WTO riots were just another day on the job for area photojournalists.
In what Time magazine called "The Battle of Seattle," news photographers were caught in the cross fire between police and protesters at the recent World Trade Organization summit.
For many of those trying to capture the protests on film, the specter of rubber bullets and gas grenades whizzing toward them seemed more surreal than sinister. Despite the fact that one photographer was shot in the face, several were struck by riot clubs, and almost all choked on tear gas or were hosed with pepper spray, those interviewed were amazed things didn’t turn out worse.
The wound in photographer Duncan Livingston’s cheek is slowly healing, but he won’t soon forget being shot with rubber bullets by police only 20 feet away, in action late on Tuesday afternoon, November 30.
"I remember the sting and the slap, but don’t remember the pain," says Livingston, a photographer for The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., who felt a rubber bullet ricochet off his jawbone. The barrage struck him in the back and leg as well. The attack came as police attempted to clear downtown streets of the rioters Livingston was photographing.
His face bleeding, Livingston held his camera at arm’s length to snap a picture of himself while running the four blocks to the Tribune’s Seattle bureau, where he dropped off his film. He then whipped out his cell phone to call check in with his editor. He was ordered to seek treatment rather than go back out on assignment, although he offered to do so. With flash-bang concussion bombs and tear gas canisters exploding in the streets, Livingston decided against seeking health care in Seattle. Instead, he held a T-shirt against his bleeding face, ran to his car, and drove to a Tacoma hospital.
"The doctor said it was all hamburger in there," says Livingston. Having spent three weeks in Kosovo last fall, Livingston says he realized that despite having been shot and needing 12 stitches to close the wound in his cheek, he was lucky.
"It could have hit me in the eye," he says. "It could have been a real bullet."
Karie Hamilton arrived in downtown Seattle at 5 a.m. Tuesday on assignment for Corbis Sygma. By 8 a.m., police and protesters had formed two opposing lines outside the Seattle Sheraton hotel, and Hamilton found herself trapped between them.
The protesters weren’t letting anyone into the Sheraton, and Seattle police wouldn’t let her past their line without WTO media credentials. She finally broke free when police began to tear-gas the protesters around 10:30 a.m. "I saw Seattle in a state of anarchy," she says.
Paul Brown of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer witnessed what happened next.
"The police announced on a bullhorn that the protesters were in violation of an order to move. Then, five minutes later, they started with pepper spray from 10 to 20 feet away. At that point, people were sitting on the ground with their arms linked. All these people got pepper-sprayed but stood their positions. Then the police moved in with tear gas or some other kind of gas—big clouds of gas. Then they moved in with nightsticks. In at least two cases, they fired rubber pellets into the crowd and at people on the ground."
Brown’s photo of a Seattle police officer firing a rubber-pellet gun at the protesters was picked up by Time and featured on its cover. While the photo was perhaps the most lasting image of the conflict between police and the largest group of demonstrators, Brown criticizes one local newspaper that gave equal play to smaller fiery incidents, such as a few teenagers burning a garbage Dumpster several blocks from the main action.
"I think those people on Capitol Hill were out there to provoke police reaction. To cover it was gratuitous, out of context to how big that fire was and how few people were in attendance. The key struggle in putting out a newspaper is to decide where the appropriate context is. We covered that stuff, but made a conscious decision to not lead the paper with it."
Tony Overman of the P-I and Alan Berner of The Seattle Times were both gassed by police as they covered the worst of the rioting on Tuesday night. Overman says that sometime that evening, protesters crossed the line from passive resistance to physically fighting people—including the media—and even tackling delegates trying to gain entrance to WTO functions.
"The protesters started setting up a line, and there was no courtesy to anyone," Overman says. "One guy even said to me, ‘You’ve gone through the line enough; we’re not going to let you go back and forth anymore.’" When Overman continued his attempts to pass the line, he says, "A guy said, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ and kneed me in the head."
Despite that attack, "It wasn’t really bad until it got dark," says Overman. "Suddenly the police started lobbing tear gas— without telling anybody. All of a sudden, tear gas would come lobbing into intersections. They were shoving people around—the media as well. I was constantly getting poked with sticks. They aimed a pepper-spray gun right in my face and I thought, ‘Oh God, please don’t pull the trigger.’ I put my hands up and got out of there.
"It was the first time I was around tear gas, so I would just run into the middle of it and hold my breath to shoot pictures. I inhaled tear gas probably five times, but I’m not angry about it, because I chose to be there. As a journalist, I chose to be there." However, he adds, "Squirting pepper spray at me, I didn’t think that was fair."
A few blocks away, Berner sustained injuries to his elbow and hip while diving to avoid what he called a "huge tear-gas barrage."
