SEATTLE — This will not be another Seattle.
Mayors from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles have made that vow as they braced for the same virulent outpourings of protest that thrust Seattle onto the world stage in a cloud of tear gas during last year’s World Trade Organization meeting.
Now, activists are converging again at the scene of their greatest coup against corporate globalization.
But they may not be returning to the same city.
"One of the biggest things we learned with WTO is that Seattle is not Mayberry with high-rises. People don’t play nice anymore," said City Council member Judy Nicastro, who joined activists in the streets and laments the tension she has seen growing in the past year between some citizens and police.
"It’s been a really mixed bag for Seattle in the aftermath," she said. "Activists are even more distrustful of police, and the police feel under siege and are very distrustful of the activists and the public officials who participated."
The meeting of the organization that sets the terms of global trade drew some 50,000 activists of all kinds to a city that long has prided itself on openness and encouragement of dissenting views.
But police were quickly overwhelmed by demonstrators bent on blocking streets and shutting the WTO meeting down. By the time the tear gas cleared, about 600 people had been arrested; shattered windows and other property damage totaled some $3 million; and Seattle had become a global symbol of both defiance and civic haplessness.
Police Chief Norm Stamper announced his early retirement soon after the protests. It’s uncertain whether Mayor Paul Schell will be able to overcome continuing criticism of his WTO performance and win re-election next year.
Now police are girding for demonstrations on "N30," the international solidarity day against corporate globalization on the Nov. 30 anniversary of activists closing WTO opening ceremonies.
Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has promised that demonstrators filling streets without a rally or march permit will be arrested.
So far, no groups have applied for permits, though about 5,000 demonstrators are expected, possibly including the black-clad anarchists who smashed windows and ransacked stores last year.
At a news conference this week, Schell said the city would attempt to protect protesters’ right to free speech, but not at the cost of others’ rights.
"Free speech is one of our country’s highest values," he said. "But we cannot allow it to become the freedom to vandalize, the freedom to interfere with others or the freedom to interrupt city business. … We think our citizens understand the difference."
Capt. Jim Pugel, field commander of police forces during WTO, called the protests last year "a complete wake-up call. If it hadn’t happened in Seattle, it might have happened in Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia or any of the other cities. Unfortunately, it happened here."
The WTO legal fallout promises to continue long after the one-year anniversary. Suits have been filed over alleged free-speech restrictions last year, and activists are encouraging those jailed, tear-gassed or who have other grievances to file formal claims or join a proposed class-action lawsuit.
"The reason we need to do this is because we, as a community in Seattle, have not said strongly enough to our public servants that they are not using appropriate strategies," said Erica Kay, a local environmental activist who was jailed for five days during WTO and is organizing plaintiffs for a class-action suit against the city, Schell and Stamper.
But Chris Cain, a remodeling contractor whose WTO involvement inspired him to launch an N30 sponsoring group, Global Action Seattle, said "we need to try and keep people focused on the real issue, because there is something far greater at stake here than rubber bullet wounds or tear gas."
Cain said many others were converted during WTO, and they’re determined to keep spreading the anti-globalization message.
"Organizations that were here and planned those protests and got the whole thing started — they’re not here now. They’ve gone on continuing their struggle. We’ve been left here as a group of activists with the responsibility of carrying the torch and continuing the education process."
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