- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 1999

The gas is gone. The glass and graffiti are going. The media harvest of shocking images will remain available. The lawsuits will drag on for years, and it’s at the very least likely the 500 people arrested at the Battle of Seattle (ah, urban legends) will be compensated nicely for their moment of righteous incarceration.
A new paradigm in cultural politics has been established. And conservatism had best understand it before the next round. For there will be a next round, and a next, and a next.
Count on it.
First a quickie wrap of the World Trade Organization mess, then the long-term implications.
In mass protest and riot control, as in counterterrorism, you measure ultimate success by what doesn’t happen. In this sense, the police, National Guard, and others did a remarkable job. No deaths. No major injuries. No arson and burning buildings. No major looting and vandalism. Yes, in many cases, things could have been done differently or better; allegations of brutality and other matters must be dealt with. On balance, however …
I’ll buy those guys a doughnut anytime.
At the planning and strategy levels, a different problem. In essence, there are two approaches. One is to do soft enforcement give the protesters ample freedom, keep the uniformed presence moderate, and rely on negotiation and adjustment. The other is to bring in overwhelming force, dictate strict rules, and come down hard when they’re broken.
Seattle Mayor Paul Schell (whom I know and respect) chose the soft route. One reason was that Seattle’s police force is simply too small to attempt the second, and massive backup (other forces, National Guard, etc.) mobilized before the event would have drawn enormous criticism for overreacting. Another rule of protest control: Whatever you do will be wrong.
More importantly, Mr. Schell (a ‘60s protester and genuine pacifist) believed assurances from demonstration leaders that they would control the crazies. Did they lie, in order to get close enough to the WTO meeting to disrupt it and intimidate delegates? Did they make honest promises they couldn’t keep?
Now obviously, every crowd has its 10 percent, usually basic lowlifes hoping for a chance at the merchandise. But the gang presence so evident in downtown Seattle was virtually absent, and looting minimal. Destruction was the work of anarchist contingents, ostensibly part of the organized protest.
If Paul Schell feels betrayed, he has the right.
Another item of note. With Mr. Clinton staying overnight, the Secret Service properly demanded that the downtown be cleared. Police forced a crowd up to the nearby Capitol Hill area (our Dupont Circle) where the residents, who had previously been all for the demonstrations, suddenly became irate that the action was now on their doorsteps. The police, not the rowdies, became the enemy.
Finally, the mass arrests. The big march/riot produced relatively few. The bulk came after the protester population was down to the hard minority … and easier for the media to mine for shocking images. One might suspect that the protesters intended their actions and arrests to generate the max in imagery and legal proceedings. The Anarchic Chaotic Licentious Utopians, a k a ACLU, blew in right on schedule.
And do we hear the words class-action ablowin’ in the wind?
So there’s the pattern: Get soft enforcement up front, let it get (moderately) out of hand, fill the jails, work the media, then sue, sue, sue.
But there is more to the pattern. The choice of the WTO as a target was brilliant a virtually unknown organization with no domestic constituency to inspire counter protest. This was no Vietnam dust up with two sides having at each other. And any Vietnam analogy breaks down in another way. Everybody knew back then that Vietnam would end. All wars do. But issues such as trade, the environment, human rights: These never go away.
More importantly, the very nebulousness of the protest added to its strength. It wasn’t just that everybody could see what they wanted to see. It was that it all had a certain religious quality. When these people scream “corporate greed,” it’s like a medieval Christian shouting, “nonbeliever.” People before Profits is a religious creed, not an economic agenda … and about as susceptible to reason.
In sum, the left has demonstrated a stunning new potential to bring pressure to bear on a variety of issues and institutions. They have crafted a set of tactics designed for maximum media and legal impact and have built some highly unlikely coalitions. Ten years ago, who could have imagined steelworkers marching alongside environmentalists, animal rights people, and topless lesbians? In military parlance, it was classic maneuver warfare. Politically, it can work at all levels, from international to local.
And it’ll be coming, soon enough, to a street near you.

Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle and president of Aretia, a cultural research center.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide