r-daub-a-blog, June 26, 2007

Tuesday November 30, 1999

I had never even heard of the World Trade Organization (the W.T.O.) until a couple of weeks ago when people at work started talking about how, starting today, they were going to hold some big conference at the convention center down the street from where we work at the Amazon.com offices in the Decatur Building in downtown Seattle, and that major protests are expected. Until the last 24 hours or so, my biggest concern had been how Amazon management was forcing everyone in the company to work a ridiculous amount of extra hours in anticipation of the busiest holiday shopping season the company had ever seen now that they are selling toys and chainsaws and kitchen appliances. This year they even made us work on Thanksgiving, and they are also making everyone work on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. When I started here a year and-a-half ago, Amazon was still touting itself as “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore”, a label that appealed to me as an avid reader and writer of fine literature. Back then, Barnes & Noble was the biggest enemy. Now it is Wal-Mart, Toys “R” Us, and Home Depot—but that’s another story for another day.

From what little I understand of the whole thing, the W.T.O. is some international organization that is attempting to promote trade among all the countries of the world, particularly in developing nations. Their aim is to make it easier for countries like ours to do business with countries where human rights issues are not a high priority, which I think is a main point of contention both within the W.T.O. and to people who feel that globalization will only make it worse for workers who are already being exploited in poorer countries. Some people also feel that globalization costs people jobs here in the United States, as it makes it harder for American manufacturers to compete with manufacturers in countries such as China who can make the same products much more cheaply. In other words, it should bother us relatively wealthy Americans that much of the crap we are going to buy each other during the next month leading up to the Christmas holiday is made by very poor people overseas who are essentially treated like modern slaves.

For the past couple of weeks there has been a steady increase of media attention being paid to the upcoming conference and the expected protests. It has almost been like the tracking of a hurricane that first appears as a tiny disturbance out in the middle of the ocean that nobody besides a few meteorologists is really paying any attention to, but the disturbance keeps building strength until it becomes a depression and then a tropical storm and then finally a hurricane that sounds the alarm for people to flock to the grocery store and buy all the bottled water, canned goods, and batteries they can get their hands on. Yet, even with passionate vows of protesters to shut down the entire city of Seattle and rumors that Fidel Castro himself might show up at this thing, I still hadn’t thought much of it, at least not until leaving work last night and noticing that some of the stores downtown had started covering their windows with plywood as if an actual hurricane was about to hit. The McDonald’s on Third Avenue had its windows boarded up, and someone had already spray painted “McMeat = McMurder” on the plywood. The streets seemed quieter than usual, which was especially noticeable since we are now beyond the “black Friday” checkpoint in the holiday shopping season, and during my walk to the bus stop it really did feel like “the calm before the storm”. But after riding back to my apartment at the top of Queen Anne Hill, all seemed normal in the world again, kind of, since the world is apparently going to end anyway at the end of the month with Y2K expected to mess up all the electronic devices that were built without the foresight that they would still be in use by the time 19XX becomes 20XX.

The next morning I wake up a little earlier than usual and turn on the television. Already the local affiliates have pre-empted regular programming to show live coverage of a Teamsters rally going on at Memorial Stadium down at Seattle Center. Apparently the Teamsters are planning on marching from the stadium to the convention center. This rally has been peaceful so far, but now reports are coming in that “rioters” have stopped buses from running downtown and they cut to a live shot of a long line of buses that have been halted. To make matters worse, Seattle cab drivers have called a strike for today to get back at the city for imposing stiff new taxi regulations a few days earlier.

This is a problem. Driving downtown isn’t an option even on a normal day because the garages are so expensive, and without the cabs, I have no other option but to walk. My apartment is three miles from the front door of the Dacatur Building, which wouldn’t be so horrible on a normal day but today there’s a riot going on between here and there and Amazon management has made it clear that they expect us to be at work on time regardless of what is going on out on the streets.

