Reclaim the Streets... for What Purpose?
April 24, 2002

Maria Tomchick

On Saturday, April 20, there were three separate events in Seattle, all differing drastically in style. One was largely successful, but the other two were not, at least in terms of "getting out the message"--that one criteria by which most activists define success.

Starting the day, at five minutes to noon, the Rally to Wake up Washington assembled a huge list of sponsors and an even larger crowd. I'm not very good at estimating numbers of people, but the crowd filled Westlake Plaza. More importantly, the crowd was composed of people of all ages, families, labor union members, students, Arab-Americans, and, happily, a lot of mainstream people (often standing at the edge of the crowd, arms folded, looking a little uncomfortable to be at a rally, but very curious--listening, talking, and obviously hungry for information and debate).

A dialogue was going on. The message was getting out, new messages were being formed, messages were shouted back at the emcee. A march happened, negotiated on the spot with the police. An agreement was made to go up the sidewalk on Pine Street to Seattle Central Community College.

Police refused to allow demonstrators to take one lane of the street, even though that lane was closed to traffic. Still, the march was as dynamic as the rally, with numerous signs, leaflets, and loud and continuous chanting. George Bush, shame on you. Look where your taxes go. Stop aid to Israel. Free, free Palestine.

There were bystanders everywhere: in cars, on buses, in shops and cafés. Lining the sidewalk, leaning out of apartment windows, and peering out of car windows, folks shouted with the demonstrators, people listened, and some jeered. The message was everywhere.

At four o'clock, the Reclaim The Streets event had a different feel. It has a different purpose, after all: Reclaim The Streets is, essentially, a free-speech fight recast as a street party. It always draws a younger, edgier crowd. Punk music provides the message, as long as the crowd stays near the stage. That didn't happen this year.

Police encircled the event with the intent to keep participants from spreading out onto the street, which was the event's main intent. The Reclaim The Streets idea is to emphasize that streets are public space, to claim this public space for something other than the flow of commerce, and to validate the First Amendment right to assemble in public spaces, be they parks, plazas, or streets. RTS goes an additional step further by claiming that the First Amendment is enough; folks shouldn't have to beg a permit from the City of Seattle to take to the streets. It's, purely and simply, one of a long series of First Amendment fights that activists have waged for over 200 years in this country. RTS' goal, however, is to do it non-violently--to take the fight out of it by making it a party.

The SPD, on the other hand, didn't see the party at all. To them, it was a macho, territorial fight.

So when the Infernal Noise Brigade marched through the crowd, then headed off up Broadway away from SCCC, most of the crowd followed. If the police wouldn't let them take the street at SCCC, they'd do it a few blocks away at Broadway and Thomas. Perhaps it's morale-building to outwit the SPD; certainly it was entertaining to see Seattle's finest pace around, aimlessly guarding an empty plaza. But when you become separated from the message, when a group lacks coherence and cohesiveness, it can easily become a pointless exercise that degenerates into an aimless scrabble with police.

For 45 minutes demonstrators stood in the middle of the intersection with nothing to do. RTS participants eschewed chants, signs, leaflets, and all the other "tired" means by which protest marches usually get the message out; in this case, that was a clear liability. There was some singing and beating of drums, but no message-making, and almost no dialogue. Bystanders and onlookers were few. Many were puzzled, and most moved on quickly. The contrast with the morning's rally and march was obvious.

By the time cops caught up with the crowd to pepper spray and arrest a few people, demonstrators were already packing up to leave and join the six o'clock anti-globalization march. But the anti-globalization march, too, suffered from a lack of signs, chanting, leaflets, bullhorns, and other message-spreading techniques. Again bystanders were largely absent. People in the crowd just seemed too tired at the end of a long day to make the effort, particularly when the streets, sidewalks, and buildings were empty.

The police, however, had no trouble getting their message out loud and clear: the SPD would allow the permitted march (the six o'clock anti-globalization one) to march on the street as planned. The cops would escort a march up the sidewalk that had been negotiated by organizers with the police on the spot (the noon rally). But the SPD would use force to disperse any group that didn't have a permit (the four o-clock Reclaim The Streets event).

That force was clearly excessive and unnecessary. Clad in riot gear, police pepper sprayed a crowd that was already beginning to disperse. In fact, one woman (a very small woman) was pepper-sprayed, thrown on the ground, and sat on by three large cops. She stopped breathing; cops said it was an allergic reaction to the pepper spray; however, three large men piled on her chest may have had something to do with it.

Another victim was thrown face-first into a brick wall. At least he was able to walk, handcuffed, to the Medic One car. It was as if the officers in charge that day wanted to spark some kind of violence from the crowd, so they could use their new crowd-control toys or justify the expense of calling out so many cops on a sunny Saturday afternoon and paying them overtime. Happily, demonstrators didn't take the bait. If the RTS event didn't succeed in getting out a coherent message, it did succeed in remaining non-violent.

But when the police can get their message out more clearly than demonstrators, something is wrong. Activists need to take a closer look at the "street party" concept and ask if it's helping advance our First Amendment rights or making it harder for important, impromptu demonstrations with more urgent messages to take place without sparking immediate police reprisals.

Let's not forget that our First Amendment rights exist so we can say something.