Behind the Scenes of Seattle

WTO+10: An in-depth interview with Alli Chagi-Starr, a key organizer of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.
Seattle 1999 puppets, photo by Steve Kaiser

Puppets, art, and street theater were common sights during the 1999 protests in Seattle.

Photo by Steve Kaiser

An enduring legacy of the historic popular uprising against the WTO in Seattle, in late November of 1999, is the battle for the story.

To Alli Chagi-Starr, a core organizer leading up to, and during, the November 30th, 1999 protest, several key elements have been continually left out of the story-telling about this landmark event—by the corporate media, and to some extent, the independent media too.

As co-founder of Art and Revolution, Alli witnessed firsthand the role that art played in mobilizing concerned citizens, months in advance of "N30"; how performance lifted spirits and united voices during the protests, and in some cases, provided an antidote to tension with police.

Alli shared some of the missing stories of the WTO protests with YES! Magazine's Media and Outreach Manager, Susan Gleason.

Susan Gleason: How would you describe your role in the historic WTO demonstrations in Seattle?

Alli Chagi-Starr: I got to Seattle a couple of weeks in advance of the demonstrations, and my main role was doing community organizing and teaching dance and theater. I also raised money to fly artists up who might otherwise not have been able to attend—predominantly artists of color, hip-hop artists, and some dancers.

Together we formed an affinity group and developed street theater pieces and dances that we performed leading up to, and on, the big day, N30. My role that morning was to lead songs and chants from on top of a van that had a mic—and it was raining really hard, couldn't have been worse weather, but it was incredible.

We were part of a roving performance group that was using hip-hop and dance theater to keep everyone's spirits up, to help remind people why we were there, and to be a source of fun and inspiration throughout the day. I remember, physically, it being really challenging—we were being sprayed with various chemicals by the police, on and off throughout the day. It was also soaking wet, to the bone. I remember sitting up on this van, literally sitting in a pool of water. But nothing was going to stop us that day. We were so clear about why we were there; we were not confused about what we were doing.

Even 10 years later, people come up to me sometimes and say, "Hey, I remember you. You were one of the dancers who was up on that platform." They're talking about a moment when a group of college students had chained themselves to a platform in the middle of one of the key intersections. They had been brutally pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed all through the day, not to mention rained on, and they refused to unlock. They were so brave, and I was so moved by their courage. They called us over to dance on their platform—to cheer them up and create some unity in that area.

Raising a Ruckus, photo by Dave MorrisThe Fine Art of Raising a Ruckus
Using theater, art, and spectacle
to create change.

My dance company at the time was called Emma Said Dance Project—named after Emma Goldman, who said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." The dancers did some flocking, movement led by whoever happens to be in front at the moment. It's a very languid, lyrical movement, with dancers turning the same gesture from one to another to another, and everyone follows along. At one point, my friend Julie Sparling started singing "Amazing Grace," and you could hear a thousand people singing this gorgeous melody. I have a visceral memory of raising my hands up into the sky, and seeing my dancer friends raising their hands up, and at that moment, I remember the light started to break through the gray clouds and through the tear gas, and I could see it coming through my fingers. People told me later that the police who had been moving in on the crowd at that point backed off, put down their weaponry, and just chilled out. It was a symbol of the potency of art to transform our communities and help us remember why we're there.

Susan: What drew you to the organizing in 1999? How did you get involved?

Alli: In the 1990s, I helped found an organization called Art and Revolution. David Solnit and a few other activists were involved; we ran around the country in the late 90s, mobilizing people around arts activism. We were inspired by the Zapatista movement, where the indigenous people had risen up and the focus was on the voices of those who'd been most left out. They were committed to using art and poetry—not violence and force, but the power of story.

We wanted to make sure that we didn't have your average, everyday protest that marched from point A to point B and then everyone went home and it was business as usual.

I come from a dance and theater background, and had been producing socially-conscious theater for quite some time. When I started getting involved in more street activism, I found protests to be not very compelling. I was committed to finding a way, using the arts, to create more interesting events that would draw people in. As a dancer, it was pretty organic for me to get people in the streets to do gestures. We would add everyone's individual gestures together, making what I ended up calling a dance of accumulation, or a democracy dance, in which everyone becomes a choreographer, everyone has a piece in the dance. Within 10 minutes, we would have choreographed a dance that we could then take into the middle of streets. When police officers would say, "You're supposed to be behind the chain link fence with the other protesters," we could respond, "We're a theater company, and we'll be finished with our performance soon, officer." And they would say, "OK, hurry up then." By then, we were on Channel 2 and Channel 4 and Channel 11, and we'd done something that was a little more interesting than shaking our fists or trying to hoist our signs higher. It was a way for participants and passersby to be more engaged.

So, Art and Revolution started in '95. David Solnit and I got in a pickup truck and drove across the country to support different activist movements, including a movement around a leaky nuclear reactor near one of the Great Lakes in Michigan; issues related to political prisoners, in particular Mumia Abu Jamal; and homelessness issues in Boston. Wherever we went, we teamed up with allies who were looking for artists to help revitalize, or vitalize, their movements. We would teach them puppet-building and dance, and then participate in a march or a parade, or a housing takeover, or some kind of action. Groups in Chicago and other cities started their own Art and Revolution collectives. We were very much of the Abbie Hoffman steal this book philosophy—as in,"steal this idea, steal this theater group." By the end of '98, there were 14 chapters of Art and Revolution.

We worked with United Farm Workers, steelworkers, and dockworkers; we worked on breast cancer action, forest defense, homelessness issues, toxics, police brutality. It was a privilege and an honor to work with all of the groups, to help them tell their stories using art and culture. It gave us an opportunity to see the intersections between environmental issues, social justice, labor struggles, human rights, and civil rights.

In the years between 1996 and the end of '99, we hosted a whole slew of street actions and demonstrations targeting corporate greed, the consolidation of wealth, and the influence of those interests on our political system. We also hosted two Art and Revolution convergences, training people in nonviolence, nonviolent direct action, giant-puppet building, drumming, anti-oppression and how to speak to the media.

During the G8 Summit in Cologne, Germany in June of 1999, we did a big street demonstration in San Francisco. It was sort of a tour of shame, with art and giant puppets and spoken word performances, where we stopped at corporate headquarters throughout the city and did street theater pieces that prevented traffic from passing through. We were already preparing for the WTO meeting in Seattle that fall. We made a giant WTO octopus puppet—the different tentacles representing the ways that the WTO has reached into all facets of our lives, locally and globally.

Throughout the summer, we were doing more organizing on the road. We started promoting the WTO gathering in Seattle. And at a certain point, Art and Revolution, our scrappy little street theater company, decided to put out a postcard that said, "Shut it Down."

We wanted to make sure that we didn't have your average, everyday protest that marched from point A to point B and then everyone went home and it was business as usual. We felt so committed that the WTO meetings and the "business as usual" should not happen. We felt a conviction that if those meetings were to happen, that people would literally die and our planet would suffer—that all over the world, farm workers would be impacted, and women, and labor standards. We had really researched how the WTO's cases had impacted people's lives, and how undemocratic the process was.

And so, we made a decision to put out this little postcard. We had $300 in our bank account, and we spent it all on this box of postcards. We started getting calls from around the country from people who said, "Wow, we want to be part of this!" And we started to print more postcards and send boxes of them around the country.

In September-October of '99, we teamed up with Juliet Beck of Global Exchange, who had taken a lead in a prior movement related to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and Fast Track, and had asked if David and I would work with her to create more of a cultural element about the significance of the WTO, something more compelling than a traditional protest. So we decided to organize a roadshow, going up and down the west coast to mobilize people and educate people about the policies of the WTO. We took 10 people on the road. We had a total budget of $1000. We went from city to city with a street theater piece, which I think we developed in about two days before we hit the road in borrowed vehicles.

People in each of these audiences tended to be lukewarm when we first arrived. But by the end of our 20 minute theater piece, the first question out of every audience was, "How do we get to Seattle?"And we said, "Funny you should ask, because we have a plan." We broke each of the audiences up into work groups, and we did trainings right there and then on nonviolence, and media, and giant-puppet building, and dance theater, and radical cheerleading. I figure that we probably mobilized somewhere between 5,000-10,000 people to go up to Seattle in this way, all of them trained in effective demonstrating.

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Susan: Moving forward in time to Nov 30th, 1999 in Seattle ....

Alli: I remember getting a call from somebody that said, "Associated Press is reporting 80,000 people in the streets." And I remember, as time went on, the press started reporting fewer and fewer people, when we knew that the crowds were growing.

The media managed to leave the singing and the beautiful dance performances on the editing room floor, and not capture the positivity.

There were people from all over who had made the most amazing art. I know that Art and Revolution played some part in that, but there were many art groups that really jumped in and made some incredible work that helped inspire the day.

I remember noting how the media managed to not catch any giant puppets, or any art—and I thought, that would take some effort. There was art everywhere. It was hard to look anywhere that morning without seeing incredible giant images and posters and giant puppets and Korean drum troupes. Everywhere you looked, you saw creativity. They must have had quite a time making sure that they only caught the little bit of riotous stuff that happened later in the day and not any of the singing, the beautiful dance performances. The media managed to leave all of that on the editing room floor, and not capture the positivity.

That was a brief disappointment, but it was really not surprising, knowing who owns most of our corporate media. But I was also, I'll admit, a little disappointed with some of the independent media. I felt like they also sensationalized some of the window-breaking that happened later in the day, which involved such a small percentage of the people that were there. But that ended up becoming the hot thing to talk about, as opposed to the thousands and thousands of people who posed different forms of activism.

Another key element that made the Seattle protests distinct, and so potent, was the use of decentralized organizing. There wasn't one person calling the shots, or one group that could then be discredited or taken out in some way.

