Seattle: Confronting the Enforcers

by Orpheus

Revolutionary Worker #1035, December 19, 1999

"While the American middle class and America in general keeps vying for the American dream, while we're all sort of lost in the hypocrisy and coma-like nature of our stature of living--where we're all sort of comfortable with our dogs and cats and televisions--we're riding on the back of the rest of the world. And the rest of the world knows this. I think that's one of the reasons why America is seen as such a snake. And what's going on in India and what's going on in Mexico, and what's going on Indonesia and East Timor--all these things are so connected--and even what's going on here in the inner cities of the U.S....these things are connected because of the way that capital is moving through the world right now."

Gabriel, a volunteer with
the Direct Action Network

"I know this has changed my life. And I'm sure that it's changed thousands of other people's lives who came down here. To be honest I didn't even know about the WTO before this. I mean my whole world view has changed, and I think the same can be said for thousands of other people who came down. I think that's a great accomplishment."

A youth from Seattle

SEATTLE--December 10. The Battle in Seattle has been really transforming for all of us who took part--days when you hug friends you just made the day before, as you celebrate kicking the system's ass...days when you come back at the other side no matter what brutality they've just done...days when you debate what it will really take to do away with imperialism. Now there is a real battle for summation. The media and city officials are focusing on investigating why the police were so unprepared and let the masses so completely take the stage and win. On the other side, the people are focusing on exposing the brutality of the cops.

On the morning of Nov. 30, police started using tear gas, pepper spray and concussion grenade attacks on peaceful protesters doing street blockades in downtown Seattle. Days of street battles and protests continued to confront the authorities as protesters persevered to send their message to the world in the face of National Guard troops, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, military assault vehicles, riot cops, beatings, and jailhouse brutality.

Thousands of people, especially the youth, defended the people against the police in the streets. They built blockades, threw back tear-gas canisters, and threw rocks and bottles at police armed with automatic weapons. They occupied buildings and pitched encampments to continue their protests against the WTO. And they witnessed first hand as the police carried out their job as enforcers of the ugly property relations of capitalist society. For thousands of people this was an eye-opening experience.

Most of the protesters had never before experienced this kind of brutality from the police. But even protesters who think the whole system should be changed are not necessarily drawing the conclusion that revolution would require an armed struggle. "I'm a lot more empowered. I'm a lot more pissed off because I've never been tear-gassed by my government before and pepper-sprayed without cause," one activist from San Francisco told the RW. "I'm pissed off and I'm gonna go back and organize even more and have more strength. Now I can actually see that we can really create change and really create a whole new movement and reconstruct society and have a revolution...a non-violent revolution, hopefully."

On Dec. 1, police launched even more concentrated attacks against the people--arresting hundreds of people in the downtown area. That evening, a police assault on a demonstration called by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (Anti-Imperialist) escalated into a full-scale police attack on the entire neighborhood of Capitol Hill.

The ferocity of this attack indicated that the police were out for revenge--not only for the embarrassment of being outflanked by unarmed protesters at the WTO, but for the radical history of the area--the site of many protests. And on December 1, hundreds of "ordinary citizens" found themselves the target of police brutality as tear gas and the boom of concussion grenades filled the neighborhood.

"One thing the WTO showed is that you have a hell of a lot less freedom than they say you do. They say you have all of this freedom in America, but as soon as you try and use it--you find out it doesn't actually exist at all."

Capitol Hill resident


"We arrived here at the jail at something like 5:00 yesterday, and we're still here. This group is as big as it was when we first got here. And it's gonna be here until our people are out of that jail."

Youth from San Francisco outside the jail, December 3

More than 600 people were arrested. In jail, protesters practiced "jail solidarity"--refusing to give their names to authorities, refusing to cooperate, going limp when given orders to move, demanding their joint release, and continuing to indict the WTO from behind bars. Three busloads of arrested protesters refused to leave their bus at the Sand Point Naval Station, where they were being processed. Many were brutally dragged off the busses and some were pepper-sprayed. After days of protest and encampments at the jail, all protesters held on misdemeanor charges were finally released. Several protesters were singled out for felony charges. And those coming out of the jail brought stories of brutality by jail guards.

