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An anarchist review of Battle in Seattle

category north america / mexico | anarchist movement | feature author Sunday September 21, 2008 20:17author by Jen Rogue with Andrew Hedden - Class Action Alliance (personal capacity) Report this post to the editors

Lights! Camera! Direct Action!

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An anarchist review of Stuart Townsend's Battle in Seattle, a fictionalized drama about the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, Washington by Seattle anarchists who were at the WTO protests.

I spent my nineteenth birthday in the cold and rain, breathing in tear gas and fleeing the police. It was 1999 and I was in Seattle, joining in the tens of thousands who descended on the city to protest the World Trade Organization’s first Ministerial Conference in the United States. I was sympathetic to the myriad of issues represented by the various sections of protestors, from the environment to workers struggles to access to medicine. I proudly marched with my banner reading, “Think the WTO is bad? Wait til you hear about capitalism!” The reasons to oppose the WTO were a thousand-fold, but central to me was the larger system at play: global capitalism.

Lights! Camera! Direct Action!

An anarchist review of Battle in Seattle

By Jen Rogue with Andrew Hedden

I spent my nineteenth birthday in the cold and rain, breathing in tear gas and fleeing the police. It was 1999 and I was in Seattle, joining in the tens of thousands who descended on the city to protest the World Trade Organization’s first Ministerial Conference in the United States. I was sympathetic to the myriad of issues represented by the various sections of protestors, from the environment to workers struggles to access to medicine. I proudly marched with my banner reading, “Think the WTO is bad? Wait til you hear about capitalism!” The reasons to oppose the WTO were a thousand-fold, but central to me was the larger system at play: global capitalism.

My fellow anarchists worked alongside union members, sea turtles, and activists of all kinds in an effort to shut down the WTO’s meeting. The diversity of the protesters brought with them a diversity of tactics, and the anarchists participated in many, from locking down in intersections and doorways, to squatting a building downtown, to breaking the windows of targeted multinational corporations. While the debate about the protests and aftermath has seen hundreds of opinions, perspectives and critiques, there is one thing most can agree on: the 1999 WTO protests brought American attention to global economic issues. In addition to successfully shutting down the meeting, activists in the U.S. illustrated an awareness of and resistance to the WTO’s repression and exploitation of peoples across the globe.

Almost ten years later, the protests have inspired a feature film. Directed by Stuart Townsend, Battle in Seattle is a clearly well-researched fictionalized drama taking place during the WTO protests. The pacing and general narrative is quite accurate to the events as they actually unfolded. This new, sympathetic attention to a pivotal moment of the anti-globalization movement brings up many old questions and debates, most of which still linger on today. The movie itself is engaging and likeable, with plenty of well-staged action to keep the viewer’s interest. Michelle Rodriguez, bad-ass as always, makes a fierce anarchist (in the interest of disclosure, I watched Blue Crush three times and Blood Rayne twice just for Rodriguez). The intentions of the film are clearly sympathetic to the protestors and seek to bring to light the motivations and ideas of the activists, which had not been well represented by the media.

The film is independently produced, not a product of Hollywood, though it uses Hollywood style to capture its audience. Like the popular Oscar-winner Crash, it weaves together individual stories and illustrates how they connect. For an effort as collective as the WTO protests, this approach ultimately focuses too much on individual people. One of the shortcomings of the film is the fact that it is comprised of anecdotes. Certainly, to be an entertaining movie, one has to tell the story of some compelling characters, but when telling the story of the WTO protests, this causes some key ideas to slip through the cracks. By focusing on the personal lives and motivations of a handful of characters, we miss the greater, systemic causes at play.

Consequently, the film focuses on the isolated “mistakes” of the Seattle police and to a lesser extent, the media. There is not a larger awareness of the fact that institutions like the WTO rely on media whitewash of their activities and a negative portrayal of protesters, not to mention police repression. Cops fighting protesters is (on a smaller scale) par for the course given the violence of the WTO (poverty, white supremacy, etc). Corporate media also has something to gain by dramatizing the conflict and making the protesters look bad; sensationalism is what gets the ratings, after all. There is a broader systemic analysis of capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy, their roles in the WTO and the states that control it, which is missing from the film.

