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What does it take to create real and meaningful change in the 21st century? We hear an awful lot about it. The political conventions from which I and so many others are still recovering from were chock full of promises that being an optimist, I am inclined to believe. Is it sheer numbers, rhetoric, commitment or is it simply the case of an idea whose time has come that is the real catalyst for change? I have spent the better part of the last decade and the entirety of the last two weeks asking myself that question.
In 1999 fifty thousand people, mostly Americans, from all walks of life, marched on the streets of Seattle protesting the policies of the World Trade Organization. The event was dubbed the "Battle in Seattle" and its organizers were clear in their mission -- to shut the talks down and focus the world's attention on policies that were in fact harming the poor, the sick, and the environment. After the world's attention shifted, I felt there was still more of a story to tell. How did David truly slay Goliath?
The hierarchical top-down nature of the Seattle administration was defeated from the start by a decentralized bottom-up foe, which had spent six months organizing using a variety of tools including the relatively new Internet. After the riot-dust had settled, the Rand corporation, a conservative Think Tank, was commissioned to do a tactical study of how the police were outsmarted. The book was known as Networks and Netwars and gave me, as a filmmaker, an insight into a Mayor, a police chief, and a Governor who were supremely ambushed by the leaderless consensus-based decision making of the activists, and then took a large shovel and began to dig themselves further into a nice giant hole.
In Denver and Minneapolis I watched as a coalition of veterans, students, activists and others stage a pair of anti-war rallies. In both cities, there were spirited speeches, and an energy in the air. It felt good to be participating and witnessing passionate activism but when I looked around and saw the concrete barriers that hemmed the protesters in and the hundreds of riot police caressing their non-lethal weapons I had to wonder if we were shouting a slogan or asking a serious, legitimate question, without knowing it. Once at the convention center, the demonstrators gave more impassioned speeches, and then it was over. "Mission accomplished" as the President would say.
But I was left with that big gaping question: what was the point?! Was anyone listening?
In Seattle as you see in my film, there was a clear tactical objective to shut something down. There was an inside/outside strategy that achieved its goal and crippled the talks by the end of the week. Organizers agitated from inside the talks while the demonstrators outside brought the corporate-led agenda of the WTO to the world's attention. Meanwhile tens of thousands of labor union marchers disobeyed orders to follow their designated march route and joined the action downtown causing even more unexpected headaches for authorities.
What is the meaning of protest besides using your voice to draw attention to an issue -- or is it simply to do just that? Does protest now need to move to the next level to be more effective, like police tactics have, while still maintaining a non-violent approach? Should protest only be about highlighting an issue or should it be about forcing an issue?
Seattle was the first major mass mobilization on the streets of America since the democratic convention riots of 1968. But since those pre-millennium days in '99, demonstrations have increased dramatically worldwide.
On the night of John Mc Cain's speech an Iraq War Veteran managed to sneak inside the convention center and display a sign that said "McCain Votes Against Vets". All Republican eyes were drawn to this single voice of dissent, and most media outlets played the clip of the veteran holding up his sign and McCain appearing flustered for a moment. The crowd began chanting "USA, USA" to drown out this singular voice in the stands, who ironically had done more for the USA than most. McCain then regained his footing by joking with the crowd to ignore the static. But by that stage the point was made.
One individual took the spotlight for a moment at an event where the world was watching. He did it because he was tactical about his protest, deciding to infiltrate and subvert a carefully coordinated speech.
With an overwhelming police force ready to crush dissent at a moment's notice it may be time for new strategies to unfold where protesters issues are forced to be acknowledged by those that have the power to make the necessary changes.
One simple thing everyone can do to take action in the next few months would be to vote for an administration that might begin to listen to its citizens. The first thing it should do to make sure those voices are heard is to focus on dismantling the rampant media consolidation where four corporations own fifty percent of U.S. media. Maybe then the news might begin to cover the issues in depth and begin asking the questions that need to be so urgently answered.
Here's a clip from Battle In Seattle:
Stuart Townsend is the writer and director of Battle in Seattle.