How We Tell Our History & Why It Matters
A Review of “The Battle of the Story of the Battle in Seattle” by David Solnit and Rebecca Solnit.
History tends to breed mythology, or rather, history tends to be written as mythology. The historian is partly to blame for this, taking stories and gutting them, glorifying the parts that they think should be emphasized, by default defining other parts as non-history. Another factor though, perhaps more to blame, is the immediate mis-telling of situations as they occur, the fault of the news-teller, or rather, the History-creator.
I witnessed this happening in my own life around the Seattle WTO protests and was effected by it, for better and worse, in multiple ways.
When 50,000 people converged 10 years ago in Seattle to forever change the debate around the globalization of anti-labor, anti-environmental, anti-democratic “trade” relations, media outlets, radical thinkers, conservative pundits, and many others also converged to name the situation in a historical context, to make it History.
The imagined image of a city of fire, a battle-zone, an insurgency, was broadcast heavily through the corporate-press. This led some protest organizers to consider the media coverage a bit of a failure; “Anti-trade” or “anti-globalization” was the label given to a movement that was arguably more global than the policies they were battling. A movement that was born in the Global South, led for years by poor farmers, slum-dwellers, human rights activists, and many others, was simply painted by the broad brush of the corporate press as “anti-globalizartion”.
This spinning was a PR victory for the WTO, who wanted a good chunk of the human population to be viewed as flat-earthers, living in the dark-ages of the late 1900s. The WTO wanted to be seen as the opposite, on the path to the future, the frontiersmen of the new millenium, ushering in the era of “post-History”.
What the WTO was trying to pull off, veiled by the poetics of some of it’s intellectual defenders in American think tanks, was push the poisons of the great American Ponzi schemes onto the world. They were trying to send the message, in the words of Rage Against the Machine, “there is no other pill to take, so swallow the one that made you ill”.
Unfortunately for the WTO, the protests were too big and too significant to spin the story too much in the press. Talk of “violent anarchists” was the best they could come up with, and that only took them so far. No one could hide the fact that the WTO was up to something very sketchy, and people were pretty upset about it.
What changed in Seattle, as David and Rebecca Solnit lay out well in “The Battle of the Story of The Battle in Seattle” was the debate around neoliberal globalization. What was before a topic only discussed in specific radical activist networks, labor circles, and certain NGOs (as well as by the neoliberal themselves in their many institutions), became a household thing. The WTO was now known to be highly controversial group, which was trying to stay under the radar but had been exposed. Even the film Battle in Seattle, in which David and Rebecca’s book is a response, contains a great line that sums this up well; “Yesterday, no one knew what the WTO was. Today, well, they still don’t know what it is but they know it’s bad!”
How did this happen? Who changed the debate? What did it take? Would the media coverage have been the same had the Black Bloc, a loosely coordinated body who participated in the property destruction, not done the amount of damage that they did (a lot of broken windows, mostly)? Was bad press good press?
In a recent conversation with David Solnit, in response to this question, he explained that previous to the start of the actions there was already a significant amount of press. It is likely that the coverage would have continued to be big news despite the black bloc. The Black Bloc’s actions may have attracted some young radicals, like me, but on the other hand may have turned many times that number away.
One could say, and indeed many anarchist do, that the over-hyping of s small group of Black Bloc militants, and the large coverage of police running rampant, was a victory because it made front pages across the world for days. This stance has been taken after many demonstrations like those against the FTAA in Miami, or more recently at the G20 protests in Pittsburgh. Hundreds of photos of the one burning pile of trash, the one over-turned dumpster, the one time a protester hits a cop, surface on newspapers across the world. This makes us look more militant, more extreme, perhaps more serious.
The same city-on-fire image that the corporate press propelled into the world was also broadcast heavily in some of the more militant circles of the radical Left and anarchist groups. Thus the same broad movement of many tendencies seemed more anarchistic, more “militant”, more simple and spontaneous than it was. And some believe this is good because it increases energy or makes “militant” folks more interested.
In a short-term view, that is probably true. The false-images of the Seattle “riots” definately got me interested and engaged, and many friends too. In a long-term view, based around organizing to win social movements, it could prove to be a deceptive story with detrimental effects, especially on younger activists and organizers.
The insurrectionary nature of our young anarchist political concepts, which for my generation (the Seattle-Boomers) largely grew from the assumption that Seattle and other similar demonstrations in Prague, Quebec City, and Genoa (among others), were spontaneous, militant uprisings, led to high-turnover and a short-lived “movement”. It also led many young anarchists, like little 15-year old Me, to think that movements like this are the result of a rupture in society, cracked open by the militant and spontaneous uprisings of small numbers of other mostly young people.
