What I Learned At The WTO Protests In Seattle...

by Pete Tridish

A Ruckus I Couldn’t Miss

I first heard about the Seattle Protests at a Ruckus Society training camp about 6 months before the WTO was scheduled to come to town. Ruckus is a group famous for the dramatic and daring banners they hang from cranes and buildings and towers; they focus on human rights and environmental issues. The speaker there representing the anti-WTO organizers, after making an eloquent case for the connections between all the globalization issues and for a coalition of activists of all stripes, said “We will lie down on the airstrips and stop the delegates planes from landing.  If they get past that, we will block the highways leading from the airport to the city. If they get past that, we will block the hotels they are staying in, we will block the streets, and we will block the doors of the convention center and we will not let them make another another free trade deal that week in Seattle.” How could I not help with such a plan? In that moment I committed to go.

The Prelude

I had three plans when I went to Seattle a few weeks before the protests. One was to assist with the communications teams.  I had met some of the people responsible for the communications systems at Ruckus, and thought I might lend a hand setting up communications for the event.  I trained with the communications teams, and was one of the groups that checked out walkie talkies to help on the days of the events. Our training was strict. Contrary to popular myth, we did not use the communications systems to direct the protests, or call for blockades of particular  intersections, and so on. The role of the communications team was to hang back, observe the events, and notify legal, medics, and independent media of situations needing their attention.  Small affinity groups used smaller walkie talkies inside their groups to communicate from one end of a small action to another, but most of the co-ordination was done in the days leading up to the protests in big open meetings. 

The actual plans of each affinity group covering a “pie slice”  were a secret known only to that affinity group, and they did not change much based on external information. Each group was responsible for somehow stopping all traffic from the convention center, by whatever means they chose which were kept secret from the overall organizers. This made us much more immune to rumors and bad information and contributed to the success of the actions. Even though the police could sneak a number of WTO delegates in through a weak link in our pie slice blockades, the event was so big that momentary breaches of our lines would still not allow enough of the delegates to get in for the conference to go on with business as usual. And there were plenty of people not committed to any particular blockade, who could step in and defend an intersection if the original blockade was broken.

My second plan was to help out with setting up the independent media center.  Since I have never been much of a content producer, I focused on helping to set up the space. I worked for a few days helping to install phone jacks and wiring so that we could fit many dozens of journalists in the space during the events.  I also attended lots of meetings where the mission of the space and logistics around its use were established.  The IMC was centrally located downtown. As a result we retreated there when the street battles got to be too much.

My third plan was to work with Stephen Dunifer, Studio X and various other pirate radio organizations, to set up a large number of radio transmitters throughout the city.  These radios would provide an alternative news source during the protests. An empty store front was rented near the King Dome where a number of workshops were conducted on soldering together transmitters, building antennas, and training people in radio skills. While it was a bit haphazard, the goal was to fill a number of available frequencies with pirate broadcasts of content produced for the WTO protests. We built an awesome antenna out of an umbrella and a mixer board made out of a suitcase and children’s electronic music toys.

It Starts:

Tuesday: My friend Joan and I started out with a crew of about ten people carrying the umbrella and suitcase transmitter, and several carrying boom boxes. We started to walk around the perimeter, visiting different blockades with our goofy radio setup. Our programming left a bit to be desired, limited to running commentary as we walked along, interviews with random people passing by, and a bit of music. Our “show” probably broadcast for 3 or 4 blocks, though if we got to a high point we probably could have gone further, if anyone knew to listen. The first few hours were pretty fun, but by noon or so it became clear that the day was going to be more than we bargained for. Other stations, set up in trees and around the periphery of the city, successfully continued broadcasting throughout the week.  For somewhat hilarious footage of our walking radio station, you can check out the movie Pirate Radio USA, a movie about the pirate radio movement with a lot of focus in Seattle. http://www.pirateradiousa.com/

The police had started tear gassing in several places, and using beatings and direct applications of pepper spray to the seated blockaders.  They were also starting to charge our lines. We put away the transmitter because no one would hear it in this chaos.   We continued to make a circuit around the convention center.  Joan and I joined newly forming blockades then leaving to help seed the next promising intersection ten or fifteen minutes later, once our forces seemed to have the intersection under our control.