Of all the characters in the film – a cop, his wife, the Mayor, an NGO professional, an African delegate – Director Stuart Townsend gives the most screen time to various activists. Townsend has explained that Battle in Seattle’s glorification of the professional activist is aimed at trying to inspire people to become more active in progressive causes, but in an effort to show them in a positive light, their achievements are overblown. The breakaway segment of the protest’s labor march was portrayed in the film as directed by the activists, when in fact it was led by the steelworkers and other militant union folks. Townsend does make activism look sexy and exciting (though Michelle Rodriguez could make doing laundry look sexy and exciting), but as a strategy with greater political goals, it is misguided. The movie unintentionally perpetuates the middle-class do-gooder cultural concept when a more important focus would be the large-scale popular movements. Individualist activist culture has a component of vanguardism and elitism, which the movie reinforces – the film’s activists all share various motivations, but none of them seek to change the conditions of their own lives. Any strategy that overlooks the people most affected by exploitation and oppression, neglecting to put grassroots social movements in the foreground, is unsustainable.

Battle in Seattle lacks an awareness of a major theme of the protests, perhaps their most successful element: solidarity. Many of the protesters were vocal in their solidarity with those around the world in resisting global capitalism, and that piece is largely missing from the film. The film overlooks the essential movement-building debates that followed the protests, namely those concerning race (Elizabeth Martinez’s “Where Was the Color in Seattle?”) and gender (such as The Rock Bloc Collective’s essay “Stick It to the Manarchy”). While some of the main character roles were people of color, the film lacks any important dialog regarding the general whiteness and affluence of the protest demographic As organizer Hop Hopkins explains in the WTO protest documentary This is What Democracy Looks Like, “Solidarity doesn’t mean we don’t talk about issues that separate us… You’ve got to take it a step further. Race, class, gender, sexism, heterosexism, the whole nine yards… If that’s not in your analysis, than you’re only half-stepping, and you’re not really working for revolution.”

By devoting more screen time to bouts of melodrama and hot, intense protest action than actual ideas, the film’s politics are exciting but sterile. The superficial politics end up misrepresenting many protesters, especially anarchists, even when it is unintended. With the exception of Michelle Rodriguez’s character Lou, anarchists are portrayed solely as macho insurrectionists. While there were certainly many of those types within anarchism, particularly at the WTO protests, the film neglects to mention there were anarchists participating in many, many types of actions. The diversity of thought and strategy within anarchism is ignored, and in its place is a one-dimensional, sensational caricature of anarchist politics, despite being slightly more educated then the usual media portrayal.

For all its errors, Battle in Seattle provides a fun opportunity to return to the question of why the WTO protests represented such a massive victory, and what we as anarchists should focus on in our political work nearly ten years later. After all, the film arrives in a year when protests are again in the news. The summit protest has again become a popular draw for new activists and old hands alike, as we have most recently seen here in the United States with the DNC protests in Denver and the RNC in St. Paul. After several years of involvement in the protest circuit, many anarchists are developing criticisms of the usual methods, creating alternatives, or withdrawing from that scene altogether (usually in favor of organizing grounded in local struggles and communities). The group Worker’s Solidarity Alliance, in a recent statement on the RNC protests, perhaps put it best. “Specifically, we must avoid playing into the hands of the state by using rhetoric, rituals, and tactics that isolate us from the majority of the world's population that suffers under capitalism. We call for a resistance based not exclusively on the advanced tactics of a jail-ready minority, but the solidarity and militancy of a revolutionary social bloc, organized in workplaces and neighborhoods, fighting for self-determination. As the raids on activists spaces have already shown, anything less is political suicide.”

Jen Rogue and Andrew Hedden are members of Class Action Alliance in Tacoma and Seattle, WA, USA.

Related Link: http://www.classactionalliance.org
author by Chuck0 - Infoshop Newspublication date Fri Sep 19, 2008 06:39Report this post to the editors

Martinez’s “Where Was the Color in Seattle?” was one of the most disappointing things that happened in the wake of Seattle. This essay was well-intended, but it really created a headache for anti-capitalist activists in the post-Seattle movement. Along with the knee-jerk liberal whining about property destruction. Martinez's essay really helped poison debates within the movement.

Several excellent rebuttals were written by activists, including a few from people of color, in response to the Martinez essay. Their excellent rebuttal got lost in a movement that includes myopic "anti-racist" activists who think they are saying something cleaver about race when they cite this essay. The worst offenders just use the essay to dismiss the agency of anti-capitalists who engage in protests and actions that offend the people citing this essay.

What Martinez didn't get, as well as many other people, is that Seattle had lots of people of color: the entire world anti-globalization movement which had asked American activists to confront the WTO on its "home turf." That was one reason why the Seattle protests were so significant--instead of sitting at home worshipping third world struggles like the Left always does, Americans organized a confrontational protest against the WTO on the streets of Seattle.

