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."

Asked why he bothers with the risks, hardship, and frequent defeats that occasion a life of activism, Bastien thinks a moment before a smile creases his face: "I have all the history of all the martyrs who have passed before me on my side."

Sunday, July 23, 9:30 p.m. Two blocks from the Hyatt Regency Hotel Protesters hold a peaceful rally in Loring Park, then begin marching through downtown via West Grant Street. A man who identifies himself only as Bill blows into a French horn, hoping to frighten the police horses that shuffle alongside the protesters and omnipresent media. Officers use the horses to nudge the marchers onto the sidewalk. A chant ensues: "Whose streets? Our streets!" The evening ends without an arrest.

Monday, July 24, 11:30 a.m. Peavey Plaza, three blocks from the Hyatt The Rev. Rusty Membrane, faux leader of the Anarchical Spiritual Syndicate, stands before his 200 fellow protesters and as many curious onlookers outside Orchestra Hall. He exudes calm as he condemns ISAG, unruffled by the thick herd of riot-geared police officers fidgeting a few hundred feet away. He believes the karma radiated by protesters will create a "spiritual vortex of peace and love" that will induce officers to "strip off their riot gear and run naked through the streets."

Monday, July 24, 1:00 p.m. Near Loring Park at the intersection of 14th and Willow streets A dozen police officers stand shoulder to shoulder, baton to baton as 100 agitated protesters pace in front of them. The demonstrators have left Peavey Plaza, passed the "Demonstration Area" near the Hyatt and traveled to this dusty road construction area, where they stand nose to nose with police. Caught between two brick apartment buildings, with more officers in riot gear moving up behind them, protesters feel caged in.

"Let's just go!" a man finally yells. A chorus of "Charge!" answers him. A swirl of pepper spray is fired by the officers. Protesters bull-rush through the police line using banners and signs as shields. Officers arrest a few people and whack several others with batons. Everyone else scampers into the park.

A cameraman with KARE-TV strays a little too close at the moment protesters stampede, earning him a firm but restrained baton bump from an officer. As the cameraman retreats from the fray, a blue-shirted figure steps forward to shove him back toward the action. Right then, the officer, who had briefly turned his attention elsewhere, spins back around. This time he takes no chances, thrusting one end of the baton into the cameraman's chest and sending him butt-first into the dirt. The blue-shirted figure that gave the cameraman a push? Bernie Grace, a reporter from KARE. The station neglects to mention this fact when it first airs a report that night on their cameraman's beating.

As some protesters stop marching and plop down on the park grass, others continue scurrying toward Hennepin Avenue. Josh Ecklund, a 20-year-old Wisconsin resident, takes off his T-shirt and begins rubbing his bloodshot eyes, trying to wipe away the sting of pepper spray. "The cops don't want to let us get our message out," he says in frustration. "They're trying to incite something. They want to make us look bad."

A half-hour later officers have surrounded about 60 protesters near 12th Street and LaSalle Avenue. Police arrest about 40 of them, including Bastien, who--like so many martyrs before him--finds himself being cuffed and led away. Meanwhile Joel Albers stands among a smaller group of 20 protesters trapped at the same location whom, without explanation, police will allow to go free. A researcher for a Twin Cities pharmaceutical company, Albers has witnessed a similar show of police muscle once before. "I was in Seattle," Albers says quietly. "This is just as bad."

Postscript The Minneapolis City Council plans to have a public inquiry into law-enforcement activity and expenditures surrounding the ISAG demonstrations. Early city estimates are that the MPD and Hennepin County Sheriff's Office dropped close to $1 million on conference security. That would make it the priciest police action in state history, more than double the amount spent on the Highway 55 protests in 1998. The high cost comes even though Olson's initial estimate of 1,200 protesters was off by nearly 1,000.

The ISAG protests dominated the local news until a tornado rocked Granite Falls, Minnesota. WCCO-TV stooped the lowest, dubbing its animal genetics coverage the "Biotech Battle." The daily papers printed news columns, opinion pieces, and in-depth analysis. Both the L.A. Times and New York Times ran a short story from the Associated Press. The Washington Post offered a single paragraph. None said much of anything about the protesters' message.

This week the national media's attention turns to Philadelphia, ostensibly the next Seattle. The site of the Republican Party national convention, the City of Brotherly Love has been bracing for possible demonstrations for months. According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, during a recent training session for the city's police force, "officers were shown video of the protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization.

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