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Terrain of the Battlefield

by Paul de Armond

A dense, hilly area
The police plan to reorganize for an attempt to force the Direct Action Network protesters out of the downtown area and into the AFL-CIO parade set in motion several different actions which had a dramatic effect on perceptions of the Battle in Seattle. In order to understand how these actions converged it is necessary to step back in time to around noon, when Assistant Chief Joiner was turning down requests to declare a civil emergency and cancel the AFL-CIO parade.

The repeated attempts by police to establish a perimeter connecting the hotels, the Convention Center and the Paramount Theatre were blocked all day by the numbers of the protesters. The police command retained strategic cohesion, despite the discord at the top and the chaos in the streets. Tactical orders from the command continued to be executed by the officers in the front line at all times -- they charged when ordered and reformed after each charge. Much attention has been given to excessive violence by officers, the repeated attacks on reporters and the assault by officers on Seattle City Councilman Richard McIver. These incidents were relatively commonplace, but did not involve loss of control by the upper command. Seattle political researcher Dan Junas cites the police ability to regulate the tempo of the street battles as strong evidence that the political leadership remained in control. "As the labor marchers approached, the police got off the gas," said Junas.

Map The geography of the WTO conference site played a central role in determining the success of the protests. The accompanying 1996 USGS satellite photo show the field of battle and the significant features.

First and most importantly, the Washington Trade and Convention Center is located on the edge of downtown. It is built over the I-5 freeway and is accessible from only two sides. As a site for a blockade, it is perfect. The area is triangular, with the freeway side inaccessible. The Direct Action Network blockaded the area along the north and west streets. The blockade was several blocks deep and concentrated on a dozen intersections.

Secondly, the sites of two major skirmishes which dominated media attention, Capitol Hill and the Pike Place Market, had nothing to do with conducting the conference or moving delegates between the Convention Center, the Paramount Theatre or the downtown hotels. Likewise, the area in which the Black Bloc vandalism occurred is outside the blockade area and not part of the streets directly connecting the Convention Center with the Westin Hotel or the Paramount Theatre.

Capitol Hill and the Pike Place Market form two poles along the major axis of crowd mobility, the named streets which run northeast/southwest through the downtown. The Market is built on a steep bluff which formed Seattle's original shoreline. The bluff forms a geographic barrier which stops all movement towards the waterfront. Capitol Hill is a dense residential neighborhood -- the densest in the city. Broadway, the main street which forms the backbone of the Capitol Hill commercial district, runs north/south along the crest. There is a steep change in elevation along Seattle's east-west axis running from the crest of Capital hill to the waterfront.

The area immediately to the north of the convention center is predominantly open parking lots and small buildings, compared to the more densely built-up downtown. To the west, the long blocks of the avenues (7th, 6th, 5th, ending in 1st Ave) in the posh section of downtown form a barrier which channels movement into a few streets (Pike, Pine, Union and University). Blockades on these streets effectively shut off the area. The east and south sides of the Convention Center are cut off by the freeway.

The geography of Seattle's downtown favors protesters
To maintain effective control of the area, the police would have needed a perimeter roughly on the order of Thursday's "no protest zone." Given the decision to rely on the Seattle Police alone, this lengthy perimeter was impossible to control with 400 officers. The additional resources of county, state and federal forces would have been hard pressed to maintain such a perimeter in the face of the approximately 40,000 protesters, demonstrators and parade participants present on Tuesday. On Wednesday, these additional police forces were available and the number of protesters was approximately halved. Even with this sizable shift in the numbers on opposing sides, the police were unable to effectively control the downtown.

Amidst all the criticism -- mostly coming from law enforcement agencies which failed even more disastrously than the Seattle Police Department in maintaining order -- about the police's "lack of preparedness" for the demonstrations, the larger perimeter, increased security troops and suspension of civil liberties which accompanied the mayor's declaration of civil emergency failed miserably in the face of much smaller numbers of protesters on Wednesday.

The geography of Seattle's downtown favors protesters. In the last decade, two major civil disturbances -- accompanying first the Gulf War protests and the "Rodney King" riots -- have followed much the same path over the same streets, as did the numerous protests during the Viet Nam war. Given sufficient numbers and even the most hair-brained strategy, protesters have the ability to dominate the streets of Seattle.

NEXT: The Generals Panic

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Albion Monitor February 29, 2000 (

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