I drove up to Seattle Monday (11/29) night and stayed with a friend. Leaving his apartment early the next morning I became immediately immersed in an hour of rush hour traffic. By the time I reached Capitol Hill my nerves were fried. I parked on 16th St. near some residences and biked down the hill to where I-5 goes under Olive Way. This is where I noticed the first pockets of activity, so locked up my bike and got out the camera. Activists had pretty much taken over the street immediately east of I-5. I think they were trying to block the eastern entrance to the convention center. A long chain of protesters was arm in arm across two roads, and they'd tied up the intersections by sitting in several large circles with their hands chained together underneath duct-taped PVC piping. Just behind their line stood a calm wall of police in riot gear looking like Star Wars storm troopers, and just as mute. Approaching on foot, the first thing one saw was a giant makeshift teepee. A man sat atop waving an upside down American flag. The scene seemed fairly well organized. People had come for the long haul, with gas masks and rain ponchos. Along with the prepared people were many random freaks milling about looking like they'd just dropped in from a Dead show. Animal masks, people nearly naked in the morning rain, and of course the ever-present drumming and hornblowing, which I would hear all day at every turn. Troop movements were being directed by a man kneeling on an overturned dumpster. He was dressed in black, wore a motorcycle helmet and goggles, and used a traffic cone for a megaphone. I mingled around this scene for about a half hour. While I was there several small groups of delegates attempted to break through the barricade but couldn't. Every time a delegate approached (they were easily identified as the only people wearing suits. Hint to delegates: wear your eagle feathers and patchouli oil next time), it was like a whale cry from the ship's crow. The call went out, everyone flocked to the delegates' path, and they were jeered and blocked from entering. So I guess the whole thing was having some effect. Nice protest, I thought. Small, peaceful, getting their point across. Little did I know.
After a while of this, the man with the megaphone said more people were needed down the hill, and also asked could people please stay away from the man in the teepee since those were live electrical wires up there around him. It was a good time to see what else was going on.
Along with a scattering of others, I went up the street to see if I could find a way around the barricades to downtown. The human chain continued arm-in-arm up the street and around a corner. At each intersection was another cluster of activity, chained sit-downs, drum circles, television crews, etc. Every street was closed. Whether this was pre-emptive or reactionary I'm not sure, but I didn't see a car moving in downtown Seattle until well into afternoon. I took the cement path which zigzags through some landscaping across the South side of the convention center. More activists on the other side. By this time I realized that what I'd first seen was not the main hub of activity but only an outer boundary. I was curious to find the center. Maybe there was a main speaking stage or entrance hall or some other rallying point. Most people were walking down toward 6th so I followed the crowds. When I reached 6th I got my first real taste of the scope of the thing. The view down the street was of a wall of people. There were countless placards held above the crowd and giant puppets. People were dancing and shouting and dressed in bright costumes. It had a real celebratory feel. Many protesters wore or carried gasmasks, and it was here that I first started to see packs of people wearing bandannas. But I was a bit naive and didn't equate either sight with tear gas. To my mind it just lent a sort of dark revolutionary edge to the whole spectacle and a certain sense of mystery or surprise, since it was difficult to identify people behind their masks. Of course hiding one's identity is also a method of escaping accountability.
I had the sense that the center must be around the convention entrance just down the street, so I headed that way. Again at each intersection was a circle of activists sitting down chained together. They were like the chains I'd seen up the hill only much bigger. They filled the streets and spilled into the sidewalks. There was also a giant whale balloon which formed a barricade across most of 6th St. Amidst all of this the police had already established a presence. They had sectioned off a small part of the street. They had a tank and wore riot gear but were quite inert. I later read that they'd been somewhat unprepared, and that the protesters had beaten them to the scene by daylight. So I guess they'd had to carve out a small amount of territory from the crowds. People were passing by them and dancing and carrying on. Right in front of the police wall sat a large group of protesters, and behind them were several arm-in-arm walls of standing protestors. In the middle of this group --this guy is burned into my memory forever-- was a very average looking young man standing upright with his eyes closed. His legs were together and his hands were joined palm to palm across his breast. He appeared to be in a prayer or trance. I watched him for several minutes and got some photos. I was able to walk right up to him and among the protesters, shooting pictures nonchalantly a foot away from an armored battalion in gasmasks. The only resistance was from the arm-in-arm protestors. I politely asked if I could cross their barrier to take some photos. "Yes," a man replied cheerfully, "but we can't let you back through." "Why not?" "It's just the rules. No one in or out." "Yes, but why? What harm will I cause by walking past your lines. I mean, I'm not the police, I'm not a spy." "That's just the rule," he said, turning to his arm-in-arm sidekick for reassurance. She nodded.
