Thoughts in the aftermath

Anitra Freeman (anitra@speakeasy.org)
Sun, 12 Dec 1999 14:55:52 -0800 (PST)


Before WTO week, I and my friends in Seattle were working to get
homeless and low-income people heard in community planning, to get our
needs met and our dignity respected.  You can follow the links at
http://www.speakeasy.org/~anitra/ to learn more background about our
efforts.

Our main focus during WTO was to keep homeless people safe, protesting
street sweeps and raising Tent Cities.

Most of us are aware that the forces behind WTO are also the forces that
have made us homeless and low-income.  We regarded the protestors as
allies working for a world where everyone has a voice in decisions that
affect them, where everyone's dignity is respected, where the needs of
low-income people and the natural environment get met.

In the aftermath, we feel warmed by success:  

Our Tent Cities were successful, and gained even wider community
support.  With churches, media and neighbors speaking favorably about
us, it becomes less an less believable for city oficials to claim that
"Tent Cities aren't publicly acceptable in Seattle."  Of course, it is
always difficult to get officials to admit that *they* aren't the
public.

Media attention was focused on street sweeps.  By November 30,
the issue was obscured -- as one of our street-observers said, "We can't
tell if homeless people are being arrested -- *everyone's* being
arrested!"  But city officials publicly claimed that they don't do or
approve of sweeps.  Once we've put together observer accounts of the
weeks before WTO, we'll see if we can give the media some juicy
questions to ask.

I apologize if this sounds heartless, but most of us are rather gleeful
about the police activities of WTO week.  Ordinary citizens were
harassed and assaulted while going about their business.  Kinda like
being subjected to a baggage search and warrant check when you're just
trying to find a place to sleep for the night?  Kinda like being cussed
out, or given unsolicited personal advice, or asked invasive questions,
when you are just doing your job selling street papers?  Kind of like
being ticketed and moved along and running the risk of jail if,
exhausted, you sit down on the sidewalk?  Kind of like being the
automatic suspect if anyone in the neighborhood was robbed or assaulted?

We've been complaining about police abuses for years and been fobbed
off. Now they've displayed their warty backsides to the whole country
and we can sit back and let everybody *else* kick their butts.

We were gifted by friends we never met before, who organized
a squat in an abandoned building and helped us get a promise to use it
afterward as a shelter. We will have a long struggle getting the owner
to follow up on this promise.  We are not surprised.  We always have a
lot of work getting people to follow up in real-life on promises they've
made for public effect.

My personal thoughts on the debates between protestors:

Anarchists: You did what you had to.  Don't complain about catching
flak for it.  That goes with the territory you've chosen, too.  To do
something intended to be outrageous and then complain when people get
outraged is silly.  I'll respect your choice to turn up the heat, if
you're willing to take the heat.  Not if you whimper and whine.

"Non-violent" protestors: An event involving tens of thousands of people
did not go *exactly* as you planned it.  Golly gee whillikers!  The
Universe is not perfect! Gosh wow! Most of the violence resulted because
the police attempted to exert an impossible level of control over a huge
number of living people.  Don't fall into the same trap.  Other people
can and will do things that you disapprove of, like marry people of the
same sex, have abortions, paint with elephant dung or kick over
dumpsters when you're trying to have a peaceful demonstration.  If you
want diversity, you're going to have to live with it.

>From the posts I've been reading, the majority protestors feel
emotionally betrayed because they thought everyone had agreed to
certain tactics, then a small group turned off and "did their own
thing."  I consider what happens in WHEEL if we all have a pre-meeting
before talking with the Mayor's office, agree on the points we want to
win and the tack we're going to take, then in the mayor's office meeting
one woman stands up and begins shouting angrily about something we
hadn't even discussed.  It is considered a betrayal of the group.
  
On the other hand, it is physically possible for everyone in WHEEL to
meet together in one location, make an agreement, and each person know
for certain what she has agreed to.  To say that 100,000 protestors in
Seattle could all "agree" to anything ahead of time does not sound like
a realistic expectation to me.  The amount of agreement and commonality
that did exist was inspiring and exciting, and largely dies to the
Internet.  That it wasn't perfect was not at all surprising.

It seems to me that it would be more productive to continue to talk
about what we have in common -- anarchists, environmentalists, labor
unions, third world farmers and Seattle's poor people alike, and all the
rest of us -- than to argue about who was supposed to have done what on
November 30.  I don't want to short-circuit anyone's fun, though.  One
of the few things that both the right and the left agree on is that the
height of moral cruade is to attack the left.

Lessons can be learned from analysis, as long as the analysis doesn't
leave the analysee in bloody shreds.  Some of the lessons i see in WTO
week:

1) The dangers of over-control.  Make a general plan, some fall-back
plans, and then wing it with the moment.  If the WTO organizers had been
willing to change *their* plans in the face of mass opposition, most of
the citizens of Seattle would still not know what tear gas smells like.
If was the determination of the WTO *supporters* to force events to
follow plans that initiated the police violence.

2) The dangers of self-fulfilling prophecies.  Much has been said about
Seattle not being properly prepared for the size of the WTO protests.
from what I saw, they were successfully improperly prepared; for weeks
before WTO, the police and the public were primed to expect "violent
protestors" and "riots".  In the end, not to be disappointed, they made
their own riot.

3) The amazing number of non-establishment mdia who still believe
establishment media.  I was talking to a couple of women last night who
were going to have a neighborhood meeting on "what went wrong diring
WTO."  I told them outright that was a media shuck, and started talking
about what went *right*.  in the end their faces were bright and they
were recalling their own joyful memories of the event.

It is abundantly clear to me that the Seattle police fired first, long
before any windows were kicked in downtown.  It is also clear that
Seattle was a huge, joyful block party for many, many hours, celebrating
humanity and the environment.  I would like to see far more attention
focused on those two things: that the people rose, and rose in far more
unity than they ever have before, and for the most part had a wonderful
time doing it; and that the authorities panicked because they lost
control.

BTW: Did anyone get, or see, a photo of the giant green condom labeled
"Practice Safe Trade"?  It was my one of my favorite scenes of the week.

Write On! / Anitra L. Freeman / http://www.speakeasy.org/~anitra/
"Never doubt that a small group of imperfect people can improve the
world--indeed they are the only ones who ever have." Not Margaret Mead