There is a long and proud history of peaceful protests in the United States, but the violence that has occurred in states and cities recently across the country tells a different story. Some of this may be the result of the World Trade Organization (WTO) riots in Seattle, Washington, also known as the Battle for Seattle, which, in many ways, changed how many protests occur.
In 1999, the WTO was coming to Seattle to hold some initial discussions about trade in the new Millennium. Tens of thousands of protestors came in response, and the city descended into violence for days with a curfew and the National Guard being called in.
According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “As soon as they announced Seattle’s selection, activists began planning a counter-protest. Organizers across various factions and interests coordinated efforts to block access to the buildings themselves. Civil disobedience was the name of the game, complete with time-honored Northwest protest tactics (devices to fasten people together to make them harder to remove) and performance art.”
For days, the news coverage, especially locally, was filled with scenes of violent clashes between police officers and protestors. The situation got so out of hand that the city was forced to issue an emergency order calling for peace.
The demonstrations and rioting were marginally successful at delaying the meetings, but it also signified a change in how protests would occur in the future. Instead of trying to enact change through peaceful demonstrations, many have been coopted by anarchists and have become increasingly violent.
Black bloc, which originated in Europe, is a tactic where a group of protestors wear black clothing and face coverings, like masks, sunglasses, helmets and other face-concealing and face-protecting gear, in order to conceal their identity and hinder criminal investigation. These people, mostly anarchists, then go on to damage property.
Though seen in an earlier demonstration in the 1980s, the WTO riots is where it was used en masse for the first time in the United States. This black bloc in Seattle damaged a Starbucks, GAP, Old Navy and other retail establishments, inciting fear within the local community.
As a nation, we’ve witnessed? this activity many, many times since—examples include Washington D.C. after Donald Trump’s inauguration and in February 2016 when Milo Yiannopoulos was asked to speak at the University of California, Berkeley.
Antifa also uses the same tactics.
Over the last two weeks, individuals who believe in this black bloc tactic have sometimes overtaken the peaceful protests of those who are outraged over the death of George Floyd to damage and destroy property. The violence and chaos it unleashed will likely bring about little change but fuels the anarchists’ propaganda.
Ironically, Seattle again is struggling with anarchy in the face of the protests.
Recently, protestors have taken over a couple of blocks in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, in the Eastern part of the city, calling it the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. These people put up barricades and are using armed guards in order to determine who gets in or out. It seems like in this instance, as in 1999, the city has completely lost control and the anarchists are winning.
The WTO riots have left a lasting legacy on the country. Every protest that occurs, no matter what the issue, seems to get more and more out of hand as Antifa and those utilizing black bloc tactics infiltrate what would otherwise be a peaceful movement.
Photo courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives #175645