  • One youth told the RW that people had been pepper-sprayed in the face, beaten, dragged by their hair, put in solitary confinement and denied food, water and access to attorneys. People were put in cells with the temperature down in the 50's and their clothes were taken from them. He reported that the guards were targeting people who they thought were leaders or anyone who nonviolently resisted them.
  • Two women who had been in a cell together told the Seattle Times that cops opened their cell, pepper-sprayed them and closed the door.
  • A former junior-high teacher, 83 years old, told the Seattle Times that one woman was "struck in the genitals during a patdown and, when she flinched, was dragged out of a cell by her hair."
  • Another woman said she was stripped and hogtied for refusing to put on a jail uniform because she said she wasn't a criminal.
  • *****

    In the wake of the protests, heavy exposure is pouring out of widespread police brutality against protesters--and many, many others who happened to get in the way of rampaging riot police. Already Chief of Police Norm Stamper has been forced to resign. Assistant Chief Ed Joiner has also announced he is stepping down. The ACLU is pursuing a lawsuit against the city over its establishment of a "no protest zone" in downtown Seattle and is also collecting accounts of police brutality. According to spokesperson Doug Honig, as of December 9, ACLU had received several hundred reports. The Independent Media Service is piecing together many hours of video footage of the protests and police brutality for public display.

    "Blind Spot," an anti-WTO newsletter, reported that the medical team for the Direct Action Network (which organized many of the protests) said 800 people had been treated in DAN clinics and 2,000 to 3,000 on the street for police-inflicted injuries. The coordinator for the medic team, Djennifer Whitney, reported during the protests, "Medics are being targeted by police. Medical equipment is being confiscated and destroyed by police. There is no medicine being provided for people in custody who need it. The police at one point blocked off Swedish Medical Center, telling an RN they were doing this to prevent care for the protesters."

    DAN organizers have called the use of tear gas and other agents "chemical warfare" on the people. Many people have reported persistent health problems as a result of these chemical attacks. A doctor for the DAN and DAN medics also said they have treated victims with heart irregularities, gastrointestinal discomfort, and mental confusion as a result of the police attacks. There is some speculation that authorities might have been using unreported chemical agents that cause such symptoms.


    The RW correspondents witnessed a number of these assaults and we spoke with many people about police violence they experienced. We have drawn the following accounts from these interviews, press reports, and a city council hearing in which people of widely diverse backgrounds brought forward their stories:

  • A vegan nonviolent anarchist told the RW about what he saw on Nov. 30. "I saw the first assault (by police) at Pike and 6th. The front-line was a group of senior citizen women holding a banner. When the police came across that line they clubbed those women like they weren't people, like they weren't alive. And they shot everybody with those plastic bullets and rubber bullets.... Just brutal, brutal attacks on women, children, everybody--all non-violent activists. Nasty stuff. Kicking, hitting people with batons. Forcibly spraying people in the face with pepper spray and CS gas."
  • Dan, a youth from Seattle, told us, "Everybody around me has been gassed many times. I was shot with a rubber bullet in the back of the leg on Capitol Hill. I was trying to get home. I had my hands in the air, I was yelling that I was trying to get home, and they still shot at me. I've seen people beaten with wooden sticks, and I've seen other press, KIRO 7 news reporters, turn their cameras away from it, not even showing it."
  • A young woman talked about the police attack on December 1. "When they had blocked off a whole section of downtown and tear-gassed like every intersection and trapped everyone inside--I saw all these old people coughing and puking and running around, freaking out. And then a woman ran up and she was completely tear-gassed, crying, and she was carrying a baby, and her baby was about passed out. And she came up to me, and she was like, `Which way do I go?' There was no way to go, because the streets were blocked off by cops. There was tear gas to the left, tear gas to the right. It was horrible."
  • One RW correspondent present during the police assault on Capitol Hill on Dec. 1 described it as "a war zone." Police fired tear gas and concussion grenades at anything that moved. There was one explosion after another. While the media went ballistic yelling about broken windows in the downtown Starbucks, one Capitol Hill resident told the RW, "They tear-gassed the whole Habitat Espresso. There were about 30 of us in there having coffee when in came the tear gas. I mean it's a tiny place and it was packed, and there is no ventilation in there. I thought I was gonna die--I couldn't breathe, I couldn't see." People ran out of their apartments screaming at police to leave the neighborhood, saying their kids were choking from gas and telling them to go home and gas their own children.
  • At a press conference denouncing police assaults on a march of steelworkers and youth on December 1, John Goodman of the United Steel Workers said, "I'd like to say I've never seen a more disgusting, obscene use of police brutality against United Steel Workers marching in unity with our brothers in the environmental community and our brothers fighting for human rights. I've witnessed things in the last four days that I didn't believe could happen in America. People walking in peaceful protest, and without provocation the firing of tear gas and rubber bullets on the people who were trying to exercise their first amendment rights. I couldn't believe that this was happening in America. It was a rude awakening."
  • A reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who had already been tear gassed six times on Nov. 30 was slammed to the pavement and arrested despite showing reporter credentials.
  • A journalist from a Portland, Oregon alternative paper said she had seen police pick up and drop a girl on the sidewalk, breaking her front teeth.
  • A gay man with AIDS on Capitol Hill--who was gassed along with his roommate and dogs on Nov. 30--told of how he was going to get a drink on Broadway on Dec. 1 where he was gassed again, pepper-sprayed, and shoved in the chest with a baton by a cop who told him, "Get out, faggot."
  • Melisa Benton and Shauna Lin Balaski were sitting in a car on Capitol Hill during the police assault, videotaping the events around them. A deputy in riot gear approached the car and asked the women to roll down the window. With Balaski still filming the cop, he grabbed Benton, pepper-sprayed her in the face, and said, "Tape that, bitch." Then he pepper-sprayed the camera lens and Balaski.
  • At the city council meeting, people lined up to testify against the police:

