The Walk for Democracy, 13 Years Later
January 16, 2017
I woke up this morning to a palpable energy in the air that nearly threw me out of my bed. Across America, millions of my fellow citizens have already been up for hours, putting their final touches on signs and puppets and banners in preparation to take to the streets for their MLK and Million Woman Marches. For many, it will be the first time they’ve ever held a sign or shouted a chant declaring their engagement in a political system which simultaneously encourages and crushes dissent. My advice? Expect the unexpected. Today may alter the course of your life.
Most of the marches today will be peaceful and vibrant, but ask any activist who’s been around the literal and figurative block, and they’ll tell you that your First Amendment rights can be revoked at any time.
I was there, on the streets of Seattle, in December of 1999, at a protest denouncing the non-transparent and undemocratic behavior of the World Trade Organization. You may or may not have heard of it, but tens of thousands of activists from all over the world showed up to my town. After months of organizing, and with a commitment to non-violent direct action, they literally shut down the WTO. How? Delegates from developing nations, empowered by what they saw on the streets, decided they were sick of being bullied. Inside the closed meetings rooms at the Convention Center, where activists and NGOs had few seats at the table, consensus became impossible. It was, as one delegate put it, “A complete collapse”. You might call it a rather brilliant inside job.
The protest was so successful, our mayor decided to invoke martial law. It became illegal to possess flyers or wear buttons expressing opinions about the WTO. Hundreds of activists were arrested without charges. The Seattle Police Department quickly ran out of their supply of tear-gas and pepper-spray, and had to send for more from neighboring states. Despite 2 days of nearly constant barrage both inside and out of our “no protest zone”, it was illegal to even possess a gas mask. That is what martial law looks like.
That week of protest was my introduction to political activism, and I have devoted much of my life to various causes these past 17 years. I am a walking testament to the transformative power of protest, though I’m not walking much these days. I became permanently disabled in May as a result of an injury I incurred on the job as a railroad conductor/switchman, which has been my career for the last 12 years.
The irony doesn’t escape me. I once walked across America for “Democracy”.
Between surgery and physical therapy and struggling to make ends meet on disability pay as a single mother in one of the most expensive cities in America, I’ve had lots of time on my hands. I decided to finally write about the 4,000-mile walk I started after George W. Bush was sort-of elected back in 2001, which ended at the White House in 2003. I’ve learned quite a bit about how the publishing world works since then. Our stories are secondary to our marketability, which in a way is completely understandable. Agents and publishers take a huge chance with unknowns like me. The harsh reality is that if you are an ordinary, blue-collar, working-class citizen, your voice is not likely to be heard.
Modern American society puts huge premiums on divisiveness and celebrity. Most of us get pigeon-holed into one of only two categories — “Left” or “Right”. Whether I like it or not, I usually get lumped into “The Left”. I don’t even need to name names — most of the world is aware of who my unelected spokespeople are. While I am often grateful for the celebrities who use their platform to speak out on behalf of those who “don’t have a voice”, I am certain I’m not the only one wondering why they don’t just help us use the voices we already have. We do have them!
Trying to survive on a fixed income, I can’t afford to go to workshops or retreats to learn how to be a better marketer, but I do have a story to tell and hundreds of pages in various stages of rewrites. I just need a publisher who will take a chance on someone like me! I prefer to use my time finishing the story, because I believe we are entering an age where these stories are crucial. I left social media 7 months ago — in part to devote all my attention to my book, but also because the divisiveness displayed by friends and co-workers had reached a fever pitch which was heartbreaking to watch. I walked across America before the time of the “trolls” and “post-truth politics” and “fake news”, and had absolute faith that Americans weren’t as divided as the Election of 2000 led us to believe. Now I’m not so sure. I think some of us are going to have to prove it again.
I have a favor to ask. Please “like” my Facebook page, as it will absolutely help to establish the “credibility” which apparently doesn’t come with walking across America. And don’t stop there! Leave a brief synopsis of your own story. What actions have you been a part of? What motivated you? Who inspires you? What are the challenges and benefits of getting involved in organizations you are a part of? What are your dreams for the future?
I also encourage everyone to check out Alex Evans’ excellent book, “The Myth Gap”, available here: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1113478/the-myth-gap/
Below is a brief excerpt from my memoir, recounting the day I got swept up in the WTO protest. At the time, I had no idea what “WTO” even stood for.
I hope the amazing marches today inspire thousands to believe in the power of their own voice. Never stop speaking out for what’s right, and good luck out there! I wish I could join you, but I will always be there in spirit.
“The people united will never be defeated!”
Harborview Center Inpatient Psychiatric Ward, Seattle, WA December 1, 1999
It’s almost unbelievable.
