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Cancun Files: A Kinder, Gentler Mexican Police

Marking a break from years of bloody confrontations and outright police violence, security forces show unprecedented restraint at the WTO.
 
 
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Tom Hayden reports from the WTO ministerial conference in Cancun each day. Read yesterday's report.

CANCUN. Sept. 13 -- The Mexican government suddenly de-escalated its police tactics against global justice protestors this week, marking a break from years of bloody confrontations outside summit meetings around the world.

Certainly there have been rough moments and injuries at the barricades. Riot police stand ready if needed. But after four days of clashes at the fence, located about eight kilometers from the WTO convention center, after two days of nonviolent street blockages outside the center itself, WTO security has shown little of the aggression for which it is notorious. In the past, the security forces would have resembled an intimidating column of Darth Vaders. Rocks, bottles, or even epithets would be pretext enough for a club-swinging over-reaction, pepper gas, rubber bullets, bodies in the street, and for hauling bleeding demonstrators off to prison.

In the Cancun, the frontline police are unarmed. They block access to the boulevards, to be sure, and defend themselves with shields. But there is no evidence of systemic police intimidation or brutal misconduct.

This morning, for example, thousands of campesinos marched again along with many protestors outfitted with gas masks and other street-fighting regalia. They sliced into the fence with cutters, pulled it down with ropes, and advanced from the barrio into the convention area. Despite their actions, the police line stayed 50 meters back.

Not long after, a group of 15 South Korean farmers infiltrated the security perimeters and sat down in front of the convention center (where Tom Cruise filmed "Cocktail" at its TGIF restaurant) below a wall sign that asked "Does Your Mother Know You're Here." About 50 security guards rushed in and forcibly shoved the Koreans back about 100 feet, clearing the boulevard for delegates but still leaving the protest in full view of the occupants of the building. Urgent cell phone communiques went out declaring that the police were beating Koreans. In reality, the confrontation was a brief scuffle; at other summits it might have led to batons, tear gas and handcuffs.

In this case, the unarmed police set up a low metal fence and pulled up an air-conditioned bus to eventually take the Koreans back to their encampment. They seemed unconcerned at a group of protestors shaking their fists and shouting at them in a foreign tongue. The standoff ensued for two hours without the high-pitch emotional tenor that arises when police violently reassert their authority.

The Koreans shouted slogans, made a press statement, sat down to rest, and periodically tried to pull down or push over the fence defended by the security guards. It was more like an arm-wrestling match than a riot. After a time, several of the police laughed along with some of the Koreans at the situation. A few minutes later, the Koreans formed a line, shouted chants, charged fiercely into the police -- and pulled off their caps like practical jokers. An American protestor, Antonia Juhasz, grabbed one of the brown baseball-style "seguridad" hats as a souvenir. Later, while she was distracted, an officer grabbed it back from her purse. Paul Nicholson, a burly Basque ex-rugby player and militant campesino leader, watched in solidarity and amusement.

After the police arranged for the Korean leader, Changgeun Lee, to speak by cell phone to an attorney, the group finally boarded the tourist bus and were returned to Kilometer Zero, where the Korean farmers have camped since the ritual suicide of Lee Kyung Hae last Monday. No charges were filed for blocking traffic, creating a nuisance, resisting an order to disperse, or other infractions routinely used as excuses to crack down on activists.

Not long after, the new police policy was on display again, as 20 activists mounted a footbridge outside the convention center, carrying a banner reading, "WTO Kills Development, Democracy, Nature, Farmers! Remember Lee Kung Hae!" Once again the protest surprised the police, who quickly mobilized to climb up the bridge. In most situations, police would have responded to this nonviolent action by beating or removing the offenders. For just a moment, there was a standoff between Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin, who was trying to unroll and drop the banner, and a single policeman trying to stop her. Then, under an order from his superior, the policeman released his grip and the banner was displayed. The spirited bridge protest lasted 30 minutes before the protestors climbed down the steps to hold a press conference.

What does this unexpected trend mean? It certainly does not undermine the ability of the protests to get out their substantive messages or project the image of a WTO besieged by critics. Nor has it much diluted the radicalizing experience of people learning to disobey authority, often for the first time. Starhawk's diary account of last night's street occupation was ecstatic. At its best, the absence of police brutality reduces injuries and saves costs on bail and later litigation.

On other hand, the Mexican government and the WTO gain a public relations victory, or at least escape a media embarrassment. They thus improve their legitimacy by avoiding yet another image of a brutal empire maintaining power with bayonets and water cannons.

In Mexico, the Vicente Fox administration is trying to overcome a police culture steeped in "escarmiento," the use of violence, even killing, to frighten targeted populations into silence and submission. The security orders this week come directly from Fox to an onsite coordinator for the WTO events, Melba Pria.

Of course, the full police power of the Mexican state still remains in reserve. The number of demonstrators here, perhaps 7,000, is manageable. The new policy is presumably a temporary tactic, not a permanent strategic shift. Some say call it a public relations ploy -- a sign that media spin is replacing militarism as the primary machinery of controlling dissent.

But for now, it appears the protestors have won their long battle against the police violence that accompanied Seattle in 1999, Washington DC in 2000, Philadelphia and Los Angeles in 2000, and Quebec City and Genoa the same year. It is ironic that Mexico is showing the First World that civilized behavior by police is possible.

The moment is a victory for those who claim that viable state authority must rest on consent, not on force. It is no accident that former United Nations human rights commissioner, Mary Robinson, is here to argue that trade agreements must be integrated with enforceable protections of democratic liberties. The global justice and environmental movement insists that the WTO, and the national governments that compose it, will be illegitimate as long as it serves property rights alone.