The Battle in Seattle
One year ago, 50,000 citizens took to the streets of Seattle to protest the first meeting of the World Trade Organization to be held in the United States. Here in Seattle, in the year since, there has been much fallout concerning the city’s handing of the protests: Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper resigned; Mayor Paul Schell’s credibility has been tarnished; lawsuits have been filed stemming from both police conduct and the “no-protest zone” that was established during the WTO meeting week; and subsequent investigations hold up assertions by eyewitnesses that police used unwarranted and inappropriate use of force against peaceful protestors. Also troubling is that the police used outright lies about the behavior of the protestors to justify their use of force and violations of citizens’ rights, after the fact.
With all of this local fallout, it is perhaps excusable that I initially believed that Shaya Mercer’s documentary, Trade Off, was going to be a sort of chronicling of these outrages, a film about the truth of the protests to counteract official Seattle’s version of events. But it isn’t. And to my embarrassment, I realize now that I had been thinking that the aftermath was what was important about the protest.
I probably wasn’t alone in thinking this. After all, a lot of Seattleites who had never even thought about the WTO before that week in November were up in arms when the police started tear-gassing folks walking home from work or to the store. And the film does a good job of pointing out the problems associated with the official “handling” of the protest. As Director Shaya Mercer explained in an interview, “One of the myths about Seattle is that the police used tear-gas in reaction to the ‘violent’ protestors who were breaking windows and rushing police lines. But we were able to make it clear in the film, as it was if you were in the streets [during the protest], that the police used tear-gas and pepper spray [before any violence by protestors] in their effort to clear the streets, to make way for the WTO delegates to get in to the meeting. The broken windows came later, after the police had brutalized seated, peaceful protestors who were blocking access to the meetings.” Describing the scene downtown she says, “It was frightening to see the riot cops dressed up like storm troopers with their rifles and batons, riding around on tanks. . . . it was like a war zone downtown. The air was thick with tear-gas and pepper spray, the cops were firing rubber bullets into the crowd and exploding concussion grenades overhead. It was very scary.”
Downtown Seattle’s transformation into this war zone was certainly dramatic, and the footage in the film is extraordinary, especially considering the filming conditions. Though the tear-gas, riot police, barricades, and broken windows made for some pretty impressive evening news stories, even more impressive is the story of who the protestors are and why they turned out in the first place: thousands of people hit the streets to protest nothing less than the current state of capitalism and corporate-managed trade. Mercer brings these issues to light in Trade Off, and she does it in a comprehensive and thoughtful way that has not been seen in most reporting about the protests. As Mercer told me, “The mainstream or corporate media has its own agenda. They covered the WTO protests in Seattle, but they focused on the ‘battle’ in the streets. They didn’t do justice to the issues that brought people to protest in the first place: the ill effects of WTO policies on our environment, labor and human rights, and democracy. The vast majority of the reports coming out of Seattle or subsequent protests have not dealt with the political debate raised by the protestors, but rather what the protestors look like or what tactics they use to get that message out. Whenever you read in the newspaper about a protest the first paragraph is always about the color of the protestors’ hair or how many body piercings they have, and then it goes on to talk about what happened with the police. There is a concerted effort to debunk the protestors in order to silence their message.”
Trade Off is all about the protestors’ message, and the opening scene neatly introduces it. An incredulous radio show host asks Han Shan of the Ruckus Society if he really means to close down the WTO meeting after the city actively bid to host the conference in Seattle. Shan shoots back, “Who invited them? Did you invite them?” He then asks people to leave school and work on November 30 and join him: “We’re kicking off a movement here. I think we’re standing at a watershed moment for humanity where we get to decide what kind of millennium we’re gonna open the door to. Is it going to be one of greater consolidation of power and a corporate agenda towards corporate profits above all? Or are we going to move towards a more sustainable future with jobs people can believe in and foods we can trust to feed our children and a healthy planet for our grandchildren?” That short voice-over summarizes the frustration and worry that propelled so many people to take action. It also sets the stage for the film’s in-depth look at the reasons for and results of that action
Mercer’s film takes us through the days leading up to and during the protest, and she presents us with footage of preparations on both sides. But the most compelling aspect of the film is that she allows us to hear, in their own words, people’s reasons for opposing the WTO and participating in the protest. This is no small feat, as one of the most significant facts about the anti-WTO movement is its enormous diversity. We hear from the professional activists and organizers that one would expect to hear from, but we also see students, scientists, steelworkers, environmentalists, small farmers, and others from all over the world who are concerned with human rights and social justice. We also see clips of pre-protest events, where speakers discuss various problems with the WTO, such as how the unelected and unaccountable WTO can create and eliminate laws and policies in countries to better suit so-called “free trade” (read: good for big corporations). The scope of the WTO’s reach is a major concern for protestors, as it ranges from environmental and pollution laws to labor standards, from health measures to so-called corporate “intellectual property” rights on things like plants and seeds.
In one particularly interesting speech, Vandana Shiva from the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology, points out the lack of freedom of information in the U.S. regarding genetically engineered foods and details how corporations treat seed like software and encourage small farmers to “turn in” other farmers who were committing “seed piracy” by saving and replanting seeds (via a “1-800-roundup” number). She frames this as a moral issue, saying, “In India, to save seed is our highest moral duty and it has been for every agricultural society.”
All of these elements coalesce into a comprehensive picture of the WTO opposition movement. What stands out is that, from professional speakers to folks out on the street, passion and thought have informed each person’s decision to take a stand against the WTO. And that, ultimately, is what Trade Off is about—people taking a moral stand. The fact that democracy is essentially suspended when people call for accountability and transparency from an organization that affects every aspect of their lives only demonstrates the problematic use of power by the WTO. Mercer says, “The demonstrations in Seattle brought the WTO to the awareness of the general public in the U.S. and around the world, because of the numbers and types of people who turned out to protest that people and the planet are more important than corporate profits. But, ironically, the demonstration probably would not have received the amount of national or international press coverage that it did, if not for the spectacle of what happened in the streets, the police department’s reaction to the protestors, their use of tear-gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on peaceful protestors in order to get the WTO delegates through the protest lines and into the meetings, or even the windows that were broken by a minority of the protestors. People are outraged by the corporate agenda of the WTO and they are outraged by the military-style police who are put in place to protect that agenda.”
Somehow in the year following Seattle WTO protests, I had gotten it backward. It wasn’t the violence that made the protests important and film-worthy. The state’s power was used so forcefully precisely because the protest was already important. And in this case, the use of force has backfired. For, although in the days and weeks after the “Battle in Seattle,” authorities and news media tried to shape the story into one about a bunch of protest-happy hippies and “black-clad anarchists” bent on destruction and out to ruin the holiday shopping season, these facts remain: 50,000 people showed up in the first place, and more people know about the WTO now than ever before. And those who don’t have too many facts about chads still hanging around in their heads (I admit, I need to shake some of them loose myself) may remember that the protests in Seattle succeeded in their mission of not allowing the new round of talks to move forward. What’s more, as Mercer told me when I asked her about the current state of the anti-WTO movement, “The movement is building. Since Seattle, there have been protests around the world at every big corporate interest meeting. On November 30, 2000, there were one-year anniversary celebrations all over the world. A global coalition has been built, it is in place, and local groups and citizens are joining in when these meetings come to their regions. When the WTO sets the time and the date of their next ministerial, to try and expand their power, the people will be there in force to protest.”
And thanks to projects like Trade Off, even more people will be made aware of both the multiplicity of problems the WTO presents, and of the growing grassroots movement to stand against it and what it represents.