inaccurately, "the Anarchists from Eugene."
We... controlled the streets of downtown Seattle from 7am on Tuesday to roughly 7pm. After that period, with declaration of martial law and the violent offensive by the cops... the streets became a war zone, but during that period, they were a liberated area. Inside a spectrum of protest and resistance activities took place, many of which warmed our hearts. Violence against property, as we'll call the attacks against corporate chain stores by activists, was one of the conscious strategies that was employed... Throughout the day activists, protecting their identities with hoods and kerchiefs, formed 'Black Blocks' to move en masse to attack unoccupied chain stores such as the Gap, Nike, Levi's, Disney, and Bank of America.
”We are really worried about these people. They seemingly have no fear of authority.”
Adherents to `non-violent' protest methods preach against targeting corporate property. We feel that this is an uncritical acceptance of the dominant value system of American consumer society: private property has a higher value than life.
We witnessed `non-violent' activists linking arms to protect Nike Town from the aggressive acts of a Black Block. Riot police soon replaced the 'peace advocates' as if to say, "We'll take over now. You're only volunteering to protect property, we do it for a living." Elsewhere throughout the day 'non-violent' activists de-masked, and on at least one occasion beat, an individual who was acting against property. Many elements of the broad Left community have been alarmingly willing to distance themselves from direct, militant forms of protest. In its December 1 issue, the World Trade Observer, a daily tabloid published by a network of mainstream environmental and fair trade organisations, identified as a "troubling theme" the practice of "the police singling out peaceful demonstrators for gassing and beating... while ignoring black-clad hooligans breaking windows and spraying paint."
”I never got on with environmentalists until I realised we were all fighting for the same thing.”
Michigan Steelworker, made redundant four years ago.
Other 'non-violent' protesters criticised the police, not for waging chemical warfare against protesters, but for failing to enter the crowd to extract the practitioners of militant protest. The implication is that the crowd would have handed over some of its members to the police, if the police had only asked.
There will undoubtedly be repercussions from the fact that we took control of a major city for twelve hours, as the leading administrative body of global capitalism met to brainstorm for the next millennium.
”The most significant division that emerged in our ranks occurred on Tuesday in front of Nike Town. A group of ghetto dwellers arrived there in the midst of the street festivities (the liberating of public space from corporate colonisation – called ‘violence’ by some) to enjoy footwear normally reserved for wealthier clientele. They were stopped and blocked by a determined crew of pacifists who warned them about giving the action ‘a bad name’. Apparently that was too much for these kids, at least three of whom punched the pacifists before leaving.”
Without the support of the rest of the WTO protesters, the direct action practitioners are at great risk. Gas-masks were declared illegal in Seattle under martial law, and the donning of hoods is being explored by prosecutors in Eugene as a possible excuse for sentence enhancement. The price of protecting oneself and one's identity from police violence is rising. As people who are interested in counteracting the ill effects of globalization and ensuring a liveable new millennium, we need to consciously confront the criminalization of radical political philosophies. We feel that those who belittle and distance themselves from the actions of "the Anarchists from Eugene" have either ignored or simply did not realise the level of contributions anarchists made towards bringing the N30 Festival of Resistance into reality. These include the innovative and joyful protest methods of the Direct Action Network, a sustained consciousness-raising effort from Left Bank Books, alternative social structures offered by Food Not Bombs and Homes Not Jails, the Anarchist hotline, housing networks, and so on.
ACTS OF SOLIDARITY
The Longshore & Warehouse Union shut down the Port of Seattle and dozens of ports along the West Coast. Seattle taxi-drivers chose 30 November to strike over worsening pay and conditions. The Fire Brigade refused to turn their fire hoses on protesters despite repeated requests from the police. A delivery boy handed over his pizzas to the demonstrators outside the Westin Hotel, rather than deliver them to the right-wing talk radio presenters who had ordered them.
”I haven’t been marching but when the cops turn your neighbourhood into a war zone, it’s time to get involved.”