History tends to repeat itself.
In 1999, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) came under fire for its militarization in reponse to the so-called Battle of Seattle in which the World Trade Organization (WTO) faced more than 40,000 protesters. Recently, Ferguson, Mo., has faced similar police action in the wake of the Saint Louis County grand jury’s decision regarding police officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown.
On Tuesday, the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies (HBCLS) hosted a panel in the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center to discuss the role of police militarization in past WTO protests in relation to current Ferguson protests.
On Nov. 30, 1999, the WTO held international trade negotiations at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle. Protests were planned beforehand in preparation for an anti-globalization movement. Protesters included national government organizations, labor unions, student groups, religious groups, and anarchists. Although the protests were mostly peaceful and followed rules stated by police officers, protesters were still abused, pepper-sprayed, and arrested.
Former SPD Chief Norm Stamper, who led the police department during the WTO protests, called the militarization of police “the biggest mistake of my career.”
“I spent 34 years of my life as a cop and committed myself to certain principles and values and I believed I was on the right track,” Stamper said.
Before the panel, HBCLS screened the documentary “This is What Democracy Looks Like,” which portrayed WTO protests and the subsequent choices the SPD made, such as militarization.
Police in Ferguson are facing the same decisions Stamper faced during the WTO protests and decided to take a similar route.
“It is so sad that American law enforcement did not learn from my mistake in 1999,” Stamper said.
In Ferguson, the national guard was called in immediately after the grand jury’s decision to not indict Wilson as a reaction to protesters. Media outlets showed the police using military weaponry, including armored vehicles and a sniper. Robby Stern, former lead lobbyist and special assistant to the President with the Washington State Labor Council and labor march strategy leader for the WTO protests, said the militarization of police is used as a way to instill fear in the public but he hopes for change.
“If we are determined, and if we are in solidarity with one another, we have the ability to make big changes,” Stern said. “You can’t have one battle and think the war is over.”
Tyler Weaver, an attorney who represented about 150 of the WTO protesters in a successful suit against the SPD on the grounds of preemptive arrest, recalls his WTO case alone took seven years. The people Weaver represented were peacefully protesting or were chased into no-protest zones but were still arrested.
“What I think the police have learned is that, when you’re dealing with protests, it’s better to arrest a lot of people before it gets out of control,” Weaver said. “I guess what I fear is that what the police took from WTO is how to do it better next time.”
Stamper said in multiple instances he was approached by black moms who said they weren’t worried about their sons having to deal with gangs when they go out, but what they feared most was their sons meeting white cops like him. After having been approached by similar comments, he began to realize what needed to change.
“Cops who don’t go out of their way to open their hearts and, particularly, their minds present a real danger to their communities and, ultimately, to this country,” Stamper said.