19 September 2008

False Bravado
(Battle In Seattle - WTO)

"On the last day of November, swellin' in ranks
Went to chant down the mighty IMF and World Bank
A gathering of people in peaceful assembly
Onward to Westlake to disrupt the entry

Walk along steady, riot squad ready
To protect every last dignitary's ass
But this started when they herded us like cattle in a fence
Protesters gettin' restless without an exit

50,000 deep, and it sounded like thunder 
when our feet pound the streets..."
-Blue Scholars "50K Deep" (2007)

The movie "The Battle in Seattle" opens today. I have no idea whether it will be any good or not, but it did spark some poignant memories and I had to dig out this journal entry, written on December 1st, 1999 of my own personal experience during the WTO riots:


Seattle. Tuesday, November 30, 1999. We had been anticipating trouble for weeks. The World Trade Organization was meeting here the last week of November, and was supposed to draw over 50,000 protesters to the city. Rumor had it that the FBI, ATF, and government anti-terrorist units were flying in and hospitals had been put on biological warfare alert. They were building decontamination chambers, stockpiling vaccines, and drilling repeatedly. Talk of police snipers on downtown highrises and fear of anthrax had the city on edge.

At work during the day I had occasionally checked the CNN & BBC website for updates on the protests. 20 to 40 thousand AFL-CIO unionists were scheduled to march from the Seattle Center through downtown to the Kingdome in protest of the WTO. Civil disobedience. Thoreau for the modern age. Tying up traffic and shutting down the core of the city in non-violent demonstration.

It appeared to begin with this generous spirit in mind - a brotherhood of like ideals protesting the greater evil. It was spectacular really; this cause had thrown some unlikely crusaders together, united in a common goal. The Labor and Union people were side-by-side with the environmentalists, human rights champions, and social justice folks. Needless to say, it was an eclectic mixture of protesters.

With that many people filling the downtown area, rogue elements and anarchists began to make their presence known. Dumpsters were overturned and set on fire, shop windows smashed, and businesses looted. Buildings, buses, and even police cars were tagged with graffiti. Throughout the day the feeling of the protests took a gradual turn towards the ugly. The tension rose. The legitimate protesters tried to shout down the criminals, but slowly the lawlessness spread and the police responded with an overly heavy hand. Tear gas and mace were employed liberally and rubber bullets were fired into the crowds. Two dozen people were arrested and many treated at various hospitals for gas inhalation and cuts and bruises.

By the time I got off work at 5pm, the governor and mayor had declared a state of civil emergency and had begun the process of calling in the National Guard. A curfew had been issued for the entire downtown area. From 7pm that night until dawn it would be illegal to venture into the city core. I took the backstreets home, through the Rainier Valley and over the backside of Capitol Hill so I wouldn't get caught up in the street closures. Once home, I walked up the hill to the community college for my evening class, only to be denied. Signs posted on all the doors informed us that the college was shut down for the night because of the state of emergency. I walked back to my apartment in a light rain. From downtown I could hear occasional loud bangs of concussion bombs and tear gas canisters and overhead helicopters continually swept the city with intense spotlights.

Once home I turned on the radio to hear updates on the confrontation. Unsure of what to do with the unexpected night off, I quickly decided to 'fatten my life experience' and wade into the maddening fray. I walked out of my apartment and over to Pine Street. Turning right, I made my way down the hill towards downtown. There seemed to be an electric buzz in the air and the streets and sidewalks were bustling with people - most of them seemed to be curious clowns such as myself. Rounding the corner at Melrose, the downtown vista opened up before me. The scene looked like something out of a movie: some kind of surreal war zone. I felt like I was outside myself, observing something I wasn't a part of. In the gathering darkness there was an eerie mist hanging over the main downtown blocks. Nervous but intrigued, I followed dozens of other curious rubber-neckers around the barricades and down the hill towards the unruly mob of protesters below.

From my vantage point as I made my way across the interstate overpass, I could see what seemed to be at least 10,000 people spread out in the streets from the Pike Place Market up to the Paramount Theater. I continued down the hill, past bits of paper and broken bottles, abandoned protest signs and stained articles of clothing. I got as far as 8th Avenue. Ahead, the police had an armored personnel carrier parked in the street. "The Peacemaker" the media had been calling it. The riot squads were splitting the crowds, an attempt to divide and conquer. A part of the crowd had been pushed up the hill to where I was standing, and they were taunting the police. To my left, a line of officers in full riot gear cut off the access to 8th leading to the Convention Center - where the trade delegates were meeting. Black-clad with helmets, visors, gas masks, and body armor, the police stood shoulder-to-shoulder, silent and impassive - holding three-foot wooden truncheons at the ready. Bottles and rocks flew from the crowd into the police line. I could now smell some of the gas wafting up from the streets further down.

I wandered over to the left, standing under the marquee of the Paramount, five feet from the line of policemen. Beside and around me were protesters and idiots, spread out in a disorganized, haphazard fashion. Some were still chanting anti-violence and anti-WTO mantras, but the majority just seemed to want to taunt the police. A young man with a red crew-cut and goatee stood some distance from the cops, screaming at them. He couldn't have been more than 19 or 20 years old. He was working himself into a frenzy. Spit flew. His face contorted with the strain.

"Come on you pussies! You think you're so tough? Why don't you step out of your gear you faggots! Pigs! Come on you fuckers!"