The Myth of Insurrection, as we could name it, produced these concepts, and it has been spread widely in anarchist circles. Seattle is the ultra-reference, or maybe it has been replaced now by last year’s riots in Greece. Either way, Seattle still holds a place in the history of this myth. The myth generally tells that spontaneous uprisings, born from the depths of a bitter and semi-politicized society, can be stoked rather easily with the right imagery and energy. The Weathermen of the 60’s referred to it as a “prairie fire”. It is the anarchist version of the Socialist concept that poor people are generaly interested in Socialism by default, they only need to be led. Hitler found this to be false, and exploited it to the ends of Fascism, which could be considered a small loop-hole…
Partially as a result of the “militant”-mythology of Seattle, many young radicals promote this idea of a society just waiting to burst open at the seams, and this is viewed as a good thing, a “revolutionary window”. Perhaps many immigrant communities, living in the shadow of a racist and armed country, view it differently. Perhaps those living in fear of racist reprisals are not so excited about a sudden unleashing of societal aggression. When “spontaneous uprisings”, accompanied by strong organizing traditions developing in the railroad and industrial unions, exploded in the summer of 1877, they led to massive, well-organized, high-impact strikes and rebellions throughout Maryland, Pennsylvania, St. Louis, and Chicago. However, when it reached San Francisco, the rebellion turned into a race riot, with white workers beating up and killing Chinese workers in the streets. Spontaneous uprisings do not have a default moral or political ideaology. They can be pulled in whatever direction one wants to.
When things burst open, it isn’t always good for everyone. Some believe a slower, more intentional route needs to be pursued to achieve tangible social change.
This is perhaps a major message in The Battle of the Story of the Battle in Seattle; 9 months of major organizing drives, major education efforts, major cross-political alliances, and major civil disobedience trainings, which culminated on November 30th, 1999, were just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, decades of hard work by thousands and thousands of people, building small alliances, making trips to various countries, pulling together enormous world-wide social-movement gatherings like the Zapatista Encuentros, creating huge networks like the People’s Global Action Network, building huge militant unions like South Korea’s KCTU, doing direct support campaigns like The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador or the divestment movement against Apatheid, these were the on-ramps to the Road to Seattle. And there were thousands of them.
This was the historic context that produced this “movement of movements”.
Thus the real victory in Seattle was not the result of tactical victory, surprise, or an explosion of militancy. The victory was really that a big chunk of the United States had solidified their place in perhaps the largest unified social movement the world has ever seen. It was the people inside the belly of the beast joining the world in it’s fight for justice. The rest of the world was waiting for it, and they were quite excited to hear of the victory. The Americans finally got it. This was a huge boost for a worldwide social movement.
And how was this achieved? Massive, coordinated civil disobedience and a lot of organizing in the lead-up, coordinated within a global movement backed by huge networks, political movements, radical leadership (like those taking root in Latin America), and strong alliances both within and across borders. You might realize after months of practice and training that you are able to run faster than before, but you don’t just wake up able to run faster. In Seattle, a huge social movement expressed itself to the world. It was not born there, though perhaps it was realized there. It was the realization that comes after months of training. This was the tactical victory, which was a necessary ingredient to effect the changes that grew out of Seattle.
The media’s version of the Story of Seattle, along with some of our own radical-mythologies, tell of a sudden uprising, just as they tell of the 1877 strikes, Rosa Parks (who took a training in civil disobedience and pulled off a successful pre-planned action), the events of the 60s, and many other parts of history. The historian often ignores or is unable to find the real context to explain great events.
Thankfully, we have the ability to tell the real Story of Seattle today. And what the real story of Seattle teaches us is that massive mobilization, education, and organization building, which are the organic processes of a social movement, mixed with a winnable strategy with a broadly accepted tactical plan and a massive committment by participants to stick to it even in the face of repression, coordinated within a popular social movement with understood values, leads to the ruptures that too many are simply waiting around for. It is the realization of power, but it doesn’t “blow in the wind”, it is put into the wind purposely by dedicated organizers within social movements. And when such large bodies of people apply themselves in these situations, they send a message to themselves and the rest of the world that it is a time for serious change.
“We found your weakness”, Rage Against the Machine said, “and it’s right outside your door”. The weakness we found, but the instruments we use to expose and battle the weakness are not found, they are built by large numbers of people around the world, quite intentionally.
The lessons laid out in The Battle of the Story of the Battle in Seattle are very important as we proceed on the path to justice. With a major world-mobilization in Copenhagen for Climate Justice, tension brewing across both Southwestern Asia and the Middle East as well as within the U.S. military regarding the U.S. occupations, and radical leadership in Latin America building an alternative economic power-base, we are still in the dead-center of the Global Justice movement, full of both disappointment and inspiration.
The question for us is: “What lessons will we draw from our past?”. “How will we write our history, and how will we learn from past successes and failures?”. “How can our history help us move forward in ways that don’t repeat mistakes, but build new victories?”. And maybe most of all, “How will we sustain our movements through both the great explosions of victory and the sad and lost moments of defeat and disillusion?”.
We must prepare for, understand, and accept the challenges of both.