When anarchy takes over the streets, the streets become the anarchist’s toolbox.
“A storefront window becomes a vent to let some fresh air into the oppressive atmosphere of a retail outlet,” suggests a recent Internet communique from the N30 Black Bloc--a band of black-hooded anarchists who liberated a host of downtown Seattle stores from their windowpanes during the recent World Trade Organization protests.
“A Dumpster becomes an obstruction to a phalanx of rioting cops and a source of heat and light. A building facade becomes a message board to record brainstorm ideas for a better world.”
Operating in small cells known as affinity groups and aided by masses of people who flooded into the streets in support, a new style of urban activists presented themselves in Seattle, employing civil disobedience techniques honed in the Pacific Northwest timber wars and an increasingly militant style of old-fashioned anarchism.
Their success in disrupting the first day of WTO talks on Nov. 30--despite months of official planning--stunned even protest organizers. “That night, hundreds of people went to bed on futons . . . who had been planning on being in jail. They were surprised,” said Mike Dolan of Public Citizens’ Global Trade Watch, whose protests had legal permits.
How did Seattle manage to get shut down despite months of warnings that tens of thousands of protesters would seek to block the WTO talks? How did police wind up having to tear-gas the entire downtown core after pledging to handle the demonstrations, in the words of Deputy Police Chief Ed Joiner, with “velvet gloves”?
As investigations of the four days of urban warfare that hit Seattle got underway this week, police say the answers already are clear: They were vastly outnumbered by organized protesters who used their bodies, wittingly or unwittingly, to shield about 200 or 300 anarchist vandals rampaging behind demonstrators’ locked arms. And they were unable to mount an effective counterattack on nearly a dozen simultaneous illegal street actions, coordinated by cellular phone, that occurred nowhere near the agreed-upon protest boundaries.
“They were as effective as they were cowardly, to tell you the truth,” Police Chief Norm Stamper said of the anarchists. “They used hit-and-run tactics; they changed their clothes throughout the day; but most important of all, they hid behind peaceful demonstrators, creating a situation where if we were to be successful in countering their tactics, larger numbers of people likely would have been hurt.”
Stamper announced his early retirement almost immediately after the WTO events.
Law enforcement analysts said Seattle police made a series of mistakes that led to the need for tear gas and riot squads: They failed to call in help from surrounding departments before the talks began and failed to deploy mobile forces behind demonstrators’ lines.
“The police force physically could not move through the protesters to do anything with those people who were breaking windows,” said Capt. Rich Odenthal, a veteran Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officer who oversaw deployments during the 1984 Summer Olympics and the 1992 riots that followed the Rodney G. King beating trial. He was called in as a consultant to Seattle earlier this year and was there during the WTO talks. “I tried to cross the lines a couple of times and I was told by linked-arm people, ‘You are not getting through.’ ”
Seattle police have accused organizers of reneging on pledges to conduct peaceful demonstrations in designated areas. But protest leaders say the permitted marches occurred exactly where they were supposed to occur. What police didn’t seem to understand, they said, was the ability of civil disobedience techniques to thwart normal police procedures.
“A lot of forest action techniques were brought into an urban setting [in Seattle],” said Hillary McQuie, an organizer for the Direct Action Network, which oversaw most of the civil disobedience. “Interestingly, I thought that was going to be the most effective part. It wasn’t. Most effective was large numbers of people forming low-tech chains,” McQuie said.
“There were people blocking one street who had never met each other before. . . . They were really calm, they were making consensus decisions about what they wanted to do next in the middle of all this tear gas--listening to people’s thoughts and feelings and trying to come to some kind of decision about what was best for the group. It was really inspiring.”
The most likely reason for their success, she said, was that police focused on the huge marches planned for the opening morning of the WTO talks and did not take into account the civil disobedience--although organizers had warned that it would occur.
“The fact was that the delegates hadn’t been given a way to get [around the protests and] into the convention center. They didn’t have escorts or transportation. It was wonderful,” McQuie said.
“When the Direct Action Network, which sought no permits, said [to police]: ‘We’re going to close the WTO,’ I don’t know what the police must have thought,” Dolan said. “That they would have some new clever chants and visually exciting signage? . . . You can’t shut down the WTO by staying in designated protest areas.
“What was supposed to happen was the police were supposed to arrest those people, take them off to jail, and then the meeting could start,” Dolan said. “If they had been arrested, first of all the anarchists wouldn’t have been able to use them as cover. And the WTO might have been able to meet . . . and there wouldn’t have been that incredible [overreaction by police] the following day.”
Leaders of the peaceful demonstrations have lashed out at the anarchists, accusing them of undermining their anti-globalism message by breaking windows and torching trash bins. Some even moved against them during the WTO protests, attempting to block storefronts and wrestling with the hooded anarchists.
The anarchists in turn accused the Seattle protesters of protecting the same private-property interests that the WTO represents.
But in Stamper’s view, “Those who had designs on a violent confrontation used a deliberate tactic to put space between themselves and our police officers--and unfortunately that took the form of peaceful demonstrators. They were exploited, they were used and, tragically, I think the protest which was designed to bring attention to concerns . . . about international trade and social justice and the environment and labor got muted.”