One, two, a thousand Seattles

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On the tenth anniversary of the Seattle protests the temptations and opportunities to misremember them were legion.

The New York Times led a revisionist charge by retelling the protest as a moment of collective vandalism, brutally memorable but politically forgettable. Fortunately, this didn't go unchallenged. David Solnit, one of the best US organisers in 1999, recently published a chronicle of the skirmishes between memory and forgetting entitled The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle.

Anniversaries are an opportunity to reflect on continuity and change, and it'd be a shame not to think about the intervening ten years, particularly since it is hard to get the media and public to hear what protesters are actually proposing.

At the September 2009 G20 protests in Pittsburgh, for instance, the only people who heard what marchers had to say were the police (some from 2,000 miles away in Arizona) and the odd reporter from The Daily Show. The citizens of Pittsburgh had been sealed out of their own city - no one was allowed into the downtown area, and citizens were encouraged to stay away for their own safety. To guarantee that safety, the 4,000 newly sworn-in police were joined by the military.

Men in fatigues and mirrored glasses sat stone-faced on top of their camouflaged humvees at every major intersection in downtown Pittsburgh, armed and accusatory. I imagine it was like Baghdad but with more rain.

International meetings are now also military parades, with weapons levelled at ordinary citizens. The criminalisation of protest was already far advanced in Seattle. But it was boosted by the government's insistence that, in the wake of 9/11, anti-capitalism was synonymous with terrorism. Activists were targeted. Civil liberties crumpled and tossed. Media curiosity about protests turned to scorn. Fed a diet of fear and conspiracy, a public desperate for security was bullied out of the chance to hear how the world might be different.

Given the scale and momentum of the war on terror, it would be foolish to think that a different US president could undo the Bush administration's damage. But Barack Obama did worse. He made it easy to dismiss the G20 protests before they even began by announcing that he "was always a big believer - when I was doing organising before I went to law school - that focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people's lives is what really makes a difference and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally, is not really going to make much of a difference".

At the protests Pittsburgh's churches (of which there are many in the impoverished parts of Pittsburgh), unions and local action groups came together, hammered out some principles of collaboration and action on everything from Obama's failed promises on Aids to the city's chronic homelessness. The abstractions of capitalism always, after all, have concrete, immediate and local effects.

All of this went largely unreported, with the press more concerned with Pittsburgh's reinvention as one of the greenest US cities. As Kali Akuno, of the Malcolm X Grassroots Organizing Committee, observed in one of the counter-summit events, Pittsburgh may be the best city to be green, but it's the worst city in the US to be black.

The protests before and after Seattle were not, and never have been, merely plaintive cries for someone, somewhere, to do something different please. The force of the protests came not just from opposition to the privatisation for which the World Trade Organisation was a cloak, but from the promotion of alternative models of governance and economy that might replace the capitalist system.

While street organising has become harder, new and different ways to organise society have thrived. In the decade since Seattle politics that are principled, anti-authoritarian, collaborative and tolerant of dissent have been shown not only to be practical, but to be superior to the Washington Consensus.

In a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, to take one example, a study of 80 forest communities showed how local autonomy can lead to carbon sequestration and livelihood benefits that exceed those coming from government "development" initiatives. These forms of local government are best understood as a "commons", a way of governing resources collectively and directly. They're becoming so mainstream that the latest Nobel Prize in economics was given, in part, for research on the commons.

In the US these commons are alive and well. There are over 90 food policy councils in North America. Formed by citizens angry at the hunger in their communities, these councils identify resources to share and value, ensuring that the hungry are fed. In 2008, 49 million US citizens went hungry, and more are predicted to this year and next. US free market capitalism has failed to feed its own.

The legacies of Seattle are worth keeping at hand: iconoclasm certainly, but also radical democracy and an understanding of ways in which the world might be valued and distributed justly. The promise of the protests has not dimmed, nor has it become less urgent. Ten years on, we would do well to remember that.


Raj Patel is a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First in Oakland, California and the author of The Value of Nothing and Stuffed and Starved. Visit Raj Patel's website.