He also appeared extremely anxious, hopping from one foot to the other - getting ready to run. He reminded my of a nervous squirrel. Others too were screaming anti-police chants and launching bottles. Some simply held up two fingers in the "peace" sign, trying to maintain vestiges of the original idea of the protests.

From 6th Avenue I could see a loose line of police forming and slowly moving up Pine towards us. Some of the protesters ran before them. Others called for calm, yelling at the crowds to walk, not run. The police line had formed a tight gauntlet and was moving up the hill towards us at a steady march. They fired tear gas canisters into the crowd. My irritated eyes gushed with tears and my throat closed. I began walking up the hill backwards, holding my gloves over my mouth and nose in a vain attempt to keep the gas out of my seared lungs. Many protesters wore handkerchiefs over their faces. Some of these people ran to the tear gas canisters as soon as they landed. They picked them up and hurled them back at the police line.

The police would move up the hill a hundred yards at a time, sweeping everyone in front of them. They would then stop and secure the area they had just cleared. While they halted the protesters would cautiously creep back down the hill towards them. I tried to stay off to the side, right in front of the police line and among the first wave of protesters. I stayed calm, with my hands in my jacket pockets, neither shouting nor running - just observing the chaos. After securing the area behind them, the bellicose police would then charge the crowd, running at them with their batons up. I continued to back up the hill in front of them. I saw the red-haired punk sprint past me like the hounds of hell were on his heels. False bravado. Cowardice.

The 'real' protesters continued to call for the crowd to stop running and peacefully fall back as the police advanced. After charging forward for 50 feet or so, the police would slow to a march again. If someone in the crowd was not moving fast enough in front of them they were pushed and struck with the truncheons. More tear gas was fired. By now the streetlights overhead were encased in a thick fog of gas - lending an even more dream-like quality to extraordinary evening. Again canisters of gas were thrown back at the police. This time the police raised their rifles and fired into the crowd. Another wave of panic broke as the screaming protesters ran under fire. I turned my back and hunched my shoulders against the onslaught. I was fairly certain they were shooting rubber bullets (painful, but hopefully not deadly) - but I didn't want to get hit in the face or lose an eye.

A man next to me got hit and knocked down. He yelped and jumped up and ran off. I walked over to where he had lain. I picked up the smoldering nylon beanbag that had been shot at him - knocking him clean off his feet. It was charred and torn from the force of the muzzle velocity. It was still warm and sand ran out of the rip in the corner. I held it for a moment and then put it in my pocket. Suddenly I felt a great stinging in my calf that nearly buckled my leg. Looking down I saw a hard, rubber pellet the size of a marble roll away from me into the gutter. I moved back out of the center of the street, trying not to get shot again.

As we backed across the interstate overpass, a few rogues began yelling to throw the gas canisters down onto the busy freeway below. Those with higher morals and clearer heads quickly shouted down this idea. At the top of the overpass someone began yelling frantically,

"Over here. He's been hit - bring water!"

A tall Indian was staggering as some people held his shoulders and arms. He had been hit in the face with a gas canister. Blood ran from a huge gash in his forehead and tears gushed out of his swollen eyes. A man ran over with a bottle of water and flushed the injured man's eyes. The water-boy wore a motorcycle helmet onto which he had taped red crosses on a white field - a makeshift medic. Several people bustled the Indian off to safety down a side street.

Again the police charged and again we fell back. A couple of older protesters continued to yell for calm among the crowd. Telling people not to run, not to throw anything at the police. I could image them years ago at civil rights protests or Vietnam sit-ins. A young man with rivets running down the sleeves of his denim jacket began pulling a large dumpster out into the middle of the street. Two of his friends ran to help him and together they managed to push it over on its side. Plastic bags and refuse spilled out into the street. People began to close in, yelling at them to stop, not to destroy the city streets. The vandals appeared unconcerned - feeling anonymous and nihilistic, caught up in the mob mentality. Another ruffian ran over and bent down to the garbage. He flicked a lighter and began trying to set the trash on fire. A man with an English accent and a woman carrying a sign protesting false imprisonment stood over him, yelling at him to stop. He laughed and continued until another man approached and shoved him down in the street. The young pyro gave them all the finger and ran off into the crowd.

We were now backed up past Bellevue Avenue and the police line was held at Melrose. More officers were making their way up behind the first line of police. Once they reached the line, it began to move forward again. Tear gas rained down through the trees. At Summit Avenue I broke from the crowd and jogged the half-block to my apartment. My curiosity satiated, I needed to wash my eyes out. Later, sitting at the window and sipping a beer, I could still hear the concussion grenades and rifle shots a block over. Throughout the night the helicopters continued to circle and a police cruiser remained parked outside my building. It's strobe light cast nightmare shadows on the ceiling long into the night. Martial law had arrived in Seattle.
KJT - Seattle (1999) Picture from zmedia


cae said...

Good to read this again - how big/bad of a bruise did the rubber bullet give you? Did you keep the nylon beanbag? Love seeing the word truncheon in use, as opposed to the actual item.

KJT said...

The bruise remained yellow/black for a couple weeks... I kept the beanbag (it was a lime green/yellowish) for quite a while - but I seem to have lost it in one of my moves since living on Capitol Hill. Since truncheon seems to have come to us from the vulgar Latin it seemed more fitting than the light-hearted-sounding "billy-club." The evening was quite vulgar.