For our review of Battle in Seattle, we went straight to the source with a re-view from Erik Jaccard, who was there at the 1999 World Trade Organization protests.
Battle in Seattle
I can only tell it like I remember it, and I remember it like this.
November 30, 1999 was dreary. It had rained in the night, and my girlfriend and I woke in my one-bedroom Tacoma apartment to the sound of morning traffic buzzing through slick streets. We dressed quickly, breakfasted even faster, and headed for the car. The morning air smelled of wet earth and evergreens. It was actually one of those late autumn days in the Pacific Northwest that are memorable precisely because it was nondescript. In Western Washington’s seven-month seasonal singularity, no days stand out because so many are the same: dim light, a slight wind, and a damp that is everywhere and nowhere, permeating the bones. This talk of the weather isn’t trivial; I bring it up because my memories are suffused with the way that day felt to the skin. When I recall later events, the parts I was around for at least, the parts with the fire and the tear gas and the screaming, they feel chill and wet. Until now I’d never realized a memory of fire could be that cold.
We got in the car and she drove us across town to a parking lot at her-college-that-had-only-recently-also-been-my-college, the University of Puget Sound. We got on an old school bus—which looked and felt the way only old school buses can look and feel—along with other members of her International Political Economy course, and we headed northward toward that day’s labor protest of the World Trade Organization’s 1999 ministerial meeting in Seattle. She was going because, after changing her major to IPE, she’d spent the previous six or so months learning about the effects of capitalist globalization, about outsourcing, resource exhaustion, environmental deregulation, Mexican maquiladoras, global migrations, the decimation of American manufacturing and organized labor, about the contradictions between free trade fundamentalism and national sovereignty. Admirably, she wanted to voice an opposition to these trends, and the protest seemed like a good place to start.
I would naturally have been sympathetic to these issues as well, but I couldn’t claim to have been an anti-globalization activist. I’d only a few weeks prior even learned what the WTO was and why people were angry with it. Nevertheless, what I’d learned had proved sufficient to motivate my initial interest. I had decided to go, even if just to see what all the fuss was about. Afterwards, however, I had developed my own reasons. I was at that point near the end of my second quarter of study at Tacoma Community College, where I’d made a very tiny name for myself as a news reporter for the college paper. After explaining to the managing editor that I was going to attend the protest, he’d agreed it seemed like a story worth covering. So, even though I was fairly green, I got the assignment, and was to return that evening to speed-write a story before we went to print the next morning.
We arrived to a frenzy of happy chaos at Memorial Stadium. Rock music blared from teamster semis in the parking lot; environmentalists cheerfully passed out pamphlets; anti-globalization activists mingled with ordinary Seattle folk. Inside, the football field was a multicolored sea of ponchos and rain jackets. Wandering around, I noticed everyone chatting with each other, and often with strangers, sharing stories and motivations for attending. For a brief moment, the sun peeked through the clouds and things honestly seemed not only hopeful but heartening. It was the first time I’d even been involved in a mass demonstration, and my nearest point of reference was a rock concert. For a time, the two didn’t seem that different. While people had come for various reasons, the gathering seemed to ripple with a commonality of belief and active intention.
I don’t recall the specifics of how and when we began marching, but eventually we did, heading from Seattle Center towards the city’s downtown core. From the beginning, the line between my political passion and my journalistic objectivity blurred. For the first half an hour I attempted to take notes and interview participants, but after a while I just put away my notebook and walked. At times I chanted and sang with the crowd. I felt some guilt over this, but it also felt good to be a part of something, and this something seemed important, even if only in the abstract. Rain fell lightly as we trudged on through Belltown. I definitely caught a glimpse of the much-discussed ‘Sea Turtle’ demonstrators as we neared the market and chuckled to myself. The anxious novelty of the whole affair began to dissipate and, as I recall, I began to really enjoy myself.
Sometime after this I heard shouting over a megaphone, a voice imploring the union marchers to join the demonstrations taking place outside the convention center seven blocks away. “Union members!” the voice exclaimed, “we need you! We need you for solidarity!” While it had been clear from the beginning that what I was witnessing was an incredibly heterogenous form of mass action, this was the first time that day that I really awoke to the reality of dissensus within what had seemed all along to be one big mass of critical enthusiasm for positive social change. There were other people protesting elsewhere. Rumors we had been hearing all morning of violence downtown took on a sharper edge. People began to filter out of the union march and head east towards Capitol Hill. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but she and I followed.
We ended up at 6th and Pike, only a block from the convention center. When we arrived, hundreds of protesters were seated, peacefully blocking the intersection. We joined them. Some songs floated around the group, and some chants. Mostly we just sat and chatted, waiting for whatever was next. When people starting damaging property, it wasn’t sudden. There were no battle cries or shouts of “Down with Capitalism!” As I recall, a guy in black pants and a black hoodie, with a bandana over his face, just started climbing the Niketown awning. Eventually, and very casually for someone hanging seven feet off the ground, he began removing the letters:
Looking back now, I can see a poetry in that slow, deliberate unbranding, but my real memory is mostly of the shouts which rose from disapproving protestors imploring the man to heed the commitment to nonviolence. “Get down! This isn’t who we are!” “Destroying property won’t solve anything!” As though they might forget what they were seeing, or else in order to show their friends what they’d done that day, dozens of people pulled out their cameras and snapped a few shots. I remember thinking that taking photos was not what the protest was about either. But I watched because I was there, and because it was a mildly thrilling spectacle.
