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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.
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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.

Susan Gleason authorSusan Gleason interviewed Alli Chagi-Starr for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Susan is YES! Magazine's media and outreach manager.

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