The Broken Blue Line

How to start a riot.


You've heard of gun control? In December, the man who runs Seattle dreamed up the bright notion of gas mask control. With tear gas wafting through his downtown streets, Mayor Paul Schell declared a state of emergency, imposing not just a curfew and a no-protest zone but a ban on the private possession of gas masks.

This was no toothless restriction: Several people—it's useless trying to get a precise count—were actually arrested for breaking the rule. Far fewer people were arrested for smashing windows, looting stores, or otherwise breaking laws with a foundation more solid than a last-minute mayoral fiat.

The media love a simple story, and the prevalent account of the Seattle riots is simple indeed. Thousands came to Seattle, the tale goes, to protest the meeting of the World Trade Organization. Most of the marchers were peaceful, but there was also a handful of violent "anarchists," who started smashing store windows. Soon, local criminals joined the fray, looting the downtown shops. The police were poorly prepared and understaffed, and were unable to keep the looters from running wild. Under pressure from federal officials, Seattle declared an emergency, called in the National Guard, and let the police cut loose. The next day, the cops went overboard, beating even peaceful marchers and innocent bystanders.

A straightforward narrative, but not an entirely accurate one. According to several witnesses—demonstrators, delegates, journalists—police violence broke out on the first day of the conference, not the second. It was directed not at the window smashers but at a knot of protesters blocking delegates from entering the Seattle Convention Center (a few of whom were also spitting on, and throwing things at, delegates and cops). Around 10:30 or 11 that morning, the police started using tear gas to disperse the crowd, which was pressed up against the police line. Unwisely, the cops threw the gas canisters into the crowd, over people's heads, thus putting those at the front of the mass in a double-bind: Run forward, toward the police, or run backward, toward the gas. Needless to say, the scene only grew more chaotic.

As for the vandals, they had been running unchecked all morning, with nary a peep from the police. "The cops thought their job was to watch the protesters," comments Jessamyn West of the Direct Action Network. "On day one, the cops were just sitting there like dorks. That created a sense of lawlessness: I think all the troublemakers saw the cops ignoring them and thought they could go to town."

This deliberate inaction was not limited to the protest area: According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, police ignored several calls for assistance from around the city, so focused were they on the events downtown. One woman, discovering someone had broken into her house, called 911—and was told to call back once the trade meeting was over. With the police unwilling to stop the vandalism, other protesters filled the breach, blocking shops and trying to restrain the window breakers.

The next day, of course, the cops were a lot more active: They gassed whole blocks, fired rubber bullets, and beat bystanders and peaceful protesters. This did not, however, stop the looting: Indeed, far from being more secure, some business owners were gassed in front of their own stores, according to their testimony at a post-WTO city council meeting. The police arrested people almost indiscriminately, with several journalists getting caught in the dragnets. In the evening, they chased a bunch of demonstrators out of the no-protest zone—then kept chasing, crossing Interstate 5 and entering Capitol Hill, a hip neighborhood and shopping district. The result was chaos, with police attacking locals outside their homes and on their way home from work.

Why were the police even in Capitol Hill? No one seems sure. "From what I hear, there were only one or two windows broken at all on Capitol Hill," comments Rich Lang, a real estate agent who lives in the neighborhood. Lang is in a position to know: He's the president of the Capitol Hill Stewardship Council and a former president of the Capitol Hill Community Council, and he has been active in neighborhood affairs for about 10 years. He wasn't involved with the demonstrations downtown; he's mad at the police for local reasons.

"There were all these police across the street from Starbucks, and they weren't doing anything," he exclaims. "Why didn't they try to stop the people who were trashing the place instead of tear gassing the neighborhood?"

None of this is to excuse the violent fringe of the protests, let alone the apolitical thugs who joined and perhaps dominated the shop-smashing spree. (Of the handful of people arrested for looting, all were Seattle locals and all had criminal records.) It's also important, though, to make distinctions within the protest community. Many demonstrators joined local volunteer crews to clean up the damage. Two days after the last looting spree, local activist Troy Skeels notes, "The city was turning away cleanup volunteers because there was nothing left to clean up."

