Westward Ho!

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

Then a minister from the church came out and explained that the police would allow us to march if we promised to 1) stay on the sidewalk, 2) walk single-file, and 3) remain silent. Coming as we just had from a boisterous march in the streets, Matt and I were surprised. It seemed to me that the church people were scared of the stories they'd been hearing of the police behavior, and that even this severely cramped-style march made them quite nervous. To do them credit, the leaders made the best of a bad situation and suggested that we put pieces of tape across our mouths to symbolize women's voices being silenced.

The march stretched out in single file for several blocks, until we came to a police barricade, where we quietly ranged ourselves in rows across the street from the police. An officer came over to us and said, "Please understand that we know you're doing what you have to do, and as long as you don't block pedestrian traffic, we are more than happy to have you here." It was almost as if he wanted us to understand that the police weren't unsympathetic. This silent vigil attracted a bunch of passersby; they didn't even ask what we were doing there, they just joined in.

After lunch Matt and I attended a steelworkers' rally, which was on a pier in the harbor in the rain. (Did I mention we were wet all week?) Again, an entirely different kind of action--they symbolically dumped steel into the harbor and gave lots of speeches. The speakers included the head of the Sierra Club, a spokesperson for the Direct Action Network, the international president of the steelworkers, some members of Congress, and a rather good singer. The crowd included sea turtles, a miniature dolphin on the end of a stick leaping and diving through the crowd, and the Industrial Workers of the World's big banner saying, "Capitalism cannot be reformed."

Protesters meet cops: Just another WTO day in Seattle
Rick Dahms
Protesters meet cops: Just another WTO day in Seattle

On the way out of the labor rally, a group from Seeds for Change offered protesters the chance to plant some seeds in a little grassy median by the harbor. Two or three hundred chanting demonstrators made their way up through Pike Place Market to the street, on our way to somewhere (the marches seemed to go this way and that way without a lot of rhyme or reason). Maybe three blocks from Pike Place Market, the police attacked us and started playing their game of Ping-Pong: forcing us first one way and then the other with repeated volleys of tear gas, rubber pellets, and concussion bombs.

In the pandemonium Matt and I were separated, and I eventually took cover under a construction scaffold over the sidewalk. (I figured the horses couldn't charge me there.) The police drove the majority of the demonstrators in among a line of cars waiting to use the street--so much for public safety--and I was left huddling under my scaffold wondering where Matt might be. As I wandered around looking for him, I heard some drums and bells and found a small group of musicians hanging out on a corner. Figuring that their music might be a way to regather the scattered protesters, I went over. Before too long our small cluster started moving slowly, drumming and playing, along the sidewalk.

None of us had signs, though in the context it would be pretty clear to most observers that we were anti-WTO folks. Without talking to each other or making plans, we moved along together and eventually started dancing. When we found a delivery entrance or a parking garage overhang, we stopped in the "band shell" and played with the echoes. The drumming and tuneless playing revived our spirits, and when we finally arrived back at the large church where the workshops were winding up, I felt much calmer. Another lesson: Never another demonstration without drums. Always, always bring the drums!

 

As we gathered the next morning, I was reluctant to go back into the streets. I wanted so much to be on my airplane the next day and out of that madhouse! Here's another lesson: Don't give up too soon. If we'd given way to our fears, we wouldn't have marched that morning. As it turned out, the police simply escorted us along, politely blocking off side streets for us as we waved peace signs at them, smiled, and chanted, "This is what democracy looks like!" and "Ain't no power like the power of the people, and the power of the people don't stop!" At certain strategic points, the leaders of the march declined to go in the direction the police cleared for us and turned onto some other street. No one got arrested, gassed, or beaten up, though every loud sound made me jump, because I imagined it to be a tear-gas canister hitting the ground.

Someone must have known where we were going, because we wound up in a little park by the harbor, where a couple of hundred steelworkers waited for us. Before long a column of farmers marched down from the other direction, having spent the morning in workshops at the church. (I was happy to see that the church people had gotten braver, and the march was now in the street.) By this time I was in tears--the release of tension, plus the sight of the National Family Farm Coalition holding their huge banner did me in.

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