Monday, October 14, 2013

I was there (and it was stupid)

I vividly remember being nine or ten and watching the WTO riots live on TV. What exactly was going on was beyond me but it was obviously something big. I grew up on Mercer Island, just across the lake from Seattle and I could look over the lake at the light over Seattle - it looked the same as always - and then there on the evening news (how many days was it? it seemed to go on for weeks,) there was all this action, this violence and motion. The whole thing had a very rebels vs. empire taste to it, the demonstrators all colorful, arms locked, signs hoisted; the riot police anonymous behind their black masks, kicking, firing tear canisters. There were the ominous clouds of smoke, the huddled groups of crying women having water poured into their eyes. It all seemed very romantic and weighty and played nicely to that remnant childhood feeling of a definite good/evil split, that clean morality even adults hold some hope for.

 For a long time after WTO I held these very romantic notions of riots. There were a few years where I really hoped to be a part of one, to be out there on the streets fighting this battle between good and evil. Kicking a cop. I got a gas mask in high school from a thrift store partially hoping to one day to wear it as society fell and the US became one giant drawn out street battle.

As I saw more riots, on TV and youtube I came view them more as avoidable glitches in the movement of societal progress. Riots were exciting but rarely seemed to create much more than a few broken bones and shattered windows. Aimless property destruction became less romantic as I factored in the people that had to clean all the shit up afterwards. This was during the rise of the black bloc movement/group/whatever and I became friends with a few people who really believed in the truth of spreading anarchy in the form of fucking up a Nike or Starbucks.

The idea too, or the argument, that these actions which were purely destructive could somehow make a difference, or change the world for the better seemed so completely backwards, so insanely wrongheaded that I found arguing with people who were for rioting for riots sake nearly impossible.

I followed the occupy movement from a distance when they happened (was that only last year?). This, I felt, was one of the first times in recent memory where people were getting together for a good cause. Granter the occupy cause was a little vague at times, but it was forwarding something that was good. The videos of the riot cops coming in and fencing people up with those nets enraged me, and the famous video of the cop at UC Davis pepper spraying the peaceful, seated students enraged me to no end. After a few years of being utterly appalled at the idea of mass demonstration there seemed to be something in it again, the romanticism, the unbalanced morality, the possibility of change.

It came out of no where then, my first riot. I cringe a little calling it that; the word 'riot' seems to lend the event some sort of legitimacy. Let's not call it a riot: in my mind riots move. Back and forth or straight forward a riot has motion, physical and ideological. This was a disruption, a drunken group looking for a fight. All the loud assholes outside of a bar, the dudes that yell at you out of their car window all grouped up in one place. I was up in the town where I had gone to college visiting my girlfriend for the weekend. We were at a quiet gathering down at the bottom of a long street that leads, more or less, up to the school, about a mile away from campus. We had been in the back yard around a sad little fire of beer boxes and newspaper, talking, eating. The night was pretty quiet though every few minutes there was this chanting or yelling, apparently coming from down town. I figured it was a football game or concert. People around the fire kept mentioning a block party 'Is it still going on?', 'I heard it got broken up?', 'We were just there.') Over the course of five minutes we saw two or three cop cars - lights on, sirens quiet - speed past the house and up to campus. My girlfriend and I went out onto the front lawn and, looking up the street, saw a mass of flashing lights blocking off the street. We decided to go see what was going on and walked up the street. As we got closer people became more frequent, moving to or away from the mess, a few just watching. There were easily eight cop cars blocking off the road, though they never stopped us or asked us to turn around. Up on the ledge of a small hill, overlooking an intersection about half a mile from campus, there were about two hundred people, young, (student aged, though perhaps not students) gathered, facing the police and cheering. Bottles were arcing up and crashing in front of the cars. Already glass was strewn about and shimmering on the entire space in front of the police cars. We watched for a moment, a little amused but mostly wondering at what could possible incite something so ridiculous and out of place.

Anyways, here I am standing in front of this angry, drunken, idiotic crowd, filled with the gospel of moderation. The cops were quietly pulling out their riot gear, one guy lining up with a paintball gun aside a car. I was angry at the people throwing bottles, but also at the cops for amping up the crowd with their lights and gear and simple presence. It seemed reasonable enough to me that if I went into the crowd and called people out one by one, pointing at them and saying 'Go home' I might have some effect. The adrenaline got me and I went over and into the crowd. I was kind of drunk, I'll admit it, but more than anything I think I was driven by an article I had been reading earlier in the day by Douglas Hofstadter. This was from 'metamagical themas' the collection of his mathematical games in Scientific American from the early 80's. In his penultimate column Hofstadter put forward a lottery which went as follows: each person may send in a postcard with a number on it representing the number of entries they wish to have. A '1' gets you one chance of winning a '700' get you 700 chances of winning. The prize was $1,000,000 dollars though the winner only received that amount divided by the number of entries. He reported over two thousand entries, many of them '1's though quite a few of them insanely large numbers. Naturally, due to the large number and magnitude of the entries, the amount of the prize was so vanishingly small that it essentially equaled zero. Hofstadter used this as a way to demonstrate the tragedy of the commons in a very elegant way, showing here that most people assume that they are special, unique, that they can take more than others because others will act moderately, rationally, and provide a cushion for that one person. Of course many, if not most, people assume that they are the special individual. This drive toward selfishness is placed as the single most importance cause of the decline in natural resources. The article ended in a very depressing way with Hofstadter lamenting humanity, the environment and resigning his position at SA.

