Love & War
For a brief moment last week, Seattle became a real city full of conflict, dialogue, and people without shopping bags. Then came the police.
I GUESS THIS IS A LOVE STORY. The World Trade Organization came to Seattle last week. I had come home after six months in Portland to be here for it. A lot of protesters were here too, but the love story that played out was about the city and its people and its police force. Visitors always get the blood flowing. WTO and its attendant dissenters became the third leg in a couple's love triangle, the intriguing stranger propped up to generate enough friction for a fight; a domestic drama that, in our case, shaded into violence and real damage.
As I drove into town Sunday night, the city's skyline made my heart swell, like it always does, with its excellent profiles, black and sparkly against the mountains, a kind of fantasy boyfriend whose vacant eyes are so beautiful you keep forgetting there's actually no one home. From the south, I-5 runs right up its throat, and that's pretty awesome too. It was nice to be home.
Seattle may look stunning, but anyone living here knows the spark of Eros has been pretty much snuffed. Public life is as charged and stimulating as an NPR broadcast. Good neighbors are cordial and cold, never hot or passionate. Discourse flies toward the purely mental. And if sparks fly, let alone turn to flames, the city feels menaced. Eros is feared, so when it does sweep through in a crowd or in a crisis, it comes as a blind, violent God, a permanently fucked-up lover who can't get passionate without drowning in self-hatred and getting a little rough. I hoped our visitors would bring a little Eros with them.
Mayor Paul Schell began the week saying the confluence of WTO and protestors posed no problems. "I look on this as a chance for the city to initiate a global conversation." Even as the WTO pursued its closed sessions, off-limits to many who have to live with their edicts, the city would be open. Schell made room for everyone, and not as a token -- he regarded protesters as citizens, co-equal with anyone else, and he made plans to protect their right to use downtown, the city's core. It cannot be overstated how radical a stance Schell had taken. The mayor was not creating penned-off protest areas, was not directing demonstrators to the margins, nor undermining their import. He treated them as citizens whose business on the street was as pressing and legitimate as anyone else's. It was this crucial faith, this first act of love that made our marvelous, horrifying week possible.
On Monday morning I went to 420 East Denny, where demonstrators had set up a makeshift clubhouse/headquarters. Scores, maybe hundreds, milled inside and around the door. Inside -- post-hippie vibe, tons of posters, soup and tea on a counter, scattered couches, kids galore -- huge butcher-paper signs over manned tables of pamphlets and clipboards suggested some sort of organization, but the room was chaotic. It was no one's room -- therefore everyone's -- a down-at-the-heels emporium of information and supplies. Kids talked in knots with friends who, in the context of this week, formed "affinity groups." Unified action -- like the choice to gather the next morning at Seattle Central Community College for a march to downtown -- emerged from collaboration among these autonomous groups. Love was definitely in the air. Tim, the publisher of this paper, says the anti-WTO protest was about getting laid, but what does he know?
A lot of agony has been wasted over whether these demonstrators knew or cared anything about the WTO. Were they "sincere" or committed in their opposition? This faux question packs the implied criticism that no, they were not, and therefore what they did and said was frivolous. The distinction -- clueless, frivolous protesters are not real protesters -- reminded me a lot of my own anxieties about writing, which is so fun and based so deeply in my own ignorance that I often doubt my professionalism. Like me, these people seemed to be winging it on a blend of passion and desire, as much learning as time allows, and a great deal of misplaced hope.
Those I spoke with came to protest because their communities and economies have become strange to them. They don't know where the stuff in their lives comes from or goes. Increasingly that stuff includes people, ideas, even affinities. Anxiety about change, about localities that seem to blossom and dissolve according to the needs of distant corporate bodies, about losing connection to the people and places near to them, drove thousands into the streets downtown. "Shut down the WTO" let them see what happens when business gets stopped, and people gather in the streets with no business but each other.
Tuesday morning, 7 a.m.: still dark, wet, and cold. I biked to SCCC for the early march downtown. The school's mossy bricks get slimy whenever it rains, so the few hundred costumed and placard-waving demonstrators who'd arrived skated cautiously around, milling in knots looking for their friends. One man held a cardboard cut-out black cat ("for section J affinity group"); kids, small kids, were dressed as butterflies; corn and trees ambled past; a terrifying Munch-esque papier-mâché head, appended with great cloth arms to grabby, wobbling hands, rumbled by on shopping carts. A panoply of speakers exhorted the crowd until the butterflies were called to the front, and the march began.