Everything I saw on the part of the blockades on Tuesday morning was entirely non-violent, and this held up under a brutal police assault. We saw a lot more of it than many people, because over the course of the day we walked all the way around the perimeter, stopping wherever it seemed we could lend a hand.  Our lines often held for quite a while, or they would  be broken and quickly form back up as soon as the police moved on. Starting in the afternoon, I saw more people begin to fight back. As the tear gas canisters came down, people began to throw them back. A few hours later, police car tires started to get slashed to immobilize them, and I started seeing windows getting smashed.

Self-Defense: An Obvious Ethical Choice

I had never been tear gassed before, and it was surprising.  Your first instinct is to run away.  But once you have stood your ground for a minute or two, the effect wears off and future canisters are not nearly so scary. I had a thick pair of leather work gloves on, and I put on a bandanna to protect against the gas.  I (like a number of others) started running towards the canisters when they came down in our midst and tossing them back towards the police lines. They were hot and smoky but not really so bad if you could be quick about it. There were also these things we called flashbangs that made a really loud bang and a really bright flash, that would go off about a few feet away and could really shake you- I don’t know what would happen if one hit you. The flashbangs were similarly scary at first, but it is surprising how quickly you can get used to such things. Your whole body shakes for half a second, and instinct tells you to cover your face and hunch towards the fetal position.  Then it is over as fast as it happened and you’re back.  Apparently the police used much more dangerous forms of nerve gas in the following days.

The police generally fired the tear gas from powerful rifles from pretty far away. The riot police, with their armor and weapons and masks and equipment, were heartless cowardly bullies. Straight up. My main goal was getting the tear gas away from us, but I can’t say that in that moment I would have minded clunking one of them with the bombs they had just shot at us.  I doubt the ones I chucked back at them even reached them, the cops shot them from further away than I could throw.

The under-told story of Seattle (lost in the window smashing anarchist controversy) is the immensity and effectiveness of the blockades. Many people focus on the glass smashing and the battles, but the simple fact was that many delegates could not get through the people’s blockades. 

Often the blockades were three people deep and probably a hundred people across, running from one side of the street to the other, anchored to the buildings on each side.  They were simply impassable without resorting to violence. And they were at every intersection for a circumference of perhaps 30 blocks. Some were bigger than others.  In smaller areas, it might just be 7 or 8 people blocking a narrow back staircase past a parking garage, and running up and blocking anyone who tried to pass. But a large number of the blockades involved hundreds of people linking arms. Since the police were not arresting much on Tuesday, just trying to disperse people - even if they blew past our lines people would join another blockade blocks away, or retake the intersection as the police re-deployed.

Many of the organizers and blockaders were angry at “The Anarchists” over political differences relating to violence and property destruction, but the feeling I saw on the street was that many people were appreciative of how well prepared the anarchist groups were for the tear gas and how they were doing a pretty good job of getting it away from the crowds. As people became angrier about the unprovoked police riots against the blockaders, I sensed a lot more became sympathetic to striking back against the police, and against property.

The Infernal Noise Brigade was absolutely magnificent.  They were excellent drummers, and had obviously practiced a lot together and created a beautiful counterpoint -- something that blurred the lines between martial organization and a parody of martial organization. They were dressed in black and gray with gasmasks and giant fuzzy hats, and  looked like they were really not to be fucked with.  They would go to an empty, unprotected intersection, start drumming, and within ten minutes there would be a thriving dance party and enough people for a blockade.  Then they would march off to bolster morale of other protesters or start another blockade.

Night Falls

Throughout the day, police action was random, sporadic and violent.  But mostly, the police seemed to be just holding their lines and awaiting orders.  By around 6 pm, they changed strategy and started constantly moving their lines and storming protesters anywhere they saw them. After being chased several blocks from the area of the smashed up Gap to the Independent Media Center,  I took refuge inside the pizza shop next to the Independent Media Center.  I watched journalist Amy Goodman and Errol Maitland outside after everyone else ran in and barricaded the doors as the police swept past -- they were covered with tear gas but with their oversized professional looking equipment, the police just went around them.

I went back out later and half joined, half watched the cat and mouse game between the roving packs of protesters and police.  It was not always entirely clear who was the cat and who was the mouse. Word came down that martial law had been declared, and a curfew was in effect until 7 the next morning inside a zone of downtown.

In the evening, I decided to rejoin the communications team to help move information for the protests.  I would simply carry a walkie talkie and radio in reports if I saw situations that needed medical, media, or legal attention.

Wednesday I picked up a walkie talkie at the convergence space around 6 am and walked towards the first gathering of the morning, in the park, which was supposed to start at 7:30.  My job was to be slick and discreet and stay out of the way and not get arrested.

Wherein I Learn That I Am Not Nearly So Slick As I Might Hope...

I started walking towards the park gathering around 6:45 am, just a few blocks from the park where people were planning to gather. I walked along the big street at the edge of the no protest zone-- Denny Way I think.  While  walking I saw the police harassing several young people carrying a big puppet. As we watched, the police started ripping apart the puppet. I stopped at the corner about 50 feet away and observed, as did others walking to the protest-- seeing no way to get around the fracas without going to the other side of the street where we believed that the no-protest zone probably began. When police saw that perhaps ten of us had accumulated on the corner and were watching them, a number of officers ran towards us with guns drawn and rounded us up, though we had walked away from the main street to a side street that was clearly out of the curfew zone.    

They didn’t arrest all of us-- they searched all of us, found that I had a radio in my bag, and I was taken away with two others. So I was one of the first three arrests of Wednesday -- so much for slick and in the background! They took us inside the martial law zone and handcuffed us to a street sign and held us there for about a half hour while looking for more people to arrest. 

When I asked what charge I was being arrested on, they said “disobeying the mayor.” They took us to the jail, where at first there were just a handful of us in a big room.  Within an hour or two there were hundreds. Sitting and waiting to be processed, someone told me about the big jail solidarity plan.  Since I hadn’t planned to get arrested, I had not attended those meetings.  The instructions were simple:  No one give your name, and to the extent that you are comfortable, do not cooperate. There was no way they could legally hold us all for long. After being fingerprinted and photographed some of the protesters were mixed in with general population who were being held for other crimes.  The most talkative of these guys was very happy that he happened to be caught trying to steal a car at this time -- he figured that the way we had gummed up the system, there was no way that he could be processed in time for a legal arraignment and they would have to let him go. Because I refused to sign my name, they took away my glasses, which I am pretty much helplessly nearsighted without.

Solidarity, Whatever!

I ended up in a jail cell with about twenty other WTO protesters.  It was an awesome group of people.  We had a steel worker, an opera singer, and people from all walks of life. Some of us went on hunger strike. I couldn’t quite decide whether it was a good idea so I ate sometimes.

The second day in jail really tested my resolve. I started to get very, very nervous. I  was thinking a lot about what had happened on the streets the day before. When I had grabbed those tear gas canisters and thrown them back, it seemed like the most reasonable thing in the world to me.  The police, decked out in riot gear and gas masks, were shooting thousands of these things into crowds of unarmed civilians. I was throwing them back in the only direction where they wouldn’t harm anyone -- back where they came from. Ethically, I was entirely convinced that my actions were appropriate and what I had done was self-defense and defense of other unarmed civilians who were being mercilessly attacked for bearing moral witness and effectively exercising their rights to assemble and speak.  But I started thinking about all the videos that were being taken, and the immense resources and manpower of the state, and the ways that protesters would be demonized in the media.  I realized that if I was stuck in jail for a long time, they might  have time to go over footage and look for evidence of me doing more on Tuesday than what I was caught for on Wednesday, which was just walking along  the edge of the martial law zone. If that happened, my charge could change from “disobeying the mayor” to some form of felony assault on an officer.  My mind raced as I calculated the risks and benefits -- if I got charged with a felony, that would be a ridiculously bogus charge and probably eventually thrown out, but would take our movement’s time and resources to defend me against. And it could sabotage the much more practical time sensitive campaign work that I was personally responsible for in low power radio. I started to waiver and rationalize and hem and haw ... every few hours the jail wardens started to come in and offer us a quicker release if we broke solidarity and gave our names. I started to consider it -- thinking the sooner i personally got out -- the less chance of trouble for everyone. It didn’t help that I was barely eating and that everything more than 2 feet away was a formless blur.