Images of scary-looking kids in black, smashing storefront windows downtown, have been pounding us on a continuous loop on the morning news. Their faces concealed with handkerchiefs or balaclavas, it’s impossible to tell who they are or what they think they’re doing to this city. My city. At least, the city I adopted 6 years ago.
The newscasters are speculating that the hoodlums are “anarchists” from Eugene, Oregon. Why are there so many anarchists in Eugene?
“There is not one corner of downtown that has not fallen victim to this destruction. It’s just been an unruly day, and a difficult one for police…”
“Anarchists vow to bring destruction downtown for yet another day. No one’s quite sure what to expect with the WTO, and 50,000 protesters still in town…”
I‘m scrambling to finish my chart notes with all of these distractions. I usually have the dining hall to myself after lunch, but this hullaballoo going on downtown has everyone riled up, even the doctors. I guess the instinct to rubberneck crosses class divides.
One of my assigned patients, a schizoaffective meth addict, is super into it. I have to chart on him later anyway, so it’s not really eavesdropping. It’s always interesting to hear a patient’s take on current events.
“So, like, some people were protesting something, but then the protesters started smashing shit, and now the cops are there, beating everybody up.”
Not a bad synopsis.
Dr. Jones – an obsessive-compulsive hand-washer, but otherwise brilliant clinical psychiatrist – presses him further.
“Why are they smashing the windows at Niketown?”
“I think it’s about slave labor in China or somethin’. Anyways it’s kind of stupid. How’s smashing a window gonna help anybody?”
No one can think of a plausible reason, but it was still kinda fun to watch.
“Look at what the cops are wearing! That’s like some Darth Vader shizzle right there!”
“Dude! Did you see that guy? One of them Eugene Anti-christs just chucked a tear gas canister right back at the cops! That takes some serious balls, man.”
“That’s just right down on Fourth Avenue. Look! They’re right in Westlake Park!”
I’m trying to remember if one of my patients is still having audio hallucinations when Colleen, my hippie nurse friend, walks in carrying an armload of charts. She must be finished handing out meds.
“This is just like the ‘60s!” she squeals, dumping her armload on the dining table and clapping her hands.
Colleen usually hides her hippie flag well, but I know what a kick this must be for her. Back in the day, she hung with Kesey’s LSD Merrymakers, learned astrology in Haight-Ashbury, and I think briefly dated someone from the Grateful Dead. She volunteered to do my moon chart a few years ago, and now I force every prospective suitor disclose his birth date and time so she can check astral compatibility for me. I beginning to suspect that I’m compatible with no one.
“You know why I don’t read the newspapers anymore, Colleen?”, I complain. “This. This is what being informed does to you. Everything is horrible, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so why even know? Eventually people get so pissed about how horrible the world is, they do stuff like break windows. And for what? All it does is provoke the cops. I don’t even know what their message is.”
“You don’t? They’ve been covering this WTO protest on “Democracy Now!” for a few months! People came from all over the world to stand up to corporate greed. My partner is down there with his union right now. There’s a giant Labor rally down at Key Arena, but he says they’re not gonna go downtown. The Labor march is all nonviolent.”
“Seriously? Man, my dad hates unions. He thinks they’re all a bunch of lazy, entitled, violent thugs. Maybe things have changed.”
All I see on the TV are a bunch of dumb kids dressed in black with bandanas over their faces breaking storefront windows. Who knows what they think they’re doing? They probably don’t even know. They’re probably just troublemaking jerks.
Iclock out with this dystopian attitude just as dusk falls. A cold mist shrouds the dozens of hospitals, medical offices, and buildings of “Pill Hill” in an electric blue blanket. Most of the dead leaves have fallen from the trees. So long, beautiful Seattle Autumn. It’s been my favorite time of the year since moving out here. Back in Texas, we only had two seasons — Winter, and Hell.
I live on the second-floor of 1930’s-era red-brick building. My 500-square foot studio is a block off Broadway, the main drag for the boisterous LGBT/Leather Daddy/flannel-wearing grunge Capitol Hill set of the day. The bassist from Hole overdosed in a unit on the first floor of my building. My ‘hood is loud and crazy and it takes forever to find parking, but I love it.
I met Sabine – my tiny, elfin, magenta-haired, nose-pierced, graphic designer neighbor – when she pepper-sprayed a would-be molester in our hallway. I was washing dinner dishes when I heard her screaming and pounding on my front door. First she asked me to call the police, which of course I did. Then she asked for whiskey, which of course I had. Turns out we both spent our formative years in Texas, so we became instant friends. I watch her evil Siamese cat when she goes out of town, and she introduces me to cool people from the alternative weekly newspaper she works for. I decide to text her to see if I can hang out and watch the madness downtown on her television, since I haven’t had a tv in years.
Hey, girl! I’m grabbing wine. Need a bottle?