Of course, some Seattleites didn't want anyone tying up the streets, whether or not they were peaceful. "I share the organizers' objection to the WTO's structure, purpose, and policies," one downtown worker told me. But, she added, "I think it was a big stupid to try and shut down the meeting…. By the time I'd spent 90 minutes trying to get to work Tuesday, I'd have fucking joined the WTO if they'd had open enrollment." Still other locals turned into riot tourists, coming downtown to watch the melee at closer range. "I kept seeing people I knew who weren't very political," comments West. "I'd ask them why they were there. They'd say, "We just wanted to check out the scene.'"

Nor is everyone upset with the police. Emily McGee, attending as a correspondent for CEI UpDate, got gassed along with everyone else. Nonetheless, she reports, "In general, the police behaved admirably…. The majority of them did a very difficult job as best they were able." She grants that there were "incidents of the police behaving in an atrocious fashion," but feels most of the blame lies further up the chain of command.

Indeed, the chief of police has resigned in the wake of the street battles, with the city promising to investigate just where things went wrong. With that report pending, two lessons already seem clear:

Beware of police preaching crowd control. It seems strange that the police would beat bystanders, lock up journalists, and gas whole neighborhoods, while leaving it to ordinary citizens to prevent vandalism and looting. But it actually makes a perverse sort of sense. The officers were told to guard the convention center and control the crowd, not to protect people and property. They were given virtually no flexibility to respond to other events: On the first day of the conference, some police reportedly explained that they could not cross the street to stop some vandals because that would mean leaving their posts. On day two, the officers may have behaved differently, but they continued to treat civilians as little more than a crowd to be contained.

On day one, no one could get arrested. On day two, anyone could get arrested. The crowd was collectively innocent or collectively guilty; individual wrongdoing was virtually irrelevant. This is the logic of a police state.

Beware of boosters chasing cameras. "For months, we'd been getting news reports and FBI warnings about what to expect in Seattle," says Greg Conko, a delegate from the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "If we all knew to expect rioting and the like, why didn't the Seattle government?" An Australian delegate posed exactly that question to a police officer toward the end of the meeting, with Conko present. The officer replied, "The mayor and governor just heard what they wanted to hear."

They sure did. Like many mid-sized metropolises, Seattle is cursed with an elite hell-bent on making the town a "world-class city"– a code phrase for pouring public money into downtown amenities. Some Seattleites are upset with the cops, some with the protesters, some with the trade organization. Todd Matthews, managing editor of the biweekly paper Real Change, is mad at Mayor Schell and at Patricia Davis, the president of the Port of Seattle Commission. "I was pissed because they brought it here," he says—"it" being the trade conference. "It was complete ego that they brought it here, the chance to be on the cover of every newspaper as the mayor of the city that was hosting the WTO." By inviting the conference and dismissing the chances of violence, Matthews argues, "the commissioner and the mayor put the citizens at risk to advance their political careers. It's a personal snub to the citizens of Seattle."

That doesn't quite explain everything: The police certainly knew that violence might break out during the conference, and they issued warnings to that effect to the very same downtown stores they failed to protect. Together with the conference's other mysteries, that inconsistency has fueled a lot of conspiracy theories, mostly to the effect that the vandals, or their leaders, were agents provocateurs, and that police higher-ups wanted a riot to break out.

A likelier possibility, though, is that the city's political authorities simply ignored the police department's warnings. They just didn't want to think about riots, lest they spoil Seattle's militantly mellow image. In Matthews' words, "These guys put the ass back in world-class city."

With political leaders unwilling to think about their pet projects' consequences and police unwilling to make the most basic distinctions between guilt and innocence, the turmoil was almost inevitable. But neither the politicians nor the police seem to have learned their lesson. To this day, Commissioner Davis says she doesn't regret inviting the WTO to town. "Seattle is an international city," she has explained. "This is what we do."

And the police? The next time the WTO wants to hold a meeting, Assistant Chief Ed Joiner told reporters, it should do so in a city with a bigger police force. Or, he added, in a country with a military government.