Confrontation in Seattle

Print edition : December 11, 1999

SEATTLE will remember the Third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation for a long time to come. After the delegates and the journalists have headed home and the dust settles, the WTO meeting will come under intense scrutiny in this northw estern city of the United States, and for many wrong reasons.

The Mayor, city officials, the local police, the Federal and Washington State administrations, business houses and various protest groups will each have an assessment to make. No group can claim victory or state that its plan of action "worked". The bott omline is not who won or lost, but what went wrong.

The Mayor and the police viewed the disturbances not in terms of a "battle" but as an expression of "free speech"; but to the hundreds of delegates from over 130 countries and the nearly 3,000 mediapersons assembled for the largest ever trade event in th e U.S., it was nothing but a fiasco, a bungling of huge proportions.

However, the view of several delegates that the police did not have a firm grip on the situation and over the protesters may not hold good in the U.S., where the laws do not give sweeping powers to authorities to do whatever they want to do. In a develo ping country, even in democracies, the police would have taken thousands of people into preventive custody. But it has been pointed out that this is not possible in the U.S.

City officials admitted that they were caught napping. They had anticipated large protests, even handed out permits for demonstrations and were seemingly preparing for the worst. In the end all hell broke loose. The law enforcement authorities were taken aback by the orgy of violence unleashed by a very small group of self-styled militants and anarchists, who indulged in widespread intimidation, vandalism and looting.

Business houses in this beautiful and otherwise calm city are still picking up the smashed glass outside their establishments and trying to remove graffiti spray-painted on their walls. The losses are still being calculated. It will run into millions of dollars in not just damages but in lost business. The Christmas season is round the corner too.

Long-time residents of Seattle do not remember any other point in the city's history - except perhaps during the Second World War - when curfew had been imposed for consecutive days. This was done so that the law enforcement authorities could "get back" the city from the violent and well-organised protesters, who wanted their views to be heard loud and clear. In the information age, laptops, palmtops and cellular phones came in handy for the marchers to get reorganised quickly and challenge the police f rom vantage points.

By way of what was to become of the WTO, the writing was on the wall. That the Seattle talks would be a write-off was evident even before the formal deliberations and meetings got underway. On the eve of the meetings, thousands of demonstrators from all walks of life and representing a variety of causes - many of which had nothing to do with the WTO per se - had descended on the city and started clogging the streets. But city officials were perhaps under the impression that these "curious" onlook ers would make some noise and leave.

To say that most demonstrators who showed up in Seattle indulged in violence or were keen on provoking the authorities is wrong. It was a small group of people wearing black hoods and black masks that started it all. Something suddenly changed in the car nival-like atmosphere.

The gangs assaulted delegates, spat on them or sprayed ink on their clothes, and even targeted stores, banks and anything else they could lay their hands on. While local television stations were showing it live, the police were outnumbered and could conc entrate only on one or two areas. The police in full riot gear, the mounted police officers and even those in black armoured vehicles did not deter the arsonists.

And then came the red pepper gas, either sprayed or shot as small rubber projectiles. These rubber projectiles, called "stingers", were generally aimed below the knee; and according to one police official, "they really sting" to the point of momentarily incapacitating a person. This correspondent witnessed numerous instances of police spraying pepper gas, and finally dragging away small groups of people for arrest. The first day's tally of arrests was a "modest" 70 or so.

On the opening day, November 30, the ceremonies were scheduled at Paramount Theatre, where U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, WTO Director-General Michael Moore and U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky were to speak. None of them could make it out of their hotel rooms.

A protester gets a blast of pepper spray from the police.-PETER DEJONG/AP

The opening ceremony was cancelled, Albright headed back to Washington D.C. without giving her speech and only a handful of delegates could make it to the convention centre for the start of the sessions, or to read out their "speeches". As night fell, ca me the painful decision of the 12-hour curfew. President Bill Clinton checked into his hotel suite while the curfew was on.

The National Guards were summoned and hundreds of other police officers and troopers were requisitioned from neighbouring counties and States to help out the beleaguered Seattle Police. Day Two seemed to start off peacefully. The local police, with the r einforcements, appeared to have the situation under control. The curfew seemed to help matters in the sense that the Streets of Seattle were finally got "back", even though this had to be done inch by inch.

Determined not to be caught flatfooted or allow the town to be in the hands of the protesters once again, the police went into high gear. They used force, made mass arrests and basically let the anti-WTO elements know who was running the show. The number of arrests stood at over 500 on the second day.

Sweeping restrictions on movement helped matters momentarily, but the protesters were only waiting until dark. They arrived with cannisters of pepper and tear gas, stun grenades and the works. Hundreds of defiant protesters changed tactics. Instead of fo cussing on the "ills" of the WTO, they chanted slogans on the aggression and heavy-handedness of the law enforcement agencies.

The police wanted the city back; the protesters, citing among other things the right to free speech, wanted their streets back. This resulted in a different kind of pressure on the Mayor and City Hall. On hand were charges of excessive use of police forc e and even a few instances of brutality, projected on local television stations. The Human Rights Watch called on the Governor of Washington and the Mayor to appoint an independent commission to inquire into the police action. The frenzy may be over, but it certainly will leave an impact on the Mayor's political fortunes.

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