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!

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

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.

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."

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.

Whatever happens with the WTO, my estimate is that the week of actions moved nonviolence forward by a quantum leap. I have not heard people talking so earnestly about nonviolence, or seen so many creative experiments with nonviolence, since the early Seventies. I think--I hope--that the environmentalists began to understand that nonviolence is more than getting arrested (a really common confusion), and I hope that the church people began to understand that civil disobedience is a form of nonviolence, rather than lawlessness that spoils demonstrations.

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