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Peace, Love and Flash Grenades: Witness to the Seattle Port Strike

12/13/2011 07:33 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012

As demonstrators poured out of Westlake Park in the financial district of Seattle at 1:30 p.m on December 12, I scanned the crowd to see exactly who these people were. As part of a massive coordinated effort along the West Coast to bring the issues of economic disparity down to America's ports of call, these were people who had been fully warned that this could get ugly.

Yet, as I joined the throng for the three-mile march through the city's core and down to the shipyards and the port, all I could see were "ordinary" Americans: a woman in a wheelchair ... a couple hand-in-hand swinging their young child, who whooped with delight ... a lady in her 60s playing a bongo drum on the side of the road ... Native Americans in traditional garb ... professional businesswomen in uncomfortable looking suits and heels ... old men who served in our country's wars generations ago -- and young ones who've just returned.

By various estimates, 400 people or more in total moved en masse through Seattle's streets on this unusually clear, crisp December afternoon. Highlighted by festive Christmas decorations, with snow-capped mountains in the distance, the air was filled with recitations of poetry, guitars strumming, and voices united with songs and slogans. Truckers pulled on their horns, giving the thumbs-up. Shopkeepers, dock workers, waitresses and more appeared out of nowhere, lining the streets in solidarity for brief moments. One policeman on horseback was smiling and chatting with protesters. I heard him say " If ever we meet when I'm not doing my job, we'll sit down and have a conversation." Traffic came to a dead stop and the police presence grew thicker.

Though it would have been easy to be lulled into a romanticized illusion that this was the sixties and that "peace, love and flower-power" were being reincarnated in the 21st century, I reminded myself that the issues today are no less powerful and potentially violent than those 50 years ago. These people were marching with passion and full awareness that ports of call in America are federal property -- and that the terminal we were marching toward is owned in part by Goldman Sachs, one of the most powerful financial entities in the world. In addition, these Americans, who consider themselves representative of the 99%, are in fact reviled and suspected by many in the same majority with which they align themselves.

I stepped off the sidelines where members of the press generally cling, and fell in step with "we the people" as they chanted, "This is what democracy looks like!" The face of democracy , however, would show a darker side in less than three hours.

Arriving at the port, still blocking major thoroughfares that held trucks and automobiles filled with workers trying to clock in to their jobs on the other side of quickly forming picket lines, the group halted in front of Terminal 18. In a pre-organized movement, everyone aligned themselves according to "willingness to be arrested." Clearly defined sections were divided by constantly changing color zones of green, yellow and red, with red indicating a high risk of exposure to violence and potential arrest. Those who ensconced themselves safely in the green zone were occasionally taunted by those sitting defiantly in the middle of major expressways, who called out: "Get off the sidewalk and into the fight."

A loud "green" voice quelled the tension by proclaiming, "There has to be someone left to bail your asses out of jail."

Within minutes, that prediction came true, as the first arrests began. Three were detained at that point, with two taken into custody.

As protesters fell into picket lines in front of the entrance to the terminal, it was yet to be seen whether arriving union workers would cross the lines to keep their jobs. Though the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) were not participating in the attempts to shut down the port, Gabriel Prawl, a local longshoreman and co-convener of the Million Worker March of the Pacific Northwest, is quoted in a previous statement posted on the Occupy Seattle website, as saying: "Many differences between economic classes have traditionally been aired out on the waterfront throughout the last century, including long before my union existed. As West Coast longshoremen, we follow a set of ten guiding principles to help us do the right thing in situations like this. Principle number four states that we respect any picket line as if it were our own. And we hold this principle more sacred than the sanctity of any contract under which we work."

Hovering between the safety of the green zone and the "maybe you're safe" yellow zone, I fell into step beside Kurt Goble, a weathered man who says that he worked in the surrounding shipyards and barge companies for 45 years. After first accusing me of being a "journalism slut" and part of the 1% who just want to sensationalize the struggles of everyday working men and women, he invited me to follow him to where the real battles are fought -- and often lost. As we strolled across the waterfront, in a surreal diorama of police boats, hovering sheriff helicopters and police officers mounted on horseback and bicycles, he pointed out the sub-world structures to which most are oblivious. Storage containers adjacent to the picket lines are what he claimed were "tank farms" which are vulnerable to oil spills and sabotage. Trains, barges, trucks and freighters all synchronize on a daily basis to form the foundation of the container transfer operation surrounding the now "occupied" grounds.

Having come this far, I struck out on my own into the soon-to-be infamous red zone at Terminal 18. Protesters were erecting an enormous blockade out of wood scraps, crates and aluminum debris, which eventually blocked all access to traffic. Many climbed atop the mound, which was soon surrounded by police officers. A young woman stood silent and stiff, holding a sign that declared "Our Ports."

At 4:40 p.m. a man with a megaphone climbed the barricade and the crowd erupted in cheers as he made the announcement: "Terminal 18 is now shut down for the night." Port workers had been told to go home, alleviating a potential showdown over crossing picket lines.

While many celebrated success, about 100 protesters remained at the barricade, refusing to dismantle and disperse. The legally required warnings from police were being issued when officers on horseback began to lose control of the animals. Hoofs were raised and protesters in close proximity stood their ground.

At approximately 5 p.m., just minutes after the declaration of successful port closure, police officers threw two "flash bang" percussion grenades into the crowd, which landed directly behind me. Smoke filled the air as people struggled to don protective masks. Pepper spray permeated the space and protesters fell at my feet, screaming, as Occupy medics grabbed bottles of water, milk and other homemade remedies and began treating the wounded. Multiple arrests were made, including two medics, identified by bystanders as Brendan McCormack and Kelly Larsen.

Later statements by the police and press assert that demonstrators began throwing bags of bricks, flares and paint at officers monitoring the event. While in the midst of the red zone, approximately 20 feet from the line of law enforcement personnel, I did not personally observe these actions prior to the explosion of flash bang grenades and the dispersal of pepper spray.

As the night wore on, the movement to occupy the port shifted focus to Terminal 5, where additional blockades were erected and protesters linked arms in front of an employee entrance. Some vowed to continue the occupation into the following days - but my work here was done. As a peaceful observer, I had done what I came to do: watch a version of democracy in process.

Wendy K. Leigh is a citizen journalist and photographer who has been documenting the Occupy movement in Seattle. If you would like to contribute as a citizen journalist to The Huffington Post's coverage of American political life, please contact us at www.offthebus.org.