The Battle for Public Space Plays Out in Trump’s Backyard

The Battle of Lafayette Square is over. After a week of largely peaceful protests against police brutality near the White House, the troops summoned to Washington, D.C., are departing. The U.S. Department of Defense issued an order to stand down while the mayor said that her city doesn’t want to quarter these soldiers any longer. On Thursday night, as a major thunderstorm soaked the District of Columbia, out-of-state troops could be seen leaving the city by the caravan.

The next phase of the standoff in D.C. already looks like a siege. Facing more protests over the killing of George Floyd and others by police, the Trump administration took steps to dig in on Thursday. Crews erected a black fence barrier stretching from the White House north around Lafayette Square, where federal law enforcement officers fired tear gas on protesters on Monday evening to clear the way for President Donald Trump’s notorious photo-op at nearby St. John’s Church. The perimeter of the new fence extends south to Constitution Avenue, encompassing the entire Ellipse, a park area previously open to the public. This is an escalation in a long-running effort by the Trump administration to fence off the pedestrian areas around the White House. The plaza between the White House and Lafayette Square in particular is one of the most vital public forums in the country, where people gather every day to petition the government (and take selfies). Now it’s sealed off behind a security barrier.

D.C. is settling in for the long haul, too. The local government is looking to draw a sharp contrast between the bunker mentality at the White House and what the city would like to present about its core values. Before dawn on Friday morning, with help from some protesters, city workers began painting “BLACK LIVES MATTER” across 16th Street in enormous letters spanning the road. Broad and underfoot, the phrase is designed to suffuse the approach from the city to the president’s house. The city wants to use the street itself to broadcast a message, much as cities and police departments in New Jersey have painted a blue line down main streets as a reference to the “thin blue line” cop flag. In D.C., both the street and the text terminate at Lafayette Square, in front of St. John’s Church, a block that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed on Friday as “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”

(Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images/Assisted by City of DC)

Huge letters in bright street-paint yellow render “Black Lives Matter” as a notice or warning. It’s the color of civic infrastructure, a warning of an emergency happening on our streets. The text on 16th Street — where demonstrators have been writing messages of hope and anger in paint and chalk all week — leads directly to the White House, casting not a little blame on its current occupant for exacerbating tensions, but also indicating where the buck stops, period. The president won’t be able to avoid the message if he ever leaves the White House by the front door again. Trump finally built his wall; his critics painted around it.

Some of his critics are Bowser’s critics too: The Black Lives Matter chapter for D.C. wrote in a tweet that Bowser’s art installation was a “performative distraction” designed to “appease white liberals while ignoring our demands.”

To keep with the symbolism of the moment for a minute, though, it is no surprise that government recalcitrance to take action on this criminal justice crisis has devolved into the crude tactics of building walls and fences. Washington was designed with ideals about democratic participation in mind. Pierre L’Enfant borrowed the plan for the District from Baroque-era estate-planning concepts, which called for broad radial avenues fit for hunting on horseback through dense forest. In the L’Enfant Plan, many of these radial avenues terminate at the Capitol and White House, “emphasizing the foundational concepts of the state,” according to Thomas Luebke, secretary for the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts and the author of the book “​​​​​​​Civic Art.”

People have long argued that Washington was designed to intimidate foreign powers. When Baron Haussmann rebuilt Paris in the mid-19th century, he used broad avenues to cut through dense urban city in order to facilitate military movement and thwart insurgent barricades. It’s unclear how much this thinking also informed L’Enfant’s design principles.

Yet on Tuesday evening — with a curfew of 7 p.m., nearly two hours before sundown, on the day that National Guard soldiers and federal troops and military police first arrived in the District — lofty questions about design and tactics weren’t historical or theoretical anymore. When the curfew arrived, the city felt silent in a way it hadn’t even during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. On street corners all around downtown, soldiers stood, looking mostly bored, standing guard by military materiel previously used in Afghanistan.

This week, soldiers secured an expansive cordon of downtown D.C. with the White House at its epicenter. The empty streets on the outer edges of the federal lockdown felt alien and hostile; the protests at the White House were totally different, charged with a feeling of communal energy and a sense of righteousness.  

