What’s in a Name

A Disservice to the Truth

Anti-WTO demonstrators continue to get the benefit of the doubt from many in the media and even from some public officials. That benefit consists of a supposed distinction commonly made between the ‘bad’ WTO protesters who broke windows, assaulted policemen and set fire to dumpsters, and the ‘good’ protesters — supposedly everybody else in the anti-WTO ranks.

The ‘bad’ protesters, we repeatedly are assured, were just a ‘handful of hooligans,’ a ‘small band of thugs,’ amounting to no more than ‘one percent’ of the 35,000 or so demonstrators. We are offered up as culprits the anarchist ‘black block’ from Eugene, Oregon, with their movie-style black clothing and terrorist-like ski masks. (What an absurdity, ‘anarchists’ wearing uniforms.)

Since these folks don’t live — or vote — around here, we are to feel free in putting all the blame for lawbreaking on them.

While the bad protesters are excoriated as just a few rotten apples, the ‘good’ protesters invariably are congratulated for their peacefulness or saluted for their spunky expression of ‘democracy in action.’ It is simply asserted that law-abiding protesters made up 99% of the demonstrations.

That is baloney.

Continuing to represent the recent riots as a peaceful march misused by a tiny few is a disservice to the truth. Worse, it can only invite more, and perhaps worse, civil conflicts in the future.

The anti-WTO riots — and if dictionary meanings count for anything, that’s how they should be described, not mere ‘protest demonstrations’ — were organized with civil disobedience plainly in mind. Groups were invited by at least some organizers to take part on that basis. Most participants did not intend to break the law, of course, and there is no doubt that some of the organizers (such as King County AFL-CIO labor leader Ron Judd) were truly appalled at what happened. But there was a double-standard in operation for some of the most prominent coordinators, such as Direct Action Network and the Ruckus Society, among others.

It is astounding that reporters — with little or no context provided — should now ask some of those who planned and executed civil disobedience for their opinion of the city’s response. Why should people who incite a riot be indulged in this way? Having used force to attack public order, where do they get the moral authority to pose as critics?

Of course, the mainstream protest leaders are in a different category. But unfortunately, even some of them failed to speak out against lawbreakers before or during the mayhem. In a TV interview during the big labor march on Tuesday, November 30, Teamster leader James P. Hoffa, Jr. pointed to the peacefulness of the labor crowd, but notably declined an invitation to condemn the vandals nearby.

Look, it was a stated purpose of the protests to ‘close down’ the WTO.

Ask yourself, how does one close down a legal public meeting except by force?

Plenty of the violence-makers were not in ‘black block’ anarchist garb or even wearing kerchiefs over their faces. You could see that on TV; it’s evident in several newspaper photos. And anyone who watched from nearby windows, as I did, could see it, too.

Moreover, breaking the law is not just destroying property. It is against the law to use force to prevent people from entering a public meeting, as was done to the WTO delegates. Spitting, threatening, shoving and pushing, they put delegates, as well as host committee members and some reporters, in fear for their safety.

Those actions not only were illegal, but morally preposterous. Here was a mostly white crowd claiming to be concerned about the world’s poor. But in reality, you saw these bands of middle-class white men strong-arming visitors from Africa and Latin America. WTO delegates in general found out that for an American radical, the Constitutional protections of ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of assembly’ apply only to themselves.

So, why should the hundreds who personally harassed and muscled the city’s foreign guests not be added to the numbers of ‘bad’ protesters?

It also is against the law to stage human blockades of intersections, or to stand in front of buses and autos so that people—perfectly ordinary office workers, and shoppers with children, for example—cannot move. If you think that is not seriously against the law, just try it on your own. Unless you have a powerful mob behind you, as the WTO agitators had last week, you’ll be arrested promptly.

The thousands of people who blocked intersections also effectively imprisoned tourists in hotels and even some local people in their office buildings. They effectively picked the pockets of workers who rely on tips and the self-employed.

Note: ‘thousands’ of protesters, not a ‘handful.’ ‘One percent’ of 35,000 would be only 350. But on Tuesday afternoon—the big riot day—there were about that many at a half dozen street corners simultaneously, lying down, linking themselves with cement; and, oh yes, partying and throwing bottles at the police. The police were overwhelmed precisely because there were several thousands of these rioters. (When arrests finally came, they totalled nearly 600: some ‘handful’.)

If words mean anything, this was no ‘celebration of democracy.’

It is also against the law for citizens not to disperse peacefully when ordered to do so. Yes, some demonstrators were trying to restrain some of the others. And yes, some were only passers-by and there were lots of nicely behaved people who foolishly circulated within the street mobs as cheerful gawkers—riot tourists, cameras and all. If they were bothered that their presence provided protection to the more destructive demonstrators, they still took their own sweet time getting out. Indeed, some of those people did not leave at all and got busted.

Folks, there is no right to riot.

It is also illegal, when collared, to resist arrest or to give only a pseudonym to your jailers, as ‘Jelly Bean’ and ‘Terminator’ and others did in Seattle.

Amazingly, the post-riot emphasis seems to concentrate on assigning blame to some of the leading victims of the riots—hapless city officials who believed the promises of the organizers, the local WTO host committee and, especially, the police officers. By all means, specific complaints against the cops should be checked out, but who is going to investigate the protest organizers and their planning? A complaint that a woman got glass in her eye when her gas mask was broken raises the question, why did so many people show up for a peaceful protest wearing gas masks?

Okay, the great majority of the protesters were peaceful; fine. But there were several thousand rioters and they are the real culprits. Right now, these rioters — arrested and un-arrested, local and imported—remain unrepentant and boastful, and even presume to sit in judgment on those they intentionally provoked into action.

The first big Seattle riot in years won’t be the last if we can’t make clear the difference between free speech and wanton civil disobedience. As a cause, a meeting of an international trade agency — no matter how grotesquely you try to demonize it—cannot possibly be compared, as some are doing, with the deprivation of US civil rights that was the unique moral justification for the orderly march on Selma by Dr. Martin Luther King four decades ago.

Tolerant Seattle is in danger of adopting a romantic standard that people have the option of using anti-social force whenever they feel strongly about something. In fact, that option is illegal. There is no right to riot. The common law, the Constitution and the ordinances of this and every other town are clear about that..

Now, it is time for the truly peaceable people of this community to stand up for THEIR rights.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.