Thursday, November 26, 2009

what did you do in the protests, Mummy?

Just realised that the WTO protests, aka Battle in Seattle, were 10 years ago, November 30 1999. Which makes it a reasonable time to post my contemporary account, lacking though it is in drama and I Was There relevance.

So yeah, here's what I did just about a decade ago, children, from the account I wrote just afterwards.

I phoned Mark from the ferry terminal coming back to tell him "I wasn't arrested, I wasn't teargassed, or peppersprayed. I wasn't clubbed. I wasn't even rained on." He said "Awww" in a sympathetic way.
The serious fighting all happened before and after the Victoria contingent was present. To the disappointment of several of the young and eager.

Monday night, found the scrap of paper with the contact number on it, phoned twice, got voice mail the first time "if you're calling about a seat on the busses, they're full" and a person the second time. True to his word, he called back within a half hour (23 min) to confirm that I had a seat on the bus and they were leaving at 5 am from outside the SUB, cost $20. Packed quickly, went to bed, slept very poorly. Cat woke me up at 3:30, said hell with it and got up.

Left house at 4:30, biked to university, arrived before 5 am for the busses, 6 of them, people count 208. I found someone with a clipboard, gave my name, and was told "You're on bus 5, counting from the front." Stood outside the bus for a while and said "This is bus 5" to several who came by and asked. Two others stand about and discuss how they got hold of gas masks, and of rumours that the WTO bought up a case of masks or airtanks. There are a few empty seats after all, and walkie-talkie communication between the busses establishes there were about 20 no-shows. Probably the 5 am departure time responsible for that. But one must rise early to be teargassed for the cause.

Reached terminal early and debarked into the departures 'lounge'. Several organizational speeches were made by people standing on the uncomfortable moulded plastic chairs, others walk around giving everyone stickers from the AFL-CIO "WTO if it doesn't work for working families it doesn't work", the boy across from me sticks it on his crotch (before reading it). I am recognised by E- of the International Socialists and invited to be part of their unit, or 'affinity group' (everyone supposed to march with an affinity group, and buddy up, so as not to get left behind in Seattle). Other people played hackysack or touched up banners. One girl has a banner involving a naked doll duct-taped to a crutch. Probably about women's victimization under free trade, but would make a decent weapon if necessary. C-'s South Park influenced banner is much admired. I suggest that the Socialist Worker run a lifestyles column on piercings, which seems to be a major fashion statement in the crowd. Fortunately the IS group had some older people. I'd been kicking myself mentally for not bringing the long Guatemalan scarf in case of teargas etc, and wondering if the extra pair of woolly socks I'd brought could function in a similar fashion. Though you never see wire service photos of activists running through clouds of tear gas with socks over their faces.

Got onto the 7 am ferry, wander about trying to find the conference room reserved for the organisers, which is reached by going through 2 doors saying crew only, whichever way you reach it. One way goes through crews quarters, and really is crew only, the other is just kidding. The organisers have to work out bus re-assignments, with several people having joined the group at the ferry terminal. The International Socialists make sure that everyone with them goes onto the same bus. 3 busses are on the ferry, others will meet us on the other side. I'm on one of the busses already on the ferry, with the IS (guess the Party members do get the perks).
Walk around with a tall fellow called B- and some clipboards asking people to sign up to help organise Access 2000, nationwide day of student action, and to support the Molsons boycott. B- given to emphatic gestures, a bit alarming when he's holding a clipboard. He is assigned as my buddy, which is good because he's easy to find in a crowd, being tall with fair hair. Then sat down and drowsed a bit. There's a fellow with cartoon-anarchist hair and beard and his lower leg in a walking cast, wearing shorts and sandals, carrying 2 suitcases and a banner with 2 long poles. I keep seeing him, and he never wants any help. Several people ask where the busses are on the ferry, and my multitude of bus crossings comes in handy as we troop downstairs, except for those who are walking off and catching the busses at the terminal.

