A Socialist Labor Party Statement—

WTO Protests & Seattle's Police Riot

Of all the human props of the political state, the police prop is the most menial. The soldier may commit iniquities; but when he does...he does so under immediate orders from superiors whom he is bound to obey. The soldier is a blindly obeying tool—a menial he is not. The menial’s character is to adapt himself, his views, hence his conduct also, to the hand that feeds him. The menial reflects, he loves to reflect, his master’s opinions. Such are the characteristics of the police, as a whole. It was this feature of the police that exhibited itself...in Washington.— Daniel De Leon (1913)

The Washington mentioned by De Leon in his 1913 editorial was Washington, D.C., where police stood by laughing and egging on bands of anti-Suffragist thugs who waded into the annual Suffrage Day parade to beat down women and break up the demonstration.

Differently from the D.C. police of 86 years ago, the police of Seattle did the wading in, beating down and breaking up themselves during last month’s anti-WTO demonstrations, but just like the D.C. police of 86 years ago, they did not act for the sake of a principle, a sentiment, or even an idea of their own.

The capitalist class is a cowardly class. It lives by what it steals from the working class. Unlike the bold princes and kings of medieval times, it does not take up the sword and place itself at the head of an army of soldiers and knights to enforce its thieving in its own name or by its own hand, or to restore order when those it steals from utter some objection.

To enforce “order” as it sees it, the ruling class hires mercenaries, which it draws from the working class and bedecks with brass buttons, boots, nightsticks, guns and other symbols of authority to do its dirty work. These are the police, one of the armed branches of the political state. But when these menials of the ruling class botch the job, as they clearly did in Seattle, do their cowardly masters step forward to take responsibility? Not on your life. That would take courage, which they lack, and give the working class too much of an insight into the true function of the police. When menials botch the job heads start to roll, and the ruling class takes refuge behind commissions and inquiries to fix the blame by diverting attention from itself and its thoroughly rotten system. So it has always been, and so it is in Seattle.

Indeed, Seattle’s police chief has already resigned in the wake of criticism of his department’s response to the four days of protest against the WTO from November 29 through December 2. Characteristically, the Seattle City Council has already called for a commission to review police handling of the demonstrations. But neither the police chief’s resignation nor the council’s commission can hide what really happened in Seattle: a bloody, baton-wielding, jack-booted police force rioting against unarmed, mostly peaceful protesters.

The particulars are well known. Videotape shot during the protests and broadcast on television attest to the truth. As an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer described one videotaped incident, “A SWAT officer on riot duty...during the World Trade Organization protests kicks an unarmed man in the groin. Then he fires a beanbag round from his rifle at close range while the man retreats, hands high above his head.”

Most accounts have the police first violating the peace. In fact, despite what one account says was “upwards of 70,000 people” who were involved in the protests, only a handful were reportedly involved in window smashing and graffiti spraying. Even this vandalism reportedly began only after police began using pepper spray and rubber (plastic) bullets against peaceful protesters. Once the vandalism began, it was used by police as a rationale to break the heads of all protesters, peaceful and violent alike.

Even King County Sheriff David Reichert and unnamed Seattle police officers blamed the city’s police chief and mayor for much of the vandalism and scattered violence that occurred on November 30. Many criticized the indiscriminate firing of tear gas and rubber bullets, and charged that “innocent workers, shoppers and residents were swept up in the arrest of more than 500 people November 30 and December 1,” as an Associated Press account put it.

What all the above plainly shows is that, despite its democratic pretenses, the capitalist state remains willing, apparently even eager, to employ police-state methods at the slightest provocation. The city quickly declared an unconstitutional “no protest” zone and a “state of emergency.” Ruthless police violence was given the go-ahead. Downtown Seattle was transformed—into a de facto police state repressed by martial law.

The WTO protesters have made their experience. They now know what many others know who have protested the effects, conditions or policies of the ruling elite and the class-divided system of capitalism that produces them. However, such jettisoning of this country’s democratic traditions should surprise no one. Capitalism is fundamentally an economic dictatorship under which political democracy has at best a tenuous existence. As deteriorating social conditions generate increased potential for working-class unrest, the existence of political democracy becomes ever more tenuous.

The groundwork for a more permanent slide into martial law and political—as well as economic—dictatorship is continually being laid. For decades, Congress, state legislatures and the courts have steadily put more power and discretion in the hands of the nation’s police forces, and armed them to the teeth with technologically advanced, military-style weaponry. There can be no mistaking the danger implicit in this many-sided attack on democratic rights and civil liberties.

Any movement aspiring to bring about substantive social change in this country must be prepared to deal with a state quite willing and capable of turning its arsenal—ostensibly produced to fend off foreign enemies—against its own citizens. That means a movement of committed revolutionaries who understand the need for education first, then political and industrial organization to enforce the will of the majority in face of the antisocial tendencies of the capitalist system and its political state. It means building a movement on the foundation provided by the Socialist Industrial Union program of the Socialist Labor Party. That, and that alone, will free our country from the threat of future police riots and the abnegation of the rights and liberties won by the revolution of 223 years ago.

(Originally published under the title "The Seattle Police Riots," The People, January 2000. For further reading, see Socialism's Answer to Global Capitalism.)

Socialist Labor Party of America, P.O. Box 218, Mountain View, CA 94042-0218 • www.slp.org • socialists@slp.org

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