Police Non-Violence a Break From the Past
September 2003 Issue
The police at this ministerial in Cancun have been incredible
about keeping protesters in their place and avoiding any type of scandal.
Remarkably, the lack of police violence has probably been the most shocking
thing to many activists here. In Seattle, in 1999, the WTO was clearly established
as an organization so contrary to the interests of so many that protests,
always passionate and often violent, would follow it to the ends of the earth.
Here in Cancun the police have used methods that have virtually shut
down the ability of the large-scale protests in nearby Cancun City to have
any direct contact with the delegates at the fifth ministerial. And unlike
Seattle, the police here have done it with remarkable restraint.
Today was the last major march against the WTO in Cancun. Many of
the same groups came together in what was a significantly smaller protest
than the one on Monday, with upwards of three thousand people. Once again,
the protesters met the barricade at kilometer 0 of the road to the hotel
zone, roughly 8 kilometers from the convention center.
The barricade, made of three layers of ten-foot fences and cement
blocks, was rapidly torn apart with ropes, wire cutters, and battering rams
fashioned from shopping carts. Once the protesters faced the police everyone
quieted down for speeches. Amazingly, everyone sat down to listen to announcements
by the South Koreans. "We have come here to oppose the WTO... we pulled down
this fence together..." They offered flowers for Kyung-hae Lee, the leader
who killed himself on Wednesday, and burnt an effigy representing the WTO.
These symbolic actions, however, are all that is necessary. There
is no hope of getting through the barricades and making it all the way to
the convention center. It would take two or three hours just to walk there,
not even counting the fact that there are a further dozen barricades the
police could fall back on in that distance. Thus, just as the death of the
South Korean farmer was a symbolic act, so too have the protests been forced
to become largely symbolic.
The thousands that came to the wall of police here today were dressed
ready for battle. Most had gas masks, bandanas, and some form of goggles.
Many had gloved hands for throwing gas canisters back at the police. Most
everyone had some sort of message against the WTO on their shirt or hat.
The police, for their part, were dressed in full riot gear and as immovable
and ready for violence as the activists.
In Seattle, Genoa, and in other places around the world, police have
violently repressed peaceful protesters. This violence has galvanized many
at the grassroots of the global justice movement. If police beat people up,
if they arrest people who have peacefully protested, if they shoot people
in the face as they did to Carlo Giuliani in Genoa, then activists take a
sort of pride in being part of a brutally repressed movement that is on the
side of truth and justice. Protesters came prepared for police violence.
Breaking with the past, police have answered by keeping the peace.
Last night, when Starhawk and others protested in front of the convention
center, the police actually brought an air-conditioned tour bus to give them
a ride back to the city. No one was arrested. Police have taken many blows
from protesters. They have been hit by rocks and bashed with sticks. Today,
protesters actually threw a bucket of shit on police -- serious provocation.
A few police have hit back, although this has been scarce and largely in
In this sense, the protesters lost. The media shows people throwing
shit on police and the police hold their line. But in many other senses protesters
have won. This week has been a brilliant, shining example of positive alternatives
for thousands of people who came here to partake in hundreds of public forums
held throughout the week, including the Peoples Forum for Alternatives to
the WTO, the Fair Trade Fair, Sustainable Trade Symposium, and the Forum
on Forests and Globalization. Many of these people did not take to the streets.
Taking the streets is an incredibly powerful statement. The action
stops the movement of traffic and commerce in the area. Attention is drawn
to an important issue. This was done with amazing care and with a small number
of people in the case of the direct action last night in front of the convention
When violent protesters take to the streets against peaceful cops,
the only images that result -- because the media coverage is the lens the
rest of the world has to view the protests -- is that violent protesters
unwittingly turn the barricades around on themselves, becoming instead the
barbarous element. The actions of the few people who chose violent alternatives
at the marches unfortunately, however, reflect upon us all.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The ultimate weakness of violence is
that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it... Through violence you may
murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases
hate.... Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper
darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that."
The unexpected lack of police brutality this time around has left
the protesters wondering what happened. The only way back onto the good side
of the fence, the next time around, is to march towards the police with open
arms and hands raised in the air with two fingers pointing skywards -- peace.