Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Anarchist Reviews of Battle of Seattle

An anarchist review of Battle in Seattle
category north america / mexico | anarchist movement | feature author Sunday September 21, 2008 15:17author by Jen Rogue with Andrew Hedden - Class Action Alliance (personal capacity) Report this post to the editors

Lights! Camera! Direct Action!

featured image v>

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:
The Real Battle in Seattle

By kate | September 19, 2008

September 19 marks the limited release of the long-awaited independent docu-drama Battle in Seattle, a film written and directed by Stuart Townsend, starring Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron, and Ray Liotta, among others, that portrays the epic protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle 1999.

It’s always a strange thing to see an event you know well in filmic form; the adaptation of beloved books to the big screen has always been a problematic encounter between different forms of storytelling, but when the adaptation has a real-life, and not a literary, counterpart, it’s hard to know what to make of it all.

The Real Battle in SeattleFor the past several months, a group of social justice activists, including David Solnit, author of the forthcoming AK Press book The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle and a key organizer of the demonstrations that shut down the city of Seattle and brought the WTO meetings to a halt nearly nine years ago, have been working to ensure that the real story of what went on in the streets in November 1999 isn’t lost in the shuffle, or swept up in bright and myth-making lights of the mainstream movie industry.

Listen to David, along with director Stuart Townsend, discussing the film and the activist response on Democracy Now!:

The Seattle WTO People’s History Collective has put out a call for activists to visit the Seattle People’s History website ( and share your stories from Seattle, your opinions, and commentary on the film, and your thoughts about the legacy of the Seattle WTO protests and where to go from here.

Below is a portion of the call to action issued by David and other members of the Seattle WTO People’s History Collective:


Battle in Seattle, the new fictionalized movie about the mass direct action shutdown of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, is opening in theaters across the US. Some global justice and anti-capitalist activists will intervene on the opening day of the movie to urge moviegoers to get the real story and make some history themselves.

For the last two years, since before the Battle in Seattle was filmed, we have struggled with how we and the movements we are part of should relate to the movie. Some of us have also engaged with and struggled with the film’s director Stuart Townsend to improve the film, with a small bit of success. Out of these discussions we have created the Seattle WTO People’s History Project (, an indymedia-style, participatory people’s history website of our movements’ own accounts, photos, videos and reflections from the Seattle WTO shutdown and resistance.

Can you help us give out “Real Battle in Seattle” postcards to moviegoers on Friday, September 19 in San Francisco, San Rafael, Seattle, Minneapolis and Washington DC? You can find files for print & distribution on the People’s History site:

Or can you distribute these postcards to members of your community, or to moviegoers at later screenings in Sacramento, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Columbus (OH), Irvine, Santa Barbara, Philadelphia, Plano (TX), San Diego, San Jose, Denver, Charlotte, Cleveland, Portland (OR), Nashville, Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Madison, Milwaukee and Olympia?

This website project, at, is an effort to popularize the “Battle of Seattle” in our own voices and from our movements. Its potential can be realized only if friends from popular movements step up, participate, post their accounts and reflections and get the world out widely! We aim to create a culture of memory and peoples’ history within today’s movements to take seriously documenting, popularizing and fighting for our histories and our victories.

We are a small collective of global justice, anti-capitalist, community and independent media organizers and activists—most of whom were involved in organizing to shut down the WTO and many of whom live or lived in Seattle. Please lend a hand: circulate this email, and check out and participate in the


Contact the Seattle WTO People’s History Collective at:

No comments: