Legacy of WTO Protests Hits Copenhagen

By Josh Feit December 6, 2009

Last week, for the 10th anniversary of the WTO protests, we published an essay about the long-term impacts of  N30 by UW PhD U.S. history student Trevor Griffey .

Griffey wrote:

I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about something else. I want to talk about the darker legacy of the WTO protests, the second major change they set in motion. I’d like to talk about what people in power, not social justice activists, learned from the WTO protests. And how and why the WTO became a turning point for the increased militarization of public space during the last ten years.


Once the legality of the “no protest zone” was established, police around the country took the blunt instrument introduced in Seattle as an emergency measure and refined it into a routine form of policing. If there were certain areas where first amendment rights no longer applied, so the reasoning went, then they were defined in relation to places where the first amendment still existed. Ergo, if you created a “free speech zone”—a sort of First Amendment equivalent of Vietnam’s “Strategic Hamlet” —all of the sudden you could deny any and all permits for protests and rallies outside that zone. And without a permit, anyone who failed to disperse was basically violating what police considered “the law.”

(Strategic Hamlets were used by the U.S. army in Vietnam as a form of counter-insurgency policing. By placing rural populations in concentration-camp like “hamlets,” the US military treated the rest of the countryside outside those hamlets to be “free fire zones”, and the people in those zones as insurgents)

Et voila! The crude and poorly thought out methods of the police riot during the WTO protests had been institutionalized. Outside “free speech zones,” police claimed carte blanche to arrest people at their discretion, or simply assault people for being in public space. These strategies evolved in fits and starts, and did not really become solidified until the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 2004 in Boston and New York City resepctivley.

[Josh covered the NYC protests in the context of the WTO fallout, and also reported on the Seattle-based Infernal Noise Brigade, who were arrested at the scene.]

The “free speech zone” at the DNC in Boston that year showed the extremes to which the policing logic could go: Under subway tracks, ringed with barbed wire fence, miles from the convention, it was basically an outdoor prison.

The irony, of course, is that after a series of “carnivals of resistance” at various global trade meetings in 2000 and 2001, most activists were already critical of street protests as an end in themselves, and saw little utility in giving the police license to kick their asses with impunity.

"Et voila!" indeed.

Check out today's NYT article on how the police in Copenhagen plan to deal with protesters at the  United Nation's climate conference, which begins tomorrow.

Here's how the story starts:
COPENHAGEN — At an abandoned beer warehouse in this city’s Valby district, law enforcement officials have constructed an elaborate holding facility with three dozen steel cages to accommodate over 350 potential troublemakers during a United Nations climate conference that gets under way here on Monday.
Critics call the holding pens — and a range of other security preparations made as thousands of government officials, heads of state, environmental groups and assorted anarchists descend on the Danish capital — over the top. The police say the detractors’ reactions are overheated, if predictable.


Officials have made it clear that they aim to keep the peace during the 12-day conference, organized under United Nations’ auspices. From new laws rushed through Parliament allowing stiffer fines and extended detentions for those deemed unruly, to public displays of newly acquired anti-riot and emergency equipment, leaders here say they are preparing for the worst while hoping for the best. Meanwhile, a variety of protest and advocacy groups — some with obscure political lineage — have signaled in online postings and other public statements that they will not be cooperating.

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