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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 self-defense.

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 center.

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.

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