Busses to the border. Stop once to get the busses back together, and allow one of the comrades to be sick into a ditch. I donate my kleenexes, but let someone else volunteer a water bottle. I transfer my water bottle to my jacket pocket and experiment with tying the woolly socks together. A safety pin would work better, if I had one. E- talks to me about joining IS, and I am dubious about the dues structure.
At the border everyone gets out of the busses and stands in the cold, then walks through the customs, displaying id of various kinds. Then standing in the cold again, while according to some people a dog is led through the busses. Apparently nothing was found, since everyone goes on, except for one girl. No one knows why she was held back, since everyone was warned about the criminal record thing and she says she doesn't have one. A rumour contest springs up, with heavy X-Files influence, to explain why she was stopped.
Nearing Seattle, it stops raining and the sun comes out. Cheers. The group huddled over the radio passes on bulletins, and there is cell phone communication with those already on site. The police have used tear gas to break up a group in front of the hotel. Some tear gas canisters were thrown back by the protesters. Cheers. C- of the South Park banner has brought gloves so he can throw tear gas canisters back (they get hot). I ask if he wouldn't want to go the more classic route of throwing himself on one, as with grenades. Someone else promises to take a picture if he does throw one back. A delegate is reported to have taken a swing at a protester. Cheers. The opening ceremonies have been cancelled. Much cheering. A reporter says that the police used 'flash-bang' grenades. I am one of two people on the bus who knows what those are (that they are not actual grenades), and have to explain it to the rest. Mark later says it was unlikely, since they don't make a good crowd-control weapon, and it was probably the flash from a tear-gas canister going off.
I decide to take off my sweatshirt and tie it around my waist so I can use it to cover my face if necessary. Craig has brought 3 of the dustmasks used for putting in fibreglass etc. Our onsite contact tells us that we have a route that doesn't take us near teargas. Some present seem disappointed. Those who have moisturizer or sunblock on their faces are encouraged to wipe it off, as it facilitates the teargas effect. Recommended strategy is to run away. By the time we park, word is that the teargas has dissipated and the march route is clear.

Arrive at the parking lot near the Space Needle at 12:15. Disembark, take out banners, signs, etc. M- had asked me to help carry the giant agitprop banner (bloated bureaucrat swallows earth, mosquito-nosed plutocrat sucks blood of skeletal worker, men in suits sit around table with piles of cash and weapons), but E- gives me a clipboard with the clenched fist stencilled in red on the back and tells me to get signatures for the Molsons boycott while we're assembling and waiting to march. This is a bit difficult since we can't wander too far away for fear of losing our group, and there are at least a dozen clipboards going around, so many people have already signed. Sometimes we ask each other for signatures, not seeing the clipboards. CUPE Vancouver is behind us for a while, and say I can march with them, but then they peel off for another part of the procession. IS links up with another IS and ISO, though this takes a bit of manoeuvering in turning the giant banner around and crossing the broken ground of the parking lot divisions.

There's a fellow in a wolf mask and 'royal' robes on a throne, holding a scepter with a dollar sign on the end, being carried on a platform by a dozen men. There's a fellow on stilts, all in black, with extra long fingers to his gloves and whiteface, and a WTO sign around his neck. There are people dressed as sea-turtles. There are people wearing those big-puppet outfits, done up as Latin American workers, Death, etc. There are environmental groups with banners of stump forests and puppets of dolphins and turtles. There's a tiny group with one man in a suit, carrying a sign saying "CEOs against the WTO". There are more trade unions than I've ever seen in one place, from nurses to painters.
The AFL-CIO people are the march marshalls, and they line the route wherever there's an intersection, indicating the way. They have dayglo hardhats and baseball caps, and rain-ponchos with the no-WTO symbol on the back, which later I hear they were giving away somewhere on the route. Damn, I wanted one. There's a drum band on the way, with drums made from water tanks and so on.
The End the Blockade Against Cuba people give me a placard. I get a few more signatures, but risk losing my affinity group in the crowd. Luckily the huge banner is easy to spot, so I catch up again each time. At one point I hold someone's dolphin figure while he signs. Another girl spots Glen Clark among the suit-wearing standers-by, and gets his signature on her petition.

It's a lot like being in the James Bay Day parade, in that there is almost no one on the sidewalks, everyone is in the parade. Those on the sidelines often have placards or costumes, as if they've dropped out of the march for a while to see everyone else's floats. Occasionally there are pockets of men in suits, with briefcases, who look somewhat bemused by everything. They may be delegates, since it's hard to guess what else they might be. A couple of girls get them to sign petitions, which they do with a fairly good grace.
The women carrying the giant red bucket for donations to Indonesian trade unions are interviewed by the first news team I've seen, an interviewer and a camcorder man. Otherwise, everyone with a camera seems to be part of the march, making a record of the occasion.

There is chanting. At times there are dueling chants, as one segment starts up a chant and another segment, too far away to recognise it, starts another. The Canadians encourage a French chant "Resistez la O M C", and for a while I'm marching near a latino group chanting (as far as I can tell) "El pueblo unido sera nunca derribo" which is easier to march to than the English. When I get back to the Socialists, they're singing Solidarity Forever, and I wonder where popular movements would be without John Brown's Body. Choir training comes in useful, both in faking singing the verses of songs I haven't memorised, and picking up chants quickly. The Canadians, nearing the hotel, strike up "Pettigrew, no more lies, you just want to privatise" and I wonder later if this contributes to Pettigrew's reported nervousness.

Forgot to say, as we were approaching Seattle, the skinny guy in the bush hat got up and apologised for presuming to tell us the basic guidelines of protesting, since we all knew so much more about it than he did, almost didn't tell us, but was persuaded to after all. Anyway, key point was that if asked who our leaders were, to say "We have no leaders" or "We are all leaders", not to point to someone who'd been helping organise the busses or whatever.

