Reflections on the Battle

Two books relive the WTO mayhem and get it just about right.

ONE YEAR OUT, we have the first (and certainly not the last) chronicles of Seattle's historic anti-WTO demonstrations of 1999 and their implications for a future global movement. Both books are sympathetic to the fair-trade movement. But the similarities end there. The Battle in Seattle: The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations

by Janet Thomas (Fulcrum Publishing, $16.95) Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond

by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, photos by Allan Sekula (Verso, $20) The Battle in Seattle is Janet Thomas' first foray into writing about the politics of globalization. A San Juan Island resident, she has, among other things, edited Spa magazine. (It's what it sounds like.) The book centers around her entry into the world of anti-WTO protest and her subsequent weaving of stories of international institutions, local protest organizers, and faith. Thomas' decision to mostly ignore the big names that briefly descended upon Seattle last year pays off. Chapters on Sally Soriano of People for Fair Trade, Fred Miller of Peace Action, Hannah Petros of Ustawi, and other unsung local activists remind us that despite the celebrities and massive international mobilization, a lot of the anti-WTO organizing and protesting came from Puget Sound residents. We made history and Thomas wonders why, largely by probing the hearts of those who cared. By contrast, leading left journalists Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair assume reader familiarity and sympathy with anti-corporate protests. Unlike Thomas, they spend little time examining the issues that brought people to the streets of Seattle. Five Days That Shook the World consists of diary-style accounts of the Seattle, DC, and Los Angeles protests of the last year and rumination on their context and strategy. Where Thomas traces the damage caused by what she terms "Corporate Culture," Cockburn/St. Clair take that part for granted. They save their critical firepower for the "Jackboot State" and its attacks on civil liberties, and for co-opted liberal leaders like the AFL-CIO's John Sweeney and Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, whose commitment to economic and environmental justice was trumped by their fealty to the WTO-loving Democratic Party. Usefully, Cockburn and St. Clair offer suggestions for the nascent movement's future—suggestions more concrete than Thomas' implied "follow your heart" approach to political organizing. Beyond the historical narratives, the Cockburn/St. Clair book reads more like an internal memo to the radical anti-globalization movement. As such, it offers tactical critiques deeper than Thomas' activist stories and somewhat knee-jerk dismissal of "brick-throwing anarchists." (Bricks?) Thomas, as an outsider, has a clearer instinct for the questions and concerns of readers who learned about the Seattle protests only from TV news. But both books have important omissions. Because both deal mostly with the protest movement, they may seem obtuse to curious skeptics accustomed to histories written from the top down. Neither book mentions much that Seattle protesters did after December 1, and Thomas has some grievous errors in her timeline of the week. (For example, she claims—twice!--that "hundreds [were] arrested" on November 30, when the mass arrests all took place on December 1.) And neither bothers with local officials (Schell, Stamper) whose planning and field decisions did much to shape the course of the Seattle protests. THE NATIONAL MYTH OF the WTO meetings—which I heard in conversation after conversation with fearful citizens in DC prior to April's IMF/World Bank demonstrations—is that 50,000 anti-WTO rioters burned downtown Seattle to the ground, and the police were only trying, unsuccessfully, to keep a lid on it. Cockburn and St. Clair do the better job of taking on this media-induced myth, but not until page 46: "Seattle police said they responded aggressively only when their officers were hit with rocks, bottles, [and] Molotov cocktails. Well, frankly, this is bullshit . . . the evidence of a civilian riot was nonexistent. With tens of thousands of demonstrators on the streets for a week, under near constant assault by cops, there were no firearms confiscated, no Molotov cocktails discovered, and no police officers seriously injured . . . minor acts of [property damage] served as a kind of Gulf of Tonkin incident, used to justify the violent onslaughts by police and the National Guard." Without dissolving that myth, it's impossible for many readers to understand the joyous sense of triumph that both Thomas and Cockburn/St. Clair convey. The differences between Thomas and Cockburn/St. Clair are neatly summarized by their choice of quotes in their closing paragraphs. Cockburn/St. Clair cite radical economist James O'Connor; Thomas approvingly quotes the Dalai Lama. Both are appropriate. This is a political movement of both the head and the heart. Both books, with wildly divergent approaches, are glowing testimonies to popular revolt and sweeping repudiations of civic Seattle's historic revisionism. Our anti-WTO uprising was never about broken windows or displaced holiday shopping. It was about ordinary people making a difference, the indomitable human spirit, and a refusal to be steamrolled by global corporations. We'll be hearing more.

 
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