The London Riots, and Reflections on Seattle’s WTO Protest

Posted on
Aug 9, 2011
Posted in: Random Musings

From my trip to London last spring, in much quieter times.

Like most of you, I’ve been following the news about the riots in London. I’ve seen the photos. I’ve searched through news articles. I’ve poured through the twitter accounts of my friends across the pond, all in an attempt to figure out what the hell is going on over there. And there’s so much I want to say, but I’m not sure where to start.

I’m tempted to begin by yelling at the tribes of young, embittered idiots who are running through the city and destroying everything in their path, like a pack of deranged locusts. Though instead of corn, they’re seeking out electronics. I want to slap some sense in them, and remind them that they are from the country that invented manners (and a healthy disdain at a lack of said manners), and their behavior is completely unacceptable. I hope that in a few days’ time, they’ll look at the burning wreckage of their city, and they’ll understand that they’re the ones who will have to live in it. It’s the societal equivalent of rubbing a dog’s nose in its mess.

Of course, they aren’t the only ones who will have to live with it, and therein lies the problem. Thousands of Londoners who’ve done nothing wrong will have have to deal with it. I’m tempted to call my friends who live over there and make sure they’re alright (though I’m currently on a plane, and can’t really do that. Besides, it’s the middle of the night over there). I want to tell them to stay inside, to draw the curtains of their homes, to take care of themselves. I want to tell them that in the end, it will all be okay – that they’re not alone, that the world is watching, worried about them, and that this, too, shall pass.

Because, to a very small degree, I know what they’re going through. I’ve seen my hometown taken over by idiots and misguided kids. Watched police officers, their faces obscured by riot gear, overwhelmed and exhausted as they try to do their jobs under unprecedented circumstances. I’ve seen bad decisions made by everyone involved.

My tale of a city under siege took place in November of 1999, when I was 19, and a sophomore in college. The WTO Ministerial Conference took place in Seattle, and with it, came riots and tear gas. My city was unrecognizable. I had headed downtown with my then-boyfriend in tow – a leather-jacket wearing, guitar-playing, tattooed and pierced young man who was all kinds of wrong for me. But I was 19, and doing lots of misguided things (including chopping off my hair and wearing cargo pants) so he wasn’t a particularly big mistake in the grand scheme of things. Besides, he was cute.

Many classes at the University of Washington had been canceled the day of the WTO. Peaceful protests had been planned, and the instructor for the drama class I had been taking told us that we should go “watch the theater of politics.” So I pulled an oversized torn sweater over my spikey hair, tugged on some military boots, and went.

We walked with a large group from the University of Washington campus down Eastlake Avenue (which had been closed specifically for us) to the Seattle Center (in retrospect, this seems like a ridiculously long distance to walk, but at the time, we didn’t really think anything of it).  The young rebel in my life (I have trouble figuring out what to call him. He was not, decidedly, my boyfriend) tossed a leather-clad arm over my shoulders, and in the mess, we managed to find my teacher in the crowd, who felt a kinship with this distant approximation of Jim Stark over whom I was smitten. We talked and laughed and mildly discussed the politics which were the impetus for our gathering.

When we got to the Seattle Center, we lost track of my instructor. We milled around for a bit near the Space Needle, bumped into a few friends from the dorms, grew bored, and eventually headed home. I found out the next day that my instructor had joined a group of unionists as they continued their march downtown. What he did not know – indeed, what none of us in knew in that era before smart phones and Twitter – was that the downtown core of Seattle was already a mess.

Tear gas canisters had been fired into the crowds of protesters (the problem with shooting tear gas in a windy city like Seattle – it doesn’t stay put. My friend’s mother was gassed while in her car, waiting for the ferry to Bainbridge). The windows in numerous stores downtown – including the GAP and Starbucks – had been broken. A protester, clad in black, his face covered, had climbed atop the Niketown sign and, through patience and persistence, was kicking down the letters, one by one (he was wearing, incidentally, black Nikes at the time. The irony of this would not go unnoticed.)

But my young man and I were already back in our dorms. We found them mostly empty, and when we asked what was going on, we were told that everyone was downtown. That it was a pure mess down there. Absolute chaos. Riots, tear gas, broken windows, hundreds of police officers.

And then, we did something that showed a rather significant lapse of judgement on both our parts, and yet, if you look closely, you’ll see it’s not entirely at odds with whom I am.

We went back downtown.

I know. I know. Scold me. Go ahead. I won’t disagree with you – but keep in mind, it was more than a decade ago. I was 19. I had spikey short hair. I listened to Possum Dixon. Clearly, I wasn’t making good decisions with my life. This was one of many.

The buses weren’t running all the way down to First Avenue, as they usually did. So we got off further east on Pine Street, and walked the rest of the way downtown. We saw the wreckage of the day. Debris, trash and handmade protest signs littered the streets. Recently broken windows were sealed up with plywood, the section of sidewalk in front of them marked off with caution tape. It was eerily quiet. Sidewalks were empty – stores were closed early, the facades dark, unusual for the weekend after Thanksgiving. The only light came from streetlamps and the enormous star that hangs, every holiday season, from the top of Macy’s (then still called The Bon Marche).

