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The Plans for Battle

by Paul de Armond

The police on the streets expected to disperse the few hundred protesters before noon
What exactly happened during the crucial hours of that Tuesday, November 30 morning battle in Seattle is shrouded in confusion and controversy, but the broad outlines can be discerned. "It was a classic example of two armies coming into contact and immediately experiencing the total collapse of their battle plans," said Daniel Junas, a Seattle political researcher.

Each faction had a strategy that would ensure that their forces would control the streets -- or so they thought.

On the face of it, the Direct Action Network protesters had a straightforward battle plan: To show up, cross flimsy police barriers, and be arrested -- probably with a light seasoning of pepper spray.

The mayor and the chief of police expected a paltry handful of demonstrators to show up downtown and get arrested in a mutual display of civility. Police Chief Norm Stamper had decided the protests could be peacefully controlled by his own forces without outside assistance -- knowing that the price of assistance could be the peace. His plan was to protect the WTO conference with a "tripwire" outer perimeter around the Convention Center, arresting protesters that crossed the line. This was to be reinforced by an inner perimeter to block protesters from entering the Center and disrupting the meeting. The police on the streets expected to disperse the few hundred protesters before noon, maybe with a little tussle. But they were going to maintain discipline, show restraint, and "not be the spark" if things got out of hand.

A crucial part of the police strategy depended upon the AFL-CIO. The labor union's goal was simple: To dominate media coverage with a colorful parade from the Seattle Center towards -- but not too close to -- downtown. As the protests grew out of hand, however, the mayor and cops would change strategy to hope that the parade would draw the bulk of the protesters away from the Convention Center.

And finally there was the battle plan of the Black Bloc, who expected to do a little graffiti and smash some carefully selected windows just as soon as the police got too preoccupied with the demonstrators.

Bad advice from FBI and Secret Service
Significant wildcards in the police strategy were the federal law enforcement agencies. The FBI and Secret Service cried doom and gloom over the city's plan to use the AFL-CIO parade to divert protesters, yet signed off on Mayor Schell and Chief Stamper's plan.

The FBI, if their "Terrorist Threat Advisory" can be believed, were preparing to counter a terrorist onslaught in cyberspace while combating terrorist home invasions or kidnappings. Actually, some of the FBI were dressing up in protester disguises complete with black masks, and getting ready to join in the street party with the Black Bloc as close observers.

Anarchist But the intelligence picture was damaged by the claims of federal law enforcement officials that the protests would be violent. The publicly released text of one FBI forecast was replete with hysterical predictions: "...elements within the protest community are planning to disrupt the conference... environmental or animal rights extremists or anarchist-induced violence ... computer-based attacks on WTO-related web sites, as well as key corporate and financial sites...Corporate sponsors ... may be subject to surveillance efforts from these groups.... to identify the residences of key employees of sponsoring corporations.... These employees should remain alert for individuals who may be targeting them in furtherance of anti-WTO activities.... Recipients should remain sensitive to threats made by anti-WTO groups."

Buried within this froth was "The FBI assesses the potential threat of violence, to include criminal acts of civil disturbance, as low to medium for the Seattle area during the time frame of the WTO Meeting." Asked by reporters what "low to medium" meant, FBI spokesman Ray Lauer refused to answer, citing the "law-enforcement sensitive" nature of the report and the "controversy concerning planning over WTO." An anonymous law enforcement source cited by the Seattle Times stated that "low to medium" covered anything from simple civil disobedience to and Oklahoma City-style terrorist bombing.

Nowhere in the FBI "Terrorist Threat Advisory" was the slightest inkling of what was going to be happening in the streets beyond the fact that the conference was going to be "disrupted." The Direct Action Network and AFL-CIO plans had been trumpeted loudly, widely and in considerable detail in the press by the organizers, summing up to non-violent civil disobedience shutting down the conference and an ineffectual parade designed to keep protesters away from the Convention Center. The city officials at the top elected to pick and choose among information to support their plans. The front-line officers did the same, if with opposite results. The rumors within the police department (fantasy or otherwise) about federal expectations of dead and wounded police added to the unreality.

The real question which faced the police was whether they would be confronting a protest or a parade. The police put their money on the parade -- and lost.

The Old Guard Stumped by a New Kind of War
The labor parade as the dominant factor of the protests was the least likely of all outcomes, but the only one which the police had a chance of controlling.

The current theory of controlling protests usually revolves around the willingness of protesters to be steered into some venue in which they can be controlled and the protest neutralized, marginalized and trivialized. When this agreement doesn't exist, the older police strategy is to treat a protest as a riot -- gas, baton charges, assault and occasionally arrests.

On Tuesday, the first strategy failed.

On Wednesday, the second strategy failed.

RAN banner The Direct Action Network (DAN) represents an emerging species of political organization based on networks rather than institutions. The primary networked organizations in the Direct Action Network were a coalition of groups such as Rainforest Action Network, Art & Revolution and the Ruckus Society. Through the Direct Action Network, these groups coordinated non-violent protest training, communications and collective strategy and tactics through a decentralized process of consultation/consensus decision-making.

The strategy and tactics of these new -- and primarily information-based -- networks of non-governmental organizations evolved from trends represented by the ad hoc mobilization committees of the Viet Nam protest era, the "alternative summits" at recent world environmental and human rights conferences, and the loose coalitions which formed in opposition to U.S. policy during the Gulf War. Networks, as opposed to institutions, are shaped by decentralized command and control structures; are resistant to "decapitation" attacks targeting leaders, and are amorphous enough to weld together coalitions with significantly different agendas while concentrating forces on a single symbolic target.

Conflicts involving networks blur the distinction between offensive and defensive. The overall strategic goal of the Direct Action Network was to "shut down" the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. This would be done by a variety of actions summing up to a street blockade in the immediate vicinity of the WTO conference. Once the blockade came into being, the emphasis would shift to defending the blockade for as long as possible in the streets. In the spotlight of media attention created by the blockade, DAN would then launch a variety of informational operations emphasizing the anti-democratic tendencies of trans-national trade agreements.

Underlying the failure of the police strategy for controlling the demonstrations was the fundamental failure of intelligence. The picture which law enforcement built of the developing protests was a catastrophe of wishful thinking, breathing their own exhaust and the most classic of all blunders -- mistaking tactics for strategy. The Seattle police and all of the responsible federal law enforcement agencies had the information necessary to appraise the situation. What was lacking was a comprehensive understanding of the strategy of the protests. Without that, all of the pieces of the intelligence puzzle were not going to fit into an accurate assessment and strategic plan.

The wishful thinking centered on the alliance between the police and the AFL-CIO. The plan for the labor parade to engulf the protests and steer them into a marginal venue was never a real possibility. The Direct Action Network and their allies had no intention of turning the protest organizing over to a conservative alliance which was trumpeting Pat Buchanan as "the only presidential candidate who understands the trade issue," through the mouthpiece of Teamster leader Hoffa on national television Sunday. The Left has had decades of experience being sold down the river by organized labor and has learned that lesson well. If there was going to be an alliance between protesters and paraders, it was going to be on the protesters terms or not at all. The city officials chose to believe their labor allies assurances of controlling the protesters. This led the police to drastically underestimate the number of protesters, who were at least as numerous as the paraders. Due to the stealthy approach aspect of netwar conflicts, they never saw them coming.

NEXT: What is Netwar?

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Albion Monitor February 29, 2000 (

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