The Seattle Sheraton meets Occupy Wall Street: Thoughts on a building
What makes up a building? It has a framework, floors, walls, siding, and windows. It has tables, chairs, desks, clocks, tools, machinery, and any other products designed to make the building function. It generally has a purpose, because, well, people wouldn't build it if it didn't. And parallel to the purpose are the people allowing it to function as what its supposed to be. Finally, it hosts people suited to frequent, by design or by purpose, the building. On Wednesday night, we had a building. In this building was Jamie Diamond.
Who is Jamie Diamond? Well, ol' JD has been a lot of things in his day. From assistant at American Express to C.E.O. of Citigroup (which was the largest financial services conglomerate in the world in its time). He became president of J.P. Morgan Chase in 2004. Then, in 2008, he became a board member of the New York Federal Reserve and C.E.O. of Chase Bank. He personally handled a good portion of the bank bail out money under both Bush and Obama. Not to mention he is reportedly golfing buddies with our current Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner. And Jamie Diamond happened to be in the Sheraton Seattle Hotel on November 3rd, Wednesday night.
What then, you ask, is the Sheraton Seattle Hotel? It's just a building, really. Except, Wednesday night, it was our building.
The day started with a small march to a local bank. The day of action was justly call “March on the Banks”, and we did precisely that. Around one o'clock we gathered at the Seattle Central Community College, where Occupy Seattle is located, and took to the streets. We marched from the campus to a Chase Bank branch about a mile away, chanting slogans, walking in the street, and shutting down traffic. The group was moving peacefully, escorted with SPD.
We effectively shut down the Chase Bank branch when we got there. Light in spirit, and as of yet untouched by police, we kept chanting our demands at the bank. The People's Mic was at full volume, broadcasting the ideas that we collectively shared. It wasn't until the group who had chained themselves inside were cut free, taken outside, and arrested that things began to get hairy.
It was hard to tell who aggravated the situation more, the police or the protesters. Obviously, both sides protect their own when asked about this. Regardless, the situation elevated when one of the bikes the police were using as barriers was used by protesters to push back. And just as Newton's third law describes, the tables quickly turned into a pushing match with Occupiers and police. Then the mace started flying.
I lent my assistance to the very wounded Occupiers hit directly with the spray. As you can imagine, pepper spray hurts in varying degrees dependent on range, accuracy, and the individual. As do the motives of the people that got hit. It seemed most people that got it right in the face had been peaceful and non-aggressive, merely unfortunate martyrs of a sticky situation.
The protesters had, at this point, become fairly frustrated and demonstrated that by walking up and down the street with no real direction. It was quite comical to watch from the periphery as police set up near random barriers and protesters lined up right along side if only to yell at the officers. Tensions were rising but police were giving the group the “respect” they needed to not over-escalate the situation. I think they wanted to only pepper spray the crowd enough. That seems like a contradiction as I write it, though it may be truer than it sounds.
The march then directed its energy towards the city center. We headed for Westlake Park, the place Occupy Seattle had began. A place that has had a very checkered history for Occupants. For one, it had been the location of many tents in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and had only recently been moved out of. It also knew many sleepless nights, many “confiscated” (stolen) tents, and many arrested protesters all thanks to police resistance to the movement. Seattle's Tahrir Square is called Westlake Park.
Tensions deescalated, or maybe tabled is a better word, once we reached Westlake. Music was set up, people danced, talked, and rested for what we all knew was the big action of the day. Our march on the Sheraton Seattle Hotel to stare down corporate greed incarnate. Now we have our setting, the hotel, our protagonist, Occupy Seattle, and our villain, Jamie Diamond. We also have our stage direction: riot.
Tensions were rising from the moment we got to the Sheraton. The goal was to make sure that Jamie and the other attendants of the conference knew how we felt. The conference itself was a University of Washington dinner with JD as the speaker. The conference room in the Sheraton is conveniently located right above the main entrance with big windows facing the street. Big windows that gave everyone attending a good look at the people of Occupy Seattle. Close to one thousand. And the flip side of big windows, they gave us a good look at the people attending. They could see us and we could see fear.
The attendants of the conference were not the only scared people that night. The Seattle Police Department was on edge too. You could tell a distinct difference in the mood of the police from the Chase Bank earlier in the day to the Sheraton that night. First, they had vastly more officers. Second, they had full riot gear – tear gas, paint guns, and lots of pepper spray. And third, you could see the stress of the situation weighing on their faces. Seattle Police are not new to a riot.
November 30 of 1999 Seattle saw some of the largest riots this country has experienced. If you ask any lone time resident about the WTO riots you will get a big sigh and a concerned face. It wasn't a high point in peaceful protesting, to euphemize it. And you could see that sentiment in the faces of all the officers present.
Going into a large scale protest with no real concept of how it ends was maybe the fault of its planners. It was possible they had a direction, but it surely wasn't communicated. Lacking a plan, one was created. We were NOT going to let Jamie Diamond out of that hotel easily. It didn't take long for all of the entrances and exits of the Sheraton to be covered... and for the second round of pepper spray to be used. This is where the organization of Occupiers really did came into play. Medics, though not enough of them, were designated before hand to provide assistance to people feeling the harsh effects of pepper spray in the face. Brutal were the cops, not near antagonized enough to warrant the level of resistance they gave the protesters holding these entrances.
The “Occupation” of the outside of the Sheraton Hotel lasted several hours. And it was sitting there in the pouring rain with over a thousand determined Seattlites in which I began to understand a very important piece to this movement: people saw it as more than just ending corporate greed. They were fighting for their lives. From the younger, revolution fueled radicals on the front lines to the middle class dropouts in back screaming for their chance at a fair deal to past era hippies excited to see real change sweeping like it did in days long gone, we were a motley group with a single message. We don't deserve what we were given.
In the end, lot of people got maced. A few got arrested. Part of it felt like a “mock”-military operation. Lots of people used language like, “guard the door,”, “send runners for reinforcements,” and even, “MEDIC!” The most common thing to hear was, “BANG-A-RANG!” That meant more cops cited. It was certainly very intense. Before Wednesday I heard a lot about non-violence at the General Assembly but that night was anything but non-violent.
A lot of people called Wednesday night a “victory”, further exemplifying the militaristic ideals that many of the protesters held. I don't know if that is how I see it. I saw a lot of aggression amongst both sides, police and public. Argo-perspectives were equal on either side of the fence. And while I see their point, that this has now set a precedent for any hotel that decides to host a Bankster C.E.O., it worries me that the macho victory that Occupy Seattle saw will only escalate the stakes next time this occurs.
I thought going into this that a non-violent movement meant everyone is on the same page. Seeing Wednesday night really made me rethink. Non-violence is not the absence of violence but the presence of mind behind the scenes to deal with the ramifications of violence and make preparations to deal with it in the future. I will only call last night a "victory" if it doesn't happen again. Somehow I doubt that as I write it.
That isn't meant to be hopeless in this situation. I have learned from that night. And I have spoken about it at every General Assembly I have visited since then. Three things are important to understand about the evening of November 2nd in Seattle. 1. Without a full plan in a protest, start to finish, you greatly increase the chance of unintended aggression and violent spontaneous decision making. 2. We all have the power to collectively decide what we will and will not stand for; we can set any president that we want. And we should. 3. It is imperative that we learn from and decisively spread the lessons we come to during this movement. No victory happens without mistakes and no mistakes are made without the chance to change them in the future. And right now, we are changing for our future.