I remember being part of the spokescouncil meeting, the affinity group meetings, leading up to N30, in the giant convergence space. And I remember these groups coming in and saying, "Well, we're from Texas," "We're from Cincinnati,"—we're from all these different places. "Ten more of us just arrived," they'd say, or "We have a group of 30 back at our place and I'm representing." We divided the city of Seattle into pie slices. One group would say, "We're going to take Section K and do an action that's based in prayer and faith." Another organizing group from another town would respond, "Hey, we want to do a prayerful action as well, can we join you?"

Affinity groups started to meld and became these clusters, based on tactics and based on the kinds of protest people wanted to do. There was space for different people to plug in in different safe ways. The organizers, then called Direct Action Network, were rotating; there were many of us and none of us held one role the whole time. All of us were replaceable at any time, the idea being that not one of us could be targeted—but also, that there's room for more people to play and join the movement. Decentralized organizing and anti-authoritarianism get a bad rap. People think it's about chaos, but really, it's about inclusion.

Susan: You mentioned the story of the WTO protests: the story that you were experiencing versus what corporate media was presenting, and even some of the story being missed by independent media. Since that time, there's been even more story-telling about the protests, including the film, Battle in Seattle. What are your thoughts about how the '99 story was translated in the film version, and in the press?

Alli: It was a little disconcerting sometimes, reading the stories and reports coming out from people who weren't part of the core organizing. There was a book that came out called The Battle of Seattle that had a giant picture of me on the cover, and I had never talked to that author once, and I wasn't mentioned in the book. A lot of people I know who had major roles were not interviewed. I think it's the nature of the beast—you can't get everybody—but I remember that instance being particularly symbolic. It really spoke to me about the problem of history-making, where ultimately, those people who have the leisure to write are often not at the heart of the movement or the mobilization.

Then there's just the reality of different lenses, different perspectives. For me, the story was about culture, decentralized organizing, and a movement that took multiple years to build—in fact, all the way back to the civil rights movement, if you consider our original inspiration for social justice organizing, street protests and nonviolence.

In general, I think the few windows that got broken, and some of the graffiti that happened, ended up becoming sensationalized. I honestly don't think that was the story of the day. I think the story of the day was more about the people, the art and the creativity, and those with whom we were standing up in solidarity all across the world. That story got missed.

As for the Battle in Seattle film, I was at the preview for it in San Francisco, with the filmmaker. It was this really tense moment—literally, my stomach was turning. Seeing all those images again brought us back, because he used a lot of original footage. But the story line that he told was not the story of us. I feel like it really oversimplified our experience as longtime organizers.

You've got this typical story of a young white guy who's pissed because his brother got hurt at another action, and then someone being involved in the street protest for the very first time. And a lot of us had been involved in movement stuff for many years at that point. We weren't as reactive and novice as that. On a personal level, the most frustrating scene for me was the morning of the action, where there's this sort of boy/girl moment happening, and let me tell you, there was no time for that! We were up early in the morning, almost military style, in our gear at 4:00 am, in the rain, in location where we were supposed to be, and we were not processing relationships with the sunlight upon us.

After the film ended, the filmmaker was kind of nervously perched in front of this big audience of people who had major roles in Seattle. He said, "Alright, you guys, what do you think?" The room was pretty still and silent. I raised my hand and said, "Well, the first thing I want to say is I honor you for taking the time to even make a Hollywood film about our story. None of us had the access or the wherewithal, or put the time in to do it. It probably isn't the movie some of us would make about this story, but thank you for doing it. You obviously care and you did take sides—and it's important to take sides, and not pretend anyone could be neutral in a story about the destruction of the planet."

Susan: What's the significance of the 10th anniversary of the WTO protests for you?

Alli: Many of the issues we were fighting then are still huge in our lives right now. The world has also changed a lot in 10 years, and people have really woken up to the devastation that climate change is already having on communities all across the planet. In the context of climate chaos and the impending cataclysmic changes that most scientists have been predicting, I think it's more imperative than ever that we look at our activist history and build upon that.

We're ten years older now, and hopefully, wiser. I've never stopped organizing this whole time. Most of us never stopped. We've changed hats, and we've matured. I'm really hoping that this 10 year anniversary is an opportunity for us to reflect on what we've learned since then. What did we learn during those days, and how can we bring that wisdom and experience into this movement that is so essential for the survival of our species and others across the planet right now?

It was, for many of us, a huge victory; it really put the U.S. on the map as far as challenging corporate dominance. It's an important marker. For a lot of people, there was before Seattle and after Seattle. It's a landmark for us to return to, to honor the work that we did and the mistakes that we made. It's a reminder to move forward efficiently and rapidly—putting our egos aside, figuring out how we can best work together across movements, across race, age, orientation, all of our differences and experience levels—and to pass on what we learned to the generation that is following on our heels.

A lot of us are over 40 now. We still have time and energy, but it's really the youth that are leading this new movement for climate equity and for justice in our communities. How do we support the next generation to do better than we did? We've got to water those seeds and nourish them, and really protect the movements, strengthen the movements that are afoot right now.