Critics say WTO support for unfettered free trade will lead to a dismantling of environmental protections, fair labor laws, and other local regulations. If the free-flow of goods is the paramount value, then a lot of inconveniences -- like curbing pollution, paying fair wages, and subsidizing small economies -- have to fall by the wayside. Many protesters connect this ideology to the unpleasant experience of corporate power in America. Free trade, as enforced by the WTO, favors large global corporations that take advantage of cheap labor or lax regulation in one country to produce goods for affluent customers in another. As the march slid down the hill, noisy and ebullient in the light morning traffic, it became clear that people saw the enemy all around: Starbucks, Ford Motor Company, Niketown. WTO was the flash point for anxieties that were much more pervasive and personal.
At Boren, the first line of police arrived, blocking Pine into downtown, and the first stretch limo ran over the first bicycles, scattering protesters in its wake. Pike and Pine were both blocked by police, so marchers went south to Seneca. Hundreds came down that steep street, aimed toward the lovely gray Sound, then simply walked past the imposing line of helmeted police. Schell's welcome: The police were symbolic. They stood to mark the line the city hoped to draw, but if you chose to pass, you would not be stopped. It struck me that Schell's strategy was very WTO, removing any barriers to the free exchange of ideas. At their core, these ideologies, Schell's and the WTO's, are consonant -- statements of faith in the essential goodness of people. If we allow everyone to carry out their impulses, unfettered by the fears or values of others, the vigorous exchanges that result will yield the best result for all. It is an enlightenment faith -- expose everything to the open light of day and let it run its course; the world we live in should not inspire fear.
For Schell, this suggests a Zen-like policing strategy. Enable all citizen initiatives equally -- protest, trade conventions, counter-protest, reconciliation, all of it. Allow things to happen without hindrance so they complete themselves. Events disappear more rapidly if the city cooperates. To resist initiatives simply prolongs them (and prolongs the resistance), burdening the city in every way. For the WTO, openness is a rockier road. Critics point to secretive decision-making and the disproportionate power of the U.S. and other developed countries. But the WTO's core ideology -- global standardization and uninhibited trade -- points them, and will take them, to their stated goals of "transparency and broad inclusion"; Schell's global conversation. In only five years, the WTO has grown to include 134 nations. Their global imperative drives this and further expansion. And (oddly in common with this week's protesters), binding decisions are made by consensus, a fact that allowed developing nations to frustrate U.S. initiatives at the Seattle ministerial.
These tendencies have an intriguing corollary in the eagerness of news organizations to find and amplify all events of the day. The news accelerates the erasure of events. Reporting as much as possible, quickly and exhaustively, saturates us with successive waves of stories. The process is so unbridled, events seem to dissolve in the sheer abundance of information, and are thereby erased. It's no accident that this city, which cannot remember even the brief history of yesterday or last year, is also the place from which the most powerful engines for disseminating information have been launched. The technologies deployed here flood the world with so much data the whole blurs and becomes a nullity. This too is very Zen (and very Seattle, a city where "I agree," is the first line of attack on anyone with whom you disagree).
Watching Tuesday's protest tumble forward toward its inevitable disappearance, I wondered if there was anyone who could observe, legitimize, or help preserve these events without also dissolving or usurping them. Yes, as I soon learned, the police could; not the chatty, friendly cop, but the silent, faceless cop who beats you.
I found my brother at Sixth and Union, shooting. He's a cameraman for KIRO-TV, burdened with the massive truck and camera, the KIRO parka, and, that day, a fidgety, pee-on-the-floor puppy of a reporter dragging him around for stories. Major media sometimes get targeted -- partly for covering things poorly, and partly for being corporate, the common enemy to everyone at this protest -- so I was a little worried for him. He and this eager reporter both looked young and friendly, so despite their logos, no one threw knives or wrenches (like I saw happen to a woman from KOMO-TV a few blocks away). We chatted for a while about the chained circle of demonstrators taking up the intersection, then I bicycled toward the Sheraton Hotel.
The rain had stopped and a fresh breeze blew off the Sound. I biked through blocks thick with jubilant, dancing people; no cars, no business, just strangers and noise vibrating within the grid of tall buildings. The police were cheery. At Sixth and Pike they chatted with demonstrators, sharing details about strategy. No, the demonstrators could not go near the Paramount. Yes, they could remain on Pike and along Sixth. The talk was cordial, stiff but friendly. Cops' faces were still visible, so it was clear they too were people, though that was all about to change.
I heard explosions at Sixth and Union and bicycled back to check on my brother. By the time I arrived, he was crouching on the floor of a bathroom, blinded and choking on police tear gas. Outside, the breeze had blown most of the gas back toward police. Demonstrators scattered, except for a core of 20 or so, chained together in the intersection. Police rushed them when the crowd parted, then protesters re-gathered, surrounding the police. Now the police held the street, and the people had them surrounded.
Those few hours before the explosions were among the most wonderful hours I've spent here. Frankenstein had come to life. Seattle's downtown, that gray, clumsy accumulation of dead parts, flickered its eyes open and breathed. The air fairly buzzed, vibrant and unpredictable. I felt solidarity with strangers -- the very reason for cities -- in a place where I'd rarely felt anything but boredom and fear. People strolled and talked and shouted, buying nothing. This animated crowd included police and delegates, protesters, residents, and workers who'd come down from the offices towering above us. Anyone who tells you the political is not personal is seriously fucked up. Paul Schell's beautiful vision swelled in my heart as, for too few hours, I walked and breathed inside his ideal of an open, living city. First date, in this love story, was that morning of celebration, Seattle broadly alive for the first time in decades.
As in many romances (including the instructive one of Frankenstein), when the dead embers are brought blazing to life, someone is bound to get burned. Primarily that has been Paul Schell, tied to a public stake and roasted in the flames of the fire he set. A Seattle Times editorial blames "the mayor's naïve trust" for putting us face to face with our own brutal, erotic impulses. In this story, the starry-eyed mayor's '60s vision of "peaceful protest" blinded him to '90s-style "senseless violence," and downtown got trashed. The story rests on the polarity between "peaceful protest" and "senseless violence." No one questions it. To vandalize our prosperous, sparkling downtown, we say as one, could only be senseless.
What reason could there be for attacking the bounty and beauty of downtown? I puzzled over exactly this question, drifting past the locked, gated entrance to Pacific Place, the sound of glass shattering down the block. The terms of our citizenship downtown have been drastically altered in the last 10 years. You don't have to be a vandal to feel the deep divisions built into the grid of new development. All of the city's vigor, its investments and energies, surge upward in concentrated pockets of commercial property addressed expressly to a mere fraction of the city. To walk downtown now is to face -- block after block -- one's own poverty. Even the middle class does not belong in much of this emporium. Walk there without money, walk there among a group of teenagers, walk there black or poor, and you'll know whose downtown it is. Even those who are not excluded, not belittled or alienated by the ownership of downtown, feel embarrassment at the ostentation of this temporary, fleeting wealth. Drifting past the locked, gated entrance to Pacific Place on my bike that day, I wondered why vandals did not damage the city every day of the year.
The sense behind the violence is the same sense that brought peaceful protesters downtown. The city's core ought to be public, civic in the deepest sense, placing all on equal footing. Our citizenship Tuesday morning, our sense of belonging there, threw bright light on the restricted terms of privilege every other day of the year. That downtown, by design, demeans and belittles many citizens, made it both a target for violent attack, and a territory for peaceful reclamation. Notably, the police solution to these radical disturbances was to ban anyone "without legitimate business." Ownership of property, membership in the WTO, and the daily conduct of commerce became tickets into a privatized zone -- vandals had managed to make the city literalize and expose what had been true for too long.
A last, frightening, reminder of the boundaries that persist in the city came on Wednesday night, when Seattle City Council Member Richard McIver, a black man, was stopped twice by police while trying to get to a WTO reception at the Westin Hotel. Police pulled him from his car, threw his wallet and ID to the ground, and tried to handcuff and arrest him. "I have been treated like a nigger before," McIver said, "and that's what this was." If you're young, black, or poor, the violence we saw last week does not end. That can never be forgotten.
The most disturbing and lasting alchemy of the week was this transformation of the police into a mute, faceless apparatus of fear. It took only a matter of hours. Around 10:30 a.m., at Fourth and Pine, I watched six masked, helmeted warriors descend from their armored car. I couldn't keep my eyes off them. I drifted in circles on my bike, never straying more than a dozen yards from the scene, awed by their discipline and reserve. I have friends who are cops, and I know them to be decent, even goofy people. But now... these men! I searched the curious masks, the bodies shrouded in metal and hard plastic, looking for a clue. How they had changed, and us along with them -- in the eyes of the police, we had all become criminals, wanted.