My pleas were mostly ignored, though when I brought up the tear gas two or three people seemed to take it to heart and left pretty quickly. I went out of the crowd and back to my girlfriend who was (rightfully) pissed that I went into the crowd.

A little afterwards (the cops remained stoic the whole time, invisible almost as they remained in the cruisers) a few guys tore a stop sign out of the ground and hoisted it into the air. They paraded it around for a little while then threw it in front of the cop cars. Up to that point the destructive potential of the crowd was fairly minimal. They had bottles but nothing harder: no bricks, broken concrete or gas bombs. The sign represented the first item which could do some damage. Before anyone had a chance to put it through a window, or bend it beyond use I went over, grabbed it and pulled it into the grass, out of the immediate view of the crowd. Almost as soon as I made it over some guys ripped another sign up. I didn't wait this time and just pulled it out of their hands. It was surprisingly easy. There were a few of them, three or four maybe, but they did not put up much of a fight. If anything i think it proved they weren't really that serious about the whole thing. I put the stop signs in a little pile and stood by them.

A few people came over and told me how it was good to move the signs. While I appreciated this I sort of wished that more people were doing something to break up the riot. There was this sizable group of people watching, talking about how stupid it was and that they wanted the riot to be over, but they did nothing to stop it. So really there were these two different levels of mob mentality: the one group that thought it was okay if they threw a bottle at the cops, ignoring the fact that everyone else was doing this, everyone else was being as destructive as they were, and the other side, those watching who felt pissed off but did not want to step in and interfere, did not feel comfortable telling off the crowd individually.

The crowd began to move up to the cops cars little by little. There were girls twerking in front of (and apparently 'on', though I missed this) the cop car and guys flipping them off. All of a sudden the cop cars split to either side of the road and let through this little armored vehicle. Afterwards I heard it was called a 'bearcat'. There was a big bang then a series of pops which might have been concussion grenades or the cops firing those little paintballs filled with CS powder. The rioting crowd was covered in smoke and the people in the watching crowd moved away. We just walked, it was obviously time to go but it never felt too dangerous to me. About a block away a lot of people ran past us. I distinctly remember hearing a girl scream 'Why is everyone running!?' as if people running was the scariest part.

We heard concussion grenades going off every now and then for another twenty minutes or so, though we walked out of the range of hearing pretty soon after.

The whole thing seemed very confusing. I don't remember exactly when we learned how it all started but there had been a fairly large block party (about a block away from the riot) which had been broken up by the cops and moved out to the park. People had heard and gathered, presumably some of them not even at the original party.

Afterwards the picture started to form through the news. We read about it the next morning on the huffington post which was a shocking amount of coverage for what seemed like such a silly event (there was an Iranian article too but it was short and they misspelled the word 'four' among others). The mostly reliable reports showed that no one got hurt and the cops arrested three, maybe four people, none of whom were students. The whole thing seemed to vastly out of place. I had heard of student riots before but these I associated with football school, with frats, and couches burning on the streets at huge party schools. It sort of killed any of that residual romanticism I had for mass demonstrations. It was, without a doubt, the single stupidest thing I have seen in my life. There was no thought, no action, no meaning. Just all the worst things humanity has to offer: mindless destruction, the group mentality, selfishness, ignoring all evidence against the wrong position, self-righteousness.

There has been some banter back and forth of what the riot represents. There were the initial proclamations of novel moral decay and 'the kids these days' and then of course the crowd of people pointing out that mindless student riots like this have occurred before. But one has to wonder why now? Why in the peaceful city of Bellingham? (the chief of police of 31 years says he has never seen anything like this) Why midway through the quarter? Is there a way to keep things like this from happening, or break them without hurting people? Granted the cops did a great job here, but the pepper ball guns they were using have been responsible for two deaths, simply by accident.

At one point, when I was going through the crowd I told some guy to go home he said,
'No, we are fighting for a cause'
This really surprised me, as if perhaps there was some deeper cause to the group that I was not aware of,
'What cause?'
'To party' he said, straight faced (well his eyes were wandering).

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