Media Observer

Seattle's Riotous Ink


On November 28, two days before the opening of the W.T.O. meetings in Seattle (which would be greeted by one of the largest street demonstrations since the Vietnam War), Public Citizen organizer Michael Dolan offered a prophetic prediction. “I’m scared that if one anarchist throws a brick through a store window downtown,” Dolan told a Houston Chronicle reporter, “that will become the big story, and our whole critique of the W.T.O. is going to get lost.”

The lead graph in The New York Times coverage the morning after: “A week of talks aimed at expanding global trade got off to something well short of a smooth start here today. The disruptions included a brief bomb scare, the smashing of a window in protests at a McDonald’s restaurant and a takeover of a vacant three-story building by a self-described group of anarchists.”

This writer’s greatest fear was picking up the first December issue of Newsweek and reading of the Seattle protest as regurgitated by the newsweekly’s editorial team. Here’s Newsweek’s first take on Seattle: “In a ruckus over foreign trade, a surge of violence rocks the placid ’90s. What does this odd coalition of globo-protesters really want?” Globo-protestors? Where’s my Newspeak glossary? Newsweek wasn’t the only media outlet compelled to move beyond the workaday clichés of the profession: the Houston Chronicle, in a thirty-word blurb naming the protest the seventh biggest story of the year (coming in just below JFK Jr.’s death), called the Seattle event “an eye-popping, window-smashing street protest [with] thousands of labor union members, environmentalists and anti-technology activists” (emphasis mine). That must have been the Amish contingent, in from rural Pennsylvania. Didn’t you see them, marching alongside the sea turtles?

Sifting through the mountain of copy produced by both the mainstream and the alternative press during and after the Seattle protests, the first problem is to determine what exactly happened. The second, equally problematic, is what it all means. The Internet was surprisingly useful here. Widely credited with facilitating the anti-W.T.O. movement, the Web also proved its worth in quickly disseminating eyewitness accounts from ground zero of the protest itself, even as events became increasingly chaotic. Not that all the daily papers blew the story. The New York Times, to its credit, fairly quickly acknowledged that the number of protestors engaging in property damage was actually quite small — no more than 200, by reporter Steven Greenhouse’s estimate. But I wanted to know, aside from those few self-styled anarchists, just who organized and participated in the direct action around the convention center, and what prompted the cops to move in with tear gas and rubber bullets against this much larger crowd. Was it union members? No, they were at the giant rally near the Space Needle, listening to their leaders speak. Was it mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club? No, they were over at the labor rally, too. (Sierra Club chief Carl Pope later denied any involvement in any protest, violent or non-violent.) The big, 30,000-strong labor march never even made it to the convention center.

You had to turn to the Web to learn who planned and executed the actual shutting down of the convention, a logistical coup by any standard. It was largely organized by groups that most mainstream media reporters (and in fact many in the alternative media) have never even heard about. These included, according to various web reports, the Direct Action Network (a loose affiliation convened for this event, which included some union members), the Ruckus Society, the Rainforest Action Network, and EarthFirst!, among others. That remains the largely untold story of the Battle in Seattle (though some publications, notably The San Francisco Chronicle, covered preparations by these groups in the days leading up to the conference). It was not just general chaos downtown; there was a method to almost all the madness in Seattle. Months of preparation brought activists from across the country together in a well-planned direct action that involved blockage of strategic intersections and hotel entrances, which almost completely isolated delegates in their cars or hotels, keeping them away from the convention center.

And here lies a point of contention within the left press as well. In her December 7 column, Molly Ivins complained about the amount of press coverage given the “fewer than 1,000 who misbehaved” versus the “34,000 who didn’t,” and as a result wonders whether the next group that wants to draw media coverage will (a) “peacefully rally, speak and march?” or (b) “smash a lot of windows in downtown stores.” She leaves out the third option, which in fact was the crux of the events in Seattle: massive civil disobedience. It wasn’t the window-smashing that brought in the riot police, who were notoriously inactive during the peak of the spree (which lasted little more than an hour, according to Times reporter Timothy Egan). It was the imperative to clear the streets, to end the direct action that had completely stymied the first day of the conference and threatened to shut it down entirely. And it was that spectacle — of riot-suited cops using tear gas and rubber bullets to move thousands of people — not the window-smashing, that caught the attention of the world press. (In fact, many of the same anarchists apparently smashed windows at a June rally in Eugene, Oregon, but we never heard about it.) The response of the thousands engaged in blocking intersections was not misbehavior, but neither was it particularly peaceful: when attacked, they ran, they hid, they regrouped, they surged back into the intersections and again retreated. It was a battle for control of the streets.

It’s unclear whether Ivins meant to place blame primarily on the anarchists or the press coverage, but the argument seems to miss the point either way. A convincing case can be made that the W.T.O. would have been a mere blip on the national press radar screen without the street battle, instead of being turned into the household three-letter word it has now become. Alexander Cockburn made this case (in his standard excoriating attack, in this case on Ivins, in the Andersen Valley Advertiser). As did historian Michael Kazin in the Times, in a less inflammatory manner, quoting C. Vann Woodward on the public’s duty “to shock the seats of power and privilege and furnish the periodic therapy that seems necessary to the health of our democracy.” As demonstrated ad nauseum through the eighties and nineties, marches and peaceful rallies long ago lost their power to shock the seats of power and privilege. Seizing control and occupying the central business district of a major city is an entirely different brand of action.

As for the significance of what transpired, the only consensus seemed to be that it was Something Big, with abundant comparisons to the large demonstrations of the sixties (most notably the Chicago 1968 Democratic Convention). But free trade and the war in Vietnam are different animals. Veterans of the sixties like Tom Hayden and Eric Foner argued that the current opposition, encompassing as it does both environmental and labor elements, is much more disparate than the peace movement, and potentially much more troublesome to traditional politics. Kazin considered it more like the original populist movement of the 1890s, with its explicitly anti-corporate rhetoric.

Times columnist Thomas Friedman, along with Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek, carried the banner of the “those stupid lefties are at it again” crowd. In one of the most confused commentaries written in the aftermath of the demonstration, Friedman wrote as if he thinks labor and greens missed a very important memo: “The cold-war system we just emerged from was built around division and walls; the globalization system that we are now in is built around integration and webs.” It’s amazing how quickly things go from non-existent to inevitable: only five years ago, there was no World Trade Organization. Ten years ago, the term “globalization” wasn’t even in the currency. Now, for Friedman, it’s plainly the only paradigm around which respectable thought may be organized. The anti-W.T.O. crowd, “a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix,” Friedman wrote, “have been duped by knaves like Pat Buchanan … into thinking that power lies with the W.T.O.” But opponents (Buchanan possibly excepted) don’t argue that the W.T.O. will become a one-world government; they have simply identified it as what it quite plainly is: another instrument of corporate power to be used against citizens and governments.

Friedman somehow convinces himself that one of the protestors’ strongest criticisms (concerning the W.T.O.’s outrageous ruling that U.S. dolphin-protection regulations for the tuna industry constituted an illegal trade barrier) is actually an example of how the W.T.O. won’t interfere with democracy: he could still find dolphin-free tuna at his grocery store. (This flourish holds all the rhetorical power of Reagan’s infamous press conference perusal of the help-wanted ads in the Washington Post, from which he gleaned that the eighties recession was over.) Friedman closes, again incomprehensibly, by urging the protestors to modernize their methods of protest by “mobilizing the power of trade, the power of the Internet and the power of consumers to persuade, or embarrass global corporations and nations to upgrade their standards.” He cites as a laudable example the anti-sweatshop campaign, apparently oblivious to the fact that the architects of that campaign — Global Exchange, among others — were in the streets in Seattle, along with the rest of the “flat-earthers.” Only a Times correspondent would deign to tell the nation’s veterans of anti-corporate organizing that they don’t understand who the enemy is.

Many of the myths of globalization were nicely wrapped up in a post-Seattle editorial in The Economist. The real losers in Seattle, the editors argued, were the world’s poor, a representative sample of whom stares out balefully from the article’s inset, with dark eyes and brown skin. Foreign investment, the familiar argument goes, raises living standards and promotes democracy abroad. And wasn’t it the developing countries themselves that balked at American labor’s push for a labor standards agreement to protect Third World workers? True, trade representatives from the developing world, led by India, Brazil, and Pakistan, did object strenuously to any discussion of labor standards, but did we hear from workers in those countries? Developing countries are no more homogeneous than the U.S.; indeed, most of them are not even democracies. And in fact, the AFL-CIO collected endorsements from more than one hundred labor and human rights organizations in developing countries, all calling for a labor standards agreement. As William Greider observed in The Nation, it’s Western corporations and Third World elites that have a confluence of interest in maintaining a repressed, low-wage workforce. Not Third World workers and their bosses.

And there is no consensus on the benefits of foreign investment for working people in the developing world. As Sarah Anderson, John Cavanagh, and Thea Lee point out in an excellent December 6 Nation piece called “Ten Myths About Globalization,” although foreign investment has brought higher wages in some countries, without labor protections there is no guarantee that this will be the case. In Mexico, they point out, direct U.S. investment jumped from $16.9 billion to $25.3 billion under the first four years of NAFTA, yet real manufacturing wages fell 23 percent. Meanwhile, as globalization has gained momentum over the last twenty years, income gaps in most developing countries have gotten wider, and the gap between the industrial and the developing world has tripled.

In the alternative press, the discussions centered inevitably on the implications of organized labor teaming up with American environmentalists — the new “dream team” of old-line Democrats — with such thrilling results. As you might expect, observers found what they wanted to find here. Marc Cooper of The Nation, who has covered the labor movement since the dawn of time (or at least the sixties), saw “the rough outlines of the much sought after progressive coalition — an American version of a red-green alliance.” Cockburn derided this as liberal mythmaking, lumping Cooper in with Michael Moore, Jim Hightower, and Molly Ivins, as the guilty parties still chasing the dream of a Democratic party rejuvenated by its traditionally progressive left core constituencies. Had big labor really been down for the cause, Cockburn argues, it would have brought the troops, all 30,000 of them, right into the fracas in front of the convention center, instead of steering them away from the battle. But, as reported in the Times and elsewhere, Clinton had apparently persuaded AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to refrain from direct action, in exchange for a promise to press for a labor standards agreement, which Clinton did, albeit disingenuously late in the game, and with a predictable result: utter failure.

Cockburn’s charge is reminiscent of that leveled at Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1966. King was set to lead his marchers into the all-white Chicago suburb of Cicero — and certain physical harm — but called off the march at the last minute in exchange for a promise from Mayor Daley to “study” the segregation issue there (an agreement which later proved to be worthless). In this case, though, Cockburn argues that the influx of fresh troops would have actually prevented violence, by forestalling the imminent police attack on the few thousand direct-action protestors already in place.

Cockburn engages in some mythologizing of his own, lauding the bravery of the few hundred union members (apparently mostly longshoremen and steelworkers) who disobeyed their marshals and joined the protests. This is an anecdote that fits nicely with Cockburn’s understanding of the U.S. labor movement: a revolution in suspended animation, filled with rank-and-file members just waiting to be radicalized, restrained only by their sold-out leaders.

In the pictures from Seattle, one thing is indisputable: the Battle in Seattle was fought, by and large, by young people. For those of us who grew up in the Reagan years, this is something new under the sun.