rn: Eyewitness account of nonviolent action at WTO


Jan Slakov

From: "Carolyn Ballard" <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Fw: Eyewitness account of nonviolent action at WTO  
Date: Wed, 1 Dec 1999 21:32:36 -0800

From: Andrew Hund <•••@••.•••>
To: Social Movements List <•••@••.•••>
Sent: Wednesday, December 01, 1999 4:29 PM
Subject: Eyewitness account of nonviolent action at WTO

WTO report from Peter Bergel:

A committed activist named Peter Bergel has published the Oregon
PeaceWorker (www. teleport.com/~opw) for some years, and has just sent this
post from the streets of Seattle.


Date: Wed, 1 Dec 1999 06:38:47 -0800 (PST)
Subject: Peter Bergel's WTO Report

Dear Friends,
Here is an account of the WTO actions in Seattle from my perspective.   I
have been doing nonviolence training for several days and I was on the
street all day today.  -- Peter

Notes on 11-30-99 WTO Protest Actions

Overall Impressions

* The protests today represented a new beginning of cooperation between
labor, environmental, peace, human rights and other groups.  Many were
represented and worked together very well.
* The direct action was carried out by mainly young activists who had been
trained for the week before and handled themselves superbly, by and large.
They were disciplined, radical, well-educated and had a good grasp of the
value of nonviolence, at least as a tactic.  I found that they knew a
remarkable amount about WTO, free trade, capitalism and related topics.
* The City of Seattle's downtown area was completely shut down.  The people
took over the streets and the police were not able to exercise more than
token control over them.
* For the most part, the police behaved well.  They were seriously
outnumbered, stressed, provoked at times and probably felt frightened.
Nevertheless, they used force sparingly and overstepped the need
* The protesters did a magnificent job of policing themselves.  The minor
outbreaks of violent anger were contained by the demonstrators with
surprising skill and commitment.
* The WTO meetings were seriously impacted.  The opening was delayed, many
delegates were prevented from attending at all, and those who did could not
get to their meetings without running the gantlet of angry protesters
making their message clear in both mass and invidual ways.
* It was probably a very significant day in the history of people's power,
"free" trade evolution and defense of democracy.

Personal Experiences

After gathering at Steinbrueck Park at 7 a.m. today, we marched downtown in
a huge march which stretched for many blocks.  How many I couldn't tell
from my position within it, but we were only half of the total since
another march started from another location, converging on the WTO meeting
place from another direction.

Once downtown, we split into different sub-groups to occupy different parts
of downtown.  The area around the WTO had been divided into thirteen
sectors with clusters of affinity groups (small autonomous action groups)
responsible for deciding upon ¾ and carrying out ¾ a blockade of their
sector.  My group marched around downtown a bit and wound up in front of
the Sheraton Hotel, where many delegates were staying.  Human blockades
were set up by dedicated affinity groups at every entrance, including the
parking garage.  Protesters lined up across the entrances, linked arms and
stood their ground.  At several points there were face-to-face standoffs
between protesters and police.  The police wore face shields, gas masks (at
times) and body armor and carried long sticks, sidearms, pepper spray and
sometimes plastic riot shields.  The protesters wore old clothes, rain
protection and bandannas against tear gas.  Some were wildly costumed and a
few had gas masks.

There was some pushing and rough stuff now and then when delegates tried to
get out of the hotel or get back in.  Protesters tried to prevent any entry
or egress and sometimes the delegates tried to push through.  When they
did, police interfered, if they were close by.

About 10 a.m. tear gas was used by the police to clear the immediate area.
By that time I had moved up the street and was not gassed.  When the gas
dispersed, I went back down to find out what had occasioned the use of the
gas.  It had been used to clear the intersection along Union to afford
meeting access to some WTO delegates.  However, rather few of them appeared
to be using it.  The police lined both sides of the intersection to keep it
clear.  As the delegates walked through, the crowd booed them loudly and
then began shouting "shame, shame."  A few minutes later, another tear gas
attack back up the street drove people down toward my position and the gas
followed them.  I was gassed slightly.

