WTO Smackdown

Reporters, police, and protesters dream Seattle's nightmare

The World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle last fall touched off the biggest explosion seen in Washington since the eruption of Mount St. Helens. The WTO stoked the passions of union workers and anarchists alike, who vented their animosity at the economic might of multinational corporations by rioting in the streets of Seattle. It took eight months, but the haze formed by that city's literal burning drifted over Minneapolis in time for the International Society for Animal Genetics conference, held July 21-26 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The ISAG meeting, which drew more than 600 scientists from around the world to swap ideas about genetic engineering, also attracted 200 demonstrators, mostly from the Twin Cities. Protesters clashed with police on July 24 near Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis, a confrontation that resulted in 80 arrests and a media-frothing at 6 and 10.

Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson said his officers "tried to be as gentle as (they) could" in rounding up protesters who wanted to "shut down the city." Activists insisted their mission was to spread the message about genetic modification, a process they say could endanger animals and humans alike. But from the time the media began tracking the MPD's unprecedented preparations for last week's conference to the eventual, seemingly inevitable violence, the prevailing acronym was not ISAG, but WTO.

Friday, July 14, 2:00 p.m. Minneapolis City Hall Olson holds a media briefing one week before ISAG members arrive in town. He begins by screening a half-hour video of the WTO riots, courtesy of a Seattle TV station, that shows demonstrators torching cars, looting downtown businesses, and squatting in the streets. "That's just a glimpse of what we don't want to happen in Minneapolis," Olson says somberly.

Olson's job this morning is to justify the $100,000 in public funds the MPD will spend to prevent a Seattle-like meltdown. The expenses include purchase of 100 new suits of riot gear (total cost: $60,000), each of which includes a black torso protector, knee-to-ankle shin guards, foot guards, and a conspicuous Robocop vibe. Olson also describes how the department will create a designated "Demonstration Area" along Nicollet Mall near the Hyatt, and will set up concrete blockades and chain-link fencing to keep interlopers away. (Last week the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union said police violated protesters' constitutional rights by restricting access to streets and sidewalks. The group may mount a legal challenge.)

Olson estimates the department will mobilize more than 600 officers to control ISAG demonstrators. He anticipates that as many as 1,200 protesters may converge on downtown Minneapolis for the conference. And while that number is well short of the 50,000 people who descended on the WTO's fall conference, Olson sounds intent on avoiding the fate of Norm Stamper, the Seattle police chief who resigned his post after the riots. "I'd rather be in front of the (city) council explaining why we were overprepared instead of why we weren't," Olson says. The chief adds that his officers are ready for protesters' cry-wolf stratagems, such as collapsing to the ground and writhing in agony when an officer so much as lifts his baton. "People scream and claim we're brutalizing them," he says, his eyebrows rising. "That's a tactic they use to try to make us look bad."

Friday, July 21, 5:00 p.m. Walker Community Church, Minneapolis A handful of activists have put out the word they will hold a press conference. Camera crews and reporters from Twin Cities media outlets pour into the musty church to learn more about these Gen X radicals and their objections to biotechnology. But journalists receive a blunt rebuff before they can ask a single question. Without warning the activists decide against talking to the "corporate media." Olivia Cramer, who belongs to a nationwide coalition called Bioengineering Activist Network, contends the rejection is nothing personal. "You all might be nice people," she says. "But the places you work for are owned by Westinghouse, Disney, and General Electric."

The activists' about-face ignites a media ethics debate fit for an undergraduate journalism class, pitting a group of coifed media personalities against a crew of dreadlocked twentysomethings. KMSP-TV's Tom Lyden becomes the most apoplectic as he tries to persuade the activists to reconsider going on-the-record. "We're reporters! We want the whole story!" he exclaims. The pleas have little effect on Cramer. "Are you really that desperate?" she cracks.

Saturday, July 22, 8:00 p.m. Basement of Walker Community Church Nearly four dozen activists gather to slurp spaghetti and watch a WTO video of their own, produced by underground filmmaker Tim Lewis, who hails from Eugene, Oregon--the hub of present-day domestic radicalism. The film's title, "Breaking the Spell," is anarchist parlance for shattering the corporate hypnosis that numbs America's collective consciousness. It plays like a response to Olson's call to arms. Protesters reign as freedom fighters battling the tyranny of cops, big business, the media, anything that reeks of "the establishment." Laughter ripples through the basement as one protester gleefully screams into the camera, "Fuck Disney World!"

Twenty-year-old Shane Bastien sits cross-legged on the worn carpet, rocking back and forth as he watches scenes of demonstrators trudging through Seattle's streets and excoriating the status quo. "Oh, man. I was there," he says under his breath. "I was there." When the hourlong video ends and someone flicks on the lights, Bastien talks about his WTO experience. "There's nothing like running with a group of 200 people all week long," he exclaims. "It was the closest thing to coming out of a war zone. I knew right then that this was it, this was our moment."

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