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The Battle for Reality

What really happened at the 1999 WTO demonstrations in Seattle? On television, it looked like vandalism and random violence. On the streets, it looked like part festival, part uprising, part police riot. Now there’s a movie version. Activist and author David Solnit was there—organizing in the streets and speaking up on the set.
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Photographer Kevin Sharp paired his photos of the 1999 event with stills from the new film. You might be surprised by what’s real and what’s not. Photo by Kevin Sharp sharpphotography.com
REAL OR RE-ENACTMENT?
Photographer Kevin Sharp paired his photos of the 1999 event with stills from the new film. You might be surprised by what’s real and what’s not. www.YesMagazine.org/wtoquiz
Photo by Kevin Sharp, sharpphotography.com

My stomach clenched the first time I heard that actor Stuart Townsend was making a mainstream movie about the 1999 shutdown of the WTO ministerial meetings, Battle in Seattle.

I was an on-the-ground organizer in Seattle, and for me and many other activists, the event was a high point in our social change work. It was a moment when organized resistance became a genuine popular uprising, successfully shutting down the opening day of the WTO meeting, taking over the downtown core of a major American city, and contributing to the collapse of negotiations that would have increased poverty, destruction, and misery around the world.

But for years, that story has been distorted. In mainstream media, the Seattle protesters have been portrayed either as violent extremists or as irrelevant “flat-earth advocates … and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix” as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it.

The story of Seattle has itself become a battleground, one where activists fight the lies and disinformation used to stoke public fears and justify repression against grassroots movements across the U.S.

Now Townsend wanted to tell our story, and I wondered if he’d do any better.

What would a multimillion-dollar Hollywood-star-studded film tell Americans about the sometimes life-or-death struggle against trade policies that threatened to wreck local economies and dismantle environmental protections the world over? Would it tell about the extraordinary power of 50,000 ordinary people in Seattle and their millions of counterparts around the world to demand a just and democratic world—or repeat media myths about riots and violence that activists had fought so long to change?

Who’s Really Rioting?

In the days after the Seattle uprising, I wrote this description:

On November 30, 1999, a public uprising shut down the World Trade Organization and took over downtown Seattle, transforming it into a festival of resistance. Tens of thousands of people joined the nonviolent direct action blockade that encircled the WTO conference site, keeping the most powerful institution on earth shut down from dawn until dusk. … Long shore workers shut down every West Coast port from Alaska to Los Angeles. Large numbers of Seattle taxi drivers went on strike. All week the firefighters union refused authorities’ requests to turn their fire hoses on people. Tens of thousands of working people and students skipped or walked out of work or school.

But, in the words of Britain’s Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, “What we hadn’t reckoned with was the Seattle Police Department, who single-handedly managed to turn a peaceful protest into a riot.” As police fought our blockades with armored cars and fired rubber, wooden, and plastic bullets, as well as tear gas, pepper spray, and concussion grenades, the corporate media looked for ways to dismiss a popular uprising as merely a few dozen people window breaking corporate chain stores. The cops and politicians also tried to use this as cover for their repression and brutality.

Photo by Kevin Sharp sharpphotography.com

Photo by Kevin Sharp, sharpphotography.com

Activists continued to engage in nonviolent direct action throughout the week, despite a clampdown that included nearly 600 arrests, the declaration of a “state of emergency,” and suspension of the basic rights of free speech and assembly in downtown Seattle. Corporate media promoted the impression that Seattle was staged by a fringe group of extremists whose violent tactics were to be feared. Despite this, a month later a January 2000 opinion poll by Business Week found that 52 percent of Americans sympathized with the protestors at the WTO in Seattle.

Ever since, corporate media and government authorities have used distorted images of Seattle to characterize all major mobilizations in the U.S. and internationally as potential “violent riots.”

In the lead-up to mass demonstrations against the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, for instance, local police agencies produced a video that combined images of activists breaking windows with fringe-sounding quotes from some Eugene activists that were used extensively by “60 Minutes” and other corporate media outlets. Police showed the video to the Los Angeles City Council just before a vote on funding a massive police presence and new riot gear to counter the demonstrations. The Council was scared, and the funding measure passed.