"In a strange, surreal manner," he says, "what was fascinating and disturbing was to see the tear gas grenade coming at me like a rocket. They were coming in long, parabolic arcs. And this one just came in like a rocket. I saw it coming and turned to get out of the way. I thought, ‘God, if this hits me or anybody, this is going to be not good. I turned 90 degrees to the right, and it struck me square on the left foot."
Berner downplays his injuries, having seen much worse violence in his career. "I would not describe what happened to me as an attack by any means. Ten years ago I was in Korea, and I covered the student demonstrations there. That seemed a lot more dangerous to cover."
The Seattle Times photo staff used digital cameras, wireless modems, and a mobile digital editing truck to move dramatic late-morning riot photos into first-editions of the afternoon paper.
"The digital camera is a deadline busting tool. That gas picture was in the paper around an hour after it was shot," says Harley Soltes of the Times. "That part of it was amazing. It was a great time to be a p.m. paper. It was great that we were mobilized to handle it.
"Cole Porter, our photo editor, was right down on the streets, handling digital editing in a truck, dispatching photographers while watching coverage on KIRO TV, which had just amazing coverage. Barry Wong and Jimi Lott had laptops with Ricochet (wireless) modems. We had runners that would take my memory cards to the truck, or if I could get a card to anyone with a Ricochet, they would upload it."
Soltes shot with a digital camera until the noon deadline for the paper. From noon until light faded around 4:30 pm, he switched back to film. Amid the tightly packed crowds, low gray rain clouds and tear gas hanging in the air, Soltes says, he was pushing the digital camera’s exposure capabilities to the limits.
"I was having to use a lot of fill flash," says Soltes, "and I’m pretty unsatisfied with the mediocre technical quality of the digital camera. I’ve been going through all the photos for end-of-the year contests, and there is a dramatic quality of difference up until noon, and after noon when I switched to film."
Soltes concentrated his coverage around the Sheraton Hotel. "I was always within three blocks of the hotels, always circling somewhere around The Sheraton, either in the alleys or up front or on top," Soltes says. "Movement was hard because the police had barricades, and the protesters would make human chains. You were free to move in these three-foot spaces between the police and protesters.
Soltes says that on Tuesday morning, he got gassed a couple of times by police. "I wore the mask for the first attack, then realized I couldn’t shoot out of it very well. It had the big canister out front, so you couldn’t get the viewfinder close to your eye. And you had to keep moving or you could get hit by the nightsticks. I got a couple of jabs in the ribs by police, but it was pretty minor."
Jim Bryant of the Port Orchard, Wash., Independent was on assignment for UPI on Tuesday when he caught the attention of baton-wielding police.
"I’ve covered riots before. After years of being away from it and freelancing, I wasn’t used to it. I was on top of the FAO Schwarz bear covering the demonstrations," he says, referring to a prominent bronze statue outside a downtown Seattle toy store.
"At one point, the riot police moved forward, and they started to tell me, ‘Get down! Get down!’ I said, ‘I can jump down and you can catch me, or I can get down slowly.’ I guess they didn’t like that. When I was getting off the bear, they grabbed me and pulled me down to the ground. My 200mm lens broke off, snapped at the bayonet mount."
Melena Mara of The Bremerton (Wash.) Sun was gassed several times Tuesday evening but found medics to rinse her eyes so she could continue working.
"About 6:30 p.m.," she says, "the delegates were coming out of the conference, and the police decided they needed to move the kids. Without warning, the cops started throwing tear gas and pepper spray. The tear gas hit me. Everybody started running and screaming. I took a gasp of good air and went into it again. This cop comes over and slams me with a nightstick on my knee. I thought he actually broke my knee. I screamed, ‘What are you doing, I’m a journalist!’ He screamed back, ‘I don’t care who you are. Leave!’
"I hobbled away for a minute, recovered, and tried to go back. But at that point the cops were really firing the tear gas, and so we all just ran."
By Wednesday morning, police had arrested more than 200 people and threatened harsher action if faced with more threats from protesters. The demonstrations, calmer now, shifted to the King County Jail. A vigil calling for the release of those arrested continued for the remainder of the week.
"Thursday was so different," says Hamilton of Corbis Sygma. "Photographing that was so much a different situation. I wanted to capture the sincerity and commitment of the march and of the day. It was so different from covering the mayhem and the unnecessary action of Tuesday."
Echoing the comments of many photographers who covered the WTO riot, she adds, "Tuesday was exciting, scary. I’d do it again in a minute. I had never covered a riot. I have to say it was really an enriching experience for me. But I wish it didn’t happen for the people who got hurt."