The automatic doors of our neighborhood Quality Food Center whoosh open to reveal a scene on the street much different than the usual evening traffic. The entire intersection of Pine and Broadway is now packed with people dancing around an impromptu drum circle, steadily growing in the center around a dumpster fire someone had started.
This isn’t a big deal for Broadway. People here don’t need an excuse to take over the street. Sometimes it’s to Free Mumia, sometimes it’s gay pride… and more power to them. Me? I don’t really do that activism stuff anymore.
I think I did enough already. After a friend from high school died of AIDS, I did some volunteer work with the San Antonio AIDS Foundation. The worst part about that was trying to find funeral homes that would accept down-payments for coffins. A lot of the poor Catholic Latinos I worked with had friends who were cremated because they didn’t finish the payments for their coffins in time. The funeral home would pocket any deposits if no family was found, which was extremely common in a culture that puts so much emphasis on “machismo”. All I had to do was drive the clients around, but of course I got more involved. How could I not? Those vultures were making a killing off of the AIDS epidemic. I did a lot of screaming at funeral directors, demanding that they disclose in writing where deposits would go if payments weren’t completed. I got some deposits back for some of my sickest clients, who obviously would not be able to pay down the debt. It was almost worse to see their faces once they realized they would not be given the proper burial in the eyes of their church. The gay community was amazingly generous, but there was never enough money to help everyone. It was too heartbreaking. Sometimes it hurts too much to be involved, especially if you can’t see that you’re making a difference.
I can’t tell what kind of protesters are taking to the streets this time. Lots of signs, lots of chants…
“Hell, no, WTO!”
“Free Leonard Peltier!”
“China out of Tibet!”
“This is what democracy looks like!”
I can’t figure out what’s got everybody’s knickers in a twist. Not that anyone looks particularly unhappy. It looks like they’re having an absolute blast.
I spot Sabine through a crowd of pensive Sufis on the sidewalk next to me, and feel a little bad about fighting my way through them. They are a peaceful people.
“Hey, girl! I was just gonna stop by. Do you know what’s going on?”
“No. I’m trying to get out of here!” She looks as though she’s having a panic attack.
We hear a siren coming up Pine Street from downtown. I jump up and down, but can’t see past the Sufis’ white turbans.
“I can’t see. I’m gonna go get a better look.”
I elbow my way through what is now a completely packed intersection. There’s a white van stopped at the adjacent corner. I can’t make out any decals, but I assume it’s a police van. The flashing lights are all I can see, and it’s obvious that the van is slowly advancing into the crowd. People in front of the van scramble to get out of the way. Jesus — it almost looks like they’re trying to run people over.
The van finally stops in the middle of the intersection, and time stands still. Even the drummers stop drumming. Standing next to me, an elderly, thin, white haired black woman with a “Be The Change You Wish To See In The World” button leans towards me.
“I think they’re trying to instigate something.”
“Who, the protesters?”
Or does she mean the cops? This isn’t the usual Seattle police response on Capitol Hill. At Gay Pride, officers join in with the celebration. I’ve heard that Seattle police do a lot of racial profiling, but obviously I’ve never seen it. They don’t bother blonde-haired white girls like me too much. But this can’t be a race thing. Must have something to do with the protest, but isn’t that downtown? Still — why would anyone want to instigate trouble?
“Reichstag Fire”, she smiles.
As if to answer, the parked van starts shaking. Just a few nudges at first, but it’s like throwing a match into a can of gasoline. Now I see the masked kids from the news, all in black. They rock the van violently.
This can’t be good. I tug at the old lady’s coat sleeve.
“Hey… I think we should get out of here!”
She smiles, but doesn’t move. “I never thought I’d see this again.”
“This! I never thought I’d see people stand up for themselves like this again.”
I’m not seeing anyone necessarily “standing up” for anything. Maybe she has some great stories from the civil rights days, but this is just chaos.
I turn around and fight against the tide of “the people with the buttons”. I don’t know if they’re protesters or what, but the form their adrenaline takes is to rush towards the center of the fight. Not me. When the shit goes down, I will always choose flight over fight. My heart is pounding when I reach the imaginary safe border of the sidewalk, where I finally hunch over to catch my breath.
My right eardrum feels as though it’s split in two as an explosion flashes less than 20 feet away from me. Ow, that hurts!
Stunned and temporarily blinded, I stumble towards what I think is north and home, but suddenly my eyes clamp shut. I don’t think I can open them again. It stings and burns – like acid was thrown on my face. Is this acid? Is my skin gonna start melting off, like the German dude in Raiders of the Lost Ark?
Everyone around me is in the same condition, coughing and running into each other like some drunken vaudeville act. I can’t manage to walk half a block in this condition, so I slump against the same wall in the Dick’s Burgers parking lot I used to see Courtney Love scream at passersby from.