Around this time it became clear that there was a lot happening in adjacent streets. Every five minutes or so we’d hear an assortment of pops and some shouting, often followed by sirens. Eventually, with nothing going on at 6th and Pike, we rose and turned back toward 4th Avenue. It was while walking those two blocks that we first smelled the gas. We couldn’t really see it, but somewhere in there it had mingled with the mist and every few feet a breeze would push it past our faces, singeing our lips and eyes. About a block down I saw a male protestor off to my right, kneeling on the pavement while a fellow activist poured water over his reddened eyes. As we approached 4th the gas grew stronger and more obnoxious, and the crowd larger, angrier, and more destructive. A dumpster had been overturned and people stood atop it. A garbage can was burning by the bus stop. The smell of burning trash comingled with tear gas, shouting, car horns, anger, pain, and fear. There were even more cameras now, but there was also more chaos, more police presence, and more pepper spray. The clouds seemed to sink in on us; evening fell. I had stopped participating because I no longer knew what it was I was participating in. A woman not far from us was hit in the shoulder by a rubber bullet. After passing a third or fourth seriously pepper-sprayed face, we called it quits, turned north, and marched grimly back down increasingly ghostly streets to Seattle Center and our waiting bus.
It took me four or five hours to write my piece that night. After sharing what I’d seen with the staff, and after making a few phone calls to eyewitness observers, I sealed myself away in an empty room and wrote for two or three hours, convinced I was doing something important, that somehow my little piece of journalism was going to make our meager little college paper seem up to date, on top of it, with the times. I remember getting most of my graphs together fairly quickly and then spending a lot of time on the language. I wanted it to sound right. I finished it after midnight, the editors checked it, and we ran it.
The other day I was digging through a box in the basement and happened across that issue of the paper. Flipping it open, there was my story, unironically sandwiched between an opinion piece on Christmas consumerism and a review of Rage Against the Machine’s Battle of Los Angeles. Parts of it are all right. It has an engaging hook, and it uses what quotes I had gathered to effectively illustrate main points. I would definitely have written it differently today, but for a relatively green 20-year-old, I think it passes muster. Nineteen years later, however, it seems inadequate to my experience, too ‘newsy’ to capture everything I’d seen. After re-reading, I wanted to go back and add more real people, more sights and smells, more rain and fire and stinging skin, more shouts and chants and power. I wish I could have told it like I remembered it rather than packaging it into the limitations of a news story.
Watching Stuart Townsend’s Battle in Seattle 10 years after my first viewing, and nearly 20 years after the events it depicts, I’m torn between thinking that its hybrid of documentary and drama transcends these limitations and that it embodies them. On the one hand, I think the film is undeniably interesting to watch at times, and that this has a lot to do with how it uses documentary exposition as context for on-the-ground dramatic action. I appreciate the way the bookended documentary segments prep the stage for the rollout of each individual plot, setting in motion the broad systemic forces that coalesce to motivate the discrete individual stories which follow a loosely bound collection of characters representing various social cross-sections of the protests (activists, media, police, local politicians and WTO delegates). In this way news and real experience seem to interpenetrate one another, the documentary segments illuminating how and why the different characters ended up clashing over those five days in Seattle, and the dramatic components revealing the interconnection between street-level conflict and the global-order forces of material and cultural power. This is all the more important given that global capitalism is an abstraction experienced differently at different times and places by different people. Battle in Seattle at least tries to represent the various ways in which diverse peoples respond to and struggle over its management in a world supposedly conducive to, but in practice often highly resistant to, democratic processes. I think it is in large part because of the form of the film that this comes off as more than platitudes about “people over profits” (though there are plenty of these).
I also enjoyed how the film’s generic duality allows for a deconstruction of the totalizing representations of protestor and protested, oppressed and oppressor, that were created by mainstream media accounts of the protest. By the time I arrived in Westlake Square to join in the Occupy Seattle protest in the fall of 2011, I had all but forgotten how diverse were the different groups that had met to protest in Seattle on November 30, 1999. But Occupy, a movement so decentralized and intersectional that many had trouble understanding precisely what it stood for, reinforced for me that the WTO demonstration had also been an incredibly heterogenous affair. As I mention above, and as the film manages to capture, at least part of it had felt at times like a carnival, like a big feel-good party. Union members, victim’s rights advocates, environmental activists, immigrant rights activists, prison system critics, and a variety of different anti-imperialist movements had all come together to celebrate the common belief that a better world was possible. While this radical unevenness was ultimately leveled out in mainstream media accounts of the protest, where the official narrative pitted black-bloc anti-capitalist anarchists against the agents of global capitalism, Battle in Seattle takes more time than one might even expect to disaggregate the various actors driving its plot. For example, we are shown anarchists arguing praxis with the film’s central anti-globalization activists, (somewhat unbelievable) dissent within the ranks of the corporate media, the hierarchies of power within the ranks of WTO delegates themselves, and, again, less believably at times, doubt and uncertainty on the part of the police called in to enforce order.
