Mayor apologises as city tries to heal its wounds - News - The Independent

Mayor apologises as city tries to heal its wounds

WTO IN SEATTLE

THE APOLOGY came as a surprise to almost everyone. Facing a rising tide of indignation from citizens caught up in tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets, officials in Seattle said they were sorry yesterday for police abuses during this week's protests against the World Trade Organisation. They even sanctioned a spontaneous demonstration despite the earlier imposition of a round-the-clock curfew and the arrest of more than 500 people.

After a tempestuous night of clashes between riot police and residents in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighbourhood, Mayor Paul Schell and Police Chief Norm Stamper unexpectedly dropped the hard line they had been taking and said the city remained open to everyone.

"It's time for us to start the healing process," Mayor Schell said. "The city is not in lockdown. There is no curfew." By last night, the police became noticeably more relaxed and normal life was returning to the city centre, with pedestrians moving freely and shops re-opened.

However, union leaders were last night pressing for a second mass rally and walk-out to follow Tuesday's demonstration. The strike, called for noon today, could effectively close down the city. Meanwhile, hundreds of demonstrators massed at the jailhouse in downtown Seattle to clamour for the release of hundreds of protesters arrested over the past three days.

Earlier, the mayor had declared the first 24-hour curfew since the Second World War and warned that shoppers, theatre-goers and other citizens who got too close to the WTO's Convention Center risked being arrested.

The climbdown came afterthe American Civil Liberties Union said it would challenge the "no protest zone" in court on the grounds that it infringed rights of free assembly, free speech and political protest.

In response, both the mayor and Chief Stamper acknowledged there had been lapses in police behaviour. On Wednesday evening, shoppers and office workers mingling with demonstrators were beaten back and attacked with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

The protesters have turned what was once an obscure multinational agency, the WTO, into a household name. For the city, the fervour of the demonstrations, the violence and the police response were alarming and utterly unfamiliar. Local television stations described in great detail the feeling of being hit by pepper spray and tear gas, because people in Seattle had not experienced these things before.

The Independent spoke to a number of those involved who viewed the traumatic events from different perspectives.

The environmentalist

Julie Pike, 31, is an environmentalist from Seattle who joined the non- violent protest because she believes the WTO poses a threat to all she holds dear. "This is a region of beautiful mountains and forests and fresh water," she said. "Now the WTO wants to lift all restrictions on growth and logging. They want to turn our region into one big commodity the corporations can make money out of. There has to be a line in the sand, a point at which we turn around and say no."

Covered in protest stickers, including a baseball cap spoofing the logo of the clothing store the Gap, she was nevertheless appalled by the vandalism in the central city and volunteered on Wednesday to help clear up the mess.

The animal rights activist

Alex Lilly, 27, is an animal rights activist from Portland, Oregon, who considers himself an "art criminal". He has defaced billboards, sprayed graffiti on walls and cheered as environmental radicals - so-called "eco- terrorists" - have attacked buildings.

He came to Seattle on his own, armed with a camera, a skateboard and his trademark skull mask. He was not looking for trouble, but trouble soon found him. "On Tuesday night I had tear gas canisters bouncing off me. It was only because I had a camera that I managed to keep a distance and not get arrested. The WTO is a fourth legislative branch with no voting rights," he said, adding that it had totally messed up.

What did he think of the violence? "Some people call it violence but I don't. These businesses will just repair their windows, but they won't stop exploiting workers in the Third World. In the 1960s people like us were called peace activists. Now we're called terrorists. Where's the justice in that?"

The French protester

Jose Bove, 46, is the French Roquefort cheese-maker who notoriously pulled the roof off a McDonald's restaurant to protest against the US threat to European agriculture and food standards. The farmer from Montredon, near Larzac, was hailed as a hero in Seattle as he arrived with 250kg of Roquefort and a rousing message of support for the protesters. Invited to the WTO meeting as a member of a farming delegation, he strongly condemned the use of hormones and genetically modified organisms, stood up for the right of countries to be self- sufficient in food production and campaigned against patenting of agricultural products and livestock. "We have to respect human rights, UN conventions of working conditions and the environment. The WTO has put itself above that."

A veteran of many demonstrations in France, he thought the violence was risible. "So they smashed a few windows and looted one store. We were chuckling all afternoon - it obviously wasn't a big deal. The police reaction was incomprehensible and astounding."

The Seattle cop

Tom McLaughlin, a Seattle police officer for the past two years, spent several weeks training for the WTO meeting, with night-time sessions on breaking up illegal protests, using a gas mask and other riot control techniques.

He was on duty outside the Paramount Theater, venue for the summit's opening ceremony that never happened, as the massed ranks of demonstrators formed human chains around his guard post.

He had to help to pull a couple of trouble-makers off the speakers' podium inside the theatre after they managed to get in. Later, he helped drive the hard-core protesters out of the city's downtown area and up a hill behind the building.

"It's a sad thing to see all the destruction," he said. "I respect the rights of the protesters as long as they keep it non-violent." He believed the police were well-organised. "This is the biggest challenge of public order I've faced, but it's been OK."

The WTO delegate

Omkar Goswami toys with his glass of Lagavulin and lights a cigarette as he relaxes in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel before going out to yet another official function. The chief economist of the Confederation of Indian Industry has had a difficult week, and not just because his delegation is fighting to stop Western governments from threatening trade sanctions against developed nations over labour standards.

He has had to argue his way out of street confrontations, been pushed around by demonstrators and seen the work of the summit badly derailed by protests. "It was fine up until lunchtime," he said of Tuesday's debacle. "You could talk to them, if you hid your delegation badge. Then something turned very ugly."

The Seattle resident

Freyda Stephens, general manager of the Roosevelt Hotel on the corner of Pine Street and 7th Avenue, has found herself on the front line of the battles all week as protesters have congregated in the streets near her hotel and formed barricades preventing guests from entering or leaving.

Serried ranks of riot police have stood in formation on one side of her hotel while, on the other, special police units have cleared the streets every night with concussion grenades and tear gas canisters.

"We were expecting a big march but not this kind of aggressive damage," she said. "For the first couple of hours everything was fine, then someone got the idea we were one of the major delegate hotels and we were under siege."

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