I was about to tell him that the rule seemed ridiculous when all of the sudden there was a fog from the street and people were shouting "Tear Gas!" and "How Dare You?" and "Shame!" "Shame!" The ones who could move were running around and holding bandanas or shirts over their faces. Many were chained together and could only duck their heads and hold on, which wasn't as horrible as it might seem since a lot of them had gasmasks, and at the very least they wore hoods and goggles. The cloud was growing, everyone was shouting, it was total chaos, and by surprise too. But the man in the prayer trance stood absolutely still. It was like a scene from a movie. The toxic cloud was sweeping past him, rising all around him. I could barely see him yet he just stood there praying.
I shot several photos of him before getting a faceful of teargas. Then I had to back off down the street and sit for a while to let the stuff wear off. It makes your throat burn and your eyes water and has a very distinctive smell which I won't forget. After about five minutes I was able to get back on my feet and return to the gassing scene. The tear gas had blown off, the protesters had somehow been dispersed, and in their place were two rows of police in riot gear (which includes gasmasks, along with rubberbullet gun, baton, helmet with faceguard, plexiglass shield, chest protector, shinguards, armguards, and, to prevent any mistaken identity, lots of bright labels reading "POLICE") one each on the north and south sides of the intersection. Between them was a tank. They were preventing anyone from passing along 6th. Down the street I could see similar scenes at other intersections: two rows of police dividing the street. Way down toward Pine St. I could see clouds of gas rising. In a few minute the dispersal was complete and a new equilibrium had arisen, with walls of police surrounding pockets of protesters, or was it vice versa? In the windows of office buildings along the street I could see white collar workers who'd somehow gotten to their jobs that day and were now observing the spectacle. I can only guess what they must've thought. Tear gas? People dressed like sea creatures? That's gotta hurt today's bottom line.
I think the plan of the authorities with the tear gas was to clear everyone from the convention center entrance, then somehow open up a path through one of the cross streets. But it hadn't been thought through all the way. The result was several blocksize pockets of protesters. No one could move along 6th, everyone was pretty much trapped in their block, and they quickly massed up against the police lines to fill the street with little battle fronts. The goal of tear gas is to disperse crowds, but instead by gassing people and then inserting themselves in the middle of things, the police had put a cork seal on all the energy and it was ready to blow. Tensions boiled over when the police tried to move small convoys here and there between the protest groups. People laid down in their path and formed arm-in-arm chains to prevent the police from moving. The police reacted with frustration. They literally ran at the human barricades, maybe thinking they'd scare people into letting go. But the resisters held tight, forcing the police to run them over. Even so the police couldn't get through. There were just too many bodies in the blockade. That's when they brought out the pepper spray. It was an ugly frantic scene.
Until that point the actual dynamics of the confrontation had seemed somewhat orderly. I think that as the violent protests of the 1960s have evolved into the mediated convenience of the 1990s there has come to be a mutual understanding of groundrules, the main one being minimal violence on either side. Everyone had seen the photos of Kent State and Tienanmen Square, and I don't think anyone there was ready to sacrifice their life or health for the WTO. The protesters knew that if they sat peacefully the police would not hit them over the heads. The police knew that if they stood silently no one would throw Molotov cocktails at them. It allowed for a somewhat surreal truce.
The use of tear gas and pepper spray changed the dynamic. It was if the police had broken some unwritten promise not to get nasty. People were incensed, indignant. The shouts were less about WTO than pleas about foul play.
"NonViolence! Nonviolence! Nonviolence!" people shouted. "Shame on you! Gassing people, the Nerve!" "How dare you?!" I heard one woman screaming over and over, "What if these were your children? Gassing kids! What if these were your children?" The police had been trained to stand mute. You could stand right in front of them look them in the eye and ask a question, and they'd stare through you as if you were a gas cloud that the wind would soon blow away. But they must've heard the shouts and had some reaction internally. I later read that it was about this time, when the police first began clearing the intersections with tear gas, that the first vandalisms were taking place near 4th and Pine.
