Change and Pains, 10 Years After the No WTO Combo

Krist Novoselic is a weekly contributor to Reverb and the Daily Weekly.
There are many recollections of Seattle's hosting of the 1999 WTO ministerial meetings/riots. It's been called the Battle in Seattle, and when I look back, I think about the rock show I was part of at the Showbox.

The idea came from a discussion I had with Jello Biafra. There was buzz about Seattle hosting the meeting, and being the rock and punk musicians that we were, we thought it might be a good time to put a one-off band together. I had already been jamming with Kim Thayil (Soundgarden) and Gina Mainwal (Sweet 75). They were into it, so it was just a matter of setting it up.

Jello sent up a list of tunes. "Let's Lynch the Landlord" is a Dead Kennedys classic--I love the bass line, so I immediately agreed to play it. There was "Full Metal Jack Off," a big riff number that Jello had already recorded with Canadian punkers DOA. Kim knew how to do big riffs, so it was easy. Jello sent up a cassette with a couple of demos he did with a guitar player. Jello can conjure a whole tune in his head, and he'll hum the music to those he's playing with. Good thing this process was already done, and it was Kim's ear that picked out the way to play the tunes "New Feudalism" and "Electronic Plantation."

Jello came to town a few days before the show, and we started rehearsing. Most of us had already been jamming together, so the group was already somewhat of a unit. Soon after we started, there was no doubt we were going to pull it off. But we almost didn't--for reasons beyond our control.

We were slated to play the Showbox the night of November 30. The venue is downtown, across from Pike Place Market. People started pouring into Seattle in the morning for a giant protest march. I was living downtown at the time and noticed all the people, so I went about the streets.

There seemed to be more and more people, and it felt like being at a carnival. Every corner had some kind of protest, or a speaker with a bullhorn decrying injustice. There was a lot of performance: a kabuki-theater funeral, people playing Tibetan monks being beaten by actors dressed as members of the Chinese army, and a rock climber who scaled the façade of a department store to release a banner promoting environmentalism. This drew a big cheer from the large crowd.

Then came the big parade. It was a sea of people. The march was basically an association of associations--various groups of people marching as one. Countless labor groups were there. A pilots' union marched in their flight uniforms. Many environmental organizations held their banners six abreast with their logo and slogans promoting their cause. And who can forget the cardboard sea turtles--bringing attention to the plight of this wild critter! People came together with giant puppets, a huge globe, and all kinds of costumes in a convergence of creative and political expression.

I thought it was wonderful, until things got dark. Too many broken windows and dumpsters burning in the streets, and the smell of tear gas. Police in full riot gear formed lines to cut streets off from any more vandalism. I walked near to take a look, but my eyes and throat started burning, so I turned around. The mayor banned the sale of gas masks, but it didn't matter because the army surplus stores that offered them sold out in minutes!

Some jerks were spray-painting some clichéd revolutionary rhetoric about workers above the awning of a hotel. I stopped and hollered, "How would you like if someone did that to your house?" Some asshole with his arm around his girl turned to me and said, "Fuck you!" "So much for a nonviolent protest!" I replied, and with that I split back to my pad. The event all went downhill from there, with more vandalism and tear gas. In an attempt to try to gain control, the authorities declared downtown a "no-protest zone."

I had a show to do that night, and eventually made it to the Showbox for the sound check. But Kim, Gina, and many of the club's staff couldn't make it downtown, so it was decided to postpone the gig for one night.

But we came together on December 1 and pulled a show off. We did those four tunes to an energetic crowd. On the last song, somebody handed me a gas mask, which I promptly put on. Oops, I broke the law! Spearhead headlined and did a set of uplifting music. After our set, local studio owner Mark Cavener handed me the multitrack recording he'd made of the show, later released as the No WTO Combo.

It was a great night, and after hugs and handshakes we loaded out and left. The next morning I walked past a janitor scrubbing spray paint off a wall with some kind of stinky solvent. At least the vandalism benefited that working man, who was guaranteed this cleanup job, no matter how dirty it was.

Too bad the Battle in Seattle is known more for the riots and damage. Regardless, you can't blow up a social relationship. I say the civil protests were mostly a success. It was great to see all the groups marching together as a single voice. To me, their message was "Human rights, fair trade, and a healthy environment are important to our world."

It was a time that promised much change. No matter how cheap the word "change" has become, change does come, and come it did. George W. Bush lost the popular vote but won the presidency, and the September 11, 2001 attacks resulted in a nation gripped by anxiety and an administration that knew how to exploit this powerful sentiment.

Things have even changed in the eight years since then. Regardless, when people come together in a punk band, a political group, or a march with tens of thousands of like-minded others, you can be heard. It may be for only a day, a week, or a year. What's important is for the individual to hold onto what was said at that moment, because things will change again one way or another. If human rights, fair trade, and a healthy environment are important, they will endure.

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