I immediately get dressed, pack a lunch, and head out at around 10:00 AM. It is a beautiful sunny day and fairly warm, normally a pleasant surprise in Seattle at the end of November but is today a sign that inclement weather will not get in the way of the protesters’ plans. I head east on Boston Street along the summit of Queen Anne Hill and then turn right on Fifth, which takes me to Taylor Avenue and begins the long descent towards downtown. All seems perfectly normal until I get towards the bottom of the hill, where I start hearing crowd noise from the Teamsters rally at the stadium. I decide to steer clear of Seattle Center by heading down the side of the hill to Aurora Avenue North instead of following the bus route back to Fifth, which goes right by the Space Needle and Seattle Center. When I get to busy Aurora (a.k.a. “Highway 99”, “Alaskan Way”, and various other names), the stadium noise is temporarily drowned out by the cars whizzing by. I think that I am being clever in avoiding a major obstacle, but after crossing Denny Way I start to hear some different crowd noise up ahead and the ominous sound of bongos.

At Sixth Avenue I merge with a crowd of protesters heading in the same direction as I. There are no cars down here and the crowds are walking right on the street. Everyone is heading in, but no one is heading out. As I’m walking by the Westin Hotel towers I sense a presence behind me, so I turn to see a group of about twenty or so individuals dressed all in black: black boots, black pants, black hoods and/or scarves covering their heads, and black bandannas covering most of their faces up to their eyes. This is a bit unsettling, but I remain calm knowing that these guys are not here to harass me, especially since I currently have long hair down to my shoulders and probably look like a protester myself, and they have no way of knowing that I work for a giant online e-tailer that sells products made by companies that might be exploiting workers overseas. Then I notice that one of these guys is carrying a black flag with a white anarchy symbol on it, which makes me think that this may be more than just a protest against trade globalization.

Many of the others walking down the street look like Deadheads, which is a little closer to what I was expecting the protesters to look like and a little closer to my comfort zone since I am a veteran of three Grateful Dead shows. On Pine Street in front of Nordstrom’s the crowd suddenly swells into what almost feels like a festival-like atmosphere, people playing acoustic guitars and bongos while others are singing and chanting, but there is also a line of people lying on their backs in the intersection. The cops already have the streets closed off down here anyway so they aren’t actually blocking traffic, but the sight serves as a reminder that these people aren’t here just to have a good time. It is surprising to see the cops being so lenient towards the intersection blockers, although there are a couple of people being handcuffed over on the sidewalk. In a way it is exciting to be so close to a scene resembling a protest from the ’60s, but there is definitely an undercurrent of trouble brewing as evidenced by the graffiti on some of the buildings that include anarchy symbols and scrawls to destroy the world order.

A block later I am in the heart of the shopping district, which would normally be filled with holiday shoppers but today looks more like a war zone. The windows at the Old Navy and Nike stores have already been smashed, and it appears that any store with a recognizable brand and windows not covered with plywood could become a target. I am now a bit more concerned about my own status as an employee for Amazon, which has in the year-and-a-half I have worked for them been accused of exploiting their own employees with brainwashing tactics and a management style that is sometimes referred to as “cult-like”. We get paid little and have the carrot stick of stock options dangling in front of us, a portion of which vests with each year of service, but if you accept a promotion you have to agree to work sixty hours a week, which is why I have politely and repeatedly declined invitations to move up their corporate ladder. Lately there have been attempts by outside groups to infiltrate Amazon’s employee ranks and sell us on the idea of unionizing, an effort that has mostly been limited to stuffing tiny pro-union propaganda pamphlets into toilet paper dispensers, but so far Amazon management has been successful at suppressing these efforts. If anyone asks, I will simply say that I work for a “non-profit organization”, which is actually true because Amazon has not yet posted a profit.

Fortunately the Decatur Building is unmarked, so it is not likely to become a target of protester ire like the Planet Hollywood restaurant directly across the street, which already has anarchy symbols spray painted on each of the concrete celebrity handprints adorning the wall next to the front entrance. Unfortunately, though, the W.T.O. conference is taking place right down the block, so the crowds have become much more dense and intense the closer I get to the office. Already the novelty of the scene has peeled off, and at this point all I want to do is get inside the building and back to something resembling normalcy—even if that means assisting customers complaining that they still haven’t received the Backstreet Boys CD they ordered five minutes ago, or calming frenzied parents concerned that their Pokémon cards aren’t going to arrive in time for Christmas even though it is still nearly a month away.

