December 5, 2009
In the back of a truck on a rainy winter day we pull off I-5 into Seattle. High in the distance a banner hangs from a crane building condos. WTO this way, Democracy that. A guy holding incense flashes a victory sign greets cars as they go into downtown. We find our friends, the house we would be staying in for the week of the convention. This house near downtown became our trenches. We ate from cans of beans with pocket knives.
I was here to take pictures. I had been part of demonstrations in the months leading up to the WTO. I had captured images on film with an old Nikon-F that my father had given me. On our first night, we plastered a Starbucks with political posters. These protest posters were tokens of the revolution. This was before 9-11 so things felt hopeful. Environmental activists and Union activists coming together in unity, in solidarity.
On the first day I saw in the distance a light haze, this was my first taste of tear gas. The haze was barely visible, hit hard, I instantly could not see or breath, just like all those around me. Rows of riot police blocked all ways out. People were panicking. I was able to jump through a gap of riot cops. I saw kids rolling dumpsters and swats with sub-machine guns. And delegates for the meeting running about, believing they owned the world. A squadron of riot police was coming up the street hitting their batons on riot shields in unison, a clack-clack, that echoed and rang in the tight building configurations of downtown. Every moment you turned, something profound was happening. I saw a woman on her knees in a business suit praying in the middle of an intersection, she had blood pouring from her head. This was the photograph I could not take. Police were cornering and beating people all around. Then the windows came down. As I walk this surreal scene an alarm's going off at a jewelry store, all the windows smashed. Capital was in the process of being smashed. None of the jewelry touched a symbolic crime. The thin veneer of control that capital believes it has over the people was shattered in an instant. A guy with a handgun shoots rounds into an unattended squad car. "Watch this", blam, blam, long live that guy. I look down off of a plaza and see cops putting on gas masks, helmets and riot gear. Even the horses had riot face shields and gas masks. I had never seen this kind of equipment used before. This was the first time. This was the introduction of this gear to the American streets. During previous protests police just wore blue jeans and leather gloves to beat people.
People are sitting, blocking an access bridge, it's early on the first morning, cold but the sun is out and bright, all are somber and subdued, a girl begs me to stay as a witness. Police line up behind the people, all sitting, I run down an off ramp below the bridge, a cop tries to stop me, I tell the cop to back away and hold my ground. Nothing behind me, this is my way out, a steep hill. A cop goes back to the skirmish line, I follow. Now I am behind the police, the riot police count down, they start bashing the ribs of the people sitting with their arms linked. The police rip off a gas mask from a girl, then hold her down and spray mace, forcing her to open her eyes, this quickly became a torture scene. The police throw the gas mask towards me, not realizing I am there. I grab the mask. Then a red used can of police mace falls at my feet. People in front of the police brutality line are throwing full cans of soda that are hitting the ground hard, all around me. Almost being hit, I grab the police mace, I yell to the commanding officer, "Sir, Sir, is this the brand you use?" I hold up the cop mace to spray him in the face. A small amount of pressure is still in the can, fear falls over the commander's eyes. I had him. I disappear down my escape route. I climb a hill of bushes and trees and jump into a throng of people, unaware, and disappear into the crowds. Now I have a gas mask for the coming days of battle with police.
Years later I saw footage of that scene, in that footage a woman cop in riot gear is breaking down and crying because of the torture she and her comrades were doing. Then the windows came crashing down. I remember specifically after seeing this that the windows came down, after the people's blood was shed, and was glad for that. After seeing that blood so early in the protests, break them all, symbolic crime, smash all those evil windows. Why not? That crying cop knew, and I knew this was the first skirmish. This was the defining moment of truth. Long arcs of tear gas canisters are lobbed high through the night sky. People scramble, picking then up, throwing the gas canisters back. There is a dumpster burning, tipped over right in the middle of the street. I hide behind it, as riot police close in. I stand to take a picture, a bright light from the police shines on me. A lit tear gas canister hits me hard in the gut. Then a cop slowly rolls a shot grenade towards me. It goes off at my feet, in my face. The metal cap bounces off of my gas mask. I snap another shot at the cops, then get out fast. If the bright light shines on you, then you are being targeted. If you have a gas mask, then throw them all back.
All of downtown Seattle is declared a complete war zone. Our clothes are permeated in pepper mace and tear gas. We try to sleep in front of the jail in solidarity with all those arrested. A squat has already been raided, I go up to the University district, people are pulling bricks out of the sidewalk, how French I thought. There is a hill on two sides, a silver police van is skidding in circles in the middle of the intersection, pepper spray shooting from its windows. Like an old cop movie, people jump out of the way. Police line up at the bottom of the hill. I duck into a bus shelter, rubber bullets bounce off of everything. A war zone. A cloud of gas pours over the people. With my mask I am able to hide in the thick tear gas. I go over to a KFC, I smash the window. Half of the people chase me, "We're going to kill you, this is a non-violent protest." I yell back, "Fuck Kentucky Fried Chicken". Some yelled out in my defense. As I get out of the area, a couple asked, "What is going on?" I replied, "Anything you want, the revolution?" With a gas mask I was able to get into downtown during Marshall Law, it was all tear gas and quiet streets, people had fled all of this area. A cloud of poison gas hangs over the city. All the city buses were loaded up with zip tied people, ready to be taken to a mass arrest camp called "Sand Point". I had heard the most distressing stories from people being held in those jails. Years later, each person that gave their real name during those arrests was given 5,000 dollars, since all the arrests were on mass and were illegal.
This was the first mass arrest of our generation; this was the first use of riot gear of our generation. The union shut down all the ports and the anarchists smashed the windows of capital. For one day we all saved this world together. We had them all, complete victory, no matter the cost. If all this evidence of corporate slavery is presented and you are still against peoples struggle, your mind won't be changed, you are my enemy. No one deserves success if others are oppressed. Art must be made by any means necessary.
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