Let's Not Have A Riot
Rank and file protestors respond
Published December 9, 1999 in Crave

Violence Causes Backlash...

See also...
... in the Crave section
... from December 9, 1999

I admit to being ignorant of those mighty fine arguments put forth for promoting the destruction of property in Seattle during the height of the WTO demonstrations. To my mind only two issues are left unaddressed by Lady Swoosh and Captain Coffee.

The first issue is that the overwhelming majority of the other activists on the scene at the time did not conform to an analysis that condones property destruction. Perhaps some 2,000 (of possibly 50,000 people total) were self-identified as nonviolent demonstrators who planned to commit acts of civil disobedience short of property destruction. That their nonviolence code rejects property destruction can be in no way construed a "veneration of corporate property."

Instead, demonstrators who subscribe to the non-violence code do so because they believe that to needlessly provoke police in the manner so glorified by Swoosh and Coffee is to place all peaceful demonstrators at grievous risk. You don't have to agree with this position but failure to honor it is frighteningly self-indulgent and potentially harmful to the other protestors who willingly put themselves in harms way. What aggravates the self-indulgence even more is the fact that these acts of vandalism were committed by a small group of masked individuals, perhaps 12 or so, under cover of some 50,000 others who may have had an entirely different strategy in mind. It is not clear to me that anyone was swayed to believe that property destruction, even specifically target corporate property, is the preferred method to engage in social change.

Some would argue that perhaps the nonviolent response is more powerful than the alienation encouraged by a small handful of folks who hide their faces behind masks (in much the same manner as the riot police themselves hide behind masks). I wish to invite those who think otherwise to come back any other day of the week if they really believe smashing a window or spraying graffiti will pave the way for revolution.

The other point that remains unanswered in regard to this particular strategy is how alienating it appears. I do not mean to imply that there is anything faulty with the argument that destruction of corporate property is justifiable. I only wish to call into question the value of this particular tactic given that we live in a culture that worships the acquisition of material things. To the vast majority of our friends and neighbors property damage is considered inherently alienating. Perhaps alienating to the extent that the entire week-long event is at risk of being framed by the actions of those few who employed this most visible strategy.

While the violence of the police is to be expected (and utterly unjustifiable), the fact remains that the police have used property damage as an excuse to justify their actions. Too many people, right or wrong, buy right into this justification. In fact, many were greatly insulted by the seemingly senseless and gratuitous destruction of property. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if the violence of the police stood all by itself, without any apparent justification, and in sharp contrast to peaceful demonstrators who were perfectly willing to risk the abuse.

I am particularly frightened by the ideological rigidity I encounter with those who insist that their strategy is more revolutionary than all the others. There has got to be room for a great many different strategies on our path to a better world. I'm open-minded enough to want the strategies and analysis of Swoosh and Coffee to receive careful consideration (especially in that we agree on so much), but I do wish we could find ways to coordinate our strategies so as not to cancel each other out and perhaps achieve an even greater effect.

Michael Balliro

...But Without It, Who Would Give a Damn

As someone who was on the front lines of the WTO demonstration, committing acts of civil disobedience by blocking streets and delegates from entering the convention center, which resulted in my being tear gassed, pepper sprayed and nearly arrested, I feel that I need to let people know that you didn't see anything near the real story.

At least 50,000 people marched into the streets of Seattle, took over the downtown core, shut down the city in order to make people -- especially Americans -- more aware of this rather arrogant, secret group that has consistently paved the way for transnational corporations to plunder the environment and denigrate human rights in pursuit of profit (naturally). The rulings of this body affect and supercede laws made by member nations. For instance, when France refused to accept our hormone-injected beef, the USA took the case to the WTO and won the case. The French still won't accept our genetically-altered food, so they must suffer outrageous tariffs on their cheese.

When protesters effectively shut down the WTO meeting and put its agenda on the front page of newspapers around the world, the authorities overreacted with mass arrests, overzealous use of tear gas and pepper spray, and beatings of protesters -- and residents. The mayor declared 50 blocks of downtown a "protest-free zone" (undermining the First Amendment -- it was dubbed the "anti-Constitution zone") so that even wearing a "No WTO" button could result -- and did, for several people -- in arrest.

The story the media covered mainly was about the "rioting" and "violent" protesters who trashed Starbucks, Niketown, McDonald's, and other corporate chains, and the brutal police crackdown that resulted. Unfortunately, it ignored the bigger picture of thousands of people from all walks of life, from all over the world, with a myriad of concerns protesting the presence of a morally bankrupt organization. The media presented a divide between the "peaceniks" and the "bad protesters."

Truth is, if a bunch of hoods hadn't trashed downtown, and a bunch of activists joined hands to block delegates, WTO wouldn't have been news. Now it is, and I am not the least bit sorry that McDonald's and Urban Outfitters lost a bit of business because of it. So, I am writing this to all of you as my way of trying to get the word out about what really happened on November 30th. The people spoke loud and clear -- and big business didn't like it. I write this as a warning as to how quickly one's rights disappear in the face of powerful interests.

Power in unity,