An encounter with the world

Islanders come away with multiple impressions after encounters with both sides of the WTO protests

  • Thursday, December 9, 1999 5:00pm
  • News

“The World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last week left the city smarting from mass demonstrations, street violence and lost business income. Some Whidbey Islanders who took part came back shaken by the experience. Others returned invigorated, and still others say they just came away feeling different than when they left.“I’m a changed man,” said John Mayhew who went to Seattle along with a North Whidbey friend to protest the conference. “I didn’t go there to pick a fight. I went down for enlightenment. I went down to find out what was going on. I found out what was going on all right — in a way that has changed me forever.”As one of the estimated 600 people arrested by Seattle police a week ago, Mayhew said he has to go back to the city Monday for his day in court. He says he was on his way to a downtown church to attend an informational meeting when police picked him up.“It was a war zone,” he said. “Everybody was wearing shirts and carrying signs that said “nonviolence.” But if you looked like a hippy, if you looked like a protester … they arrested you Wednesday morning.Wednesday’s mass arrests followed a day of huge protest marches, sit-ins and isolated but destructive violence. It culminated in a Tuesday night filled with confrontations between protesters and police and lots of tear gas. Mayhew said he was shocked by the actions of police and was incensed by the treatment protesters received after they were arrested.“I was arrested at 8 a.m.. I didn’t get anything to drink until 3:30 and nothing to eat until about 5 p.m,” said Mayhew. He said he and about 15 to 20 other protesters were first put in a holding tank with a non-working toilet. He said conditions improved after the protesters were moved from the temporary holding area at Sand Point to the county jail. In all, Mayhew spent about 39 hours in custody before he was released on his own recognizance.POOR COMMUNICATIONGreenbank resident Michael Seraphinoff was not arrested while he protested WTO last week, but he has been there before. During the 1970’s he and many other protesters were arrested for criminal trespassing at a Trident submarine base. He said the way police and military personnel handled the situation back then was quite different than what happened in Seattle.“They had a clear idea of who we were and what we were doing. We expected to be arrested and carted off,” he said. “I’m afraid the (Seattle) police had a wrong attitude about us. I think they felt that if they arrested the people who were breaking windows and looting that the crowd would turn and overwhelm them.”In fact, Seraphinoff said, most of the protesters were equally appalled by the violence. Unfortunately, he said, due to a lack of good communication between protesters and Seattle police many people practicing legal civil disobedience were the first to be hit with tear gas and pepper spray when police finally moved in.“They (the protesters) were very much in a vulnerable position,” Seraphinoff said. “The police weren’t so much hostile to the demonstrators as they were afraid of the demonstrators. They didn’t understand we didn’t look at them as the enemy.”Questions about the way city officials handled the protests are still swirling. Saying he takes much of the responsibility, Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper submitted his resignation Monday.South Whidbey’s Steve Erickson was also in Seattle during WTO week. Another veteran of protesting, Erickson said he suspects that city authorities decided early on that they did not want to make mass arrests.“Instead they would just attack people,” he said. “I’ve never been to a demonstration where the cops used so many chemicals. It was chemical warfare.”Erickson said he thinks that decisions to close off parts of the city violated free speech.“They said flat out that this was a non-protest zone. That’s not supposed to happen in this country.”The American Civil Liberties Union has already filed a lawsuit claiming the city acted unconstitutionally when it restricted access.ALTERNATE VIEWSWhile TV viewers saw what looked like chaos in Seattle, some islanders saw a different side. South Whidbey resident Judith Light joined more than 50,000 people last Wednesday as part of a protest march organized by the AFL-CIO.“It was quite inspiring,” she said about the mass of people representing labor unions, environmental groups, farmers, religious organizations and other diverse groups. “I found the crowd itself to be exciting. And it was almost entirely peaceful.”Larry Dobson of Clinton got a unique perspective of the march — from atop stilts that put him about 11 feet above the crowd.“There were iron workers, airline stewardesses and little old ladies from Massachusetts,” he said. “I saw none of the violence. That was not part of the consciousness of 99.9 percent of the group. I was never threatened.”Dobson said media coverage of the event focused too much on the violence or on waiting for violence to happen. He said most people were there to make a statement, not trouble. “There wasn’t an aggressive attitude. People were smiling and there was a feeling of solidarity. That’s the strongest impression I got,” he said.Seraphinoff agreed. He said the mass media showed almost nothing of the speeches prior to the march or of the march itself. He considers it a missed opportunity.“There were people there from all over the world,” Seraphinoff said.MEETING THE PRESIDENTFour Central Whidbey dairy farmers received special invitations to meet with President Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Daniel Glickman last Wednesday during the WTO conference. Karen Bishop of Sherman-Bishop Farms in Coupeville said she, her husband Wilbur, Al Sherman and Don Sherman were among about 60 farmers from around the state who addressed trade issues with Clinton. Overall, she said the talks went well.“It surprised me how long the president and the secretary stayed there to talk to us. It was a real treat to have that dialogue,” Bishop said.Among the issues discussed were the support of family-owned farms, keeping prices stable and the competition from overseas countries who restrict imports of U.S. farm products.For security reasons, Bishop and the others did not know the time and place of the meeting until the day before. She said the event was held outside the downtown Seattle area at an out-of-the-way, unheated Port of Seattle warehouse on Harbor Island.“Nobody had a clue it was going on,” she said. When they arrived a simple sign directed them to “event parking” and protesters were nowhere to be seen. “And when we came out, nobody was there.”HELPING THE CITYOak Harbor Fire Chief Mark Soptich spent WTO week on the job. As a task force leader, he joined about 20 other Island County firefighters who were mobilized to support Seattle area emergency services. Oak Harbor, Fire District 2 and 3 as well as Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue and Whidbey General Hospital participated along with task forces from five other counties.Soptich said Seattle officials wanted to be prepared for any problems that might literally ignite during the week. The group was stationed in North Seattle but also covered areas south and east of the city.“Fortunately we did not have to respond to anything and nobody was injured,” said Soptich. His crew was on duty for about 62 of the 80 hours they were stationed in the city.“We put in some long days but we knew that going in,” Soptich said. “We’re happy to support them because someday we may have to have them do the same thing in return.””

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