Tuesday, November 30, 2004

It Was Five Years Ago Today: An Oral History

On November 30, 1999, right after our last childless Thanksgiving, the WTO protests hit Seattle. RW was working part-time back then, so she went downtown. [I went to work because I had some deadline that in retrospect seems totally unimportant.]

Here's what she remembers, as transcribed by me:

In the very very beginning, I knew about the protests but I didn't pay much attention; this cause sounded dry as toast. But my grandmother, who reads lefty rags, asked me to find out about the WTO protests for her. I printed out a ream of paper for her from the Internet and mailed it to her in Wyoming. The more I read on the internet, the more incensed I got. She wanted to come protest, but wasn't well enough at the time, so I thought maybe I should go protest for her.

I took the bus down to Seattle Center, and getting on the bus were many people in bright clothing, with signs saying many different things, and there was a festive air, like Folklife, but more so. I saw my favorite video-store clerk and her mom, and all kinds of people.

We all poured off the bus at Seattle Center and went in to the rally, and it was a lot like most rallies except that they were all in one place, like some weird dream: there were all the job protecionists and labor unions, and all the tree huggers, and they were all around us, and all on the same side, at the same rally. This is really unusual in the West, where unions and truckers and loggers are ususally going head-to-head with enviornkmentalists. And it wasn't just them: it was the crazy agricultural people from France, and just everyone!

We poured into the street, and that was the most amazing part, because the people just kept pouring and pouring and pouring. We were supposed to go downtown and circle back, but there were so many people that by the time I left the stadium, and I was not at the back, the first people were already returning, and the police were rerouting them.

It was very peaceful and joyous. There was singing and dancing, giant puppets, and mostly just a zillion people out there in their rainbow colors, with their homemade signs, giant puppets... we flowed all the way through downtown. Later I read the newspapers whining about how the city was shut down for the day, and I thought "phah! a quarter-inch of snow does the same thing. And this was such a beautiful event."

Around 3:00 I was down at 6th and Pike, by the Nike store. I had seen ONE smashed window on the way, I think it was McDonald's. It was no worse than I'd seen on an empty Sunday in Seattle. When I got to the Nike building there were some young men on top of it trying to take the letters of the Nike sign down, but mostly there were a lot of people trying to get the young men down, trying to get them to stop doing that, and some pointed discussions about how Nike was a symbol of corporate greed, but dismantling signs didn't help anything.

I had to go, so I didn't see what happened a little later. I couldn't tell how violent the crowd really got, how much the media exaggerated it, which I suspected to be a lot. I do know that there was very little coverage of the 60,000 peaceful people. I was really appalled by the local press and TV, who did notihng but whine about how people wanted to go shopping at Nordstrom's. I spent a lot of time on the Internet reading out-of-town papers.

I went home and called the Fair Trade Organizing office, and said "What can I do? I can put some people up. Send me some people!" And they said, "Well, a British folk rock band just walked in, do you want them?" I said "Sure, if they don't mind sleeping in our attic." And that's how we met Seize the Day. They stayed for 2 or 3 days. I couldn't believe my luck that they were the ones we got.

Seize the Day disapproved of planes because they waste too much fossil fuel, but they overcame that to come and protest. They were far more polititally aware than I, since I tend to live off the news world. They had a very funny spoof of Monsanto that they acted out.

The next day was in some ways even more amazing. Clinton was coming to town, to speak to the WTO. Seattle City Countil had had the lack of foresight to host the WTO spread out all over town, so there was no way to cordon it off. Rumor had it that Clinton's people yelled at the governor, who yelled at the mayor, who put 24 policemen on every corner. I called the Fair Trade Office to ask what I could do, and they said: "You can come down and help at this workshop, but the city has stopped all the busses from entering downtown, so you'll have to walk through downtown. And the police is stopping everyone who isn't wearing business clothes, and not letting them walk through downtown."

