Westward Ho!

Marches, music, and Mace: A street-level account of the WTO debacle

Editor's note: St. Paul resident Betsy Raasch-Gilman trains groups in nonviolent methods of protest. Late last month she traveled to Seattle to work with demonstrators and participate in protests at the World Trade Organization conference. Below is her account of some of the events surrounding the WTO's abortive meetings. Readers who are interested in more in-depth coverage of the WTO demonstrations should seek out the Web site of our sister paper, the Seattle Weekly (www.seattleweekly.com).

 

I made it home from Seattle safe and sound, although sick with a cold and bone-tired. One thing we should note for the future: Turning out for marches day after day and hour after hour is exhausting. If we're ever so lucky as to promote massive nonviolent protests in the streets to overthrow our government, let's remember to space them out!

I don't expect I'll ever see a repeat of this kind of event myself, actually. Due to the large number of groups and coalitions of groups who sponsored stuff in Seattle, the whole event was something of a cross between an academic conference, a street carnival, and a general strike. It might have been possible to spend the week there and only see the riot police from a distance because you were going to workshops all week. I certainly spent the week there and attended only one half of one workshop.

The nonviolence training I did was some of the most challenging I've ever done. Most of the demonstrators value anarchism with a small a. At the same time, when the actions on Tuesday unfolded, it was clear that they also value organization. Each "affinity group" had accepted an assignment of a street corner or a building entrance they would block, and how they did that was up to them. As the 7:00 a.m. (yes! really!) march moved downtown, affinity groups peeled off and took their positions. Some of them held those positions until 4:00 p.m. or later. My co-trainer Matt Guynn went around observing them and found these actions to be upbeat, positive, and steadfastly nonviolent.

That was true even when the police tear-gassed a group of protesters locked into heavy objects on the ground, then sprayed pepper spray directly into the eyes of the protesters who couldn't move, and pried their mouths open to pour pepper spray into their mouths as well. These were protesters who were simply sitting in the intersection, having attached themselves to 150-pound weights with Kryptonite locks and such, so that they couldn't move or be moved. That was on Tuesday, when the media kept reporting that the police acted laid-back. Ha!

One thing I learned from this action is that it is impossible to tell what's going on with a crowd of thousands spread over an area of three or four square miles and a period of four days. You may go on hearing stories from this action that sound totally contradictory. People talk a lot about the vandalism and destruction to downtown stores on Tuesday. (I walked through the area later, and yes, there were a lot of broken windows.) My own experience on the streets Wednesday and Thursday was very different, though.

The crowds I was in for those two days were determinedly nonviolent. When we were confronted with riot police on Wednesday, the crowds chanted, "Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest!" They did the same when some hothead wanted us to rush the police, and while the police were chasing us with tear gas and rubber pellets, I saw protesters returning a dumpster to an alley. (I can only assume that someone had dragged it out, and that other protesters had intervened and stopped them from dumping it over.)

This was during a situation of severe provocation: The police were chasing us from one street to another and then back again, playing with us as if we were mice and they were cats. It was both frightening and infuriating. I couldn't figure out where they wanted us to go, or what their strategy was. The horses and the armored personnel carriers and the tear gas and the handcuffs were all flying, and I didn't want to be trampled by any of them. The crowd exhibited great common sense by cautioning each other not to run. Matt witnessed three or four young men dressed entirely in spiky black, protecting a protester with muscular dystrophy in a wheelchair. (This guy in the wheelchair, by the way, came back the following day. I couldn't believe his courage.)

 

The scene I just described was toward the end of a long day of protests. When Matt and I got off the bus that morning, we joined a crowd of people marching in a city street. The National Guard were already stationed and these protesters seemed intent on taunting them, so we separated ourselves and simply waited for the next protest to show up. How often do you get a chance to do that? We marched with the second group for quite a while, sat in the streets for a bit, and eventually wound up at a large church, where some of the workshop-type events took place. A women's percussion group was performing, and the Raging Grannies, dressed in an absurd collection of brightly colored grandma clothes, followed them with funny, topical songs set to familiar tunes.

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