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Friday, December 3, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lance Dickie

Sideshow Punks Shouldn't Tarnish Principled Protest

Times Editorial Columnist

A BIG "A" in a circle. Somehow that is too perfect a symbol for the so-called anarchists who worked hard to spoil Seattle's WTO party.

These roving digestive-tract terminals completely skewed the picture of legitimate protests against the World Trade Organization.

Ugly, tragic events must not be allowed to overwhelm two peaceful protests that resonated inside the ministerial meeting.

Random acts of bravery on mean streets must be acknowledged as well. Citizens armed with no more than lung power and indignation faced down rampaging thugs. People acted like cops in the absence of cops.

After a rough, sad week, headlines about 500-plus arrests stir mixed feelings.

In those numbers are gutsy, principled protesters exercising a right to oppose a global organization they see threatening workers, food safety, human rights and the environment.

Their beliefs inspired acts of civil disobedience, and they paid a painful price. They hunkered down to block streets under clouds of tear gas and pepper spray and rubber bullets in the legs. They were not off breaking windows or setting fires.

Free to roam were the young and the reckless, pure vandals who could not spell Mikhail Bakunin, let alone talk coherently about anarchism. These are crow-bar wielding rebels against private property who anchor their wallets to their pants with a length of chain.

Nearly 600 arrests is a shocking number, but six times that many people crowded inside First United Methodist Church Monday evening to support Jubilee 2000.

That night, 6,000 marched in a spitting rain to a WTO reception in support of the Jubilee movement to cancel the debts of 41 dirt-poor nations.

The WTO cannot force international lenders to forgive debts, but director-general Michael Moore insists the WTO is not without its own moral authority. He supports a complementary project.

Moore is nudging WTO to work with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on finance and trade relief for the least-developed countries.

WTO's draft ministerial text proposed duty-free, quota-free market access for products from the poorest countries. This is how the voices inside the First United Methodist Church echoed in the meeting rooms at the state Convention Center.

The next day, organized labor pulled off an extraordinary feat, but tear gas would lead the news.

Months of planning brought together a massive march that blended labor, environmentalists, religious groups, human-rights and animal-welfare advocates. A dozen topless protesters were also in the ranks. Their craft union affiliation was not obvious, but they were handy with electrical tape.

This wonderfully rowdy, diverse assembly outside was boisterous proof that WTO touched a variety of issues close to the lives of Americans. Inside, U.S. negotiators could point out the window and tell international colleagues, "we told you so."

The bone-dry language of trade came alive on the streets of Seattle. A delegate told Reuters he suspected the demonstrations were planned to put pressure on foreign negotiators. Take it as a compliment.

Parade marshals in orange hats maintained order along the route. Seattle police worked hard to make it work, as they did Monday night for Jubilee 2000. Most of the choreography had been settled for weeks.

Where things fell horribly apart Tuesday afternoon were on the side streets and avenues away from the main confrontations.

Seattle police by apparent design ceded nearby downtown streets to the better instincts of the public. No one expected, or someone dangerously underestimated, the outlaw factor. Punks raged without fear.

The cops were not around. Elsewhere, they did not flinch in the face of serious provocation, and they operated with admirable restraint and hard-ass efficiency when needed. But they were simply not around.

In this lawless void, protesters tried to protect shops and businesses with nothing more than chants of "No violence, no violence."

When the window-smashers started to trash a Sixth Avenue Starbucks, an angry crowd forced the vandals back onto the streets. A gray-haired, bantam-weight woman in a yellow parka put herself between the Christmas Blend and the thugs and chewed them out.

Two others I will never forget:

Chrystal Prather plain gave the would-be looters hell. The tall, 21-year-old African-American woman loudly proclaimed she worked hard for everything she had, and was disgusted by those who would destroy businesses and threaten innocent people.

She made it clear it was not the protesting she minded, but the mindless destruction she could not abide. At that moment, she spoke for an entire city.

Later Tuesday night, a young man blinded by tear gas stumbled down a side street being reclaimed by the police. His face and eyes were on fire and he was bleeding from head wounds.

This young protester, a UW student from California, had put himself between Niketown and the vandals and got whacked repeatedly for living his nonviolent beliefs.

The history of this sorry week cannot be allowed to overlook two powerful protest marches and the courage of ordinary citizens.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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