I put on my most boring tan overcoat, that I only wore to interviews for jobs I didn't want, turned the collar up, and wore a Walkman. I managed to squeeze past the 24 police on every corner who were stopping anyone wearing any bright colors. Apparently it was illegal to wear bright colors downtown that day. The police were armed with pellet guns and tear gas, and had gas masks. The city's website newly declared that it was illegal for private citizens to own gas masks. I saw it on the Web that day. It was December 1st, the day that Belfast declared peace, and Seattle looked like Belfast.

About halfway through downtown, I heard shooting, went closer to witness what was going on, and saw clouds a few blocks away, of what I took to be tear gas. I knew that I might be about two weeks pregnant, and decided I had better head back out, because I was afraid I would miscarry.

But a block or two later the clouds caught up with me. The police were letting off gas down by the Pike Place Market, I found out later. I was at least four blocks away, maybe as much as ten, but the cloud blew up the street and my eyes started stinging. I was right next to the Fair Trade Office so I ducked in there. They were bathing people's eyes who'd been in the tear gas down by the Market, and they were putting ice on bruises from the rubber bullets. Later I found out the police had run out of the "nicer" tear gas, and were bringing in the extra-strong stuff from the militiamen in Montana.

That night I went home. Theo from Seize the Day had been down by the Market and said a police patrol had chased the small group of peaceful protesters he was in, for several blocks, until cornering them in the Pike Place Market, gassing them at close range. [elswhere notes: The Seize the Day folks, being proper Brits, liked tea. The first night we made them herbal, at their request. The second night, after the incidents RW is relating here, I asked Theo if he wanted herbal tea and he rasped, "God, no! The *real* stuff!"]

I remember that Theo and Shannon and I scanned the local TV news that night to see if there was any coverage of what he'd been through, but the "Live on the spot" reporters hadn't gone within blocks of the Market.

We didn't see this, but we heard later from friends that the police went up to Capitol Hill and just chased people down the streets who had nothing to do with the protests. We know from the press that they arrested a reporter for covering them, and they arrested a City Councilman basically for driving while Black. This is the city that has bicycle cops; they're usually pretty polite. But we saw the side of what they look like when they're freaked out, when they're getting pressure from above, when they bring in a lot of ringers from out of town, and when their communication structure breaks down.

But the third day, we were back to the pleasant bicycle cops, because Clinton had gone. They were still on every corner, but only half as many. Fair Trade had organized *another* march, to protest the events of the previous day, as well as some other planned rallies. The police waved us along as we marched through Downtown. They still had their sticks, but all their gas masks were gone. Apparently, a Presidential visit suspends the right to freedom of assembly. And this was a Democratic President, too, and before 9/11.

Within a day or so the law that made civilian gas masks illegal had vanished from the city web site.

What I will never forget from it was the beauty of those 60,000 people from all over the world, from wildly different points of view, united against the common foe of global capitalists unaccaountable to and untouchable by the laws of any nation.

I was reminded of something I learned in my childhood from my radical parents, that the press kowtow to the status quo. It was sobering to see how fragile Constitutional rights were, at the whims of a President. And it gave me hope to see how the Internet could be used for grassroots progressive political organizing. This was the first time we'd seen it on a major scale.

And I'm kind of proud to think that Mermaid Girl was there in embryo, even though I didn't know for sure that she was there until a couple of weeks later. I hope that it shapes her life.

[elswhere adds: I'm also very grateful that RW was smart enough to run away from the tear gas. I don't know if I would have thought of it. We found out later that some of the protesters did have miscarriages. I think of it sometimes when Mermaid Girl is running around and sassing us, so strong and smart and here.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unbelievable. Will we all be joining you & RW in Vancouver in a few years?


4:40 AM  
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Wonderful bit of history there.
Thank you for sharing.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Elsewhere, Renaissance Woman and Mermaid. Lovely to read your blog on Seattle and be reminded of the upcoming 6th anniversary. I really appreciate your comments about Seize The Day and for your link to our site. Thanks. Will make T for Theo and show him your blog when he gets back from the climate march today. Have fun, Louise who looks Seize The Day x

5:38 AM  

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