Police and protesters look to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle for guidance
There have been endless comparisons between this year's Democratic National Convention and the one held in Chicago in 1968 — and not just because one of the primary 2008 protest groups is called Re-create '68. On the fortieth anniversary of that chaotic convention, we are again immersed in an unpopular war, and the Democrats are again divided after a bruising primary.
But for all those parallels, if political wonks and media types want a real example of what could happen on the streets of Denver, they should be thinking in terms of Re-create '99. Because you can forget Chicago; it's the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle that law enforcement and radical protest groups are using as the reference point for the DNC in Denver this year.
For anti-capitalists and anti-authoritarians, the successful shutting down of the WTO conference nearly a decade ago in Seattle stands out as the most effective mass action ever in the age of globalization. The '68 melee in Chicago occurred because a huge concentration of activists caused an undertrained and brutish police force to lash out in violence. Seattle 1999, on the other hand, was the result of long-term strategizing by a relatively small group of protesters who trained in direct-action tactics, such as blockades and subversion, for which the city's police force was completely unprepared.
But things have changed on that front, as well. If 1999 put law-enforcement agencies on alert, 9/11 put them on lockdown. New anti-terrorism laws and programs gave them the ability to successfully quash militant protest groups, pouring millions into security measures that essentially turn cities that host large trade events or political conventions into militarized zones.
Anarchists in North America see the DNC and the Republican National Convention in Minnesota from September 1-4 as a chance to reinvigorate a global anti-capitalist protest movement, and groups like Unconventional Action have been organizing nationwide "consultas" for upwards of two years with the objective of shutting down or seriously disrupting the conventions. CrimethInc, a kind of anarchist think tank, issued a lengthy analysis earlier this year that predicts far fewer anti-authoritarians will show up on the streets of Denver than in St. Paul, where thousands of anarchist contingents are expected.
Not that you would know that from the way the two convention sites are reacting. Denver City Council and governments in other metro cities and counties rushed to pass ordinances that criminalize the possession of a broad array of protest tools, including sticks that support signs. In St. Paul, meanwhile, the city council struck down such a law as overbroad and unnecessary, and Minneapolis actually passed restrictions on the types of crowd-control weapons that police can use on demonstrators.
Both convention host cities have been granted $50 million in federal funds for security operations. Denver is spending at least $10 million of this to bring in almost 1,500 additional officers from cities around Colorado and Wyoming to augment the current police force of 1,500. Millions more are going to police equipment, including 88 pepper-ball guns, 1,600 gas masks, and 4,500 fume-filtering "Riot Canisters." The city is also using federal funds to vastly increase its video surveillance program, with upwards of seventy new, mobile wireless cameras installed around the Pepsi Center and Civic Center Park and throughout downtown. In addition, the National Guard has formed a special Joint Task Force for the DNC and is stationing 400 troops in the city. It will coordinate with the Secret Service, the FBI and the Pentagon, all of which will contribute significantly to the security infrastructure with teams of analysts and agents working in less-visible capacities. As a result, there could be almost as many law-enforcement personnel in Denver as there are delegates attending the DNC: 4,500, plus alternates.
All of this is necessary, says city councilman Charlie Brown, who defends the council's unanimous approval of the protest-tool ordinance by referencing the 1999 WTO demonstrations. Protesters "used tripods to block fourteen intersections in Seattle," says Brown, who's currently reading a book on the WTO protest that was penned by Seattle's former police chief. "That's how they shut it down. If you blocked fourteen intersections in Denver, it would be a disaster."
The possibility of mass arrests is another potential disaster for Denver's already overcrowded jail; officials hope to head that off by converting a city-owned warehouse into a detention facility filled with cages and razor wire, a sight that has already inspired the nickname "Gitmo on the Platte." But protesters aren't the only ones uncomfortable with the looks of that facility. After a tour of the warehouse, Denver County Court judges refused the city's request that they set up a makeshift courtroom at the site, and will instead arraign those arrested in their regular courtrooms at the City and County Building.
"It looked like an Indiana Jones warehouse," says one judge.
Just call it Denver '08.
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