Blaine prepares for mammoth trade rally
By Soren Velice
At last Saturdays town meeting to prepare for an upcoming demonstration at Peace Arch State Park, police chief Bill Elfo laid out the departments policy for the rally on no uncertain terms.
We dont intend in any way, shape of form to disrupt a peaceful rally, he told the audience of more than 100 residents shoehorned in and around city council chambers. But were going to have zero tolerance for violence in our city. We are not going to stand by while people break windows or while people are being assaulted.
The Peace Arch Coalition, a group of about 90 labor and political groups, is organizing a rally April 21 to protest the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, which would extend many NAFTA-type provisions to Central and South America; the rallys organizers fear the agreement would force governments to relinquish control of health and environmental standards among others, to multinational corporations and force many workers in the U.S. and abroad into poverty.
City manager Gary Tomsic said caution is necessary in light of outbreaks at the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests and this years Mardi Gras celebration in Seattle. Its unthinkable that what happened in Seattle at Mardi Gras could happen in our city, he said. Its unfortunate that the right to free speech and the right to assemble and we support that right has reached the point where those things can happen. Elfo added federal law enforcement will also be at the rally. We cant speak for them, but its our understanding they will protect immigration laws and federal facilities.
Blaine resident David White was worried about overflow from the rally. Are you planning to block off the street to prevent an overflow of radicals to those streets? he said.
What do you plan to do when the communists are running amok on the streets? another audience member asked. Elfo responded he cant tell who is or isnt a radical, and doesnt plan to block streets unless it becomes apparent that is the best way to protect the city.
One of the events key organizers, Whatcom County Labor Council president David Warren, said the Peace Arch Coalitions intelligence gathering found no inid\cation fringe groups were planning disruptions.
Were just as concerned about having an orderly event as the town here, said labor organizer John Munson of the International Longshore and Warehousing Union. Theres no way anyone can say or guess whats going to happen, but well have 100 peace keepers from the Canadian side and 50 from the U.S.; what weve told police is that if there are people that feel like they have to commit direct action to voice their opinion, well alert the police as soon as possible. If it looks like therell be trouble, were going to nip it in the bud.
School board member Barrie Hull, also a long-time union member in the audience, put labors participation in perspective. Im a 50-year union member, he said. I marched at WTO ... As far as I know, of the 35,000 union members that marched there, not one caused violence. These people (union representatives) in this room have been friends of mine for years and years, and I would be shocked if any of them or their families would do any of these things.
We dont see labor organizations in any way causing a problem, Elfo responded. But as you know, it only takes a few people outside that group to cause disorder. He then reiterated the zero tolerance policy. We will move swiftly and effectively, he said. We will make arrests immediately; we will not have a 24-hour grace period where people can go around and break windows.
One man said if protesters try to enter his home, he had the means to stop them and that he is not afraid to use it.
Everyone wants to protect their property, Tomsic replied. But I think its important that we let law enforcement do their job and not get into confrontations that could snowball. Captain Mike Haslip further encouraged the man to rely on police as much as he could. If it comes to the point where things are happening near your house, you should be on the phone and you can bet therell be police in that neighborhood.
Another of the audiences widely held concerns was parking. Although Elfo said people should prepare for congestion, police will do what they can. He encouraged participants not to park in public alleys or other rights-of-way, but said property owners should block their own driveways and alleys so protesters wouldnt. Well handle illegal parking the same way we would any other day, he said.
Dave Sansone, representing the Colmena Collective, a Bellingham anarchist group, said his group wants an orderly event as much as any other. The people involved with it are pushing for a peaceful demonstration, he said, and we dont want to lose the message in violence like at WTO.