Where were YOU during the Riots of `99?

I knew that there were anti-WTO protests going on; some of my friends were going to be participating, even, so I knew there'd be some disruption. I packed a sleeping bag and a clean T-shirt into a rucksack and headed off to my downtown office nice and early that morning. Got a fantastic parking space in my overpriced garage. Went to my desk and started working. Around eleven I started hearing about tear gas. I clicked up a live news feed in some horrid streaming video format. They were discussing the nature of the chemical weapons being used two blocks away from where I was sitting. Not tear gas, CS gas. No, pepper spray. Maybe OC gas. But definitely not rubber bullets. Who said rubber bullets? Unthinkable! (They're rubber pellets. Duh.)

The turning point, although it wasn't clear until later, was when McDonalds' windows were smashed. Oops. A mistake, of course. How clumsy. Later, of course, the balaclavas and claw hammers came out and a few people started smashing windows of trendy shops while the bulk of the protesters watched in horror. A news commentator on the video feed burbled wisely about sweatshops and labor equity and the protestors' motivations.

Sequences of events have become confused in my mind, but I know that I went for a walk to see the crowds and ended up getting some whiffs of pepper spray. I sniffled my way back to my 320x200 video feed to gawk in safety. Someone e-mailed a URL to my team - it pointed to a webcast of the police department's radio traffic. City spokespeople explained to the media that the police were there to foster a peaceful event, and they'd only employ violence to quash violence. Someone smashed a Starbucks window. That commentator burbled about "protesting the substandard wages given the Guatemalan bean pickers". But the chanting and singing that marked the WTO protest -- remember the WTO? This WAS a WTO protest -- were absent. I turned the commentary down and turned up the police radio feed. The cops were frustrated and annoyed. Something like six thousand protesters were spread across the breadth of downtown, including the portions staked out for the AFL-CIO march that ended up dumping tens of thousands of new bodies into the mix. The police presence was diluted past some critical point. The bold groups started getting bolder. The cops' staticky voices began to rise in pitch. NikeTown was stormed and occupied by an unidentified faction. The police started making what the Japanese military once called "retrograde advances".

At some point, we found out: the neighborhood was being locked down at 7 PM. We had two hours to get off the streets or be arrested and thrown into Sand Point, an old naval brig warmed up for the occasion. A rumor surfaced that the police were herding all those who would be herded -- where? I went down to the building lobby to see what I could see.

Outside, a knotty mass of people was moving enthusastically and at random, though tending toward the north and south. I offered to walk a coworker to her car, but when we opened the lobby doors it became painfully clear that the police had developed an effective algorithm for moving people: If your crowd is at point A and should be at point B, fire tear gas and pepper spray at point A until they decide point B looks like a lovely little comfy sort of place to have a lie-down and claw at your eyes. Repeat until... done, I guess. This was what it looked like outside. (Thanks to Matt Swann for the photo).

I went back to my office. I needed more data. I checked the damn newsfeed. Downtown was a zoo. Exits were clogged. And some 500 of the stubborn protestors were being tear-gassed and rubber-bulleted up into Capitol Hill. Capitol Hill is where I live. The "Battle in Seattle", as the media so nauseatingly termed it, was a three-minute walk from my house. I went to the lobby. I watched my coworkers dart into the fog; they'd return a few minutes later, explaining that whatever they depended on to get home was overrun by eye-gouging mopey vegetarians with bike locks round their necks.

6:17. Time to restate my assumptions.

Getting out of downtown was likely to be dangerous, painful, and iffy. Crowds were blocking cars and beating on hoods for no apparent reason. And if I did get out, I couldn't go home, because that's exactly where the cops, tear gas, rubber bullets, and unhappy beaten teargassed youths were headed.

So where was I now? I was sitting in the upper reaches of a secured guarded building accessible only through electronic keycards yet provided with multiple fire exits. This building was in the middle of an enforced dead zone currently patrolled by well-trained paramilitary squads given the right to arrest and detain anyone just for being there. I had access to heat, light, food, water, phones, bandwidth, and forty gigabytes of kickass MP3s. Spending a night at my desk was nothing new anyway (I am a sysadmin, you know) so I told the guards I'd be staying and settled in to wait.

I checked in on a few different video feeds. Kids were smashing another Starbucks. Commentator talking about Guatemalan beanpickers again. It was pretty plain that these kids didn't care about the plight of the Guatemalan beanpicker any more than the guys looting Radio Shack were protesting the return of Hong Kong to the Communists. They were just taking stuff.

I called my roommates. They and their guests were safe, and they were watching TV trying to figure out what the hell was going on and what, if anything, they could do about it. I got Darrick on one of the PCs in my bedroom and told him where to get the video feeds and the police radio broadcasts.

A standoff had developed between the police and the crowd. They were outside the lockdown area, and lots of the protesters either lived or were staying in Capitol Hill, so they were already home. People milled around and chatted with self-conscious animation, as people do when being stared at by a phalanx of armed men.

The police fired a tear gas grenade into the crowd, and the sound that came out of the collective larynx was... betrayal. Until that point, the protesters had understood the disobedience in which they were willing conspirators. But at that moment, they weren't being disobedient; they were being tired and achy and proud of what they'd done: they'd won. When that grenade went off, they stopped being living proof of the power of direct action by the people. They became victims of brutality, and then they got mad.

The commentator on the video feed I was watching was stuttering her amazement. She dropped the veneer of objective journalism and started lambasting the cops for having done what they did to the protesters, even as she herself was choking on the gas.

The crowd started extending a pseudopod up toward Broadway, toward the house where my friends were. They watched the scene out the window, I listened to the cops, and talked with Darrick, and did the only thing we could do; we waited for it to be over. They stuffed wet towels into the cracks of the windows. I answered e-mail and raided other people's offices for candy. In this way we passed the time until it had become certifiably boring outside, which was a spotty affair of occasional explosions, assaults, and dumpster fires. The house went to sleep, and I wrote this account.

It's 7:15 AM now. The curfew lifts in a few minutes. I'm going to go have breakfast with a couple of my coworkers. They spent the night in a basement inside the lockdown area, and I'm looking forward to comparing notes. I wouldn't want to say that I enjoyed last night, but if you've read anything I've written, you know about my addiction to Experiences. Only one thing nags at me, though; I didn't realize until a few minutes ago that for all the terror of being caught in the mob, I never left my desk chair for anything more risky than a Pepsi.

Best things I heard on the police radio bands during the WTO riots:

During the Let's Push the Kids Up the Hill and Into Benjy's Front Yard stage of the plan:

"Looks like a bunch of kids are congregating around a burning dumpster."
"WHICH burning dumpster?!"

Heard at 12:30 AM:

Bossy cop: "You guys who've been on since this morning, you can head home. Roll call is at 0900."

Weary cop who has just been dosed with his own pepper spray and hit in the face by a flying beer bottle: "Yes sir. 0900 tomorrow."

B: "Oops, wait, I'm dreaming, ha ha. I mean 0600."
W: "Yes sir. 0900 it is."
B: "No no, I misspoke. Roll call will be at 0600."
W: "Ah, okay. Got it now. See you at 0900! *click*"

Around 3:30 AM things started to slow down...

"Dispatch, I've got a vehicle parked illegally at 4th and Pine. It is a black Honda Civic. The occupants are in the back with an open container of alcohol. It's, ah, a couple of girls. Aah, they're, well, they're making out."

New voice, instantly: "You'll need backup. I'm heading over."

Next: My riot journal

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Copyright 1999 Benjy Feen /

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