When dusk gathered during the curfew, the emptied streets revealed the civic genius behind the L’Enfant Plan. Cutting through downtown, it was possible to peer at the Capitol from many blocks away, or catch sight of the White House plaza from damn near across the city. The protesters who gathered at Lafayette Square this week came to fulfill that plan. The city was designed so that it was always clear to people where to go to sue for their rights. But that has not always been possible for disenfranchised Americans. For a majority-black city without representation in Congress and its own problems with police, drastic change is needed inside and out.

Police made no arrests at the protests in D.C. on Wednesday night — zero arrests, despite the fact that 5,000 protesters gathered near the White House and marched through the streets; zero arrests, despite the baseless claims from the White House that agitators had previously stashed glass bottles, baseball bats, and metal poles in hidden caches; zero arrests, despite the countless and unidentifiable active-duty soldiers, federal prison guards, and other out-of-state men with guns stationed in the District.

Rain arrived late this week in time to cut the already-intense summer heat and wash off the lingering scent of chemical burn downtown. The White House captured some of the city’s public space behind a gate, so the city deputized a street to take its place. The siege resumes on Saturday, when the biggest protest yet takes place, with the president fortified behind a wall and demonstrators determined to be heard through it.

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What the ‘Battle of Seattle’ Means 20 Years Later

When Seattle police began tear-gassing peaceful protesters on November 30, 1999, John Sellers was supposed to be in jail.

A day earlier, he had rappelled off a crane to hang a giant banner emblazoned with two one-way street signs. One was labeled “WTO” and the other “Democracy,” with their arrows pointing in opposite directions.

Protestors hang a flag from a construction crane in downtown Seattle in protest of the 1999 World Trade Organization conference. (Reuters)

He was visiting Seattle that week as a member of the Ruckus Society, a Portland-based group specializing in high-profile “direct action” that calls attention to environmental and economic injustice. The focus of the group’s attention was the World Trade Organization, whose delegates were set to meet at the Washington State Convention Center to kick off global trade negotiations for the new millennium.

The delegates were met by an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 protesters who feared the ill effects of globalization—a coalition including environmentalists, labor unions, indigenous groups, international NGOs, and students. It was a nonviolent protest that blocked entrances to the convention center, but when the Seattle Police Department deployed tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters, a violent melee broke out downtown. Anarchist groups seized on the chaos to destroy cars and smash windows, causing an estimated $20 million in property damage and lost sales in the city.

The event became known as the Battle of Seattle, and while it was hardly the first activist effort to take on globalization, its scale and impact marked a defining moment in the evolution of activist tactics and law enforcement’s response. The mass street protests successfully shut down the WTO meeting and stalled trade talks that were criticized as detrimental to the developing world. An event that was supposed to mark Seattle’s arrival on the world stage instead became a cri de coeur for the global justice movement.

“Seattle saw the emergence of a new form of, and frame for, protest,” says York University sociologist Lesley Wood, author of Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action After the WTO Protests in Seattle. “It marked a generation of political activism, and because it was successful in the actual shutting down of the meeting—which doesn’t happen that often—the story went viral pre-social media.”

Sellers was arrested for his crane stunt, as he expected. What he didn’t expect was for police to release him, a protest organizer, on the eve of a major international event—one that was bringing President Bill Clinton to town. But the Ruckus Society had previously left a credit card with a bailbondswoman just in case, and much to his surprise, he was allowed to post bail.

“I couldn’t believe they let us out of jail the night before the WTO. They had us,” Sellers recounted last week at a 20th anniversary panel discussion in Seattle hosted by the Northwest news outlet Crosscut.

Out on bail, Sellers absorbed the fleeting carefree hours as tens of thousands of people thronged the streets before the violence on N30, as the last day of November became known in protest parlance. He watched as Teamsters square danced with environmentalists in sea turtle costumes, college students boogied down to late-’90s rave music, and Infernal Noise Brigade sparked a generation of radical marching bands.

Two women protest the WTO’s environmental impact on the global ecology in downtown Seattle, November 29, 1999. (Reuters)

“It was the best protest party I’ve ever been to,” Sellers said. Following relatively milquetoast social movements in the ’80s and early ’90s, Wood said the WTO protests marked a moment when organizers realized that “protest doesn’t have to be boring anymore.”

