SEATTLE, Wash.

An eerie half-calm, enforced by marching columns of police and troops in full-body armor, settled over downtown Seattle today. Street corners that had been scenes of dramatic confrontation yesterday saw small-scale, unthreatening protests this morning and early afternoon, as demonstrators, trade delegates, journalists, and everyone else in this stunned city got down to the important business: trying to make sense of yesterday’s vast confrontations. What did it mean that Seattle, the mellow upper-left-hand corner of the richest nation on earth, had seen perhaps the most confrontational political demonstrations since the end of the Vietnam war?

What a gas.

Photo: World Trade Observer.

This correspondent would like to make a few factual points, on the theory that this will prove to be an historic moment in American progressive political history, one that’s already being misrepresented by the images and words that float across the tube. My biases have been made clear already: The idea of standing up to the endless globalization of economy and culture strikes me as powerfully sane. Add to that the fact that I got several lungfuls of pepper spray yesterday, which may explain some of my passion. On the other hand, the tears that spray produced may have cleared my vision in helpful ways. And so to work:

Misconception #1 — There were not two groups of protesters on hand here yesterday, a “good” group of lawful union members who held a parade and listened to speeches, and a “bad” group of violent protesters. There was also a third group, several thousand strong, and these were in many ways the most important.

The AFL-CIO march was, as everyone described, peaceful and pragmatic, though more militant than Al Gore wants to see. And there was a band of anarchists — perhaps 100 strong, many of them from a Eugene, Ore., collective — who did break plate-glass shop windows, set a fire in a dumpster, and spray the anarchist A all over the place.

But the third group were the ones who did most of the marching yesterday morning, took most of the chances, and received almost all of the punishment. They represented all the environmental and human rights causes that see the globalization represented by the WTO as a crushing weight. In the long run, they present far more problems for Clinton and other leaders than the unionists: you can compromise with organized labor, but you have to decide if your food is going to be genetically modified or not, if a free Tibet is important to you or not, if you’re willing to make real sacrifices to deal with global warming. Their issues are still marginal politically, but they grow in importance quickly. Just ask Tony Blair, who a year ago was as oblivious to the issue of GM crops as Bill Clinton is today, but who now sounds like some hippie Oregon organic grower whenever he opens his mouth.

Storm troopers taking over?

Photo: World Trade Observer.

And this week’s events will do nothing to moderate this third group. Yesterday morning they gathered in affinity groups at two spots on the edge of downtown, and then they marched toward the convention center. When they got to the edges of police lines, they sat down in intersections. They were totally nonviolent, remarkably good-humored, and they broke nary a window; indeed, they formed flying squads of their own to try and calm the few dozen black-clad anarchists who had come along for the fun. So when the police attacked them at 9:55 yesterday morning at the corner of 6th and Union, they were breaking only the laws about blocking intersections. Though they had carefully prepared to be arrested, the police did not even try to take them away to jail. They simply started spraying gas and firing rubber bullets and trying to provoke a stampede.

Which leads to Misconception #2: The police here did not respond with proportional force. Seattle is so used to thinking of itself as a calm and happy place that people here are stunned and a little defensive about what happened yesterday. The front page of the local paper this morning shows a gas-masked, shielded cop firing tear gas canisters at point blank range on a group of seated demonstrators.

Not on a group of window-smashing vandals. Those few thugs were left completely alone by the police, who could not pursue them because they were too busy keeping open roadways. A police spokesperson went on the radio to explain that the pepper spray his officers were using was a “natural compound,” not some gauche synthetic like tear gas. And the mayor said “the lack of serious injuries” proved that his men had used restraint. But they hadn’t — they’d just used gas. And in doing so, they’d done plenty of injury to the psyche of this place. Longtime residents were calling in the talk shows today to say they couldn’t quite believe it, that it didn’t seem like the Seattle they’d grown up in.

These things matter. Who fired first, and for what reason, has been a question in every American battle since Lexington. This time there were a lot of camcorders on hand; check the web to see for yourself.

But don’t get completely bogged down in the details. There’s still Misconception #3: No matter what the pundits say, this week’s street demonstrations do in fact matter, matter deeply. For over a year, Clinton, the most astute political weathervane the presidency has ever seen, could sense that the winds were starting to blow against him on trade. He came here today talking about the need to open up the WTO, to change its ways of doing business.

That won’t happen, because if it did the whole operation would grind to a halt. If every decision — is it a restraint of trade to care about sea turtles? — were carried out in full public view, people simply wouldn’t stand for the kinds of decisions the WTO makes, always in favor of corporate interests. That’s why they made it a secret court to begin with.

But it does mean that the new agenda will be dominated by issues like “transparency.” Even if the delegates here are able to inaugurate a new round of talks, and if the administration is able to squeeze Congress to admit China, the deliberations of the body will still be increasingly centered on the sorts of questions activists raised here. That won’t be enough to save sea turtles or anything else — the rise of international hyperconsumerism will continue — but the WTO’s ability to smooth that process will diminish, and the wedges for opening debates will increase.

You can tell by the shrillness of some of the reaction just how much difference this week’s protests will make. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist and leading acolyte at the Church of the Transnational, called the demonstrations a circus and the demonstrators clowns. Not true. They were serious to the point of earnestness, and willing to lay their bodies on the line. They came to Seattle this week vowing no more business as usual, and despite all the spinning from the mayor to the president, I think they’ve done it.