There is an extra security guard posted at the entrance of the Decatur Building, but none of the protesters are paying attention to me as I take out my plastic identification badge. Just when I was about to show the badge to the guard, a female voice yells my name. I turn around to see that it is a protester, but one that I recognize from my “quad” (Amazon employees are divided into groups of twenty or so known as “quads”). I ask her if she is going inside but she only smiles and says, “Not today! No way in hell am I going to miss this!” With that she heads back into the crowd, and I am somewhat impressed at the brazenness of her protesting right in front of the building despite Amazon’s edicts about taking days off during the holiday shopping season.

Inside the building I am relieved to be out of the chaos, but the crowd noise from outside is still very loud. The elevator provides a brief respite, but when I step out onto the fourth floor the crowd sounds even louder than it was down in the lobby because several of my colleagues have opened a window in the corridor just outside the office entrance and are watching the action down on the street below. I scan my badge in the card reader and head through the thick glass doors into the office lobby, where the crowd noise becomes muffled after the door closes behind me but is still there and seems to be growing louder and more intense with each passing second.

I navigate through the maze of bland beige cubicles and find someone sitting at my desk. During the holiday season Amazon adopts an “all hands on deck” policy where front office executives spend a couple of hours each day attempting to help with the endless tidal wave of customer service inquiries, and even the man himself Jeff Bezos occasionally jumps in but is supposedly terrible at the job. The person sitting at my desk today is an older woman who works in human resources and she is clearly relieved to see me because that means that she can get up and go back to her regular job for a couple of hours.

“I don’t know how you do it,” she says to me while gathering her belongings. “These customers are out of their minds!”

After logging in I put on my headphones, crank up some Pearl Jam, and hit the overflowing email queues. I am able to escape the madness outside for a little while, but I eventually start hearing the crowd noise even with my headphones on, which is a bit disconcerting. My phone shift starts at 1:00 PM and I am scheduled to go until 10:00 PM, which is ridiculous because it is double the length of a regular phone shift. In my head I keep telling myself to keep my eyes on the prize—the stock options that will vest in May—but that isn’t enough to drown out the little Jeff Bezos catchphrases echoing through my mind followed by his annoying laugh: Customer-centric, ha ha ha… Get big fast, ha ha ha…

A couple of hours into my phone shift I get a call from a woman in Kansas enquiring about the David Hasselhoff CD she ordered. I look up the order and tell her that it should be there within the next couple of days, which is slower than usual because UPS and US Postal have already fallen behind their usual time frames because of Amazon’s success. I think that the call is going to end right there, but then the woman asks me if I like David Hasselhoff’s CDs. I tell her that I used to watch Knight Rider when I was a kid, but I never got into Baywatch and I’ve never actually heard any of his music. Again I think I have gotten out of it, but then she says, “Oh, you should really check it out, he’s an awesome singer!” Then I hear her light a cigarette and take a drag, and while she is exhaling she starts telling me about his first album and doesn’t let me get a word in for the next several minutes. By now I can tell she is determined to keep me on the phone, so I just close my eyes and let her talk while trying to figure out the politest way to end the call.

Suddenly I am jolted in my seat by what sounds like a bomb exploding right outside the building. It takes me a moment to realize that my headset has fallen off, and I look around to see my cubicle neighbors also looking around with expressions of confusion. I pick up the headset and put it back on only to hear the woman still talking about David Hasselhoff, but at this point I am far less concerned about customer-centricity and say, “I’m sorry to interrupt, ma’am, but we have just had an emergency in the building and I must end this call. Your CD should arrive tomorrow or the next day.” With that I wish her happy holidays and disconnect the call before she has a chance to respond, then toss my headset on the desk.

“What the hell was that?” I ask my neighbor.

“I think it was a tear gas bomb,” she says.

I decide that it’s a good time to take a break, so I punch my break code into the phone and head over to the corridor windows outside the main office lobby. Many of my co-workers have the same idea, and the number of people out here watching the action down below has swelled. Across the street several people are attempting to smash the big window at the Levi’s Store. After several attempts, the lower half of the window shatters, leaving the top half suspended in place for an uncomfortable moment before falling like a glass guillotine and crashing into thousands of tiny bits. Someone standing near me says the window at the Starbuck’s around the block has also been smashed. Then up the street there’s a commotion and a fight breaks out. It looks like six people are beating up one guy, but it is hard to see from here what’s going on. The tension of the crowd is reaching a fever pitch as the sunlight begins to fade over Puget Sound. It feels like this thing could boil over at any moment, but it is hard to imagine what that actually means. It is also obvious that the Seattle Police have absolutely no control over the situation, and that were are trapped inside this building.

A couple of people from my quad say they want to go outside for a closer look. The idea sounds crazy, yet the moment seems historic and I want to get a feel for it as well, even if only for a minute, so I decide to head down with them. There are four of us, and at the front door there are now two security guards who both look at us like we’re crazy when we tell them we are heading outside.

Upon opening the door, the crowd noise suddenly blasts our senses and is much louder and more intense than it was from the relative safety of the fourth floor. The sheer intensity of the crowd is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and it is hard to fathom that something like this is happening not only in America, but right in front of me. It looks and feels like something you would see on TV in some faraway country where all hell has broken loose and there’s nothing left to lose, and it is scary.

For the moment, the anarchists may have gotten what they wanted because there seems to be no law and order. This really has become a full-scale riot, and the fever pitch of the crowd makes it feel like something big and potentially dangerous could erupt at any second. It only takes a minute for my brave curiosity to melt into a puddle of fear, so I decide to head back inside with one of the people I came down with, although the other two decide to stay outside.

A few minutes later I am back on the phones, but focusing is very difficult. The microphone on my headset is now picking up the crowd noise in the background, as well as the tear gas bombs that sound like frigate cannons going off in the neighborhood all around us. One customer with a British accent asks if I am at a football match in Liverpool, while others ask if I am in Seattle and mention that they are watching the riots on CNN. After telling them that what they are watching is happening right outside our building, some suggest that maybe they should send us home. That sounds like a nice idea, but at this point it seems safer just to stay inside because getting home now seems like an impossibility. It is also not likely that the Amazon machine, like the HAL 9000, would be willing to allow something as trivial as human safety to hinder the progress of its mission.

This is far more unsettling than the 5.1 magnitude earthquake I had to sit through in this very same building a few months ago that lasted around twenty seconds or so but felt more like an hour. Our office is in an old building that has a modern skyscraper essentially built right on top of it, and during that early evening shift most of the people I was working with were, like myself, East Coast transplants who had never experienced an earthquake. One of my quadmates, a guy from Virginia, managed to maintain his cool during a phone call with a customer that lasted well beyond the duration of the quake, but when he finally finished the call he threw down his headset and started yelling “What the fuck was that?” repeatedly and had to be calmed down by several people. I too was a bit shaken by the experience, but I had known from the beginning of my Seattle life that this place is not like my native New York, which is why I came here in the first place, and that the possibility of earthquakes, volcano eruptions, and tsunamis were a fact of life here. But I hadn’t anticipated any total breakdowns of civil order.

At around 6:00 PM a rumor starts going around the office that Seattle mayor Paul Schell has imposed a curfew for downtown Seattle starting at 7:00 PM, and that anyone caught on the street after that who does not have a legitimate reason for being there would be arrested. This rumor is soon confirmed via The Seattle Times website, which says that Mayor Schell has also declared a civil emergency. Then another rumor starts going around that an emergency meeting is happening at this very moment with Jeff Bezos and his top advisors trying to figure out what to do with us. The email queues are already a full day behind and the phone hold times are approaching an hour, both of which are unacceptable by Amazon’s customer-centric standards. It seems almost unthinkable that this company, which has shown so little regard for its employees during its blinding quest to achieve Internet retail dominance, would even consider shutting down the phone lines.

But at 6:30 PM the unthinkable happens. My supervisor forwards an email stating that the man himself, Jeff Bezos, has made the decision to turn the phones off at 7:00 PM and send everyone home. After a year-and-a-half at Amazon this is the first sign I have seen to indicate that the man with the crazy laugh might actually be human after all, but then I begin to speculate that this really wasn’t his decision and that his team of lawyers probably got in his ear and spelled out the consequences of forcing his employees to continue working under dangerous circumstances when the mayor of the city has declared a civil emergency. It couldn’t have possibly been his conscience. He doesn’t care about the human parts of his machine. He only cares only about the machine itself and its ability to keep assimilating and dominating like the Internet version of the Borg.

