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Weekly Alibi WTO Carnival in Seattle

Activism in the '90s: Light on Issues, Heavy on Video

By Charles Duhigg

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  When Seattle's finest donned riot gear and gas masks to safeguard the World Trade Organization conference two weeks ago, they overlooked one vital piece of protective gear: sunglasses.

"My eyes really hurt from all these flashes," complained an intrepid Seattle police officer as he stood before chanting masses of pierced youth armed with disposable cameras and a finely tuned sense of the photo opportunity.

"Here, take a picture of me in front of all these cops," commanded one young protester as she handed her camera to a friend. "I'll pretend like he's gonna hit me. I wanna show it to my mom."

Cue American democracy, courtesy of MTV. "The Battle in Seattle" that erupted on front pages and newscasts earlier this month was supported by a media-savvy cast almost subconsciously fluent in the mass marketing of protest. Although thousands of peaceful and well-informed opponents of free trade also protested in Seattle, it was the youthful carnival of conflict that enjoyed most of the media coverage. "The whole world is watching," crowds chanted on the first evening of protests, before anyone knew if it was actually true. "This is it, this is the beginning of the revolution, this is the beginning of major social change," an organizer shouted as he kneeled before a police line for a cadre of photographers recording Seattle's Tiananmen moment.

But six blocks and 10 minutes away it was a different world.

"There are protests going on?" a Christmas shopper six blocks away from the protesters and media hordes asked. "Right now? Can we go watch?"

Ground Zero Against Evil

I attended the protests against the World Trade Organization not sure what to expect. Advertisements for the civil disobedience extravaganza had been building since the locale was announced last January. On the Internet and in countless magazines and fliers an amazing diversity of interests identified Seattle as ground zero in the battle against pure evil.

And the effectiveness of the advertising campaign was evident at the "People's Assembly" on the first day of the conference. The 10,000-plus protesters gathered at the labor-sponsored rally would otherwise only be comfortable on opposite sides of a picket line. Conservatives certain the WTO is a harbinger of the apocalypse marched alongside lesbian activists, and labor unionists intent on limiting imports raised banners next to environmentalists dressed as sea turtles. "I saw one woman without a shirt who painted her breasts like the flag," said Mitch Owens, a liaison from the Washington-based Yakima County Militia. "I'm not sure if that's really patriotic, but I guess we're both against the traitors who got us into these agreements."

And some people came, well, just because it looked like fun. "I smoked pot right in front of the cops!" one protester shouted while another trailed marching police lines singing the Star Wars Storm Troopers' theme music over a bullhorn.

The only certainty among the gathered masses was that the protests were making history. "Seattle '99: Protest of the Century" read the designer rain slickers protesters wore. The enormous number of personal cameras and video recorders promised that tear gas attacks would be relived by family and friends. A strange hierarchy united the disparate groups. "We're supposed to go left at the light," a large African-American protester instructed the People's March. "How does he know?" someone shouted from the back. "I marched with Martin [Luther King, Jr.]!" the leader retorted indignantly. The March went left.

Empowered by Violence

Final verdicts on the efficacy of protests against the WTO will be long in coming. The naiveté and self-righteousness of the youthful masses, like the self-certainty of corporate apologists, so muddied the waters of civil dissent that the informed debates at the heart of the protests were obscured. Most of those arrested and featured on prime time boasted only a limited understanding of the issues surrounding world trade. And the most important events -- debates featuring Ralph Nader and the deliberations of the delegates at the conference -- were either ignored by or roped off from mass media.

But merely dismissing the WTO protests as misguided publicity seeking is unfair and misses the point. The real message of the Battle in Seattle were the types of salvos launched, rather than the faulty aim. The largest and most well covered American protest event of this decade carried a poignant subtext: Protest and clashes with authority are now badges of democratic commitment.

Walking the streets of Seattle, one could sense political empowerment mingling with the tear gas. For the first time the youth of America, previously relegated to the slackerdom of the letter X, were making history. "I felt really empowered," said Alisa Simmons, 22, who traveled to Seattle from the University of Oregon. "I felt like I was part of a group, a movement of people. When people were smashing Starbucks I started dancing in the streets, because there was a feeling that these are our streets, this is our world, and we're going to block it off and dance in these streets. That was the first time I felt like that, that I was a direct part of democracy."

Political participation and civil protest traditionally have had an uneasy relationship. Today, though, they hold equal authority. The 1960s, a decade that began with the election of JFK and ended with a siege in Chicago, saw a transformation of protest so significant that today a '60s arrest record is as proudly displayed as a Purple Heart. Previous protest movements -- labor in the 1920s, communism in the 1950s -- enjoy little of the prestige the middle class now affords the '60s battles over civil rights, women's liberation and the Vietnam War. The virtue of protest is celebrated in mainstream culture -- Seattle Mayor Paul Schell explained his decision to allow the protests to occur by noting "members of this administration marched in the '60s." The rugged virtues of civil disobedience, combined with a decade-long deficit of political heroes, is a potent force.

But while the younger generation in the skirmishes of Seattle draws on the legacy of '60s radicalism, it is equally influenced by the greedy prosperity and Internet millionaires of the '80s and '90s -- everything worth doing is worth doing quickly, and the greatest rewards usually come fast. So when the anarchists and looters joined the streets, the discipline to stop them was in abeyance.

"This is a nonviolent protest!" one protester screamed as black-clad denizens kicked down doors and spray painted walls. "We are not supposed to be doing this," he continued as the surrounding crowds looked on passively. "At least they are only hitting multinational corporations," someone retorted as a Voicestream store was looted. And as damage estimates grew into the millions of dollars, anti-WTO protests became increasingly lost amidst a battle between police and protesters that made little mention of global trade. Anyone who had come to Seattle to attempt a real discourse on the problems of globalization was quickly relegated to the sidelines of media coverage. And drawing on the lessons of the '80s, no one was willing to accept responsibility for the damage committed during the protests -- especially the organizers.

"The people responsible for the spray painting is the WTO," said Kathy Barrey, a trainer for the Direct Action Network, the group that provided housing and training for many of the twentysomething protesters in Seattle. "The WTO has sparked the violence that erupted today by creating violence on us and the world," she continued before being interrupted by a brick thrown through the window of DAN's headquarters.

A More Pure Protest

My clearest perspective on the week-long protests came, suddenly, on the first day. As I walked out of the People's Assembly, where a celebratory atmosphere combated the drizzly rain and thousands watched projected images while munching $4 Chicken Fajita Wraps and $3 Green Life Smoothies, I stumbled upon a small "Free Tibet" rally. President Bill Clinton wants China admitted to the WTO, and this small group of 40 intensely solemn protesters was demanding the freedom of their homeland in song and chant. The ranks maintained perfect discipline. Nothing joyous or uplifting infected the fierce determination of the choruses, no spontaneous self-congratulation marred the united voice. These were people who actually knew totalitarianism, and their right of protest was too important to squander.

But you probably didn't hear about them -- they hadn't roped off any areas for the television cameras.

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