Two weeks have passed since a motley collection of WTO protesters shut down Seattle with their cooperative tactics; tonight their solidarity is looking as strong as ever.
Inside a drab, fluorescent-lit room with a few scattered pieces of third-hand office furniture—the downtown headquarters of the Direct Action Network—several dozen protesters have gathered to discuss legal strategy. They are among the hundreds who were arrested and thrown in jail during WTO week, an experience that was harrowing in itself, but doubly so because most of them believe they committed no crime. Now they are figuring out how to keep up their political stand as their cases move into the Seattle Municipal court system, where they are up against Seattle's most infamous champion of law and order, City Attorney Mark Sidran.
As a prelude to the evening's discussion, each person is asked to say their name and offer a little dance or gesture to express their current emotional state; everyone else in the circle then repeats the movement. After that, the meeting begins in earnest. There's no "leader," of course. This is a collective. But one member is clearly the guide here: Direct Action Network attorney Katya Komisaruk, who, with a band of volunteers, is laboring night and day to keep up a unified front against Sidran.
When it's her turn to speak, Komisaruk gives the circle an update on the WTO cases. Roughly 600 people were arrested during the demonstrations. A couple hundred of those cases have been dismissed. The attempt to reach a group plea bargain with the city did not work while the protesters were in jail, so now the "solidarity strategy" has moved to the courts. The demand is as follows: Everybody gets the same deal, and that deal must protect the protesters who are from overseas. (Certain kinds of plea agreements can have tougher consequences for people outside the US.)
Komisaruk is hoping to pressure Sidran into a group settlement by essentially threatening to overwhelm the court system with hundreds of defendants, each of them demanding to have a trial by jury within 90 days, as required by law. Making this strategy work, however, requires a massive, all-volunteer effort to track down all the arrested protesters, ensure they understand the plan, and get them to show up for their court dates. If a defendant misses an appearance, that case gets dropped from the trial pipeline.
Komisaruk must also see that the arrested aren't steered off course by their own attorneys. In a normal case, she notes, a defense lawyer's job is to get their clients to rat on everyone else and save their own skin. "Here we've got all for one and one for all," she says. The result has been occasional friction between Komisaruk and the public defenders who've been assigned WTO cases.
A 1993 graduate of Harvard Law School, Komisaruk came here from Oakland to provide volunteer legal help to the Direct Action Network, an activist coalition that was formed to fight the WTO. Keeping the "solidarity" movement solid demands not just her legal skills (she is not licensed to practice in Washington) but also her charm and persuasion.
On the night before the meeting at DAN headquarters last week, she could be found buzzing around night court at the King County jail, where a half-dozen, mostly young WTO protesters had been summoned for their pretrial hearings. Taking aside Sean Patrick, a 21-year-old with long blond dreadlocks and pale blue eyes, she asks him, "Have you made a decision about whether you want to participate in the solidarity? It's a political, personal decision," she says.
Patrick is represented by a rather harried public defender, who is presently up in front of the judge with another client. The PD has already informed Patrick that his case file cannot be located—a typical bit of confusion amid the WTO chaos—which raises the possibility of the case simply being thrown out.
"If you get the charges dismissed you won't be putting pressure on the system," Komisaruk points out to Patrick. "Your attorney may just assume you want the charges dismissed unless you say otherwise." Patrick, a sometime student from Seattle, needs little convincing. He's down with the solidarity, explaining that he does not believe he did anything wrong.
Despite the massive media attention given to the vandalism that took place during WTO week, only six individuals have actually been charged with the felony crime of property destruction. The hundreds of others who were arrested stand accused of misdemeanor offenses, chiefly "failure to disperse."
Many of these arrests took place under circumstances that are hazy, to say the least, and not just from the gas. Forty-four-year-old human services worker Henry Hughes, for example, says he was among several dozen people in front of Westlake Mall who were rushed by the cops even after being instructed that as long as they did not join a sit-in demonstration, they could freely depart. Dozens of others claim they were arrested at Denny Park, well outside the supposed "no-protest" zone.
"We were exercising our right to peacefully assemble in public places," says Hughes. "I can't imagine even a zealous right-wing jury convicting me of my supposed crime."
Komisaruk says that "Of 200 people arrested at Westlake, there's one police report for all of them. The police are incapable of saying who did what when." Lisa Daugaard, a public defender who is representing a few of the WTO clients, contends that "It's overwhelmingly likely that the overwhelming majority of these people will be acquitted if they go to trial."
City Attorney Mark Sidran says that his office is going through each of the cases, trying to evaluate the evidence and determine if the charges can be proved. He notes that "proof beyond a reasonable doubt," which is required to convict, is a higher standard to meet than the "probable cause" that's needed to arrest someone. But he dismisses the notion that the solidarity action could "overwhelm" his office or the courts. "We have the resources to do the job. Declining crime rates generally give us capacity for something like this," he says. (Geez, where's Tim Eyman when you need him?) "We're not going to have to add staff."
The Municipal Court has offered many of the WTO protesters a "pretrial diversion," which means that so long as they stay out of trouble for the next 90 days their record will be wiped clean. Some defense attorneys privately say that the offer is reasonable, but there have been only a handful of takers.
"I'm completely innocent and the charges are preposterous," says Webster Walker, an undergraduate at the University of Washington, who is part of the solidarity group. "There's no way I'm going to set myself up where if I get a traffic ticket in the next few months, I'll be guilty of a misdemeanor."
That kind of talk grates on Sidran, who has been seeking tougher terms than those offered by the Municipal Court judges. "I'm no expert on civil disobedience," he says, with delicious irony, "but I thought part of the civil disobedience ethic was you accept the consequences of your act as part of the statement. Apparently that's not a '90s thing."
The protesters, Sidran says, "seem to think they're entitled to interfere with the rights of others to peacefully assemble, and that because they do it peacefully, it's therefore OK." But most of those who went to jail were not arrested for blocking the way of WTO delegates and shutting down the trade talks. That occurred on Tuesday. The vast majority were arrested on Wednesday for demonstrating in parts of downtown that were often nowhere near the WTO meeting.
Sidran also rejects Komisaruk's insistence on an "all-for-one" resolution. "There's a great deal of variability" among the protesters, he argues. Some, with many previous arrests, "could be called professional protesters," he says. Others with criminal records "were just along for the ride, there to participate in the carnival atmosphere. To treat everyone alike is to me not reasonable," he says, noting that the judicial system regularly takes prior criminal history into account.
Komisaruk calls that a "deal-breaker" and proof that Sidran isn't negotiating in good faith. She claims it's "asinine" to penalize someone for previous arrests that did not result in convictions.
Komisaruk is hoping that public pressure will bring Sidran to heel—perhaps not realizing that he ran unopposed in his last two elections. "The community has a right to call Sidran to account for what classes of cases he chooses to pursue," she says.
Meanwhile, she and a small army of volunteers are keeping busy with a post-WTO campaign that is as intense, and as spirited, as the run-up to the big protest itself. "We've been phone banking, compiling a database, spending endless hours trying to get people all across the country to come back for their court dates, cajoling and persuading them, 'You've got to come,'" she says, over the buzz at headquarters. "There's a lot of emotional solidarity. There are people who want to get their charges reinstated!"