Meanwhile, the noise outside has continued to escalate despite rumors that the W.T.O. organizers down the block have already cancelled the day’s remaining events. But what is going on outside seems to have morphed into something beyond the W.T.O. and anti-globalization. The crowd outside seems to be relishing the freedom of chaos and the momentary victory of rendering local law enforcement impotent while failing to realize that they have actually surrendered their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and speak their minds because what they are doing is not peaceful. They are also threatening my pursuit of happiness, which at this point is simply going home, and are hindering my ability to make an honest living while vandalizing the city where I have lived and worked for the past four years. Even if their supposed cause is just, their current actions are not.

At 7:00 PM we are instructed to finish what we are doing, log off, and head down to the third floor. Apparently an arrangement has been made with the Seattle Police to escort us through a back alley that will dump us out onto Pine Street away from the nucleus of the crowd in front of the building, and from there we are to simply get the hell out of the area and go home.

Down on the third floor, a line of just about all of the Amazon employees in the building is winding through the cubicle aisles. I do not know which direction is the front of the line, and I have become separated from my quadmates and do not recognize any of the people standing in line next to me. While we are waiting, we are each given a photocopied letter stating that we are an employee of Amazon.com and work at the Decatur Building just in case we are stopped by the police or any other law enforcement official on our way home or on our way back the next morning. We are also told that we are expected to come back tomorrow for our regular shifts barring any extreme unforeseen circumstances.

Next we are each given a moistened paper towel square and instructed to cover our mouths with it when we get outside, which will supposedly help protect us from breathing in the tear gas in the air. Meanwhile, a female employee who had apparently already tried to leave the building is being escorted into an empty conference room after feeling ill from the effects of being exposed to the tear gas. I already have my moist paper towel, but I spot a roll of Bounty on the cubicle desk I am standing next to and tear off a couple of more squares that I moisten with spit.

Then we wait. While I am impatient to get the hell out of here, I am nervous about what we are about to be thrust into. The police are apparently still preparing for our back door evacuation down in the alley. An Amazon employee I don’t recognize is walking through the ranks instructing us to head down the stairs in an orderly fashion and to follow any instructions given by the police. We are not to stop unless a police or other law enforcement official specifically instructs us to do so.

After waiting for nearly half-hour we are finally instructed to start moving. At first it is like a fire drill, but when we hit the last section of stairs there are voices yelling at us to move quickly and not to stop. The sound of chaos enters the stairwell, as does the tear gas, but in the rush I forget to cover my mouth with the paper towels.

Suddenly I find myself in the alley with Seattle police officers clad in full riot gear lined up on either side of us. They are holding their shields in near perfect alignment to form a barrier between us and them, and they are yelling at us to keep moving and to get the hell out of here. By now I am completely disoriented but manage to keep moving forward. At the end of the alley there are several photographers and video crews documenting our escape. The scene looks like something you would see on CNN happening on the other side of the world, not the United States, and certainly not Seattle. In fact, there’s a CNN cameraman right now showing the rest of the world what is happening right here. As I pass by I make a silly face into the camera and wave before finally clearing the gaggle and emerging onto Pine Street.

Suddenly I am on my own. I feel as if I have just been flushed out of a sewer pipe into the open ocean. Clouds of tear gas are everywhere, and in the commotion I had forgotten to cover my mouth with the paper towels. I do so now, but my throat is already starting to hurt and my eyes are already stinging and tearing.

Pine Street really does resemble a war zone. Through the fog I see someone being arrested about twenty feet away, and it occurs to me that I should act casual and walk away from the action. I head towards Fifth Avenue and arrive at Westlake Center with the paper towels now pressed firmly against my mouth. By now my eyes are stinging so badly that it feels as if my contact lenses are being melted onto my eyeballs. My throat is also really soar and I feel a little nauseous, but I’m not convinced that the nausea has anything to do with the tear gas.

