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Seattle from the Inside

"I went to Seattle to learn more about the World Trade Organisation (WTO), to attend the teach-in, and to participate in the direct action. I did not expect to write about it, but when I returned home and read what the coverage was, I felt bad for the thousands and thousands of people who had their lives and message distorted or ignored by the media. So I began to write."

By Paul Hawken  

When I was able to open my eyes, I saw lying next to me a young man, 19, maybe 20 at the oldest. He was in shock, twitching and shivering uncontrollably from being tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed at close range.

His burned eyes were tightly closed, and he was panting irregularly. Then he passed out. He went from excruciating pain to unconsciousness on a sidewalk wet from the water that a medic had poured over him to flush his eyes.

More than 700 organizations and between 40,000 and 60,000 people took part in the protests against the WTO's Third Ministerial on November 30th 1999. These groups and citizens sense a cascading loss of human and labour rights in the world. Seattle was not the beginning but simply the most striking expression of citizens struggling against a worldwide corporate-financed oligarchy in effect, a plutocracy. Oligarchy and plutocracy are not polite terms. They often are used to describe "other" countries where a small group of wealthy people rule, but not the "first world" the United States, Japan, Germany, or Canada. The World Trade Organization, however, is trying to cement into place that corporate plutocracy. Already, the world's top 200 companies have twice the assets of 80 percent of the world's people. Global corporations represent a new empire whether they admit it or not. With massive amounts of capital at their disposal, any of which can be used to influence politicians and the public as and when deemed necessary, all democratic institutions are diminished and at risk. Corporate free market policies subvert culture and community, a true tyranny. The American Revolution occurred because of crown-chartered corporate abuse, a "remote tyranny" in Thomas Jefferson's words. To see Seattle as a singular event, as did most of the media, is to look at the battles of Concord and Lexington as meaningless skirmishes.

But the mainstream media, consistently problematic in their coverage of any type of protest, had an even more difficult time understanding and covering both the issues and activists in Seattle. No charismatic leader led. No religious figure engaged in direct action. No movie stars starred. There was no alpha group. The Ruckus Society, Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange, and hundreds more were there, coordinated primarily by cell phones, emails, and the Direct Action Network. They were up against the Seattle Police Department, the Secret Service, and the FBI to say nothing of the media coverage and the WTO itself.

They were speaking on behalf of a world that has not been made better by globalization. Income disparity is growing rapidly.

Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and author of an elegy to globalization entitled The Lexus and the Olive Tree, angrily wrote that the demonstrators were "a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix." Not so. They were organized, educated, and determined. They were human rights activists, labour activists, indigenous people, people of faith, steel workers, and farmers. They were forest activists, environmentalists, social justice workers, students, and teachers. And they wanted the World Trade Organization to listen. They were speaking on behalf of a world that has not been made better by globalization. Income disparity is growing rapidly.

The difference between the top and bottom quintiles has doubled in the past 30 years. Eighty-six percent of the world's goods go to the top 20 percent, the bottom fifth get 1 percent. The apologists for globalization cannot support their contention that open borders, reduced tariffs, and forced trade benefit the poorest three billion people in the world. Globalization does, however, create the concentrations of capital seen in northern financial and industrial centers indeed, the wealth in Seattle itself.

Since the people promoting globalized free trade policies live in those cities, it is natural that they should be biased. Despite Friedman's invective about "the circus in Seattle," the demonstrators and activists who showed up there were not against trade. They do demand proof that shows when and how trade as the WTO constructs it benefits workers and the environment in developing nations, as well as workers at home. Since that proof has yet to be offered, the protestors came to Seattle to hold the WTO accountable.

On the morning of November 30th, I walked toward the Convention Center with Randy Hayes, the founder of Rainforest Action Network. As soon as we turned the corner on First Street and Pike Avenue, we could hear drums, chants, sirens, roars. At Fifth, police stopped us. We could go no farther without credentials. Ahead of us were thousands of protesters. Beyond them was a large cordon of gas-masked and riot-shielded police, an armored personnel carrier, and fire trucks. On one corner was Niketown. On the other, the Sheraton Hotel, through which there was a passage to the Convention Center. The cordon of police in front of us tried to prevent more protestors from joining those who blocked the entrances to the Convention Center.

