Friday, March 26, 2010

Review: The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle

[David Solnit and Rebecca Solnit, with contributions by Anuradha Mittal, Chris Dixon, Stephanie Guilloud, and Chris Borte. The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2009.]

This is a short, smart book that was released to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the mobilization against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999. Those protests combined with the longstanding organizing efforts of poor and working-class people in the Global South to help derail the WTO and sparked a newly visible round of struggles in the rich countries against neoliberalism.

The aim of the book is to reflect on the Seattle protests, what they accomplished, and what they meant, as well as to look at the ways in which the story of what happened has been shaped in the years since. The book is written and edited by people who were organizers of the Seattle protests, and it includes a few of the key documents used in that organizing as well as a concise description of how the actions went down. Both Solnits talk about ways they have tried to combat the mainstream lies about the protest, which persistently have portrayed it as a riot or some other sort of orgy of protester violence. Despite no evidence of protesters committing any violence against people and only a few small examples of targeted property destruction, and ample evidence of massive police violence against ordinary people, official documents -- not surprisingly, often from police forces, but also plenty in the mass media -- perpetuate such myths, as well as more specific lies like protesters throwing urine.

David Solnit also talks in depth about attempts by himself and others who had been active in organizing for Seattle to intervene in the production of Stuart Townsend's feature film, Battle in Seattle. Astoundingly, though Townsend was sympathetic to the protesters and though the film was a long-term labour of love for him, involving huge amounts of time invested in research and writing, he did not actually sit down and talk with anyone involved in organizing the protests until after production of the film had already begun. In the end, activists were able to make some small changes, but at that stage of the process there was only so much they could do. The film manages to avoid some of the worse distortions of the mainstream media but perpetuates a number of crucial inaccuracies and police lies.

Along with providing a useful tool to promote remembering and strategic evaluation of the actions in Seattle and their aftermath, the book also encourages movements to figure out ways to do these two things more generally. The book makes the point a couple of times that though Seattle was tremendously important for a number of movements in North America, our opponents actually did a much better job of analyzing and evaluating what happened and what it meant than movements did. We can't let this happen in the future.

It would have been nice to see more material from more voices taking up the challenge of deriving lessons from the Seattle moment. However, I also think it was a good decision to keep the book short and accessible. I think the authors/editors understand it as a tool to provoke discussion -- discussion that has been happening in some places, I'm told -- and a bigger collection of essays might have ended up preempting those sorts of discussions.

I also felt that there is a lot more to say about the more general process of organizing against forgetting. I mean, some of the basic steps, like organizers taking time to engage in critical reflection after a big success or a big failure, are obvious, even if they are not done nearly often enough. Also, the book embodies another important element of the process -- that is, movements producing media that contain our voices and our reflections, and that are crafted to stimulate further conversation. Nonetheless, I think we need to focus more attention on the uneven field in which analysis and remembering will inevitably happen, and what that means for how they can and must happen. I don't, by the way, necessarily think this book should've done much more to address that question -- it is itself an act against forgetting rather than a discussion of acting against forgetting, and I think that's a useful and important thing. Nonetheless, I think one of the many discussions those of us in movements need to have is about the many ways such forgetting actually happens. Without tools like this book and like deliberate collective reflection, we cannot act against forgetting, but just having raw materials is only one step in countering the many barriers that exist to understanding and remembering. And while strategic reflection immediately post-Seattle might well have been able to happen with enough will from enough organizers to make it so, in many other circumstances we face other barriers than just the lack of will to do it -- we lack skills for having such discussions across wide gulfs in levels of experience, for instance, and often the ways we have learned to talk about vision and strategy in radical spaces leads more to posturing and to ungrounded rhetoric than to anything useful.

In any case, this is a quick read, and it is worth reading, both as a useful telling of history from below and as a catalyst for reflection about how we should go about making tomorrow's history.

[For the sake of full disclosure, I should add that one of the contributors is a friend.]

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Randy said...

I'm gonna check this book out Scott, very exciting - I remember watching "breaking the spell" and thinking that it painted a very distorted view of what actually happened as I understand Seattle. But in a few years, "diversity of tactics" has displaced "nonviolence" as an organizing tool/philosophy, with some arguably unhelpful aspects.
And still the question remains, are big demos really accomplishing that much in the first place? I'm not so sure.

Scott Neigh said...

Hi Randy!

Yes, lots of questions. I was quite disheartened to see the debate that happened around tactics at the anti-Olypmics convergence. I thought both sides -- and people I respect on both sides -- were caught in polarized positions that got in the way of useful discussions. I agree there were things about the previous model of nonviolence that had become rigid and ritualized and excluded certain kinds of conversation, but I think something similar is true (in different ways) of "diversity of tactics" now.

And then, yes, the whole question of big demos like that. Again, I don't think it's simple. Like for the G8/G20, I think what would be the most powerful would be something that was big -- like Toronto Days of Action big -- without necessarily any attempt to engage in direct action. There just have been so few opportunities for large numbers of North Americans to register the idea, "We won't pay for your crisis!" But more generally, that one success in Seattle has often meant that people haven't thought critically about whether a summit demo is really the best way to connect whatever we are all (hopefully) doing locally to global struggles.

Anyway, I'm rambling. I look forward to hearing what you think about the book!

Scott Neigh said...

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Unknown said...

Oh how I miss you in Hamilton Scott! :)

Scott Neigh said...

Awwwww.... :)