WTO media flashback: police snow job blankets media

RTM note: This article originally appeared in the Blind Spot, as part of the Independent Media Center's grassroots coverage of the Seattle WTO in December 1999. We are reprinting it in celebration of 10 years of Indymedia, and to note how yesterday's media problems stop being today's media problems only as a result of community organizing and activism.

As soon as police forces began shooting, beating, and gassing WTO protesters on November 30, spokespeople for the city began issuing statements to clear the police of all responsibility for their actions. These statements, often employing military jargon, fell roughly into two categories: (1) the misrepresentation and criminalization of nonviolent protests, and (2) the denial that police used excessive force against peaceful protesters.

The misrepresentation began when a Seattle P-I reporter quoted Assistant Police Chief Ed Joiner as saying that police used pepper spray and rubber bullets “only if provoked.” Since then, the police have consistently denied accusations of over-aggression, maintaining that they were peacekeepers. Since police irrefutably carried out violent repression of peaceful protests while not arresting individual vandals, city authorities had no choice but to criminalize the protesters who were attacked. “These were not peaceful protesters,” Joiner later explained to the Seattle Times. “These were rioters trying to take over the streets of Seattle.”

By the next day, city officials routinely exaggerated sporadic illegal behavior. At the same time, they revoked the freedom of assembly, making all protest illegal. When police corralled nonviolent protesters into Westlake Center and then arrested them for pedestrian interference and refusal to disperse, it was clear that apprehension of vandals was not the priority of the police.

Instead of distinguishing legal forms of dissent from criminal behavior, the city opted for total control, and in doing so criminalized all resistance. Gas masks and banners were declared illegal. ID cards were required by police in the 'no-protest zone,' though in the case of nonprofit leaders, journalists, and one black City Council member, even valid security clearance did not prevent harassment.

Disregard of constitutional rights by the mayor opened the door for any and all forms of police misconduct. If protesters, indistinguishable from normal citizens, were criminals without their usual rights, who was to say what the police could or could not do to them?

To shield themselves from accusations regarding use of excessive force, police spokespeople raised the specter of evil. When asked about police abuses, Mike Edwards, President of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, put them in the context of what he called “the most violent protests on American soil since the Vietnam era.” When police laid siege to Capitol Hill, they justified their actions by alluding to plots to seize the East Precinct and unconfirmed sightings of molotov cocktails. They even had the audacity to claim they had wanted to leave Capitol Hill but were cut off by protesters.

Unable to similarly rationalize misconduct toward protesters in custody, police officials simply denied it. Outside the view of video cameras and without access to phones, arrested protesters went days without being able to publicize their experience. During this blackout, King County Jail spokesman Jim Harms denied abuses to those in custody, saying, “If anything, service provided to this population could be considered better than that provided for regular inmates.” Flooded with numerous complaints subsequent to the release of jailed protesters. Harms tentatively announced an inquiry into protesters' concerns.

As inquiries into police misconduct continue in the courts and through the City Council, we should persist in addressing specific Constitutional violations. Perhaps more importantly, we must not forget how quick our public servants were to lie, exaggerate, and declare dissent an enemy of the state when confronted with effective nonviolent protest. – Trevor Griffey

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey