Inside the Ninth and Virginia Squat, Where WTO Protesters Face Off with the Cops
Odey is one of a dozen protesters who, to the chagrin of the Seattle Police Department, are occupying an abandoned apartment building downtown at Ninth Avenue and Virginia Street on the eve of the WTO conference. Three SPD cars are parked across the street, occasionally shining lights through the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows of the warehouse space.
Odey's newly found comrades -- Drako, 007, Hawaii, Gage, and Nemo -- are decked out in hooded black sweatshirts, army surplus clothes, studded jean jackets, tattoos, left-wing slogans, rock band pins, and stick-up-style bandanna face masks. Most identify themselves as anarchists, and say occupying the building is a political act designed to throw a spotlight on homelessness. The phrase "Resistance Is Fertile" is spelled out in tape on one of the building's windows. The group has prepared a mimeographed, four-page flyer that begins with a giant "A" for "Anarchy" and continues with a handwritten testimonial to "affinity groups," "collective" living, and "solidarity."
Under the revolutionary bravado, however, the protesters -- who made the front page of the Seattle P-I for pulling off "one of the first major demonstrations" against the WTO conference -- are a charming, earnest bunch of teens and twentysomethings who seem more prone to voting (and calling Mom) than throwing a Molotov cocktail at a WTO delegate. They are clearly making this up as they go along: Earlier in the evening -- at around 5:30 -- the squatters abandoned the building under police pressure, only to go back inside after the cops inexplicably left.
To gain access to the "squat," we have to relay a series of guarded and cryptic assurances to a masked face peering down from a busted-out window on the second floor. ("Who are you?" the ski mask asks. "We're cool," we reply tentatively. "Friend?" "Yes." "Press?" "Yes.") We are finally admitted after passing credentials through a metal mail slot and pledging not to be "with the pigs." We slip through a barely open gray metal door, walk up a few stairs, slide on our bellies under a grate, and tread down a pitch-black hall into a gigantic candlelit space. A small masked group is milling about, eating a drab pasta-and-veggie dish from a bucket and drinking bottled water, while a mellow dog pads about and a squatter sits in the corner, drawing. There is an occasional burst of static from a walkie-talkie.
The building is huge, and in the darkness feels like a sprawling haunted house, with giant rooms lining the hallways. The place could house hundreds of protesters -- or homeless people, for that matter. "Lock down! Lock down!" shouts Drako -- who zealously mans the second-floor window walkie-talkie -- after spotting a red SUV prowling down Virginia. Drako is sure the car is filled with cops. "We're being mobilized. 007, do you copy?" His pseudo-military jargon sets off a scrambling panic: "They're pouring liquid in the back door!" "Who's had experience with pepper spray and tear gas?" "Barricade the doors!" "We need two radios up on the roof at all times!"
A small cadre climbs up a slippery wooden ladder to the roof to scout. Two white vans park in the lot behind the building, and a cop car pulls up along the back alley. Ultimately, nothing happens. Although the group's goal is a serious one -- forcing the city to transform this abandoned building into low-income housing -- there's a sense that they're having a little too much fun with the cloak-and-dagger aspect of their dealings with the police. The lock-down drill will be repeated several times in the next hour as Drako and 007 -- who is emerging as the leader -- constantly communicate via walkie-talkie (though they're sure the police are listening in). The heightened anxiety even pushes the group to shoo off a couple of like-minded activists from Radio Free Seattle. One squatter warns that the pirate DJs are carrying police radios and are "in communication with the pigs." At this news, Nemo -- a tiny teenage girl -- puts the red bandanna face mask she'd removed in order to eat some veggie pasta back on.
The arrival of a few more squatters lightens the mood considerably. Someone starts handing out oranges, and Nemo begins to warm up a bit, apologizing for being sketchy earlier in the evening when I attempted an interview (she lets me in on the fact that Franz Kafka is her favorite author). A couple starts kissing through their black masks. One squatter playfully asks why my paper hasn't run his "alt" personal ad.
The squatters complain that they're running out of cigarettes, and wish more protesters would show up. They've got plenty of food, though. 007 shows us the well-stocked room just two doors down from the main gathering space, which they've dubbed "the kitchen." Donations from local homeless advocacy groups financed a serious food run; it looks like they have provisions -- fruit, vegetables, bread, water -- that could last a week.
At 9:30, they get one of their wishes as more folks finally show up. After a few frantic radio communiqués between Drako and 007, a stream of around 30 scraggly haired kids squeeze past the metal door and head on up the stairs. We get clearance to leave, and pass the reinforcements on our way out.
Across the street, four SPD officers keep watch. Like the squatters, they give off the sense that they're making this up as they go along. A couple of stern-looking male cops pace back and forth, while the officer in charge, Sgt. Deborah Backstrom, sits in a squad car. "We're just monitoring," she says, though it's obvious she's concerned about what the squatters have planned.
At press time, thousands of demonstrators had gathered in the blocks around the Convention Center, keeping delegates from meetings and delaying the conference. Police set off tear gas to disperse protesters. Back at Ninth and Virginia, officers were still monitoring the squat, though SPD Detective Randy Huserik said there had been no raids or arrests.