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(en) US, History, An anarchist review of the film Battle in Seattle by Jen Rogue and Andrew Hedden

Date Thu, 18 Sep 2008 15:20:46 +0300

Lights! Camera! Direct Action! --- 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
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