Another common cry, one that I heard repeated all day, was "The whole world is watching!" This became a sort of mantra. It was repeated on placards and graffitied onto sidewalks and buildings. I think protesters shouted it because it afforded them a certain amount of protection, for any police brutality would be mediated, broadcasted, and analyzed. The police knew this. Occurring at the leading edge of the most media-dominated decade in history the Seattle event was perhaps the most mediated scene of our times. The mainstream press was there angling for the soundbite or faceshot which would capture the event and twist it into that evening's digestible tidbit ("...In Seattle today, police inexplicably failed to crush thousands of whining demonstrators attempting to stymie the international free market. But first, Lance McBride will show you how to tell if your pet is happy or sad...") But aside from the professional media it seemed everyone had a camera. I can't imagine how many rolls were shot. Many people carried video recorders or small film cameras. Many had notebooks and audio recorders. And cellphones and walkie talkies, and I'm sure someone was posting the blow-by-blow to some web site or other, or collecting notes to compose an email to their friends sent out the next Monday. The scene had definitely entered that twilight zone in which the attempt to capture an image becomes part of the image, in which the whole world was watching the whole world watching. It also embodied the web-led zeitgeist of increasingly democratized information gathering. "Information wants to be free," as Wired magazine describes it. Everyone from professionals to normal bystanders has access to media tools with the result that no account is authoritative. But that's another story.
After doing my part by shooting 3 rolls of film on 6th St., I decided to make my way downhill (the only direction allowed). When I reached 5th I was forced for the third (but not the last) time that morning to adjust the rally's scale in my mind for 5th St. too was a wall of people. There were more placards and troops of young people in gasmasks (very surreal to see so many people with gasmasks in a supposedly civil environment), and a marching band with a juggler and papier mache animal costumes, and of course more sit-down protesters in the intersections. It was like a huge festival taking place in the middle of a fairly large city on a regular weekday, and with armed sentries lending a tone of underlying gravity. In the midst of the protesters, probably chained to them in fact, were several overturned dumpsters laid in the street along with a scattering of newspaper bins and potted plants. The demonstration on 5th seemed more rooted than on 6th as if they'd had more time to prepare. It had the feel of being further over the line with less chance of retreating to an innocent stance. I was here that I began to notice that parts of the crowd was aligned into small identity groups. There was one group which all wore pink gasmasks. The Wobblies were there in old WWII gasmasks, waving a black and red flag with the IWW initials embroidered on it. And I noticed small packs of protesters wearing all black with hoods and bandannas, who seemed hesitant to have their photo taken.
It was here that I witnessed the second gassing. After the police had established a foothold on 6th St. they attempted to clear a few cross streets to allow a corridor for delegates. This meant dispersing the street that I was now standing on. Tear gas canisters started flying and people began retreating. This time I was a bit better prepared. I climbed atop a newspaper dispenser, pulled my T-shirt over my face, and took photos as quickly as I could. The Wobblies were ready for war. To them it was Red Square 1917 and the Proletariat uprising was finally at hand. Every time a canister would land in the street one of them would pick it up and toss it back. Another would come flying a bit further down the street, a Wobbly would return fire. The canisters left little plumes in the air like small rockets. They were very photogenic. I don't think I will forget the image of the IWW flag waving through the canister plumes as nearby office workers gaped. It was surreal.
Except for the Wobblies, who seemed to relish the battle, the retreat was quite orderly. Most of the demonstrators walked calmly down the hill as a row of armed police took their place. It was understood that if no one stood their ground and resisted, the police wouldn't physically strike anyone. Again, no one was willing to pull a Tianenman Square and put themselves in front of a tank. After reaching 4th St. the police stopped, the demonstrators retrenched, and the front line settled into a new temporary stasis although the verbal barrage seemed to go up a notch.
I think it was around this time that I saw a large Sheriff's patrol approaching from the South on 5th St. There were about 200 of them in makeshift riot gear. Whereas the Seattle Police had been issued regulation Storm Trooper equipment, it was clear that these folks had been called up on short notice and had had to scrounge for weapons. One of them wore baseball shinguards left over from his weekend softball game. Some of them were overweight and plainly out of shape. As they marched at first, and then began running, one of them tripped into a bellyflop. He was immediately jeered and hooted by the surrounding protesters. They were clearly scrape-the-barrel reinforcements. I followed the Sheriff's group for a block before they merged into an impenetrable police wall along one of the cross streets. Then I was forced to retreat up 5th to get around the block down to 4th, which was still passable. I headed North at first, then began to wander in whatever direction seemed interesting. That is how I spent the next few hours. I saw no more police troop movement or gassing. This is because the effort to open up a corridor for delegates had been a failure. No one could get in and the opening ceremonies had to be canceled. With 30,000 Union members still marching on their way downtown the police realized that clearing the streets was futile. They adopted a "hold the line" attitude, which basically meant standing guard over the territory they'd conquered while the melee went on around them.