One of the most troubling of the many distortions of the Seattle story is a report on the New York City Police Department’s intelligence program, which attempts to justify the widespread suspension of civil liberties, mass arrests, and unrestrained spying and harassment that took place during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. The report says that the history of activist groups “is one of extreme violence, vandalism and unlawfulness,” and it links anarchists and “direct action specialists” to “extreme violence” and “terrorism operatives.”

More recently, references to “violent riots” at the Seattle WTO have increased as nervous authorities attempt to justify the suspension of civil liberties in the face of mass mobilizations planned for the 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

Several other former Seattle anti-WTO organizers also showed up during the filming to try to influence the film. I think we made some positive changes and shifted Townsend’s views a bit, but it was too late to change the film’s basic narrative.

Whose Script?

Two years ago, Stuart Townsend called me up. He had heard that I was involved in the organizing that led up to the Seattle protests.

In 1999, I had moved to Seattle for six months to help organize with the Direct Action Network, a broad umbrella group that provided a framework for thousands to coordinate resistance during the week of WTO.

I’m also an arts organizer and I worked with many other artists, groups, and activists to make the giant puppets, art, and street theater that were very present in Seattle. This was all part of an effort to find new language and new forms of resistance.

Townsend asked if I would talk to his art department about puppets. He emphasized that the film “was not taking sides,” but would tell the story through the eyes of the different people involved.

I asked to read the script and offer feedback. Townsend finally agreed just as he began filming in Vancouver, British Columbia. I pored over the script for three days in the back room of his production offices and was required to hand it back each day before I left. I circulated a summary for feedback to a group of activists I’d worked with in Seattle. I wrote up an analysis of problems we saw in the script, then met with Townsend and his assistant on the fourth day of filming.

I could tell he did not want to change the script so late in the process. A dozen of us met a few days later and organized a pressure campaign, applying tactics we often used in anti-corporate campaigns. We sent a strongly worded group letter demanding changes, called everyone we could think of connected to the film—friends of Stuart, people working on the film, and friends of friends, and we asked a couple of nonprofits not to cooperate with the film until our concerns had been heard.

We rewrote more accurate, alternative sections of the parts of the script we had problems with, but the filmmakers accepted only a handful of our revisions. Several other former Seattle anti-WTO organizers also showed up during the filming to try to influence the film. I think we made some positive changes and shifted Townsend’s views a bit, but it was too late to change the film’s basic narrative.

The Story Line

The movie follows several intertwined stories through the five days of the Seattle events.

Central characters include a low-ranking riot cop (Woody Harrelson), his pregnant wife who works in a downtown clothing outlet (Charlize Theron), a European member of Doctors Without Borders, an African trade minister, a TV news reporter and her cameraman, the mayor, the chief of police, and a handful of organizers from the Direct Action Network.

The African trade minister exposes the undemocratic internal process of the WTO, while the doctor argues against drug industry patents that leave poor countries unable to afford medicine.

An activist named Django talks about the WTO ruling against the Endangered Species Act, which overturned U.S. trade rules that required the international fishing industry to protect sea turtles.

Street action and police rioting supplemented with actual footage from Seattle bring back the intensity of the streets that week. Townsend’s docudrama plot twists make strong critical statements against corporate media and police violence. This movie can help shift the corporate media distortions of Seattle if it’s widely viewed.

At the same time, Townsend’s story also repeats some marginalizing myths and stereotypes about activists.

Let’s start with the riot cop played by Harrelson. The most three-dimensional character in the film, he has a job, a wife, and a child on the way. Meanwhile, the Direct Action Network organizers appear to have no jobs, families, or even homes. Their motivations come not from everyday grievances shared by most Americans, but from unusual personal circumstances. For instance, one of them has an axe to grind because his brother was killed in a forest protest.

Townsend also fails to grasp the real reasons for Seattle’s success. His movie implies that the activists “won” because police were caught by surprise, were too lenient, and waited too long to use violence and chemical weapons, and to make arrests.

But our actions were no surprise. As democracy researcher Paul de Armond writes in the most thorough analysis of the Seattle events to date, “The Direct Action Network and AFL-CIO plans had been trumpeted loudly, widely, and in considerable detail in the press by the organizers.”

We won because we were strategic, well organized, and part of strong local, regional, national, and international networks.

Decentralized networks are more flexible and stronger than top-down hierarchies like police agencies and city authorities, and this played to our advantage.

Many individuals and allied groups who had minimal contact with the Direct Action Network understood and supported the strategy, and participated in the action without ever attending a meeting or bothering to identify with a specific group.

My attempt to engage with Townsend’s movie helped me see how important it is for members of social movements to tell our own stories—not just about Seattle, but about all our struggles and victories—and to tell them loudly, publicly, and compellingly.

Writing a People’s History

My attempt to engage with Townsend’s movie helped me see how important it is for members of social movements to tell our own stories—not just about Seattle, but about all our struggles and victories—and to tell them loudly, publicly, and compellingly.

Widespread amnesia about the history of movements and rebellion is part of what has made grassroots organizing in the U.S. so difficult. Many activists have romanticized Seattle as a semi-spontaneous rebellion that arose as if by luck. This ignores the key strategizing, mass mobilizing, networking, education, and alliance-building that made Seattle possible. Battle in Seattle’s greatest contribution may be that it reminds us of this and spurs us to action.

More reflections on the 10th anniversary of Seattle WTO protests:
Walden Bello
Anuradha Mittal
Fran Korten
Sarah van Gelder
Rebecca Solnit
David Korten
Dispatches from the 1999 event:
YES! Magazine archive

A group of Seattle anti-WTO veterans launched the Web site RealBattleinSeattle.org, which aims to correct some of the film’s misrepresentations. “Stories are how we understand the world and thus shape the future,” explains a statement on the site. “They are part of our fight against corporate power, empire, war, and social and environmental injustice, and for the alternatives that will make a better world.”

The real Seattle reshaped the story of what is possible for millions of people around the world.

In the days before, during, and after Seattle, thousands of Indian farmers in Karnataka marched to Bangalore in a solidarity action, and over a thousand villagers from Anjar held a procession.

In 80 different French cities, 75,000 people took to the streets, and 800 miners clashed with police. In Italy, the headquarters of the National Committee for Bio-Safety was occupied. Activists took over the WTO world headquarters in Geneva.

Turkish peasants, trade unionists, and environmentalists marched on the capital of Ankara.

A street party shut down traffic in New York City’s Times Square, activists took over U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshevski’s offices, and thousands marched in the Philippines, Portugal, Pakistan, Turkey, South Korea, and across Europe, the United States, and Canada.

In the years that followed Seattle, global justice and anti-capitalist activists were re-energized as northern movements joined already thriving global south movements to push back corporate capital’s efforts to further concentrate power and wealth.

The WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico, fell apart in 2003 because of farmer-led protests.

The same year, the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) attempted to impose corporate rule on the Western Hemisphere, but collapsed due to hemisphere-wide popular opposition.

And the WTO has become increasingly irrelevant and powerless. As I write this the WTO is trying desperately to revive itself, using the pretext of the food crisis to argue for expanding the policies that created the crisis and the accompanying widespread hunger and poverty.

As the globalized system of poverty, war, and ecological destruction seems to be teetering, perhaps the battle simply to tell our own stories and histories is as important as any in the struggle to make history.


David Solnit wrote this article as part of Purple America, the Fall 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. David is an anti-war, global justice, and arts organizer. He was a key organizer in the WTO shutdown in Seattle in 1999 and in the shutdown of San Francisco the day after Iraq was invaded in 2003. He is editor of Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World (City Lights Publishers, 2003) and co-author with Aimee Allison of Army of None: Strategies to Counter Military Recruitment, End War and Build a Better World.

This article is an adaptation of a longer essay from the new book, The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle (AK Press 2008) edited by and with essays by Rebecca Solnit and David Solnit and including the original “Resist the WTO Call to Action” and 1999 Direct Action Network broadsheet.

Interested?  Watch The Battle in Seattle film trailer
See David Solnit on the Fine Art of Protest, and on People Power.

Photo of David Solnit
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