Just a few days earlier there was a nice little Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Westlake Center that officially kicked off the holiday shopping season. Now many of the stores are boarded up with plywood and the block looks like urban hell. People are scattering in all directions, and now my vision is starting to blur. I really do have to get the hell out of here before I am mistaken for a protester and arrested. I continue on towards Fourth Avenue, and as I pick up the pace I become frustrated at trying to hold the paper towels that are starting to shred against my mouth. Finally I just toss them into a trash can so I can focus on walking. My vision continues to become more blurred even as the clouds of tear gas dissipate, but as I turn up Third Avenue and head into Belltown I begin to feel the chaos falling away behind me. For once the lost souls lingering in Crack Park are a welcome sight and a sign of normalcy in a city that feels like it is under siege.

Belltown is quiet, much more so than usual, and now I can focus on getting to Queen Anne. I walk quickly and begin to lose track of where I am until I hit the Plaid Pantry convenience store at the bottom of the hill. Suddenly I feel totally exhausted and unsure that I am going to be able to make the long climb. The cabs are on strike and there are no buses running, but my roommate Bill should be home because he doesn’t work downtown and probably had a relatively normal day at work. I get some change from the cashier and call him on the pay phone out front. He says he’ll be down here in a few minutes.

I wait for a minute outside the store when I realize that I am shaking. My eyes feel a little better and my vision has mostly cleared, but I can’t stop shaking. Finally I head back inside and pick out a nice 12 pack of Henry Weinhard’s bottles from the cooler that I pay for with my credit card. After signing the receipt I spot Bill’s car parked out front, so I pick up the 12 pack box from the counter and lug it out the door.

Little do I realize that my palms are still sweaty and have moistened the cardboard cutout handles on each side of the box. As I am attempting to open the passenger side door, the moistened cardboard around one of the handles rips. I immediately lose control of the box, which falls to the asphalt flat on its bottom. While there is a loud clinking of bottles colliding inside the box, I don’t hear any of them break. I am momentarily relieved until I see beer bubbles start to foam out of one of the handle cutouts. The bottom of the box is also starting to get soaked with beer, so I pick it up and hold it with my arms beneath it while Bill opens the trunk and starts lining it with the pages of an old copy of USA Today. When he’s done I put the damp beer box on the USA Today pages and slam the trunk closed.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” I say to Bill.

Up at the apartment all is quiet and normal. I put the beer box down on the kitchen counter and discover after opening it that a couple of bottlecaps had become dislodged from the impact and the shaken beer had foamed through the tops, but fortunately the rest of them are undamaged. My jacket sleeves are wet with beer, so I take it off and change my clothes. Finally I am able to take a deep breath and a long sip of Henry’s as I settle into the comfort of my recliner in front of the television.

All of the local network affiliates are covering the events downtown, and it is surreal to think that less than an hour ago I was right in the middle of it. The reporters tell us that Mayor Schell has called in the National Guard, and that President Clinton is already aboard Air Force One and on his way to make his scheduled appearance at the W.T.O. conference tomorrow. A fifty block “no protest zone” has been established downtown, and the police are now attempting to enforce it. After having spent much of the past week telling the city that they would be prepared for the anticipated crowds, Seattle Police chief Norm Stamper is now admitting that they weren’t as prepared as they should have been. The local news programs are using titles like “Seattle Under Siege” and “The Battle in Seattle” in their coverage.

As if it isn’t obvious already, this is no longer a protest, it is a riot that local law enforcement has lost control of. The rioters downtown are still breaking storefront windows and throwing bottles and other objects at the police, who are using tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray in their efforts to move the rioters out of the downtown area and east towards I-5. Over on Third Avenue, away from where most of the protesting/rioting had been and where I wait for the bus after work every night, the window of the Radio Shack and a jewelry store have been broken and are being looted.

There are also protesters being interviewed who are expressing their disgust at what is happening. They say they came downtown to protest peacefully for legitimate reasons and are contending that the city has been taken over by a bunch of outsiders who have no regard for the real citizens of Seattle.

“Who would destroy their own home?” one woman says, exasperated. “These are all outsiders doing this! It is disgusting!”