From my description so far, it might seem that the demonstration was centered in a small area of downtown between 6th and 4th. In fact, it spilled throughout the downtown core across an area of several acres, from near Pioneer Place to Freeway Park. Everywhere I walked was a sea of people. The downtown core was basically shut down. I'd never seen anything like it. At each corner the size of the event went up a notch in my mind. At several street corners I saw people making speeches, and the whole event seemed to be well coordinated by organizers, yet there was no center to the activity and no one you could point a finger to and say "that person's in charge." I think what was so strange was that it was all taking place inside a normal city. Sure, there'd been Million Man marches and I Have a Dream gatherings of similar fervor and much larger participation, not to mention Rainbow gatherings and Dead shows and other extraordinary spectacles. But all of them had taken place in relative isolation, on the Mall or marching down a city street or in an arena. This event was taking place in the midst of, had in fact taken over, any semblance of average daily activity in downtown Seattle. I ran head-on into this fact when I finished the last of my film and went in search of more. Every store was closed. I had to walk halfway to the Kingdome before I found a camera shop which could sell me black and white. Actually this turned out to be a worthwhile detour for it offered a glimpse of normal daily activity taking place away from the protest. It was a striking contrast but I was anxious to return.
I first began to notice broken windows around 4th and Pine. Banks seemed to be specific targets. The U.S. Bank had been hit, and BankAmerica, while other nearby businesses had been left alone. Heading up Pine St., I saw that the damage extended to a few other stores, mainly large corporate chains. Starbucks was an obvious target, and the Levi's Store and the Adidas Store, and McDonald's. Someone had broken the display case of FAO Schwartz and spraypainted "Stop Corporate Greed" Yeah, good luck with that one. I was surprised to see that NikeTown was still relatively intact, for it was perceived as a symbol of unfair labor and stood on a corner which seemed particularly energetic. Across the street, people had climbed a cement awning to hang banners and spray paint "Fuck the WTO", and on another corner the giant bronze bear near FAO Schwartz had been conquered and sat upon. But NikeTown was safe, at least for the time being.
But an hour later I made a pass by the same intersection and it'd been trashed. The windows were gone, it smelled like piss, and I watched as a young girl in a bandanna/hood spray painted the circle-A Anarchy symbol again and again along what was left of its wall. I saw the same circle-A Anarchy symbol everywhere. Everywhere. I couldn't help thinking that it was a pretty accurate description of what was taking place. This was as close to total anarchy as I'd ever experienced, and as close as I'd ever feel comfortable getting. Over the course of the afternoon I made several circuits throughout downtown, and each time by the same spots there was a noticeable increase in damage. At first it was just a few businesses, the major chains. Later on it seemed that every window was broken and graffiti was everywhere. Vandalism is contagious. Each incident paves the way for the next one and after the first few broken windows it was a slippery slope into mayhem.
There will be a lot written about the vandalism and I'd like to add my two cents. I'm sure that in many news reports it will overshadow the rest of the protest, and this is a shame. Tthe vandalism was done by just a small faction of the mostly nonviolent demonstrators. Although everyone who took part in the day's events is partially at fault for what occurred (although one could make the argument that the two groups of protesters, nonviolent and violent, were distinct in their faults, they were each part of the same broad action. The general atmosphere was conducive to vandalism), the blame should fall mostly on the few bad eggs who willfully destroyed things, who brought crowbars and aerosol paint planning destruction. What motivates them? Clearly they've reached the end of civility. They feel alienated and disaffected and angry, and they perceive property crime as the most accessible means of expression (probably because they do not own any property). I doubt there is a very strong connection to the WTO specifically. To the violent agitators, the WTO is just one more extension of a society they cannot adjust to, have no respect for, have alienated themselves from. It's an easy target for teen rebellion gone sour.
This blunt frustration was reflected in a lot of the graffiti I saw. Although some of it was clever, most was profane and inarticulate. "Fuck!" "Fuck the WTO!" "Eat!" "No to WTO!" "WTO Sucks!" "We Win!" "Our World, Our Laws!" Really boring stuff, the verbal equivalent of a crowbar, vaguely aimed at the WTO but more of an emotional backlash. Yet therein lies a strong clue to what spawned the whole rally. The vandalism was only the most tangible evidence of intensely felt alienation and helplessness, the same alienation and helplessness felt by every protester there (and the same alienation and helplessness that made Seattle the grunge capitol of the world but, again, that's another story). They were alienated from a global structure that increasingly values the free market over any other principle, and helpless to effect the closed-door dealings of the planet's most powerful organization. Combine them and you've got one big-ass rally, complete with plate glass in the streets.