During this time, one mans voice stood out for me. As we took turns telling our life stories to pass the time, he told us that he lived a fairly ordinary life with a straightforward job, with no family depending on him. He was older, I would guess in his late 40s or early 50s, and had a very quiet, modest manner. He had read about the issues at stake with the WTO, and when he heard about these protests he decided that he had to do something about it. He had wrapped up his affairs, quit his job, and came out a few weeks early, prepared to commit civil disobedience.  He had nonviolently blockaded exactly as he had planned and was arrested.   He had decided to commit to do jail solidarity until the very end- he would refuse to leave the jail until the last felony charge was released.  He said that he understood if others made different choices, but he had tied up his loose ends and had made sure there was nothing in his life holding him back to tempt him to break solidarity-- he was ready to maintain his moral witness until the very end.

This man had utter confidence and total peace with himself. He had thought through his choices and had made preparations, and so he was completely fearless.  I, meanwhile, was a bit of a mess. I had wrapped my mind around the expediency of breaking solidarity around 6 or 7 iterations of possible scenarios over which I had very little knowledge or control.

I was familiar with the age old debate in the left between the use of violence and non-violence. I’d read the work of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and also of Che Guevera and Malcolm X. I had seen good uses of non-violence for social change, but was also aware of the patronizing way some Americans encouraged its use in struggles around the world. I had seen both philosophies succeed and fail. I was intrigued by the example of the Zapatistas, who were armed but who had barely fired a shot in their struggle. They had managed to maintain autonomy in the territories they controlled for many years with the mere threat of violent resistance, and the resulting international attention that focused on the ruling elites of Mexico.

I believe that people have a right to self defense. And I think there are certain political moments in history when violence really is the best option (if you think that makes me a freak radical, think of the American Revolution).  However, never before this moment had I really understood the true power of non-violence. My unassuming and quiet jail cell friend was fearless and determined and confident in his actions, while I was trembling on the off chance that someone could twist my actions around to undermine the movement I believed in and the changes that I was trying to make. To my shame, in one moment I actually caved and after hesitating, offered to give my name towards the end of the second day when a guard came asking if anyone wanted to give up and go get processed and released.

Fortunately for me, I hesitated and waited too long to answer and missed the deadline by a few minutes and the guard would not take me.  After that I firmed back up and decided that I was stupid and reaffirmed my jail solidarity before the next time the guards came around again. I did drop the hunger strike because I realized it was weakening my resolve ...

Regardless Of My Personal Strength Or Weakness, We All Somehow Add Up To More Than The Sum Of Our Parts, At Least This Time

A day later they started releasing people  who had not given their names, just to clear up space in the jail. I was released at 3 in the morning on Saturday. As I walked out of the jail, I was apprehensive again.  The police had given back my glasses, but not my backpack with my wallet and the radio, claiming it had been lost. So they swiped my ID and the $80 I had in there-- Jerks! I thought I would have to walk back through the streets of Seattle at 3 am in the light rain. But as I exited, some very nice young protesters were standing on the corner waiting for people to come out! They asked if I was OK, if I had been hurt or needed medical attention. They gave me some stale old bagels which was the best thing I ever tasted. And then the woman showed me the newspaper front page headline:  WTO TALKS COLLAPSE.  And I turned the corner and saw hundreds of people out at three in the morning camped on the steps of the jail, waiting for us to come out. A few were playing drums (not very well), people were even smoking pot out in the open, sleeping all over the place--- they had totally taken over the front of the jail!! It was amazing and hilarious! We had won! We had beaten the WTO, and even the steps of the jail belonged to us!
    The next day, I joined the jail solidarity efforts.  I stayed much of the day in front of the jail, and helped a bit with rigging up tarps to keep everyone dry in the pouring rain as we waited to welcome more protesters being released.  There were hundreds of us crowded under these tiny tarps, we were all getting wet.  But one moment made it all worth while.  There was a man standing next to me, wearing a suit, and he was telling a story.  He worked for a Washington DC consumer organization and was a delegate at the WTO.  He was staying in the same hotel as the other delegates, and he walks into the bar and who does he see sitting by himself at the end  of the bar but the President of the WTO. So he goes over and sits next to him. The President of the WTO  looks up from sulking over his drink and says: “I am the President of the most hated organization in the whole world!” We all laughed and laughed in the rain and waited for the police to release our friends.

Anarchism Saves The Nation State?

