WTO in Seattle: City at bay after taking liberties with civil rights

TED FIELD, a radio journalist from Vancouver, was trailing anti- free-trade demonstrators in Seattle this week when he was pulled over by police, slapped in handcuffs and arrested. Despite loud protestations - all captured live on radio - he was put on board a big police bus and shipped out to a disused naval base where he joined hundreds of other detainees from the streets.

A few hours later, after Mr Field had called his radio station and given a graphic account of his plight, police officers decided they had made a mistake and let him go - once again, live on radio.

The same night, a black Seattle city councilman, Richard McIver, was yanked from his car as he was on his way to an official reception, had his arms pulled behind his back and threatened with arrest even after he showed his business card and explained what he was doing.

"I don't want to aid the hooligans who are raising hell and I don't want to take on specific officers," he said the next day. "But there are huge flaws with the officers when it comes to people of colour. I'm 58 years old, I had on a $400 suit, but last night, I was just another nigger." It has been a crazy week in a city whose idea of civil disobedience, most weeks of the year, is a pedestrian daring to step on to the road before the traffic lights turn red.

On Tuesday, delegates to the World Trade Organisation looked on aghast as phalanxes of riot police refused to lift a finger to stop protesters from forming human barricades around the conference venues.

On Wednesday, it was the turn of peaceful protest leaders and city residents to reel in incomprehension as the city centre was placed under a round- the-clock curfew and office workers, restaurant-goers and other innocent bystanders, as well as the demonstrators, were beaten back by baton-wielding police and attacked with pepper spray, tear gas and water cannon.

Then, just as the repressive backlash appeared to be reaching its height, the police relented, lifted the curfew and allowed demonstrators to gather near Seattle's main street market and at the county jail where they clamoured for the release of the 500 people locked up earlier in the week.

"There is no battle in Seattle," declared the city's mayor, Paul Schell, even as the tear gas was clearing from the city's streets. "What there is is a beautiful expression of free speech." But was it? By yesterday, just about everyone was furious with the way the massive demonstrations, and the accompanying flashes of violence, were handled.

Downtown business leaders complained of losing millions of dollars in revenue, not to mention the smashed windows, graffiti and looting during Tuesday's centrepiece demonstrations. Protesters and their sympathisers in one radical Seattle neighbourhood were demanding resignations after a pitched late-night battle between muscular riot police and residents armed with rocks and bottles.

WTO delegates accused the city of being far too liberal, while the American Civil Liberties Union accused the city of violating the constitutional right to free expression. Members of the police accused the mayor of giving confusing instructions and making them look bad; the mayor, meanwhile, accused the police of episodes of unwarranted force.

This week's unexpected events reflected an often comically mismatched marriage between a global coalition of anti-capitalist protesters and a city whose heart was largely with them but which scarcely had the temperament or the experience to deal with the onslaught that they brought in their wake.

While most cities hosting controversial international events commonly keep protests a good 500 yards away from the main meeting venues, Seattle saw fit to allow thousands of determined young demonstrators - who had no official permit to be in the streets - to hold the WTO to ransom for more than six hours. Police were present in large numbers - in riot gear, on horseback and in dozens of squad cars - but they did not break their carefully rehearsed lines even when a few dozen masked troublemakers started smashing and looting.

These anarchists, many of them believed to belong to a notorious collective from the radical college town of Eugene, Oregon, ended up discrediting the whole protest movement and grabbing headlines from the tens of thousands of others massing in Seattle either to defend the WTO's policies or to rally peacefully against them.

Mayor Schell defended his officers' passivity, saying they decided not to make a grab for the vandals out of concern for the safety of the other demonstrators. "I chose life," the mayor said. "Property damage can be fixed, life can't." Such liberal sentiments were temporarily thrown out of the window when President Bill Clinton arrived late on Tuesday for a 36-hour visit.

Police abruptly switched tactics, clearing the streets with volleys of tear gas and then engaging small knots of outraged demonstrators in intense confrontations. While President Clinton was visiting Seattle's shipyards and holding meetings at his downtown hotel, police simply swept through the city and arrested hundreds of people carrying banners and chanting anti-WTO slogans.

The hard line was dropped the moment the President left town, leaving Mayor Schell to face a barrage of critics but not, mercifully, further violence. "Free the Seattle 500!" became the rallying cry of his critics. The Seattle 500 remained behind bars pending lengthy processing of their cases, but the spirit of protest that they embodied was unleashed for ever in this once-placid, well mannered north-western city.

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