ONE STRIKING IMAGE from last weekend's World Bank/IMF protests in the other Washington was DC's police chief, Charles Ramsey, talking with demonstrators, working the lines like a politician in an election year. He put an intelligent, comparatively friendly face on what amounted to spring break for activists.
What a contrast to Seattle, where the tear gas and rubber bullets flew without the kind of peaceful demonstration-day dialogue between cops and protesters; where organized protesters banged up against anonymous cops who, by their own department's admission, were overwhelmed, understaffed, and utterly clueless. And where, in the place of no-show Norm Stamper, we were left with King County Sheriff Dave Reichert chasing demonstrators down the street with his nightstick.
Not that the DC protests were entirely without police violence, but one is still struck with an overall sense that these demonstrations were relatively civil and less violent than the police crackdown in Seattle—hell, less violent than last weekend's kegger at Ohio State University.
Of course, when it comes to protest, DC is the kind of "world-class" city Seattle aspires to be: If the US constitution means anything, the nation's capital is, in a sense, designed for protest, whether it's Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I have a dream" speech or Newt Gingrich unveiling his "Contract on America" on the Capitol steps.
One senses that the DC cops approached this event like hosts who acknowledged that, at the very least, the protesters had a right to be there.
YOU GET A VERY different sense reading the Seattle Police Department's After Action report on WTO week, released earlier this month.
The department admits that its planning and organization for WTO "public safety" were flawed. But it sums up like any report from any government bureaucracy you've ever read, saying the solutions to its screw-ups are more money, more training, and fewer laws getting in the way. But most revealing, the report is mired in a law enforcement mind-set that views the Seattle protesters as the enemy.
For one thing, it makes clear that from the SPD's standpoint, they were being hired, in essence, by the WTO. They coordinated with WTO organizers, they worked with the Seattle Host Committee, they got their budget from the city. But instead of developing a larger picture of what might happen, instead of adopting a multiple role in working with all community constituencies, the SPD acted as the WTO's private security force.
For another thing, it's clear that the SPD had little clue who the protesters were. Even with the benefit of hindsight, the report refers to demonstrators as "extremists," never fully making distinctions between those who protested legally, those who demonstrated peacefully but engaged in civil disobedience, and those who engaged in politically motivated property damage or other acts of violence. For the most part, the SPD simply saw the protesters as a single, coordinated enemy force to be reckoned with.
For their ignorance, the SPD blames Seattle's Investigations Ordinance. In 1980, Seattle became the first city in the country to limit the intelligence-gathering of its police department. Why? Because in the 1970s, the police were revealed to have extensive files on private citizens who were not engaged in, or even suspected of, any criminal activity. You could get a police file for writing a letter to the editor. Not only were the files extensive, they were riddled with inaccurate information, some of it extremely damaging, and there is evidence some files were used for political purposes. It was a legacy of McCarthyism at its worst.
When the existence of these files was revealed, the SPD said they would be destroyed and the practice discontinued. But in the late '70s, it was discovered that many files had not been shredded and that political information was still being added to them.
THE ORDINANCE WE have now still allows the police to gather intelligence if lawbreaking is suspected, and certainly many protest groups were up-front about what legal and illegal tactics they planned to use. The Direct Action Network said they'd barricade the streets and block delegates and shut down the ministerial meetings, if not the city. If such statements weren't useful to the SPD, one can hardly imagine what would be. The SPD claims, however, that they couldn't investigate activist groups because the ordinance prohibits them from spying on organizations that are politically motivated. But the ordinance specifically states that it is not designed to protect criminal activity, only lawful activities, however motivated. Not only that, but the SPD has even more latitude to gather and maintain intelligence if there is a perceived threat to "foreign dignitaries," which certainly applied to many visitors during WTO week. Clearly, the SPD had all they needed at their fingertips; they simply misread it, misjudged it, or ignored it.
What the SPD really doesn't like, however, is the law's provision for a civilian auditor, appointed by the mayor, who also has access to any intelligence gathered and can make sure the police are following the rules. If not, the auditor can release all or some of the information gathered to the subject of the spying. That, say the police, could compromise the safety of officers and informants. Because of this provision, the report claims, SPD was almost forced out of the intelligence loop right before the WTO.
But the law would be toothless without that watchdog provision, because no one would have access to what the police intelligence unit was doing, and it would allow them to make use of information obtained by other departments who were not bound by the strict legal and ethical codes of Seattle. Mayor Paul Schell suggests that the ordinance is worth revisiting, but at least two members of the City Council WTO review committee, Jim Compton and Nick Licata, say they see no reason to.
The SPD's After Action report reveals more than perhaps it intended about police attitudes. If those don't change, there certainly is little reason to think that the Battle in Seattle isn't just one skirmish in a longer campaign.