Learning from the ‘Battle in Seattle’

If protests had started earlier, it may have been possible to stop the WTO conference.

John Hoff

Some people are like yeast, a small and vital element which makes bread dough rise, or ferments humble grains and fruits into intoxicating liquor.

On Wednesday, in Room 205 of Blegen Hall, the yeast gathered to discuss protest and possible “direct action” strategy far in advance of the Republican National Convention.

They are the Students for a Democratic Society, which took its name and inspiration from the 1960s activist group which helped organize massive protest and resistance to the Vietnam War.

On Wednesday in Blegen Hall, these SDS “usual suspects” gathered with their shiny-eyed idealism, their colorful scarves and their love of granola to watch a movie called “This Is What Democracy Looks Like,” which tells the story of the massive 1999 protests at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle.

I’d never seen the movie before, but I was there in 1999 so it made me teary-eyed and it almost gave me flashbacks as gas canisters were fired in the direction of the camera person’s lens.

Like an old mossy turtle, during discussion time I told some of my faded stories and shared worn-out insights, knowing very well what Students for a Democratic Society is planning right now will probably shadow, shade and dwarf anything I and many others managed to accomplish at Seattle in 1999.

Though the SDS looks upon the “Battle in Seattle” as an incredible success and a possible model for the upcoming protests at RNC 2008, I told these, um, youngsters the undiluted truth. In so many ways, Seattle was a massive failure. We could have accomplished much more.

In fact, I have distilled our silly failures into five hard lessons learned, and I share these collective defeats with a sense of humility, hoping this new and more vibrant generation of activists will learn from our many errors in Seattle.

First, in regard to the infamous and iconic “Starbucks window-smashing incident,” this was an action by inexperienced, shallow political thinkers acting spontaneously in the heat of the moment.

Though, in the long run, it was a much-needed “wake up call” for the Starbucks Corporation to embrace more humane corporate policies, the incident itself was ugly, silly and quite hard to defend.

For years I’ve thought, “How could it have been done differently?” My conclusion: if one of the participants had tossed a few fliers into the Starbucks store explaining why this was a radical political action targeting a particular corporation, and not just some stupid, ugly, inarticulate act of vandalism and looting, then the media “spin” would have been totally different.

I don’t support window- smashing except, perhaps, to exit a burning building. But I am particularly opposed to window-smashing lacking any articulated political argument. So to all the bandana-masked anarchists out there I say: this time around, be slightly less stupid.

(Oh, yeah, I’d also like to point out Minneapolis-St. Paul is full of vacant houses abandoned by folks involved in mortgage fraud. Hint, hint.)

Second, we made a grave tactical error by starting the big protests on the first day of the WTO events and ending most of the street demonstrations around the time the conference collapsed. If massive protests had kicked off a week early, it may have been possible to stop the WTO conference from ever happening.

We failed, big time.

Furthermore, consciousness-raising through media coverage would have continued as long as the protests endured. So why did we quit just because the WTO packed its bags and left Seattle, dragging its collective tail between its legs?

No, we should have kicked off the street demonstrations early and dragged everything out late. I envy the tools possessed by this generation. In 1999, we didn’t have YouTube. Talking toupee heads in the mainstream media were always giving our message an ugly, unfair spin.

Third, we were entirely too focused on weeping and wailing for our 600-plus arrested brothers and sisters held in the King County Jail, and we surrounded the jail with demonstrators. Though this was an effective action on its own, as far as helping those prisoners, it would have made more tactical sense to keep taking the massive demonstrations to the dark doorstep of the WTO, then later focusing all our energies on the prisoners after we kicked the WTO out of Seattle.

This is particularly true in light of the fact the arrested demonstrators managed to organize very effective protests even while imprisoned, including taking over their detainee transport buses at Sand Point Naval Station.

It is human nature to become very focused on a friend who has been unjustly arrested and to rush to aide your comrades. But I suggest demonstrators should make their wishes known in advance by taking a publicized pledge, worded something like this:

“If I am arrested in the protests, I don’t want my friends to rush to the jail unless they’ve got bail money. Instead, my friends should just keep marching and protesting, which is more effective than surrounding the jail. If I’m still incarcerated, after the Republicans leave town, then feel free to surround the jail.”

Fourth, gas masks are hard to get when you desperately need one. So shop early and find yourself a bargain, before demand drives the market sky high. Enough said about this topic.

Fifth and last, we didn’t schedule our lives far enough in advance. So if you want to be a vital part of the greatest historical event since Seattle in 1999, but you plan to be a student in September, then be sure to make arrangements with your professors.

Maybe some professors will give extra credit for being part of this hugely educational event, and will look with tolerance upon any absence occurring due to being, shall we say, tied up.

(Hint, hint.)

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]