I biked home, fleeing these desirous pursuers. The vacant face of downtown sparkled behind me, bathed in gas and twilight. Police choppers beat their trilling thrum into the cold air. Bands of demonstrators, entranced by the police, backed up the hill, eyes riveted on the masked men below. On TV that evening, a KIRO reporter intoned her litany of the day's events: "the trashing of stores, the fires, the beating of drums, and the constant enticing of the police." The Enticing of the Police. No one can live without love, and now here it came, in all its terror and embrace, stalking us, hunting us down from above with searchlights, like it never had in life. Love was in the air.
The accidental genius of this reporter's remark was in contrast to the petty moral scolding of the studio-bound anchors. A photojournalist, wearing WTO credentials, wrestled to the ground by police (who thought he was with the protesters he'd been following) "should have known better than to track so close to them." Three men held without charges after they climbed a fire escape (blocks away from a protest) "should not need reminding that it's illegal to climb fire escapes." In the dysfunctional family our city was becoming, these older-sibling nags kept imposing themselves between us and the increasingly schizophrenic, brutal daddy whose love now spread out of downtown to find us in our neighborhoods and homes. Under attack by the media and business owners, the mayor altered his tactics, which now became an almost textbook case of bad parenting. Trust was withdrawn and replaced by a carousel of threats and promises. We knew the mayor cared deeply -- as every forward thrust of his faceless, mechanical police showed us -- yet we shuddered in fear.
While our private affairs spiraled toward violence, the WTO and much of the opposition continued with the business of public discourse. I was struck by how productive, forward-looking, and incredibly tedious all of it was. The coalescing of well-modulated voices into a melodious conversation lacked any particularity or stasis. It just kept flowing forward, faster and faster, cascading toward some ideal of complete comprehension. The world of particularity and difference spiraled away into abstraction. By contrast I was drunk on apprehension -- my own failure to get anything, to comprehend even what was happening in front of my face. Black-clad vandals with no clear agenda haunted my dreams. An army of masked, armed men compelled me, merely by their constant, sightless gaze. Why should this mute regard, this static refusal to be understood, enchant? Here was the commonality between the two decisive factions, cops and vandals -- obfuscation; scrambling, the "wild weasel," the bizarre policing move in which cops turn on every siren and light they've got, then drive madly in circles to confuse the victim. Here was the true anti-WTO, the real force against enlightenment -- cops and vandals. Why did they beguile me so?
On Wednesday night my love story found its climax. I was at home, writing this essay, when explosions and gas burst a few blocks away. The riot police, those paramours of terror, had come for me. They'd made their way through the dark with batons and tear gas. Police marched up Broadway sending volleys of gas, then charged to clear the blocks. I met them at Harrison, where a man lay on the sidewalk, bludgeoned by a cop. Crossing at Republican, a block distant from the exploding canisters, I was blinded and sickened by clouds of gas. Restaurants kept their doors locked, diners pressed against the windows. It was horrible and wonderful, feeling the warm hum of solidarity this unprovoked attack kindled; all the criminalized citizens of the city were as one. That night the police held us, and the rest was tear gas and weeping.
Their paroxysm must have satiated something, for by Thursday, police had shed the black love-costumes and exposed their bright faces again to the sunshine. Moreover, they began inviting protesters into conversation, responding to the day's demonstrations with negotiations and talk. The invitation was always accepted, as it would have been any day earlier. WTO critics -- like the organization itself -- were dedicated to inclusive dialogue: a conversation among autonomous groups, decisions reached by consensus, open discussion. The police were late in catching on (they had other needs to attend to), but throughout the week, the most forward-looking coalition builders in Seattle had been making bridges between the WTO and its critics, capitalizing on exactly this commonality. All parties wanted a unified conversation. A broad cross-section of people and organizations had begun creating the infrastructure that would link the discussions of the WTO and its critics. By Friday, links involving NGOs, delegations within the WTO, the Internet, and the press were in place to facilitate this expanded discussion in the coming years. Was there anyone now not rushing toward the global goal of transparency, clarity, total integration, and comprehension? Yes: cops and vandals.
And why would they resist the global conversation? Why would anyone withhold names, not give reasons, refuse to speak, act in secret? There is something about secrets, about silence and the dark bruise left by violence. It is unforgettable, unforgivable. If love is a perverse, recalcitrant, or senseless thing, like a wound that never heals but simply retreats further inside, maybe there is a reason this perpetually reasonable city is so vacant and cold. Now police are backpedaling toward justifications, and Paul Schell has promised to "re-establish our city as a place where people can shop freely." It's the typical aftermath of domestic violence, the veneer of normalcy painted thinly over open wounds. Even as we finger these bruises desirously, we will be told, over and over, this was a story of poor planning, of events that spiraled out of control; but really it's the story of men and what the difficulty of loving drives them to.