As I recall, one of the primary emotions I felt that day was confusion, about who was who, who wanted what and why, about how everyone’s claims, positions, and perspectives ultimately fit into the larger picture. To its credit, Battle in Seattle is able to reproduce some of that confusion at a narrative level, and while this might work against a conventional drama, its presence here seems accurate and authentic, representative of the jostling, sometimes uncomfortable, and often bewildering contradictions that animate something as total and abstract as a global capitalist world. In the film, there’s a kind of expected, but nonetheless worthwhile moment where André Benjamin’s character, Django, is asked what Sea Turtles have to do with the WTO. He responds with, again, an expected but worthwhile answer: the WTO isn’t just an organization, but also a logic that underwrites an intersectional domination of the natural world, of indigenous peoples, of women and factory workers, and even of democratic processes. As such, what the camera captures is not simply a bunch of unrelated grumbling yahoos with a grudge, but rather the complex forms of resistance to a complex system whose power ripples out through both the largest corporate land grabs and the smallest micro-level social interactions.
On the other hand, while I enjoyed the film’s experiment with genre, it also accounts for some of the movie’s major limitations. For one, the documentary additions almost necessarily draw attention away from the development of the characters, as does the fact that there are simply so many of them. For me at least, the film was never as interesting as a drama as it was as a documentary, and I wonder whether the event even requires dramatization given how dramatic it already was. The fact that Battle in Seattle was made as part-drama in the first place indicates that someone, somewhere along the line, understood that, in order to make money, there would need to be salable faces and at least some semblance of a story line. However, none of the characters the film wants us to sympathize with most directly, particularly the Woody Harrelson/Charlize Theron cop-wife duo and the Martin Henderson-Michelle Rodriguez activist pairing, read as very sympathetic or interesting. Honestly, Theron’s character could have been excised from the film entirely without much loss to the central storyline. Similarly, Connie Nielsen’s local reporter character, who eventually breaks ranks to join the protestors in expressing outrage over their misrepresentation in the media, seems designed mostly to emphasize melodrama rather than say anything interesting about the role big media plays in propping up anti-democratic forms of state or corporate power. Watching the film integrate real moments from the protests into its dramatic narrative was interesting and enthralling in equal measure; watching the actual drama between characters unfold was not. I say this not because I insist that films be defined by effective character development, but rather because the energy this film expends on character and plot insistently draws our attention to the realm of character without much payoff.
Where the film might have succeeded in terms of characterization was in its depiction of the character of the protest itself, yet its dramatic register does little to represent the locality necessary to illuminate this dimension. Outside of the usual stock aerial shots of the Puget Sound and the Seattle skyline, little Seattle character remains and the dramatic portions of the film feel contextually sterile, as though there were nothing at all interesting to say about the fact that the protest happened in Seattle in 1999. The fact that the convention was even held in Seattle, a city which had roundly been considered a one-dimensional backwater until that decade, is worth mentioning, as is the degree to which the region had been transformed during the ’90s by the rise of big tech and the affluence, migration, and development which followed. There is also more to say about the long history of labor agitation in the region. For example, the General Strike of 1919 is such an important moment in the history of American organized labor that Howard Zinn affords it a central place in his chapter on early twentieth century anti-capitalist resistance in A People’s History of the United States. Yet none of this is discussed, and no protestors are provided speaking roles. The many speaking roles we do see all belong to the more cosmopolitan anti-globalization activists who, admittedly by necessity, travel from place to place protesting wherever the protest is required—is accurate in terms of how anti-globalization activists operate, these folks constituted a small portion of the tens of thousands who showed up to demonstrate that day. Most of these people were, like me, drawn from the greater Seattle metro area. In fact, the actual protest that occurred seems in many ways like stage dressing for the foregrounded melodramatic showdown between what are too often presented as the global forces of good against the shadowy agents of profit, greed, evil, etc. Some might argue that depicting the conflict as global is precisely the point, that the neoliberal global capitalism promoted by the WTO reduces everything, protests included, to repetitions of the same generic conflict in much the same way that it reduces life to the commonality of commodity exchange. I suppose there could be some truth to that, but I’d answer that Battle in Seattle isn’t self-aware enough to make such a claim convincing.
In sum, I’d say that Battle in Seattle is more entertaining than it’s often given credit for being, and that those who initially disapproved of its generic experimentation did so as a knee-jerk reaction, without taking too hard a look at what it was they actually disapproved of. There is a lot of potential here, but a lot of missed steps along the way a well. Rather than put some final descriptive coda on either my memories or the film itself, I leave you a collage of photographs set to the only song I’ve ever found that commemorates the events of November 30, 1999: Blue Scholars, “50 Thousand Deep”.