The van Kinsbergens of Seattle

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November 30 1999: "The Battle In Seattle"

Click the following to see 40 pictures (First four pages Courtesy of the PI):





JvK Pictures

As you are well aware this was an incredible week in the history of our city. I have created a portfolio of pictures (most of which were provided by the Seattle Post Intelligencer) with a few taken on the second day by yours truly. There is good news and bad news here. The good news is that you get to see the pictures - the bad news is I need to try and put all this in context as I see it. The goal of this narrative is to try to put these events in some kind of perspective for those who don't live in Seattle. I am confident that the media painted a horrible picture that needs perspective (as usual!). I had a first hand experience with this when we had the 1989 Earthquake in San Francisco. I was in New Orleans at the time and (because of media coverage) thought the city must have been destroyed!

 I hope that I don't step on any toes in this narrative - I don't mean to.

Seattle has a history of citizen activism (and a tolerance thereof). This is after all the birthplace of the IWW (the "Wobblies") in the early part of this century; the location of the first (and only?) general strike in the USA in 1919; and the home of Dave Beck who gained fame as the head of the Teamsters in the 30s and 40s. I would also say that there is a certain naiveté (Audrey and I have always said that Seattle is a throwback to our youthful experiences in the 1950s in Washington D.C.) about this place. Seattle has never experienced the same level of tensions and upheavals that major cities of the East, South, California and the Southwest have attempted to live with for decades. There never has been a civil war, reconstruction era, or wave after wave of immigration from far flung parts of the world to absorb. In general this is a reasonably homogenous area where the normal tensions tend to be more normal and civilized. Obviously, I am speaking in a general sense so don't get me wrong. This is a question of degree - on a scale of 1 to 10 Seattle might rate a 5 to New York or Los Angeles 10 on the "JvK Tension scale". Don't forget, I have spent many years in places like New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles, so I do have some experience in this regard.

This brings me to my first conclusion. The "Battle in Seattle" (which by the way occurred within 1/4 to 3/4 mile from our condo), while horrific in its TV images, was tame by world class standards. Nobody was injured (scratches and gassing don't count - and I haven't even heard of any broken bones!); no buildings were burned; there was only minor looting (all of which made the 6 o'clock news!); and contrary to public images - the WTO got their business done. There was less than $2 million (vast majority graffiti and glass) in physical damage! Contrast this to the Martin Luther King riots, The Chicago 1968 democratic Convention, the Vietnam protests, and the Rodney King riots in LA. All included deaths, excessive police force, and major arson and looting.

The situation unfolded as follows:

1. The city negotiates with protest leaders and believes the leaders when they say they can control events. They allowed the protestors close to WTO venues and provide no show of force with the objective to allow the protests of the people to be heard in a civilized and un-intimidated manner. I heard that they had only 400 police assigned to deal with an anticipated 50,000 people.

2. The city sincerely believes that the citizen protests are constructive and necessary in our free society and wants them to happen (egged on by William Jefferson Clinton by the way who wants the AFL-CIO vote). For the vast majority they were correct. However, there had been major riots at a WTO meeting in Geneva. The city thought it could show itself off to the world via the WTO meeting and that the protests would be civilized. Welcome to the second half of the 20th century Seattle!

3. However, the city was apparently only dealing with the "above the waterline" organized protestors. Who by the way staged several organized, sanctioned, and scheduled (with the city) demonstrations without incident involving tens of thousands of people.

4. There were, however, two other generic groups, who were not negotiating (at least not in good faith) and were part of a plan to bring Seattle and the WTO meeting to its knees in front of the world.

         - The "peaceful" protestors who organize to block all access via designated major "choke points" within the city. Apparently organized and planned thoroughly.

         - The hooligans (maybe 30?) who intend to just "raise hell" because they know that the police will be seriously preoccupied.

5. The peaceful protestors (who don't understand the difference between peaceful and lawful)  blocked off all access on Tuesday morning with unlawful sit downs and barricades of people. Result is that many WTO delegates (including Secretary of State Madeline Albright) are stuck in their hotels and some are roughed up as they try to get to the meetings. And - the President is due in town after midnight! These people were surprised when the police reacted - "we were just being peaceful!" was there naive general response on the 6 o'clock news. That is true - but unsanctioned and unlawful anyway!

6. The hooligans (a group apparently from Eugene Oregon who call themselves "Anarchists") started a rampage through the city mid Tuesday morning breaking windows and  looting leading to police confrontations involving tear gas. I saw the following "interview" with one of the Anarchists:

       - "Why are you doing this?" - "Because it is cool!"

       - "What do you think of the WTO?" - "I don't give a rat's ass about the WTO!"

7. The Secret Service, the WTO and the State department demanded that the city get this under control. This led to increased police (they look like RoboCops) and National guard activity Tuesday night through Thursday with gas that cleared the downtown area so that the WTO, the President and the State Department could go about their business. 

8. On Wednesday we are now in a different situation. The Anarchists have their heads down, most of the "above the waterline" protestors have gone home but the "peaceful protestors" have been joined by the "freedom of assembly" crowd.  These people are taking the opportunity to protest against authority in general - "you can't stop me from squatting in the street if I am protesting something"! 

9. By Saturday the Christmas shoppers are back and 90+% of the damage is repaired. Audrey and I went downtown and observed just a few boarded windows and no police. Within a couple of more days there was no physical residue at all.

My Second Conclusion:  Seattle's naiveté caught up with the city and taught it an enormous and relatively inexpensive lesson. Significant maturity will come about as a result. While the political rhetoric will spin out of control and the impact on near term local politics will be significant it is clear that it will be a cold day in hell when Seattle puts itself in this position again! It is similar to a lesson I learned trying to outguess the stock market in the early 70s. At the time it seemed painful - but in the light of history it was very very cheap and worth many many times itself over the last 30 years in the lesson that it taught. In the scheme of things, it was like sticking your finger in water and taking it out - you can't tell that it was ever there! It won't be that simple for Seattle, but it won't be life threatening either.

Speaking of local politics. The Mayor of Seattle lives in our building and I have had the opportunity to meet him in purely social situations. He seems to be a very solid, competent, and genuinely decent person. He is neither far left or far right but trying to do as competent a job as he can as the Mayor of a major US city. I can understand that he would take a position not to put "RoboCops" on the street up front and to assume that the organizers of the protests would control the situation. Excepting hindsight, I believe that you could roll the clock back as many times as you want and the same decisions would be made. No intimidating show of force up front - but a strong showing when it was obvious that a few were ruining the party for all. Let the problem be demonstrated and react. Don't over react up front and create a bad situation that might otherwise not occurred. Naive but surely understandable in this city.  I do believe, though, that the police made a major tactical mistake when they went into the Capital Hill residential area and turned it into a battle zone after chasing the protestors out of downtown. With this they alienated the resident population unnecessarily. They should have (as above):

"Let the problem be demonstrated and react. Don't over react up front and create a bad situation that might otherwise not occurred."

Anyway, now we will see for the near term:

      - the City Council escalating the rhetoric as it tries to reduce the power of the Executive branch.

      - City Council members (and others) escalating (through a very cooperative media) specific unfortunate incidents as they assess their chances to unseat the Mayor in a couple of years.

      - the one maybe fortunate event was the retirement of the Police Chief (who had been under fire anyway for events that would rate a minus 1 on the NYC/LA police corruption scale). At least those that were after him have no target and those that are left have a potential "fall guy". The police chief may have been just "too nice a guy" for the job.

So politically we will be hearing about this for months too come. Fortunately for those out of town, the din has disappeared already I would assume.

My Third Conclusion:

Forget the noise level of rhetoric and side issues - the bottom line issue with the WTO itself is non existent! The WTO is a foil for the impact of globalization on jobs in the United States. It serves this purpose because there is no other organized target that purports to represent this process on a global scale. Globalization is here to stay and is bringing huge benefits to all who participate (Iraq, North Korea and Libya are examples of those who don't). Let me just address some of the protestor's rhetoric (by the way all important issues that do need resolution):

  - Environmental controls - you can't legislate to emerging economies on this issue (they won't listen) after we have denuded and polluted the European/Asian/North America continents in order to become developed! Anyway, the developing countries believe the sub plot is that we want to increase the cost of goods in the developing countries so we can keep more jobs here.

  - Child Labor laws - undeveloped countries have always had large families to man (person?) the farm. Imagine how they feel now that they can send them off to earn a living in a factory? How many centuries did it take for Europe and the US to deal with child labor? I repeat - We can't legislate and they won't listen! Anyway, again - the developing countries believe the sub plot is that we want the jobs here anyway!

  - Bottom line of their rhetoric -  it isn't fair that our Corporations take advantage of cheaper production so they can compete globally. Level the playing field because the foreigners use child (read cheap) labor and don't implement our level of environmental controls. The rhetoric is noble - the real message is not!

By the way, the protestors declared victory when the WTO could not reach an agreement concerning a framework for the next round of talks. How stupid is that! If, in fact, they wanted to address the above issues why root for the only forum around to fail so that no one negotiates about these very same issues!  Incredible!

My fourth conclusion:

The AFL-CIO 30,000 person protest through the center of Seattle was historic. Unfortunately, their message was lost as the excitement for the media of the rest of it was overwhelming. I don't agree with their basic message however I certainly support the necessity of having it aired publicly in a legal and non confrontational manner.

Difference of opinion is good. At times protest is good as well. It takes two (and only two) sides to ensure a sustainable society. I am scared to death that either the Democrats or the Republicans (and I speak as a conservative) will gain control of both the legislative and Executive branches of the US government at the same time. I like the gridlock in Washington. The "Push - Pull" created by extremes on both sides tends to steer us down a stable and sustainable path. It is when you have many small groups that coalition management exists and paralysis occurs. On the other hand, one strong group leads to extremes.

The vast majority of the protests were great. The "peaceful" but unlawful and the "Anarchists" were not.