A street party was not what Washington Governor Gary Locke and Seattle Mayor Paul Schell had in mind. Earlier that year, they were tickled when the White House had selected Seattle to host an event whose first two rounds had taken place in two alpha global cities, Singapore and Geneva. Washington state likes to tout itself as the most trade-dependent state in the nation and civic leaders thought Seattle was a poster child for free trade. “Choosing Seattle was a huge strategic error,” said Sellers, recalling the post-grunge city as a hotbed of political radicalism and a stronghold of the labor movement.

Releasing Sellers was just one of many errors the Seattle Police Department made during the event. They allowed the protesters to block intersections at the front door of the convention center, and then used heavy-handed riot police tactics to disperse them. Big-city police have since learned from the Seattle Police Department’s failures 20 years ago: It’s a big reason why protesters today are quarantined in “free speech zones” miles away from their targeted event.

Seattle riot police ride an armored vehicle through downtown streets during the November 29, 1999, protest. (Reuters)

If police learned from their counterparts in Seattle, protesters did too. The 1999 WTO protests loom large in the activist imagination. Tactics deployed in Seattle spread through nascent online listservs and message boards, leading to the global proliferation of now standard urban protest practices, including carnivalesque costumes and floats, on-site real-time media, and bodies-on-the-line direct action, as well as more controversial components like black bloc anarchists. While the black bloc tactic traces its roots to West Germany in the 1980s, the bandana-obscuring-the-face anarchist gained mainstream attention with media coverage of the WTO protests. Today the black bloc has resurged in antifa groups fighting the far right.

Conversely, activists can thank the global justice movement for pioneering the organization of simultaneous worldwide events. When this year’s Global Climate Strike in September saw some 4 million people in 4,500 cities and towns demand action to address the climate crisis, organizers were building on a legacy that began with solidarity protests in the late 1990s. According to Wood’s research, there were protests in 54 cities in June 1999 against the G8 meeting in Cologne; activists took to the streets in 97 cities in November 1999 against the WTO.

One of the more mundane but enduring aspects of the WTO protests was their democratic organizing techniques. “The Occupy movement and the Indiganados in Barcelona inherited a lot, from spokescouncils to general assemblies,” Wood says. To this day, the Movement for Black Lives and radical environmentalists continue to use spokescouncils to efficiently find consensus among large groups.

Central to the whole event, of course, were the issues of trade and globalization. Twenty years later, these issues play a leading role in national and geopolitical affairs, in ways that don’t break down neatly along traditional party lines and don’t seem to have a clear trajectory going forward. That wasn’t the case in 1999, Wood says: “Trade agreements were accelerating and there was a sense that the WTO was going to incorporate the whole planet” into a global trade deal.

Protesters put on gas masks as riot police moved in to clear a downtown intersection in Seattle on November 30, 1999. (Reuters)

But she credits the protests with empowering delegates from developing countries to walk away from a deal on agriculture that the U.S. and EU were foisting upon them. “The stakes were very high because at that point countries from the global south and NGOs felt like it was a done deal and there was no way to stop it,” she says.

Even if free trade remains a central issue in the political arena, today’s protest movements have become more insular than they were 20 years ago. Instead of targeting global institutions, there’s more focus on national issues. As a result, activists are arguably less connected today than they were in 1999. Rather than coordinating action through international networks, there’s a greater focus on sharing tactics. “Chileans apparently learned from Hong Kongers that you can use laser pointers to take down drones,” Wood says.

In Seattle, global solidarity hasn’t disappeared. On Black Friday, the eve of N30’s 20th anniversary, the Puget Sound Anarchists are calling for a one-day fare strike to protest the rising cost of living in Seattle. While public transit might seem like an odd target in “America’s bus-lovingest town,” the organizers cite the turnstile-jumping Chilean high school students as their inspiration. They also extol a list of recent social unrest, from France to Hong Kong to Ecuador to Haiti.

The world might be a different place two decades later—Seattle certainly is—but echoes of the WTO protests can be heard all over.

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