As I walked around downtown, I found that practically every intersection
was filled with people dancing, drumming and blockading and the numbers
were truly amazing.  The police were mostly holding various lines and not
letting people through them.  Then periodically they would use tear gas to
clear an area.  People would leave the area, circle around to another block
and come back when the gas dispersed.  The police would shortly abandon the
intersection they had just secured and move to another one and the process
would begin again.  The upshot of this was that the police were unable to
protect much of anything at all, yet hey could not spare the manpower to
arrest demonstrators without losing control of the areas they were trying
to protect.  The downtown was firmly in the protesters' hands and it was
clear that without the consent of the governed not much could be
accomplished, if enough of the governed decided to resist.

Some of the signs that impressed me included:
* The Senators who ratified the WTO  Treaty should be tried for treason.
* Do YOU remember voting for the WTO?
* Keep the sweatshop in the sauna.
* More health, less wealth.
* I hope you can eat your money.
* No legislation without representation.

I saw two police cars parked in the street as part of a police counter
blockade.  One had a flat rear tire and both had such graffiti as "Pig" and
"Fuck cops" spray-painted to them.  There was also some glass
breakage,overturning of dumpsters and paper boxes and defacing of
buildings, but the damage was trivial considering the huge numbers of
people in the area, the anger that the tear-gassing triggered and the
wealth of those against which the property damage was directed.  More
important, though, was the response of the demonstrators to virtually every
outbreak of property damage or hot-headedness.  Demonstrators moved
immediately to quell property damage and equally determinedly to break up
conflicts.  Others immediately began to chant "Nonviolent protest!
Nonviolent protest!  The effect was to put the rowdier elements on notice
that their tactics were not appreciated by the vast majority of those
present.  I even saw a line of demonstrators link arms to successfully
protect the windows of a VoiceStream Wireless store from window-breakers.

The favorite chant of the day was "Hey, hey!  Ho, ho!  WTO has got to go!"
Not too imaginitive, perhaps, but easy to learn and it had a good rhythm.
At one point, a group sang the Star Spangled Banner.  When they got to the
line about the land of the free, people stopped singing and went into wild
applause.  Another favorite chant was "Whose streets?  Our streets!  Whose
streets?  Our streets!"

Crowd size estimates on the news seem to have been characteristically
small:  one early report said there were 5,000 downtown in the morning.  I
would guess the number at 4-6 times that, though that is only a guess.  All
I can say is that all the streets I went to were full of people and I would
guess that a tightly packed block would probably hold about 1,000 people.
Even a loosely packed block would have to have 3-400 in it.  And there were
blocks like that up and down many streets.  I can't imagine there were less
than 10-20,000 downtown in the morning and possibly as many as 30,000.
Then there must have been a good 40-50,000 in the "Big" labor march which
came downtown in the afternoon.  That would boost the count to 50-60,000,
maybe even as high as 70,000.  Honest estimates based on helicopter
pictures could be made, but I don't know if they will be.

In many intersections, protesters "locked down."  They connected themselves
to each other and to heavy blocks or concrete-filled pipes to make it
impossible for the police to move them.  This was another reason the cops
didn't arrest people.  They just couldn't.  Some of those locked down were
still in the intersections when the police used tear gas in the area and
they just had to endure it.

I spoke briefly to a WTO delegate from Trinidad and Tobago ¾ a small
country of less than 2,000 square miles ¾ which has what he called
"manageable debt."  He seemed to understand what we were protesting about
quite well.  Especially he understood the trade-offs forced by the
requirements of debt repayment.

People on the streets were often very helpful towards one another, sharing
water, helping them out of areas in which they didn't want to be, washing
each other's eyes and so on.  A few medical types are carrying saline
solution for severe tear gas victims.  There are also legal observers
wearing specially printed white T-shirts and taking notes on what they see
going on.

Two kinds of tear gas seemed to be in use.  One was whitish-grey and seemed
to remain relatively local where it was shot.  The other was dark, almost
black, and seemed to blanket much larger areas quickly.  It obscures vision
like smoke even if you don't get anywhere near it.

I heard many fascinating conversations about the relative power of violence
and nonviolence.  It was wonderful to hear so many people who weren't me
carrying the defense of nonviolence in these circumstances.

In some places there was plastic yellow tape marked "Police crime scene. Do
not cross."  In many others there was identical looking tape which said
instead, "Unseen crimes."

