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Boarding Up Boomtown

Without 'Bad Apples,' WTO Protests Wouldn't Have Worked

SEATTLE'S MOST EMBARRASSING moment during last week's WTO upheaval didn't come when cops started shooting tear gas and firing plastic bullets at peaceful protesters. Nor did it have anything to do with Seattle Mayor Paul Schell's constitutionally questionable "No-Protest Zone." It didn't even come when drunken "protesters" started smashing the windows out of an abandoned Metro bus on Broadway and Pike. Seattle's darkest moment came on Wednesday morning, December 1, when protesters returned downtown to scrub graffiti off the walls of Niketown and Starbucks.

"Only Seattle would have protesters coming back downtown to clean up the graffiti," proclaimed Mayor Paul Schell, sounding every bit the proud father. Seattle plays host to one of the most successful examples of political agitation since the 1960s, and Schell gloats to the world about how contrite our activists are toward Seattle's downtown businesses. Talk about missing the point.

"That was not Seattle," Schell assured the media, referring to the rambunctious WTO protests. "Seattle is a gentle city where we agree to disagree."

Huh? If the city had "agreed to disagree," the WTO would have met without a hitch; the politics of unaccountable corporate power wouldn't have landed in the pages of The New York Times; and President Clinton wouldn't have had to backtrack on years of pro-WTO rhetoric by dedicating his Port of Seattle speech to the protesters' "legitimate" gripes.

However, even as the stakes ratcheted up and police were shooting tear gas in the streets, Schell's Pollyanna press spin persisted: By allowing 30,000 WTO protesters to get their message out, Schell intoned, Seattle proved to be a beacon for freedom of assembly and free speech. The disturbances were caused by outside anarchist agitators, he added, not the type of mild-mannered protesters we've come to know and love in Seattle. In other words, we gave anti-WTO forces their shot; they blew it; now they should shut up or go home.

Unfortunately, Schell's speaking points seemed to resonate with Seattleites. The media, finding a new Trenchcoat Mafia to scapegoat, circled obsessively around the black-clad anarchists (or "crow-bar wielding rebels against private property," as Friday's Seattle Times editorial page called them). Meanwhile, downtown shoppers and business leaders repeated Schell's mantra verbatim: "They got to say their peace. What do they want?" noted a gray-suited man on Thursday, December 2, who was crossing the intersection at Fifth and Cherry carrying a cell phone.

What they wanted, and got -- thanks to all the fires, window-smashings, and tear gas lobbing -- was a time-out from the unfettered practices of global corporations; corporations that are looking to trump national labor, environmental safety, and market regulations through the WTO.

Schell, of course, argues that the window-smashing and graffiti only hurt the protesters' cause, and if demonstrators had been polite Seattleites and simply played their prescripted roles -- congregating in SPD-designated protest areas and cooperating with the police in mass arrests -- the message would have been heard. Schell is dead wrong. Seattle's familiar, comfortable style of protest would not have had any impact at all. In fact, it was the destruction and closing of downtown that garnered international attention for the protesters' cause.

The fact that activists zoomed in on companies like Nike, Starbucks, and Planet Hollywood upped the ante; and it was certainly no accident that they smashed the windows of and scribbled graffiti on these particular companies. According to economist and Left Business Observer publisher Doug Henwood, high-profile corporations like Nike have specialized in hijacking youth culture. (It's ironic, he points out, that young protesters targeted companies that have been targeting them for years with marketing campaigns.) By taking such targeted actions, "anarchists" sent a richer message about the new economy than a bunch of peaceful people in sea-turtle suits ever could have. Indeed, there's something powerful about showing up at your bank and finding all the windows boarded over. And it's particularly compelling to watch businesses -- whose cycles are rarely, if ever, interrupted -- close early or not open at all for fear of being ransacked.

Thanks to the volatile protests last week, there's a new undercurrent -- call it a nervousness -- in boomtown Seattle. This is a good thing. Seattle's runaway economy has made some people who live here pretty comfortable, and maybe a little forgetful. The WTO protests, like the indelible graffiti on downtown shops, have brought local and national class issues into stark relief. Heck, even Dick's on Broadway closed on Wednesday night. A darkened Dick's? Global capitalism is surely in trouble.

 

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