  • Meg O'Brien, a businesswoman downtown and member of the Chamber of Commerce, told the city council meeting she saw three undercover cops grab two young kids who were doing nothing but waiting to cross the street. The cops tripped them and smashed them to the ground and "beat the hell out of them." She said the cops beat them to the point that one passed out. She said a little friend of the kids who was on the other side of the street yelled, "What are you doing, what are you doing?" This girl was tear-gassed and told to leave the cops alone. O'Brien took pictures of this incident and presented them to the city council.
  • A student who described himself as "a computer geek" quietly told the city council how he had been downtown with his little handmade protest sign and had been gassed along with his girlfriend. He said he had never felt fear from police before this. He said whether the city council thought there was wrong on both sides, they should remember "the side I was on didn't have tear gas and didn't have guns."
  • A woman who said she is otherwise known as "grammy" by her grandchildren and has been an employee of Microsoft for 18 years told the city council her story. "I've never seen anything like I've seen this week. Every instance of brutality was by the police." She told how she had gone downtown with a little hand-lettered sign saying `Democracy.' She yelled at the council. "And when I tried to walk away from the protesters, to go to work, with no warning, with no order to disperse, with no point of the baton to go this way, go that way, I was sprayed in the face with pepper spray... I have asthma, I have severe allergies. I thought I was going to die! And the only person who came to my help was a protester." She said she is facing loss of her job for missing work due to health problems from the gas and pepper spray but "The stand I took this week is more important."
  • At the close of the city council meeting, the RW talked with a young Black proletarian woman--18 years old--who had participated in the WTO protests. She said her father had discouraged her from going: "It's only white people down there--you'll get your head beat." But she went anyway--because she considers herself "a humanitarian."

    "The things the police were doing--they've been doing to us for years," she told the RW. "We been enduring this mess. No one wanted to listen."

    "The Seattle police have killed people," she said, recounting the story of Bodegaard Mitchell, an 84-year-old Black man who was killed and robbed by police in 1996, which led to a corruption scandal. "They stole $10,000 from him," she said. "The police don't care. If they had their choice they would have had the water hoses brought in on us like they did us down South, or the dogs, like they do in Tukwila [a working class neighborhood in Seattle]. This has to stop! The police have went too far.

    "Our own government is against us. And we need to just wake up and smell the coffee, and realize that all that shit about rights that Thomas Jefferson wrote about 200 years ago--that shit's really dead. I'm just being honest with you. It was written for white people. And then they gave us a little bit of it. But now that people are really trying to exercise those rights, Oh NO! Civil Emergency!"

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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