I feel a hand push my forehead back into another hand cradling my neck. I can only make out a blur, but a male voice shouts into my good ear above the screams, “Try to relax, okay? I’m going to pour something into your eyes that will help.”
Now competing with flash-bangs are what sounds like rapid gunfire from a semi-automatic shotgun. Are they friggin’ shooting at us?
My strange medic enunciates his words loudly into my good ear. “Try to open your eyes! It’s just a little Mylanta and water! Helps with the pepper-spray!”
Pepper-spray? Is this what this is? I once walked out of a bar in Deep Elum, Dallas to some police spraying folks in a Reggae Club across the street, but it never hit me like this. It’s rather like inhaling a gallon jug of pepper through your nose, while someone sets your head on fire.
The rinse is starting to help. A black trucker hat bearing a green cross slowly comes into focus, only it’s not quite the face of a human. I reach up to feel out who’s helping me. I think it’s one of those military surplus gas masks.
“Do you need help getting home?”
Home? Home?! Hell no! I’m not going home!
“No, I’m fine. I’ll be fine!”
I don’t know what’s come over me, but there is no way I am letting these cops get away with this.
I wasn’t even a protester! I’m a innocent citizen! My daddy is a 21-year Navy vet who was willing to sacrifice his life for this country. You can’t just attack innocent people like that, for no reason! This is America! So what if people want to protest?! Isn’t that supposed to be our right? Protesting is our Constitutional right!
The second amendment, was it? No, the first. History classes were so boring!
No, I don’t want to go home. I am home! These psycho cops are the ones that need to go home!
Ido wish I could go home just long enough to change my shoes, but I can’t get to my building now. Stupid nursing clogs. These are not made for wet Seattle streets. I couldn’t run if I wanted to, but no one else is running either. For a bunch of folks who just got attacked by police, we’re remarkably calm and orderly. We even stop to wait for the light at crosswalks.
I manage to cover four blocks without landing on my arse. Whether the cops were reloading ammo or creating a new formation, I have no idea. Can’t see them now. I look around for familiar faces, but see none. Everyone around me has the same, lost expression — searching for something familiar and stable to ground us in this surreal reality.
I see an old drunk man stumble out of the front door of Eileen’s Tavern. Horrified at the scene, he starts reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
I’m too angry to be religious at the moment — especially when I see a cop, completely unidentifiable in his riot get-up, beat the old man down a few seconds later with his nightstick. Without thinking, I rush to get between him and his attacker.
“What are you doing?! He’s just an old man! What the hell is wrong with you?”
But the cop ignores me and moves on to his next victim, a well-dressed young father holding his terrified young son on one hip, fumbling for the keys to his car with his one free hand.
“Get out of here!”, screams the cop.
“I’m trying! I’m trying!”
Shaking and panicked, the young dad drops his keys. Picking them up, he stands and protectively covers his toddler’s face. The cop shows no restraint. He holds up a black spray can, and douses the man with pepper-spray.
Jesus Christ! This must be what war feels like! No, no — war is obviously worse, but what if they do start shooting us with real bullets? How do I know people haven’t already been shot? What if this “police riot” has a body count, and we don’t even know it yet? For some reason, the thought of it makes me want to stay even more — like if I leave, somehow people aren’t going to be okay.
Another line of riot police is blocking the way to my apartment, only a block away. A guy around my age, a red-headed giant covered in Gandhi buttons, turns to me.
“Do you need to get through there? I’ll help you. Let’s go!”
I don’t have a chance to answer him before he grabs my coat sleeve and pulls me towards the line of cops. One of them raises what looks like a machine gun, and points it right at me.
“Get down!”, shouts my ginger escort.
I manage to turn my face as a spray of pellets hit us. My new friend is not so lucky. Blood is pouring from the hand covering his left eye. He runs off before I can help him, so I turn around and nearly run into a dumpster being pushed into the street from the Baskin Robbins parking lot.
“Get behind this!” I hear, as another arm grabs my coat and pulls me to safety behind the dumpster. I try to slow my breathing down.
“What the hell?!” is all I can manage to get out. A young man, at least I think it’s a young man, is laughing with delight next to me. He is completely dressed in black, and his face isn’t visible through the black balaclava.
“Right?! Viva la revolution!” He seems chipper.
“I wasn’t even doing anything! What do they want us to do? They said on the loudspeaker to get off Broadway, so we get off Broadway. Then they hit us with rubber bullets. Where are we supposed to go?”
“You got shot? Where? Here?” He runs from behind the dumpster on to the street, and starts picking up the pellets. “You should grab some! Ebay, man! These things will be valuable one day!”
I see a few pellets near my feet and pick them up. I’m a little embarrassed to do it, but I see others scrambling around on the ground for the same reason. Might as well get a souvenir out of it. This could very well be a life-changing experience.