Saturday, September 12, 2009

Global Protest Pittsburgh

Chris Briem (Null Space) scratches the surface of the anxiety about hosting the G-20. Could Pittsburgh turn into another Battle in Seattle? The referenced Wall Street Journal article offers speculation:

"Given we had a short three-month window to prepare, I believe we've done all we can to be sure everyone will be safe -- both visitors and residents of Pittsburgh," said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Seattle had a year to prepare when it hosted a meeting of the World Trade Organization in 1999. Still, it was caught off guard when 50,000 protestors showed up, far more than the expected few hundred.

Claiming that Seattle was naive is a fair assessment. But I've seen nothing in the press coverage of the upcoming G-20 security concerns that properly explains what went wrong in Seattle during the WTO Ministerial. I was there and I will tell you what I think happened.

As a graduate student at the University of Colorado, I was researching global civil society. The WTO Ministerial in Seattle provided me with an opportunity to study it firsthand. I was primarily interested in the dialog between nongovernmental organizations and nation-state representatives. I wasn't prepared for the kind of political space that developed on the chaotic streets outside of the convention center.

To give you an idea of the disorganization of the hosting committee, I was able to acquire NGO credentials for the ministerial upon arriving in Seattle. This would allow me to move back and forth across police lines, even when the riot was in full swing. I was able to see the protest from both sides and observe the information exchange as people struggled to grasp the gravity of the situation.

I arrived early in downtown Seattle for the first day of the meetings. Protesters were setting up camp at key intersections in front of the convention center. Oddly, there were no police around. A veteran of the no nukes movement was very concerned. He predicted violence as the police struggled to regain control of the streets. Events would unfold almost exactly as he foretold.

The main problem was that the trade delegates had to journey from their hotel rooms and wade through the rabble in order to get to the convention center. Exacerbating the situation was all the area residents trying to get to work. Anyone in a suit was a target, representative of the oppressive world order. Furthermore, the pell-mell actions of the police enveloped more than a few innocent bystanders.

The police were holding their own until an organized labor march reached downtown, flooding the streets with anti-WTO protesters. At that point, word was going around that the police had lost control of the situation. This further emboldened the crowd. At that point I realized that something historical was going on right in front of my eyes. The atmosphere was electric. But the old-hand peaceniks were terrified. They knew what was coming.

Late to the show were the soon-to-be infamous anarchists. Since "state power" was concentrated at the convention center, they started tearing up McDonald's, Starbucks and Nike Town: Spaces of globalization. Local anti-WTO protesters were furious about the senseless trashing of their home. That moment inspired the theme of my thesis, which would explore the divisions within global civil society. Labor and environmentalists made for strange bedfellows and I was sure the coalition wouldn't last as alternative visions for the world were better articulated.

The role of the anarchists in the Battle in Seattle is too often overstated, the destruction they wrought sensationalized. Nonetheless, the mayor had lost his city and he would call in the national guard. That was the real nightmare. Until the big guns arrived, some very interesting interactions took place. I vividly remember a few protesters talking civilly with a French trade delegate who decided to engage the angry crowd. She wasn't the monster they imagined and she was genuinely shocked at the misunderstanding about what the ministerial was trying to accomplish. The World Trade Organization was far from the monolith of global governance it was portrayed to be.

The supposed worst case scenario wasn't as bad as many people think. Much of the chaos could have been prevented. Furthermore, downtown Pittsburgh is much more easily controlled than downtown Seattle. As much as they might like to fantasize, anarchists aren't going to overwhelm G-20 security. And don't expect Yinzers to stand idly by while outsiders trash their city. This isn't Seattle.

1 comment:

Vannevar said...

Really an excellent (perhaps more to the point, valuable) post - a first-hand report from Seattle. Thanks for reporting it.