A very disciplined drum corps with drums, cymbals, flags and a
whistle-blowing majorette dressed in dark, revolutionary-looking clothing
showed up from time to time throughout the day.  They would march in tight
formation along the street, playing and responding to the whistled commands
of the majorette.  Then, at a whistled signal, they would begin to deploy
in various patterns.  They were entertaining, clever, humorous and good at
what they do.  At one point, as they marched down a street, they suddenly
veered sharply left and walked right into Starbucks, playing and marching
around several times to the shock of the customers, some of which left at

 The vanguard of the "Big" march arrived downtown about 1:30, occupying the
whole street.  Although it came in fits and starts,  it flowed past my
vantage point for 50 minutes before I found my Salem friends and  joined
them.  We looped through a number of blocks of downtown and then began to
head out of downtown a block over from where the march came in.
To my amazement, we could see a steady stream still coming in!  It was
2:45.   I left the march and stood on the corner to view the rest of the
march.  By 3 p.m. the march's end had passed the point at which is could
see it entering downtown a block up the street.   However, it was still
another 20 minutes before the end passed my vantage point.  This means that
a march that often filled the entire street took about an hour and a half
to pass one point.  Could that be less than 50,000?

I saw signs for at least these unions: steelworkers, electrical workers,
teachers, bricklayers, ILWU (Longshoremen), painters, Stanford workers,
service employees, teamsters, sheet metal workers, marine engineers,
transit workers, boilermakers, plumbers steamfitters and refigerations
workers, public service workers of Canada, cement masons, pulp paper and
woodworkers, nurses, Canadian airways workers and carpenters.

When the march had left, I went back to one of the lockdowns on 6th Avenue
right next to the Sheraton Hotel.  There were still a lot of people
downtown.  There were clearly less than before, but they still filled many
blocks and the occupation continued.  At one point there was a disturbance
as two men appeared to be trying to break though a line of protesters which
was linked to prevent delegates from getting past.  Behind them was a line
of police.  There was a scuffle and I went right over there to see if I
could help maintain the peace.  One of the two fell down and immediately
got up, very freaked out.  I began to calm him only to have my attention
drawn to the other who was a few feet away.  His suit coat was open and he
had a sidearm holster from which he had already removed the gun.  It was
pointing down, but I had a moment of serious fear as I realized that,
should he raise the weapon, I would be right in his immediate line of fire.
However, he did not raise it.  Rather, he and the other man crossed through
the police line and were gone.  The crowd had responded at once, shouting
"He's got a gun.  He's got a gun."  and pointing.  The police responded by
spraying the entire scene, including me, with pepper spray. Although I have
seen tear gas a number of times before, I had never confronted pepper spray
before.  It's pretty painful just to have on your
skin.  It must be really awful to have in your eyes.

At 5 p.m., the police moved to clear the entire area.  They began firing
off large amounts of tear gas and people began to run down 6th.  A number
of us shouted for them to walk to prevent panic and stampede.  Then we
moved slowly out of the area.  The tear gas overtook us and I was gassed
more heavily this time.  The stuff isn't as nasty as what they used to use
in the 60s, but it's bad enough.  Shortly after that I left.  I later heard
that the police used gas to clear most of the protesters out, but some
remained and the day's first arrests took place that evening.   I heard
numbers like 22 and 25 ¾ a tiny number considering how many had been there
during the day.
Taken as a whole, the day was an unquestioned success.  The WTO could not
help but get the message about how they were viewed by the many thousands
present.  Moreover, they had not been able to agree on their agenda before
they arrived for this meeting and then they lost a good deal of yesterday
because the downtown area was so congested and even more of today due to
delays and absence of delegates.

Thanks for reading this far, if you have.  Please forward this to people
who should be informed.

Thank you.

Peter Bergel


Patrick G. Coy, Ph.D.
Center for Applied Conflict Management
Kent State University
Box 5190
Kent, OH 44242

office phone: (330) 672-2875
office fax:   (330) 672-3362
Email: •••@••.•••

Home address: 6568 State Route 82
              Hiram, OH 44234
Home phone:   (330) 569-7642

Note from Jan: I have left this contact information for Prof. Patrick Coy on
this message even though he is not the author, the reason being that I
recognize him as the author of an excellent article on the Kosovo crisis
published in _Fellowship_ magazine. (May or June '99 issue. I can send it by
e-mail to those who would like it.)