Had been hearing more music and drumming up ahead, apparently some gathering or turning point ahead, probably where all the street theatre had happened. This is the first part of the route I've seen to have any more disarray than is normal in the downtown of a large city. Still not much, an overturned concrete garbage container or two.
Fellow sitting on top of a van with a megaphone, says that we have the choice to go straight ahead, which will bring us in front of the hotel where it's all happening, or turn and continue with the march. Says he's been teargassed this morning. A large proportion of the students go straight, but the people in charge of the giant banner continue with the march. My avowed intention having been not to be teargassed etc. if I could avoid it, I go with them.
The march thins out a lot and consequently speeds up. More people take photos of the giant banner. One fellow is almost run down by it as he stands with a camcorder (the people holding the back poles can't see in front) but the front people lift the edge up over him. We pass a motorcycle cop and wave at him, some of the union guys stop to talk. He says that "you guys marching are no problem". I wonder what he did earlier today.
Must be almost at the end. The ISO peels off and starts dropping their signs at a parking lot. Someone is making a speech as they gather around. The second news team I've seen is standing idly, one fellow with a big fluffy mike, the other with a camcorder. People start poking through the pile of discarded signs for ones they like. We're not at our parking lot though, so we start off again, after grabbing a few signs for next week. E- is disgruntled at not knowing why the ISO stopped here.

We pass the bar near the parking lot, and the 5 black guys drinking on the fenced 'verandah' cheer us. We wave back and shout exhortations not to drink Molsons. (On the way in, passing McDonalds, there had been shouts to "unionize McDonalds!") Back to the bus, much fewer than we started out, hoping that the strays will turn up soon. Some of the banner crew are regretting staying in the march. Banner folded up, signs gathered and taped together, money for Indonesian trade unions counted, sandwiches and snacks eaten. Fumes from busses warming up and cigarette smoke from the addicts facing a long smokeless ride combine unsalubriously.
Everyone was told that the busses leave at 4:30 whether you're on them or not. One person 'Zapatista Jim' has told others that he'll be staying in Seattle. Organisers run from bus to bus, trying to track down the last few people. The busses leave.

Again, people gather in the back with the radio. Bulletins are passed to the front as we travel. The National Guard is being called in. The police are sweeping the streets. A curfew is being set. The mayor is declaring an emergency. Envy on the bus.
M- comes and talks to me about joining IS, much less of a hard sell than E-. We talk about families, work, etc. E- comes by again, when I'm looking at the handbook. I've turned to the song page, and he asks me if I know the songs (Union Maid, Solidarity Forever, and Which Side Are You On). Oh yeah, I say, and tell him the story of my grandmother and The Peoples Flag tune. Neither he nor M- know the song, so I yatter on a bit about my family background (having previously said that socialism was 'in the blood'). E- says that his family was right-wing conservative, and I wonder if they'd been atheist would he be an evangelical Christian? I've never had my economic origins envied before; it's a strange experience.

As it gets darker, the bus gets quieter, and only the bus driver's idea of stopping at a truckstop wakes people up. Almost everyone dashes in for takeout, and a couple hit the espresso stand. But it means that people are awake when we reach the border, with frantic walkie-talkie communication between the busses to make sure that the passenger lists compiled on the way down are still valid. This time we don't have to get out. The customs woman just asks if anyone bought anything, a few people say 'a cheeseburger', she says "Welcome home" and we drive on. E- makes a slightly confused speech about not being home but in an occupied country that he happens to reside in, but saves it until we've driven off.
Get to the ferries. Unload all the signs, buckets, clipboards, etc. because it's different busses on the other side. I carry the clipboard crate with E-. We all walk through and to the lounge, which is of course the furthest dock. I phone Mark and reassure him, knowing that he will have been hearing stuff on the radio. He conceals his anxiety well.
The few people whe are just taking the ferry and weren't part of the protest look a bit lost in the crowd. We walk on, find a place and put down all the paraphernalia. Not having hit the truckstop, I hear the buffet calling, and abandon my affinity group for a while to eat and read Raymond Chandler.
The ferry arrives. I discover that the clipboard box is easily carried by one (I say "I'm strong, I'm a mother") and we walk off and find the busses again. The arrangements now are looser. One bus is designated for dropping people off downtown, and it's up to people to get on and find their own seats.

Back to UVic, arriving in front of the SUB at 11:20. I abandon my bike for the night, and find Mark in the van. We go home and I go to bed. I have no scars to show my child. ("And this one I got at the barricade in front of the Sheraton")


Terri-Lynne said...

You're such a rebel. :)

batgirl said...

Ah, that was 10 years ago, when I was young and reckless. Now I am staid and conservative.

Terri-Lynne said...

Bah! That's just a convenient cover. I see your true nature. :)