While I consider myself to be an anarchist, I come from a tradition that has nothing to do with the anarcho-primitivists prominent among those involved in the property destruction in Seattle.  Most people think of anarchism in very vague terms without realizing the many different sorts  of ideas people hold that call themselves anarchists. The anarcho-primitivists come from a strain of ideas that rejects the idea of modern society and civilization, but most anarchists have a different view from that of the root causes of the world’s ills.  The basic thing that holds all anarchists together is that we are all equally critical of Government and Capitalism, and all forms of social oppression such as racism and sexism. This is different from authoritarian socialism, which criticizes capitalism but sees little problem with the state, and different from libertarianism which criticizes government but trusts markets and capitalism to govern best in people’s interest. I’m an anarchist because I think that both today’s nation states and capitalism are fundamentally flawed.  However different anarchists have very different visions of a better future and how to get there.  The anarchism that interests me is rooted in the direct participatory democracy of town meetings, and it is an anarchism that embraces a scientific world view, with people democratically controlling the uses of technology.  And it is not about smashing anything, but re-equipping communities with the tools of self governance. Similar to Noam Chomsky’s anarchist positions, I am willing to (in a given tactical moment)  leverage the political process and the government in order to reign in individual worst excesses of capitalism before the market destroys the planet-- as we plot a course towards a future of political structures based on direct democracy and local control. I don’t see participating in reformist politics to make small tactical changes as any different from working at a normal job for a company in order to make money to live, even if you’d rather be working in a co-operative. Doing normal politics or working a normal job is just expedient for living today, as we try to build  the future we are trying to attain.  I don’t believe that real fundamental solutions to the worlds problems can be gotten from the currently weakening power structure of representative democracy, or from the currently growing power structures of technocracy and rule by capital. Anarchism rooted in individualism, nihilism, primitivism, or punk rock, smelly clothes, and suburban rebellion have no appeal to me.

Truthfully, I thought that the organizers of the blockades were much closer to the anarchism I believe in than the window breakers. They used consensus, made decisions in open and transparent groups, listened carefully to all sides and respected other opinions, and did not bow down to any arbitrary authority but their collective conscience. These were the people who I felt were preparing the tools of self-governance that we could use in a better future.

I also think if these anarcho-primitivist groups involved in the property destruction were really ethical and had any real guts, they should have organized their own actions on separate days and not taken cover amidst the crowd of people who had agreed to a non-violent plan together. As far as I am concerned, they could have gone ahead and run through town and broken the windows of the ruling class any other day when they were not screwing up everyone else’s plan and not putting others at risk.  On the other hand, little as I agree with them, I have to say I think that the vilification of the anarcho-primitivists by the “peaceful protesters” was a bit over the top and many people in the streets that day appreciated the feisty anarchist response to the police. It’s a moral horror for holiday shopping to go on as usual while people (who were just trying to save the planet from an international gang of rapacious thug corporations) were getting beaten to a pulp in the streets by police.  The smashed windows added to the epic nature and stark reliefs of the day’s events, and I think it would have been almost unnatural if no one fought back. Tear gas and pepper spray and rubber bullets against unarmed civilians make even the nicest people really, really angry, and willing to do things they would not ordinarily do.

One of the great ironies of Seattle is that one day historians may proclaim that anarchists (of all stripes) had a role in preserving the power of the nation state.  The deals being cut by the WTO usurped the power of nations to govern on behalf of their citizens. They  were creating alternative international power structures that could punish governments that used their democratic processes to make decisions, that were for whatever reason, uncomfortable for multi-national corporations. Many of these pathetic representatives of governments came prepared to give up their government’s power and sovereignty to a handful of unelected representatives of international capitalism. So it was the anarchists who prevented the governments from giving all their power to the corporations!

I Count Myself Incredibly Fortunate For What I Learned In Seattle.

1. Ordinary people can stop corporate rule using little more than our bodies.

2. You can overcome your fear of tear gas if you get past the initial shock.

3. Even anarchists can practice together and make a really excellent marching band.

4. I am not nearly as invisible as I think I am.

5. I really need my glasses, and I make bad decisions when I am hungry.

6. Even the most powerful men in the world have hearts, and with hard work and direct action a social movement can get under these people’s skin.

7. There is a difference between an action that you can morally justify and what action has the most power. And the most aggressive, radical sounding action that can be morally justified is not always the most powerful. If you know deep in your heart that you have done right and your actions have been clear, direct and unambiguous, you can be truly fearless.