I squeezed my gentleman’s hand – I was fearless. It’s a funny thing how the presence of someone you care about can make you feel safe, whatever the circumstances. We were stupid kids, walking into a situation we didn’t really understand, and I was completely okay with all of it because I was holding his hand. He wasn’t even someone who I would fall in love with. He was simply a boy I liked. No wonder I now think I can conquer the world: I have Rand in my life.

Heading west towards the water, we saw the occasional person wander by. They didn’t seem panicked or nervous. They simply strolled, peering at surroundings which looked only vaguely familiar to them. As we neared First, we noticed more and more people clustered about, talking, as well an increasing number of police officers in riot gear. I noticed one looking at me, and I remember smiling and offering a slight wave. He smiled in reply. I’ve always been a sucker for a man in riot gear.

We reached the corner of First and Pine and could go no further – here was where the lines had been drawn. I’ve visited this corner hundreds of times since that day, and I rarely think of that night, because it looked so different on that evening that it ever has before or since. Protesters sat on the ground, cross-legged, facing troops that had been called in from the National Guard, who stood in formation some 40-feet away. An armored vehicle was behind the troops, and though it wasn’t too much larger than an SUV, for years afterwards, I could have sworn it was a tank. We milled about, talking to folks, bumping into someone we knew, who told us that this was the calm before the storm. And indeed, it was calm. There were no cars, no traffic, no loud shoppers running between stores. There was a bit of chatter here and there, but mostly, it was quiet as we stood in the middle of a usually-busy road.

And then, a voice came over a speaker. It was boomed down the street, echoing off the dark buildings. Seattle was about to go into a state of Martial Law, it said, at 9pm. It was currently 8:40. The voice broke through the quiet, incrementally, alerting us of the time. When it was announced that in seven minutes, Martial Law would be in effect, I took my rebel’s hand and we turned and headed up Pike, away from the water, back to where we could catch a bus back to the dorms. We walked slowly, in no rush, and I caught the eye of the same officer I had seen before, and again I smiled.

This time, he didn’t smile back. I read into this too much at the time, but looking back, I figure he was tired and exhausted. He probably was underpaid and out of his element and not looking forward to the rest of the night.

We had only gone a few blocks when we heard cracks behind us. We turned, and saw plumes of smoke – they had started firing tear gas to disperse the crowd. We began to run up the hill.

Near 6th avenue, we could hear music, and as we neared 8th, we were able to pinpoint where it was coming from. High up a cylindrical tower at 801 Pine Street, someone was playing, rather loudly and with generous application of the whammy bar, “The Star Spangled Banner.” My not-quite-paramour held up his fist and yelled in appreciation.

(Many years later, when I recounted this story to a group of friends, one of them stared blankly at me when I reached this point in the tale. He told me – and his girlfriend later confirmed- that he was the one up in the tower, playing his guitar. Though we didn’t officially meet until years later, our lives had already crossed at that point. I’ve always liked the idea of that.)

We continued up Pine. Despite our head start, the commotion quickly caught up with us. We found ourselves, at one point, ducking behind the sign of the old funeral home on Pine (it’s now a bar), when a tear gas canister landed not far from us. We made one final sprint up to Broadway, where we promptly caught the next bus to the dorms (everyone else was already back and wondering where the hell we were). We later found out that the National Guard had marched all the way up Capitol Hill, chasing the protesters down the street.

In the months that followed, Seattle’s police department faced criticism for how they handled the riots. The department was shaken up, as some officials resigned and new folks came in. Life went on. Starbucks and the GAP fixed their broken windows. I ended up getting a 4.0 in my theater class. The boy and I broke up. My hair grew out, albeit at a painfully slow pace. I started dating someone new, and that relationship, in turn, eventually led me to Rand.

And during those months, I learned things. Like that I shouldn’t go running back downtown in the middle of a riot to see what was going on. That I should avoid dating musicians, and I should never cut my hair above chin length.

Seattle, too, learned from its experiences. Terrible, awful things still happen in my town. Just last summer, a homeless man was shot by a police officer. People were angry. They were upset. But rather than act out violently, they assembled, peaceably. They spoke of the man and his memory. They dedicated a Totem pole in his honor and vowed to work with the police to make things right.

Like me, my city made bad decisions. And like me, it learned from them.

It’s why I have hope for London. I know the situation there is far graver than ours was – the vandalism and the violence more widespread. The causalities are higher. Right now the city is unrecognizable, far more than Seattle ever was. Right now, London is not London.

But I’m confident that it will be again, and soon. I’m hopeful that the city and its people will learn from these events. That the idiots and delinquents will look at the mess and they’ll understand what they did. That reason and civility will prevail. And years from now, the riots and violence will be a distant memory, a story told to friends over beers. It will be something people write about on their blogs, long after the scars have faded, long after bad haircuts have grown out.

Long after London becomes London again.

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