Randy was a credentialed WTO delegate, which means he could join the proceedings as an observer. He showed his pass to the officer who thought it looked like me. The officer joked with us, kidded Randy about having my credential and then winked and let us both through. The police were still relaxed at that point. Ahead of us crowds were milling and moving. Anarchists were there, maybe 40 in all, dressed in black pants, black bandanas, black balaclavas, and jackboots, one of two groups identifiable by costume.

The other was a group of 300 children who had dressed brightly as turtles in the Sierra Club march the day before. The costumes were part of a serious complaint against the WTO. When the United States attempted to block imports of shrimp caught in the same nets that capture and drown 150,000 sea turtles each year, the WTO called the block "arbitrary and unjustified." Thus far in every environmental dispute that has come before the WTO, its three-judge panels, which deliberate in secret, have ruled for business, against the environment. The panel members are selected from lawyers and officials who are not educated in biology, the environment, social issues, or anthropology.

Opening ceremonies for the World Trade Organization's Third Ministerial were to have been held that Tuesday morning at the Paramount Theater near the Convention Center. Police had ringed the theater with Metro buses touching bumper to bumper. The protesters surrounded the outside of that steel circle. Only a few hundred of the 5,000 delegates made it inside, as police were unable to provide safe corridors for members and ambassadors. The theater was virtually empty when U.S. trade representative and meeting co-chair Charlene Barshevsky was to have delivered the opening keynote. Instead, she was captive in her hotel room a block from the meeting site.

WTO Executive Director Michael Moore was said to have been apoplectic. Mayor Paul Schell stood despondently near the stage. Since no scheduled speakers were present, Kevin Danaher, Medea Benjamin, and Juliet Hill from Global Exchange went to the lectern and offered to begin a dialogue in the meantime. The WTO had not been able to come to a pre-meeting consensus on the draft agenda. The NGO community, however, had drafted a consensus agreement about globalization and the three thought this would be a good time to present it, even if the hall had only a desultory number of delegates. Although the three were credentialed WTO delegates, the sound system was quickly turned off and the police arm-locked and handcuffed them. Medea's wrist was sprained. All were dragged off stage and arrested.

WTO rules runs roughshod over local laws and regulations.

The arrests mirrored how the WTO has operated since its birth in 1995. Listening to people is not its strong point. WTO rules run roughshod over local laws and regulations. The WTO agenda relentlessly pursues the elimination of any strictures on the free flow of trade, including how a product is made, by whom it is made, or what happens when it is made. By doing so, the WTO is eliminating the ability of countries and regions to set standards, to express values, or to determine what they do or don't support. Child labor, prison labor, forced labour, substandard wages and working conditions cannot be used as a basis to discriminate against goods.

Nor can environmental destruction, habitat loss, toxic waste production, and the presence of transgenic materials or synthetic hormones be used as the basis to screen or stop goods from entering a country. Under WTO rules, the Sullivan Principles and the boycott of South Africa would not have existed. If the world could vote on the WTO, would it pass? Not one country of the 135-member states of the WTO has held a plebiscite to see if their people support the WTO mandate. The people trying to meet in the Green Rooms at the Seattle Convention Center were not elected. Even Michael Moore was not elected.

But while the Global Exchange was temporarily silenced, the main organizer of the downtown protests, the Direct Action Network, was executing a plan that was working brilliantly outside the Convention Center. The plan was simple: insert groups of trained non-violent activists into key points downtown, making it impossible for delegates to move. DAN had hoped that 1,500 people would show up. Close to 10,000 did. The 2,000 people who began the march to the Convention Center at 7 a.m. from Victor Steinbrueck Park and Seattle Central Community College were composed of affinity groups and clusters whose responsibility was to block key intersections and entrances.

Participants had trained for many weeks in some cases, for many hours in others. Each affinity group had its own mission and was self-organized. The streets around the Convention Center were divided into 13 sections and individual groups and clusters were responsible holding these sections.

There were also "flying groups" that moved at will from section to section, backing up groups under attack as needed. The groups were further divided into those willing to be arrested, and those who were not. As protestors were beaten, gassed, clubbed, and pushed back, a new group would replace them. Throughout most of the day, using a variety of techniques, groups held intersections and key areas downtown. The protests were organized through a network of cell phones, bullhorns, and signals. All decisions prior to the demonstrations were reached by consensus. Minority views were heeded and included. The one agreement shared by all was no violence, physical or verbal, no weapons, no drugs or alcohol.

What they were unprepared for was a network of non-violent protestors totally committed to one task shutting down the WTO.

There were no charismatic leaders barking orders. There was no command chain. There was no one in charge. Police said that they were not prepared for the level of violence, but, as one protestor later commented, what they were unprepared for was a network of non-violent protestors totally committed to one task shutting down the WTO.

Meanwhile, Moore and Barshevsky's frustration was growing by the minute. Their anger and disappointment was shared by Madeleine Albright, the Clinton advance team, and, back in Washington, by chief of staff John Podesta. This was to have been a celebration, a victory, one of the crowning achievements to showcase the Clinton administration, the moment when it would consolidate its centrist free trade policies, allowing the Democrats to show multinational corporations that they could deliver the goods. This was to have been Barshevsky's moment, an event that would give her the inside track to become Secretary of Commerce in the Gore Administration. This was to have been Michael Moore's moment, reviving what had been a mediocre political ascendancy in New Zealand. To say nothing of Monsanto's moment. If the as-yet unapproved draft agenda were ever ratified, the Europeans could no longer block or demand labeling on genetically modified crops without being slapped with punitive lawsuits and tariffs. The draft also contains provisions that would allow all water in the world to be privatized. It would allow corporations patent protection on all forms of life, even genetic material in cultural use for thousands of years. Farmers who have spent thousands of years growing crops in a valley in India could, within a decade, be required to pay for their water.

The draft also contains provisions that would allow all water in the world to be privatized.

They could also find that they would have to purchase seeds containing genetic traits their ancestors developed, from companies that have engineered the seeds not to reproduce unless the farmer annually buys expensive chemicals to restore seed viability. If this happens, the CEOs of Novartis and Enron, two of the companies creating the seeds and privatizing the water, will have more money. What will Indian farmers have?

But the perfect moment for Barshevsky, Moore and Monsanto didn't arrive.

The meeting couldn't start. Demonstrators were everywhere. Private security guards locked down the hotels. The downtown stores were shut. Hundreds of delegates were on the street trying to get into the Convention Center. No one could help them. For WTO delegates accustomed to an ordered corporate or governmental world, it was a calamity.

Up Pike toward Seventh and to Randy's and my right on Sixth, protestors faced armored cars, horses, and police in full riot gear. In between, demonstrators ringed the Sheraton to prevent an alternative entry to the Convention Center. At one point, police guarding the steps to the lobby pummeled and broke through a crowd of protestors to let eight delegates in. On Sixth Street, Sergeant Richard Goldstein asked demonstrators seated on the street in front of the police line "to cooperate" and move back 40 feet. No one understood why, but that hardly mattered. No one was going to move. He announced that 'chemical irritants' would be used if they did not leave. The police were anonymous. No facial expressions, no face. You could not see their eyes. They were masked Hollywood caricatures burdened with 60 to 70 pounds of weaponry. These were not the men and women of the 6th precinct. They were the Gang Squads and the SWAT teams of the Tactical Operations Divisions, closer in training to soldiers from the School of the Americas than local cops on the beat. Behind them and around were special forces from the FBI, the Secret Service, even the CIA.

The police were almost motionless. They were equipped with U.S. military standard M40A1 double canister gas masks; uncalibrated, semi-automatic, high velocity Autocockers loaded with solid plastic shot; Monadnock disposable plastic cuffs, Nomex slash-resistant gloves, Commando boots, Centurion tactical leg guards, combat harnesses, DK5-H pivot-and-lock riot face shields, black Monadnock P24 polycarbonate riot batons with TrumBull stop side handles, No.2 continuous discharge CS (orto-chlorobenzylidene-malononitrile) chemical grenades, M651 CN (chloroacetophenone) pyrotechnic grenades, T16 Flameless OC Expulsion Grenades, DTCA rubber bullet grenades (Stingers), M-203 (40mm) grenade launchers, First Defense MK-46 Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) aerosol tanks with hose and wands, .60 caliber rubber ball impact munitions, lightweight tactical Kevlar composite ballistic helmets, combat butt packs, 30 cal. thirty-round mag pouches, and Kevlar body armor. None of the police had visible badges or forms of identification.

The demonstrators seated in front of the black-clad ranks were equipped with hooded jackets for protection against rain and chemicals. They carried toothpaste and baking powder for protection of their skin, and wet cotton cloths impregnated with vinegar to cover their mouths and noses after a tear-gas release. In their backpacks were bottled water and food for the day ahead.

Ten Koreans came around the corner carrying a 10-foot banner protesting genetically modified foods. They were impeccable in white robes, sashes, and headbands. One was a priest. They played flutes and drums and marched straight toward the police and behind the seated demonstrators. Everyone cheered at the sight and chanted "The whole world is watching." The sun broke through the gauzy clouds. It was a beautiful day. Over cell phones, we could hear the cheers coming from the labour rally at the football stadium. The air was still and quiet.

We all sat down, hunched over, and locked arms more tightly. By then, the tear gas was so strong our eyes couldn't open. One by one, our heads were jerked back from the rear, and pepper was sprayed directly into each eye.

At 10 a.m. the police fired the first seven canisters of tear gas into the crowd. The whitish clouds wafted slowly down the street. The seated protestors were overwhelmed, yet most did not budge. Police poured over them. Then came the truncheons, and the rubber bullets. I was with a couple of hundred people who had ringed the hotel, arms locked. We watched as long as we could until the tear gas slowly enveloped us.

We were several hundred feet from Sgt. Goldstein's 40-foot "cooperation" zone. Police pushed and truncheoned their way through and behind us. We had covered our faces with rags and cloth, snatching glimpses of the people being clubbed in the street before shutting our eyes. The gas was a fog through which people moved in slow, strange dances of shock and pain and resistance. Tear gas is a misnomer. Think about feeling asphyxiated and blinded. Breathing becomes laboured. Vision is blurred. The mind is disoriented. The nose and throat burn. It's not a gas, it's a drug. Gas-masked police hit, pushed, and speared us with the butt ends of their batons. We all sat down, hunched over, and locked arms more tightly. By then, the tear gas was so strong our eyes couldn't open. One by one, our heads were jerked back from the rear, and pepper was sprayed directly into each eye. It was very professional. Like hair spray from a stylist. Sssst. Sssst.

Pepper spray is derived from cayenne peppers. It is food-grade, pure enough to be used in salsa. The spray used in Seattle is the strongest available, containing 10 percent to 15 percent Oleoresin Capsicum, with a 1.5 to 2.0 million Scoville heat unit rating. One to three Scoville units are when your tongue can first detect hotness. (The jalapeño pepper is rated between 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units. The habanero, usually considered the hottest pepper in the world, is rated around 300,000 Scoville units.) This description was written by a police officer who sells pepper spray on his website. It is about his first experience being sprayed during a training exercise: "It felt as if two red-hot pieces of steel were grinding into my eyes, as if someone was blowing a red-hot cutting torch into my face. I fell to the ground just like all the others and started to rub my eyes even though I knew better not too. The heat from the pepper spray was overwhelming. I could not resist trying to rub it off of my face. The pepper spray caused my eyes to shut very quickly. The only way I could open them was by prying them open with my fingers. Everything that we had been taught about pepper spray had turned out to be true. And everything that our instructor had told us that we would do, even though we knew not to do it, we still did. Pepper spray turned out to be more than I had bargained for."

As I tried to find my way down Sixth Street after the tear gas and pepper spray, I couldn't see. The person who found and guided me was Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, and probably the only CEO in the world who wanted to be on the streets of Seattle helping people that day. When your eyes fail, your ears take over. I could hear acutely. What I heard was anger, dismay, shock. For many people, including the police, this was their first direct action. Demonstrators who had taken non-violent training were astonished at the police brutality. The demonstrators were students, their professors, clergy, lawyers, and medical personnel. They held signs against Burma and violence. They dressed as butterflies.

The Seattle Police had made a decision not to arrest people on the first day of the protests (a decision that was reversed for the rest of the week). Throughout the day, the affinity groups created through Direct Action stayed together. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray were used so frequently that by late afternoon, supplies ran low. What seemed like an afternoon lull or standoff was because police had used up all their stores. Officers combed surrounding counties for tear gas, sprays, concussion grenades, and munitions. As police restocked, the word came down from the White House to secure downtown Seattle or the WTO meeting would be called off. By late afternoon, the Mayor and Chief announced a 7 p.m. curfew, "no protest" zones, and declared the city under civil emergency.

The police were fatigued and frustrated. Over the next seven hours and into the night, the police turned downtown Seattle into Beirut.

  Paul G. Hawken lives in Sausalito, in California.

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