If you just measured the movement by looking at the demographic composition of faces at Seattle, you are missing--and dissing--the millions of people around the world who supported and were inspired by the Seattle protests.

Chuck Munson

author by Andrew - Class Action Alliancepublication date Fri Sep 19, 2008 06:56Report this post to the editors

I actually think Martinez's article is very even-handed. It certainly resonates with many people. Whatever one thinks of it, it sparked an essential discussion. If individuals want to judge for themselves, its available here: http://colours.mahost.org/articles/martinez.html

Could you provide links to the rebuttals you mention?

Related Link: http://www.classactionalliance.org
author by puhleasepublication date Fri Sep 26, 2008 21:06Report this post to the editors

Apart from "Where Was the Color in Seattle?”, referencing "Stick it to the Manarchy", come on! At least allow some links to the other discussions relating to it.

Interesting how they come under best of the worst on libcom.org

http://libcom.org/library/manarchy-1
http://libcom.org/library/manarchy-2
http://libcom.org/library/manarchy-3

author by Unxmas - Colectivo Libertariopublication date Sat Sep 27, 2008 21:16Report this post to the editors

Donde puedo conseguir los subtitulos en español? Para pasarlo en el Ciclo de Cine Anticapitalista de Mar del Plata.

author by Roguepublication date Wed Oct 01, 2008 00:12Report this post to the editors

I think Betita's article was an important and powerful one, but do have criticisms of "Stick it To The Manarchy." However, the point of referencing those pieces was to illustrate how different articles and discussions emerged out of the WTO protests around race and gender, which I believe where very important and necessary conversations.

author by Roguepublication date Wed Oct 01, 2008 00:16Report this post to the editors

Lo siento, yo no sé dónde encontrar copias con subtítulos. La copia que recibí no los tenía.

author by Eikpublication date Mon Oct 13, 2008 17:13Report this post to the editors

I strongly agree with this articles criticism on the lack of issues raised on the corporate media's role in sustaining capitalism.

Another thing I feel needs to be adressed (and not reinforced like I feel this article does) is the sexist and hetero-normative gender roles in this movie. Of course one can only expect so much from a hollywood type movie but there are some incidents and attitudes that I feel should at least be discussed.

The main character, Jay (if I remember correctly), has this "knight in shining armor" or savior mentality. He has a definite role of a leader and comes to the rescue when others are in trouble. He makes the remark "you are crying like a girl" at one point which is blatantly sexist.

Also it seems that the scriptwriters had no clue about what non-hierarchical organizing means. The movie gives the idea that it was thanks to the professional activist leaders that the actions could take place. The anarchists in the film are somewhat authoritarian.

Experience does not equal status.

I many ways I think that the movie is great though. It does not dumb people down or force conclusions on them. Especially amazing I thought was the scene with the conflict between the two main characters and window smasher where both parties got to present their arguments and the viewers can make their own opinion about the issue.

Well, I look forward to more dialog .

Ps. Today I saw an interview with Martin Henderson (Jay) where he is asked what people can do to be more environmentally friendly. He answers that people can recycle and buy cars that "stop pollution". Did Al Gore, the green capitalist, contribute to this movie?

author by MagonistaRevoltpublication date Wed Oct 15, 2008 23:33Report this post to the editors

Eik has merely skimmed the surface of the penetrating white supremacy and patriarchy in this film.

Charlize Theron's character is beaten by the police until she miscarriages. This is to be considered the ultimate act of violence, violence against the unborn, by the viewers. This was a calculated choice by the director to put women in a place where they are the carriers of something more important than themselves. The brutality of random violence isn't enough. The director felt the need to ratchet it up a notch and portray a woman having a miscarriage from the police abuse. It is sensationalist patriarchal garbage.

Jay's character was particularly problematic. When he first walks into the room, the bumbling woman in front of the map, and everyone in the room around him seems to fall into place. He then directs where people need to go. He is the lynchpin of the protests, a savior, and a sexual opportunist. He leads the cowardly women towards success on multiple occasions. He puts them back in their place as he sees fit (especially the lawyer character and the media woman).

Andre Benjamin's character is also problematic. When asked why he is there opposing the WTO for its environmental degradation, he spouts a briar rabbit story about turtles getting their shells. Further, when pressed, he says that he works with animals because they are easier to work with than humans. What the fuck?

At the end of the film, the sentiment the viewers are supposed to feel is: thank goodness professional activist NGO types. There were times where the union members and the anarchists almost derailed your plans, and times where female cowardice threatened your hegemony, but you prevailed in the end. This is a complete bullshit reading of the actual events.

author by situacionistapublication date Mon Nov 17, 2008 13:41Report this post to the editors

ha de ser medio bastante al estilo gringo-hollywood pero igual describe un evento y lucha importante de los años recientes. comparto la admiracion del autor de este articulo por la michele rodriguez. igual seria interesante pasar esta pelicula aca en quito, ecuador.

es medio interesante el debate de los estadounidenses aqui sobre el hecho de que falto gente no blanca o no de minorias en la lucha de seattle (la michele rodriguez hace de hispana?). aca en circulos de izquierda libertaria de ecuador y creo en toda latinoamerica a los hechos de seattle se los considera importantes debido a que la gente progresista, los ecologistas y los sindicatos de EEUU se levantaron y lograron una importante victoria en la cual en mucho tambien contribuyeron a un internacionalismo que comenzo desde alli a ser conocido como movimiento antiglobalizacion o alterglobalizacion. era interesante ver como en el centro del imperio estadoundense decidieron protestar masivamente. comparto tambien la opinion de alguien aqui que escribio en ingles que critico la tendencia de algunos izquierdistas alla a pasar en la casa o en cafes discutiendo y alabando las luchas del "tercer mundo" mientras poco se envuelven en las luchas directas locales. creo que el mejor internacionalismo que pueden tener la gente en el Norte y en el mundo industrializado es presisamente influir en cambios en sus propios paises y en la opinion publica de sus paises tambien sobre lo que directamente les afecta dado a que el capitalismo es algo global que nos afecta a todos. porque sino miren esos presidentes que eligen en europa occidental. esos medio fascistas cabrones del sarkozy o del peor ese el de italia, como se llama? berlusconi.
ahora que tambien aca yo he participado en eventos donde se paso documentales de luchas del norte como las de seattle o las de genova.

saludos anarkos del mundo.

author by EmBlackpublication date Sat Nov 22, 2008 02:44Report this post to the editors

At frist I saw this movie i thought it was really hollywood style to tell the stories, way to romatic the scene of a protest.
But it was acutally fun to watch tho.
I also agree with the sexist and authorized characters, but also I find it sort of true coz in many protest, there's always people taking control of things, while they insist things should all be consesus, (the consesus based on their decisions)
And the sexist problem is always been exist too, and not to mention of sexual opportunist..
But we dont talk about it much during the protest, or if we did, problems never seem to solve, as in my experience.

author by Howard - www.howardsimonmarks.compublication date Sun Mar 22, 2009 20:29author email solar at howardsimonmarks dot comauthor address 9 the mews park view road manchester m25 opu UKauthor phone Int441617984643Report this post to the editors

The film is very good not as great as it could be if the director had completed certain key moments and use digital techniques to illuminate things. But overall it is very good and deerves to be bought by as many people as possible. His film-making style is like a very good 1980's TV Movie a bit plain but solid and very watchable. No cinematic auteur just a good rock-steady hand of a director. It suffers sometimes from budget limitations but at those points they cut to real-life news footage to make up for what their low budget could not afford to create. So with some limitations and some criticisms of lost opportunities I still say well done and it is worth buying. For me a simple addition could have made all the difference. They do have infamous footage of the CEO of STARBUCKS talking while attending a basketball game about the fact that his store(s) in SEATTLE has had its windows smashed and cannot do business that he describes as "an injustice" at this point the director/film should have used clever digital graphics to illuminate the truth about the STARBUCKS model. That at the point in history at which STARBUCKS had convinced the consumers to pay more for a cup of coffee than they had paid at any time in history in both numerical and value real-terms price/cost...the price being paid to the Third World peasant farmers who grow the coffee beans had reached the ALL-TIME lowest price in real-terms in the history of the coffee market. The failure of the director to juxtapose that fact with the CEO's audacious use of the phrase "injustice" boggles my mind. That simple fact would have explained so clearly to the audience what the protesters in the movie were fighting for and about. That in real terms the growers were better paid back in the 70's when a cup of coffee was 50cents (or less) than in the Clintonite 90's when a cup of STARBUCKS could be as much as $6:50. Boiling down the WTO issues to that could have been a great help for those people watching the film who don't know this stuff. So on that score the director missed an opportunity. As I say though over-all the film is very good and well worth having.

I wrote the above for Amazon posting...

Yes I agree that the characters should have been far diverse in ethnic and nationality terms people from all over the world attend such events. The reason for the Charlize Theron character's "drama" is that she is the director's other half and was at first going to play a protester then when that changed he had to come up with something worthy of her star-status being in the film.

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