I walked the city for hours, sometimes photographing and sometimes not, watching it fall further and further into ruins. Each time by Nike the place was worse off. And some of the smaller businesses had been hit, jewelry shops and clothes stores. Graffiti was on every building. Finally near dusk, on one of my passthroughs of 4th St., I saw smoke once again rising from crowd. From a distance it looked like tear gas but as I got closer I realized the smoke was from flames. A dumpster was on its side in the center of an intersection and someone had filled it with WTO press guides and lit them. As I approached people were adding wood palettes and shopping bags and other garbage. Despite the toxic odor coming from its flames, the fire was a crowd magnet. People were taking photos, craning their heads from roofs, drumming on trash buckets. There was a helicopter overhead, probably with a TV crew. About 20 feet from the dumpster was a wall of police. They were playing it hands off. For after all what could they do? They only thing for them was to wait until the energy had burned itself up, then sweep up the ashes. The crowd was singing songs and chanting with this kind of possessed animal mentality. It was one burning log through a broken window away from flaming riot. I have never felt that type of crowd energy before or since. For the first time all day, it made me a bit nervous. Although I was curious to see what would happen next, something inside told me it was time to leave. Dusk was settling in and there wasn't much natural light left for pictures.
I returned to my bicycle and biked back up to Capitol Hill. It was about five o'clock and I wanted to wait for rush hour to die down before leaving town. I had dinner at a taqueria and then browsed a bookstore for while, where I overheard the clerk say that they'd just declared a curfew downtown and called in the National Guard to enforce it. Finally I returned to my car just as an evening rain storm set in. Rush hour traffic was quite light that evening.
On the drive home I scanned the radio dial for some news about what had happened. I'm not sure why I needed this. I was there, I'd seen it. Yet I somehow needed to hear a mediated version to help me digest what I'd experienced. I think this is a symptom of life in the late 20th Century. We are bombarded by so many processed images and sounds that when a healthy dose of raw EXPERIENCE comes along, its rawness overwhelms. I replayed the day's events in my mind but I couldn't really process what had happened. So I scanned the AM dial and found a right wing radio host. He was taking live calls from a studio in downtown Seattle. The front door of his building had been smashed in and he was reluctant to go outside, so he'd extended his normal show. Everyone that called in was pissed off. The protest was a disgrace. An embarrassment. The poor police had been overworked. They should've arrested these young punks from the get-go. The police chief was a softie. The National Guard should've been sent in with guns (they'd been sent unarmed), for their own defense of course. Who were these out-of-town troublemakers and why'd they have to stir things up? It was a good forum for people to air their grievances, from a point of view that I hadn't heard all day. Still, I'm not sure it helped me digest what had happened. Almost a week later, I still haven't really digested it.
I suppose I can't leave this account without saying something about the WTO itself. Before the demonstrations I did not know or care much about it. I went to Seattle because it sounded like it would be a spectacle and I was a curious observer (and I don't mean to trivialize the whole event but it was the most riveting people watching experience imaginable). Of course while there I heard many theories about the WTO, admittedly more from the anti-WTO camp, and I've formed a generally negative impression. Unlike some I do not think the WTO should be abolished. In a world where trade increasingly pours across national boundaries some oversight is required and the WTO is in position to provide this oversight. In the ideal world it might serve as a sort of global OSHA/EPA. However, as it stands the WTO has no motivation to provide that sort of regulation. Its only responsibility is to the national governments (and, vicariously, their major corporations) which set it up and its sole purpose is to promote trade. In addition, the WTO's decision-making process is as opaque as it is supranational. All in all the WTO is quite protestworthy and I'm glad that Seattle provided the forum for it.
The key question is, were the protests successful? In many ways yes. The main success was in focusing the media's spotlight for a few days on the WTO meetings. I'm sure this was the exact opposite of what the WTO intended. A midsize city far from the eastern seaboard during the rainy season? Surely no one would pay any attention, right? Wrong. Every media source on the planet was there covering the talks as well as the resistance. In the end the protests had a direct impact on the talks. The opening ceremonies were cancelled, labor and environmental concerns became even more of a major sticking point in the negotiations, and the talks limped to a close without any agreement. Whereas before the protest maybe a few mediaphiles had heard of the WTO, afterward pretty much every citizen knew about the organization and I think that most were left with an unfavorable impression. As for Seattle, I feel badly that it was trashed. To all its residents I apologize, although you have to admit it was sort of exciting for a few days.