The only way to know how free you are is to challenge authority. Recently, two demonstrations did just that. When the WTO demonstrations were taking place in Seattle last November, Seth Ackerman (Extra!, 1-2/00) tells us the mainstream media alternated in belittling and confusing the motives of the protesters.
However, more significantly, the media (e.g., CBS’ Dan Rather, NBC News, etc.) also misrepresented the source of the violence that was widely reported. The media claimed that the Seattle police’s use of tear gas and concussion grenades was in response to acts of violence by the protesters. Ackerman quotes credible figures on the scene as saying this is a complete lie. The truth is that the violence began when the cops starting beating and putting pepper-spray in the eyes of nonviolent, civilly disobedient demonstrators. Only after the police-led mayhem began did a small number of protesters act. Incredibly, this basic chronological fact was scarcely reported by our increasingly centralized media.
Flash-forward to the April 16-17 protests in D.C. over the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Terry J. Allen (In These Times, 5/29/00) reports that the D.C. police used pre-emptive raids, restrictions, harassments, arrests and seizures of dubious constitutionality against the demonstrators. In a nutshell, the D.C. police threw away the Constitution in order to combat a peaceful civil disobedience they treated like acts of terrorism.
When it was all over, the Washington Post (4/19/00) thanked D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey for the “professional” manner of the DC police. As in Seattle, the D.C. police used chemical weaponry and batons on protesters. (In Seattle it was more widely done.) According to Allen, the day before the protests were to begin (ITT, 4/15), the police entered, searched and closed down the warehouse headquarters used by 300 protesters--without a warrant. In addition, none of the protesters using the building were allowed to recover any medical supplies, literature and banners until the day after the protests were over.
During a key moment in the Sunday (4/16) protest, 1,000 people were peacefully protesting the prison-industrial complex and heading towards the IMF. Suddenly, the D.C. police, 200 in number and some on horseback, surrounded the group and refused to let them leave. After frightening a number of the protesters, the cops ordered the reporters to leave or face arrest. The scene ended when the police arrested 600 protesters (and a few reporters) for utilizing their freedom of speech. Witnesses, such as a NBC cameraman, say that they have never seen the police act like that in a city which has seen innumerable protests in the last thirty years.
In the jails, many activists report that out of the glare of cameras, the police beat, intimidated and humiliated them. As Allen writes, “Numerous people reported that they were left in unheated spaces in wet clothes, without blankets; some were not fed for 24 hours or went long periods without water; despite nonviolence some were shackled ankle to opposite wrist; others endured homophobic and racist comments. Two people were taken to the hospital (Allen, ITT, 5/29/00).”
Let’s not forget what both protests were about. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund each function as lenders to corrupt business and governmental elites throughout the world. By demanding austere structural adjustments of impoverished countries in exchange for loans, the World Bank particularly assists in the creation of economic despair for billions of people.
Meanwhile, the WTO is a secret, unelected committee that determines whether laws passed in member countries (often by great popular struggle) to protect the environment or consumers from faulty products can stand. The WTO is another of President Clinton’s efforts to place the rights of multinational, corporate elites ahead of nations.
Thanks to the activists in Seattle and in D.C., we all have a better idea of just how free we still are.