Beyond the Myths of Seattle

Beyond the Myths of Seattle

A few things are finally clear about the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999. First, Seattle is the international benchmark by which protests against corporately managed global trade are now judged. From Davos, Switzerland, to Prague and Quebec—even in the dusty market town of Millau, France, where peasant activist José Bové was brought to trial for trashing a McDonald’s—authorities expressed relief that their cities had not turned into “another Seattle.”

Second, it is clear that “Seattle” never happened. Or at least the version painted in the U.S. media and exported abroad is so different from what actually took place as to provide quite another benchmark, one that measures the capacity of the media monopolies to create a virtual reality with little attention to the facts.

Now, more than a year after Seattle’s shattered windows have been replaced, the residue of graffiti power-washed from storefronts, and the last rubber bullets carried down the storm sewers into Puget Sound, it is time to take a fresh look at the way the original event was distorted, and with what effects, on both sides of the political divide.

In the early euphoria, activists made much of the “lessons” learned from Seattle. Among the lessons was a familiar one: the media are attracted to violence; a handful of vandals can bring camera eyes swiveling to attention. But as the “spirit of Seattle” came up against hardened police responses in Washington D.C. and in a string of other cities last year, the lessons became more complicated. Organizers learned, and are still learning, the tactical limitations as well as the strengths of large-scale nonviolent demonstrations and decentralized decision-making.

The police, meanwhile, were learning a different set of lessons. Seattle police sent videotapes of their city’s chaos to frighten authorities in Detroit prior to the June 2000 meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) across the river in Windsor, Ontario. Seattle was invoked repeatedly to justify unconstitutional crackdowns on protesters outside the Republican National Convention a month later in Philadelphia.

Fueled by images of Seattle violence, the abuse of First Amendment rights in the context of mass protests has become routine. In reaction to the initial slowness of Seattle police to make arrests, Washington, D.C., police in April 2000 launched preemptive strikes against organizers’ headquarters, seizing giant puppets and thereby denying protesters one of their most potent visual tools. In reaction to Seattle police complaints about the thinness of their forces, police elsewhere were mustered in massive numbers. In response to television coverage of Seattle police rampaging out of control, law officers elsewhere waited for provocation,Los Angeles police were the most obvious exception; during the National Democratic Convention in June 2000, they used rubber b...