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Lessons of Rioting — Look to the Funders Behind the Riots

Protest groups that trashed Seattle during the WTO meetings last December have now tried violently to disrupt the Republican Convention in Philadelphia. Plans are underway for still bigger civil disturbances at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. An International Monetary Fund meeting in Prague in September is slated for yet another riot. But there still has been no public recognition that these events have a common organizing and funding background. And no one is holding the behind-the-scenes planners and funders accountable.

The modus operandi among the protests since Seattle is consistent—a kind of scripted chaos–as is participation by such relatively new groups as Direct Action Network, Global Exchange and Rainforest Action Network. There are always advance “training sessions” that plan the mayhem, secretive cell-like “affinity groups” that implement the planning, masks (so it is hard for the police to blame anyone in particular), defense lawyers on the scene, and even the larger-than-life-size puppets and the bongo drums. Also consistent is the amalgam of ostensible causes, of which “globalization” is always key.

The rioters likewise have a common public relations line. Initially, they pledge to be “peaceful.” Then, they let it be known that they will “only” sponsor acts of “civil disobedience and direct action. ” They would have you believe that such tactics as blocking intersections, trespassing on private property, forcibly keeping delegates out of their meetings and infiltrating conference proceedings to shout down speakers is ethical and legal.

Given any opportunity, these direct actions morph into the acts violence and property damage the protest organizers claimed at first to oppose: assaulting police, breaking windows, throwing paint. Regardless of how hard local authorities try to placate them in advance, the protestors purport to find the local police (everywhere) to be uncommonly “brutal.”

Something new in Los Angeles is the planned disruption of transit service in the metro area. City Council members already are complaining about the unexpectedly high level of security the city will have to provide the Democrats. That figure is nearing $10 million two weeks before the event and some folks are questioning the decision to invite the convention there in the first place.

Crucially, there appears to a bright thread through the funding apparatus: the California-based, tax-exempt Foundation for Deep Ecology, and (at the same Sausalito address), the International Forum on Globalization. The Forum is an umbrella group for 55 organizations opposed to globalization and high technology. The donor behind the foundation and the main donor behind the Forum is Douglas Tompkins. He is a businessman who nurses an intense anger at modern technology and international trade. Several Tompkins-funded groups–including the Rainforest Action Network that engages in civil disobedience “direct action”–are signatories to an anti-computer, anti-trade screed that appeared recently as an ad in the Sunday New York Times.

In 1998 alone, Tompkins provided the Forum with $200,000 dollars. The Forum’s website says the group “focused its efforts throughout most of 1999 on the WTO.” And while some of its work is just research and conferencing, one of its ominous goals is “disrupting corporate rule.” In 1998, Tompkins also gave $200,000 to the civil disobedience outfit, Rainforest Action Network. It would be useful to know what funds he gave in 1999 and 2000.

Tompkins made his fortune, ironically, in the highly trade-dependent field of recreational apparel. He was a founder of North Face and Esprit brands, and from his profits out of those companies he put at least $170 million into his Foundation on Deep Ecology. This foundation’s 1998 IRS report reflected past dealings with Global Exchange, a behind-the-scenes force in Seattle and one of the groups organizing events in Los Angeles next month.

The co-founder of Global Exchange, Juliette Becker, 27, was profiled in The New Yorker recently, photographed as a kind of ingenue. But Becker is not naïve. She relishes her role in creation of Direct Action Network, a key coordinator of the Seattle protests and connected to both the upcoming political convention protests. As William Finnegan of The New Yorker put it, “The shutdown of the Seattle Ministerial would never have happened without the emergence of and efforts of the Direct Action Network.”

Tompkins himself lives in semi-seclusion in Chile where he has created an “ecological park” the size of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. According to The Atlantic Monthly, he makes tireless efforts to keep others away from his vast preserve and to move out residents already there. Quoted in The London Sunday Times, he rails against “the runaway train of the global economy and its handmaidens–cyber-technology and a lethal cocktail of other clusters of technologies, such as television, satellite communications, virtual computation and especially the avalanching and cascading effect e-commerce will have on the economy.”

Lots of other people have criticisms of technology and the global economy, of course. Whether they are right or wrong, it is entirely proper to debate their views in the public arena. They also are entitled to hold peaceful demonstrations. But rich utopians like Tompkins do not have the right to use tax exempt funds to finance groups that set out to break the law.

Much has been made in Seattle of the unpaid security bill left over from the WTO riots. But instead of investigating the rioters and their financial backers, the Seattle City Council set up investigations of the police department and the business leaders who invited the WTO to town. That mistake is the biggest lesson Seattle has to offer other cities.

The US Justice Department seems to have been lax so far. Perhaps, therefore, it is time for Congress and the media to investigate the rioters–and for cities like Seattle, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and soon, LA, to send their security bills to the wealthy individuals who made the riots financially possible.

Bruce Chapman is president of the Discovery Institute, and a former US Ambassadors to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna.

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.