Complexity and Irony in Policing and Protesting: The World Trade Organization in Seattle

By Gillham, Patrick F.; Marx, Gary T. | Social Justice, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Complexity and Irony in Policing and Protesting: The World Trade Organization in Seattle


Gillham, Patrick F., Marx, Gary T., Social Justice


Introduction

DURING A LARGE DEMONSTRATION AGAINST THE WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION in Seattle, tear gas fired by police affected many WTO delegates, shoppers, and city officials, but was relatively ineffective against protesters who had brought their own gas masks. As a result, police escalated their use of force, including the use of rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Initially, as police pushed against the lines of demonstrators, the nonviolent activists closed ranks and locked arms tightly. The more the police pushed, the more resilient the line became. However, the demonstrators' success in blocking police and WTO delegates also inhibited other demonstrators from moving to new locations and blocked their own medics from reaching the injured. The degree of secrecy accompanying the preparations of both police and protesters, while believed to be strategic, also inhibited cooperation with allies.

These examples illustrate an ironic perspective on protest, which we develop below. Briefly noted are commonly heard explanatory stories about the Seattle events, along with some of their limitations. We suggest that a neglected perspective involving irony is needed to understand the complexity of these events. We then detail police and demonstrator activities on the first day of the WTO meetings, noting organizational, planning, and tactical efforts. We identify 10 forms of irony inherent in the structure of the situation or that may emerge from interaction. These factors bring a significant degree of indeterminacy and trade-offs, no matter what decisions are made. We conclude with suggestions on limiting violations of constitutional rights and police and demonstrator violence. Our method involves interviews, news accounts and other documents, e-mail discussion lists, videos, and direct observation.

Four Stories About Seattle

Police and demonstrator interactions during the 2000 Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) protests can be viewed through multiple lenses involving political-economy, rationalization, and the supposed irrationality of crowds. These yield varying explanatory and evaluative conclusions.

The initial story involves police as the first line of defense of a capitalist economic system and the protest of subordinates as a natural consequence of structures of inequality. The WTO, after all, is a loose coalition of world businesses. The laws on the books and those given enforcement priority do not equally reflect all social interests, even if they exist within an ethos of universal enforcement, which in principle focuses on behavior, not the characteristics of those against whom the law is enforced. [1] On balance, police actions tilt decisively in favor of the more powerful, who have a disproportionate role to begin with in defining what the law will be and how it is enforced. In Seattle, the focus of law enforcement was on trying to insure conditions that permitted global business to do business. Their focus was not on investigating legal and moral crimes against labor and the environment, conditions in poor countries, or questionable alliances between businesses and governments.

However useful as a stage setting, a broad political-economic approach has limitations. Many Seattle protest groups did reflect the unprivileged, such as the poor and those in developing countries, but many other protest groups, such as those concerned with environmental issues, [2] were hardly disadvantaged in traditional economic terms. [3] Such an approach tells us little about variation within and across demonstrations, and it cannot explain police protection of demonstrators or repression of protest demonstrations in noncapitalist societies. Neither can it account for the often competing and conflicting interests of diverse elites by economic sector, institutional affiliation, and region. Many Seattle residents viewed the mayor and police chief as relatively progressive, rather than as draconian enforcers of a 19th-century capitalist order.

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