And she is right. The anarchists I walked with earlier in the day are apparently from Eugene, Oregon, although I’m pretty sure the looters on Third Avenue are the usual group of punks who hang out down there every night trying to sell stuff like pens and lighters to people waiting for the bus (I admit that I did recently buy three green Paper Mate pens for a buck each from one guy because green is really hard to find… after tonight I wouldn’t be surprised if they started trying to sell me necklaces and cable splitters).

One of the news programs then shifts its coverage to a burning USA Today vending machine that is on fire in the middle of the street at Sixth and Olive. The street looks pretty much abandoned except for a guy who is pouring small bottles of water onto the fire, which seems like it would do little if anything to extinguish the flames.

“Do you think you are actually going to be able to put out the fire that way?” the reporter asks.

“Probably not,” the guy says.

“Then why are you doing this?”

“Because I want it to be known that not all of us are down here breaking windows and causing mayhem,” the guy says. “I came down here to protest the W.T.O., but there are a lot of people down here for other reasons. I live in Seattle and I thought our city could handle a protest like this, but now I am just embarrassed and ashamed at some of the things I saw today, and I just want everyone to know that not all of us were involved in the destruction and many of us were doing our best to stop it.”

While this interview is going on, another man appears on the screen with a large bucket of water that he pours onto the flames. I recognize this guy, he works right down the block from the burning vending machine at Jet City Bistro, where every Friday evening I go for my dinner break at work because they have (in the opinion of this native New Yorker) by far the best pizza in Seattle.

“I know that guy!” I yell while pointing at the screen, which is when I realize that I am a little buzzed and that I had better be careful because I still presumably have to work a very long shift tomorrow.

A short time later the news coverage shifts to efforts by the Seattle Police to push the rioters out of downtown. Many have already been arrested and are being held on Metro buses at the Sand Point Navy Yard, but they are refusing to get off the buses and are still protesting for the TV cameras. Meanwhile, a smaller group of rioters still downtown who are now well outnumbered by police in riot gear are being pushed up Capitol Hill and slowly approaching the block where our friend Chris lives. The police are marching forward while the protesters are moving backwards up the hill yelling and throwing objects at them. We call Chris but he works nights and isn’t home, so I leave a prank message on his machine saying that I am the president of the W.T.O. and am wondering if we could use his apartment for the rest of the conference since downtown has been destroyed.

By midnight I am exhausted. Normally I get out of work at 11:00 PM and would be up for another several hours, but tonight I actually get to bed much earlier than usual. Fortunately I did not drink too much beer, so it is not likely that I will have to contend with a hangover in the morning. The sleep is sweet, and I only wish that it could have lasted a little longer, like until after the holiday shopping season is over…

Wednesday December 1, 1999

I wake up early, shower, and eat before heading out the door. The buses are running again and I’m on the 9:20 AM, which shows up right on time. The sky is overcast, and everything looks and feels dull gray. I have my photocopied letter that supposedly proves that I’m an Amazon employee just in case I have to show it to someone guarding the perimeter of the “no protest zone”. I imagine being in occupied territory during World War II and having to show my papers in order to get to work at the bomb factory. The events of last night seem totally surreal, as does this moment, except it is the quiet surreal of the morning after.

I am the only person on the bus. No one is waiting at any of the stops all the way downtown. Many of the store windows are boarded up. There are no people walking around with shopping bags. It is likely that most people who work downtown have been given the day off because the W.T.O. conference is supposed to resume today with President Bill giving some sort of speech, but, of course, Amazon employees have been despotically commanded to go to work. In fact, it would not be surprising if Jeff Bezos had overnight converted the office into a customer service barracks where employees could eat, sleep, and shower so that they could comfortably work 18 hour shifts through Christmas without having to go home at all. Once more, as I do several times a day, I calculate how many more months, weeks, and days it is until my next vest date on May 18 (~5.5, 24, and 169). I received my first batch of stock options after my one year anniversary and decided to do another year in order to get the second batch, but at the moment I am regretting that decision. This is brutal. There is no way I can make it five years to get the full vest. I only wish I had hooked up with this company when I first got to Seattle in late 1996 because I would have been a multi-millionaire by now. Instead I am heading into the heart of a riot zone to spend ten (or possibly more) hours talking down frantic online shoppers from the holiday season ledge.

To my dismay there are still some protesters just outside the perimeter of the “no protest zone”, several of whom are blocking invisible traffic by sitting in the intersection of Fourth and Pine in front of Westlake Center. The cops are also there dressed in their riot gear, but, unlike last night, the two factions are engaged in a tense co-existence and are not throwing things at each other, nor are there any signs of tear gas.

When I arrive at the Sixth Avenue barricade checkpoint I encounter not a police officer but a National Guard troop with a machine gun hanging at his side. He is dressed in dark green camouflage fatigues that make him stand out against the gray sky and cream-colored exteriors of the surrounding buildings. Inside the perimeter there are no people except for other National Guard troops sitting in the cab of a huge military vehicle parked in the middle of the block and another at the next intersection. The only sounds are motionless police and military copters hovering above.

It seems surreal to think that here in the United States I will have to show “papers” to get through a militarized checkpoint in the middle of a major city, but welcome to the new world order, Woody. I remove the photocopied Amazon letter from my pocket, unfold it, and hand it to the troop. I wait nervously as he inspects it, and he says nothing as he does so. I thought that many of my co-workers would have already passed through this checkpoint and the guard would have already seen dozens of these letters by now, but he is staring at it as if seeing it for the first time.

“You work at Amazon.com?” he finally asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“Open your backpack.”

Inside my backpack there is a turkey sandwich, a can of Coke, an apple, a spiral notebook that I use for a journal, and a copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that I have been reading during my lunch breaks. He then opens the side pocket, where I have some napkins and my green pens stashed. Finally he is convinced that I am legit and returns the letter, saying that I can proceed directly to my building but not to stop anywhere along the way.

The whole process is annoying, but it is not the troop or even the process itself that I am annoyed at. I am annoyed at the assholes who caused this situation, the ones who invaded our city and trashed the place under the guise of making a political statement that has now been lost in the chaos they created. All they really managed to accomplish was hurting people who are trying to live and work here. McDonald’s, Old Navy, Starbuck’s—breaking a few of their windows isn’t going to hurt these brands at all. However, it will certainly hurt the minimum wage employees of these places who need every dime of their paychecks but will fall a little short this week because they won’t be working their shifts today. It will also hurt local small business owners who are unable to open today during the most important shopping season of the year. And, of course, last night it forced me and my co-workers to get ejected out of a back alley into a riot zone and left to our own devices to find our way home through a fog of tear gas with no public transportation available. Maybe globalization is bad, and maybe something should be done to stop the exploitation of low-income workers in poor countries around the world, but that does not include vandalizing our beautiful city and hurting so many people who have nothing to do with globalization.

After walking alone down the deserted city street, past the guards at the building entrance, up the elevator, through the thick glass doors, and back to the tiny cubicle where I have spent so much of my life for the past year-and-a-half, I am ready to resume doing my tiny part to keep this Internet commerce engine running, an engine that may very well be contributing to the mysterious fog that has suddenly enveloped us. I realize that, besides trying to survive, all I’m probably doing is helping a rich guy like Jeff Bezos get richer through the exploitation of his own employees. Yet, that is still more productive than vandalizing our city and endangering our welfare by tying up the law enforcement and emergency service agencies that protect us. Breaking windows and setting fires only hurts the everyday people who live here and are just trying to survive by making an honest living. These asshole rioters last night weren’t attacking globalization, they were attacking us, and for no apparent reason other than to satiate some sort of inexplicable collective anger. And that has made me angrier than anything the W.T.O. is talking about down the block.

I am exhausted and don’t know how I am going to muster up the energy to make it through my shift, but I plant myself in front of my computer and try not to think about it. Twelve hours later I’m heading back out into the dark, this time through the front door, the city once again under curfew but I have my papers. Most of the protesters are gone, but there are still a few holdouts. As I’m waiting for the bus on Third Avenue across the street from Radio Shack and the jewelry store that had been looted the night before, a hard raid begins to fall, an unusually hard rain compared to Seattle’s typical drizzle-mist, but I don’t mind because it should help extinguish any embers that may still be smoldering from the night before and start to wash away the mess that has been made in our beautiful city. ▪