Seattle Quake

The WTO protest launched a year of radical action and mainstream dithering.

Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond, by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, with photographs by Allan Sekula. Verso, $20.

The revolution will not only be televised, it'll be uplinked, downloaded and quickly told. And perhaps forgotten.

I fear we are all too busy to remember the waning political minutes of 1999--or for that matter, the entire year 2000. Where were you when the World Trade Organization was shut down? Where were you when the suits came to town and the police went berserk, raiding puppeteers' studios, arresting holiday shoppers, wielding canons? Where were you when the liberals lambasted the radicals?

Five Days That Shook the World jolts the reader to recall those moments with its "you-are-there" style. It's a quick read with a hard punch, whether you're a street warrior or an armchair anarchist like me. It spreads out in a rippling wave covering the incendiary events of a year replete with political fireballs--all this even before November's historic non-election. Its style is a varied weave: part diary, part manifesto, part vox-pop, part photo essay.

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair have dashed off this book--100 pages plus Allan Sekula's vibrant gallery of photos--in order to document a new buoyancy: the building of a radical and diverse activist movement, the creation of unprecedented coalitions between labor and environmentalists, the existence of bodies on the front line. Their coverage begins with the WTO debacle in Seattle (November 28-December 3, 1999), continues with the protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings in Washington, D.C. (April 15-17, 2000), and ends with the Republican and Democratic conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles (summer, 2000).

Cockburn and St. Clair are no strangers to muckraking journalism. Both write independently (In These Times, The Nation), even getting their voices heard in such buttoned-up rags as the New York Times. They've published books about the CIA, drug wars and corporate spoils of the environment. But their editorial baby is the political newsletter CounterPunch, where they regularly embarrass the U.S. government.

I imagine this duo being in many places at once, firing off their reports like torpedoes. They managed to publish this book quickly, just a year after the first concussion grenade was lobbed at Seattle protesters. St. Clair's eloquent, often lyrical diary unfolds with the day-to-day events in Seattle: He arrives, he talks to protesters (the little guy), he interviews taxi drivers (the pulse of any city's labor and immigration woes), he gets tear-gassed, he retreats to a narrow alley to have his stinging eyes flushed out by a mysterious woman wearing a Stetson and gas mask who disappears into the chemical mist.

Cockburn writes of the importance of the events. He chastises labor's slimy ducking out at the last minute, thereby fortifying the mainstream press image of the protesters as "global village idiots"--the Wall Street Journal moniker for the anarchist demonstrators who were left to deal with the amped-up militarization. He opines about a decade of police crackdowns that saw its apex unleashed on protesters in Seattle. By the time the IMF and convention events unfurled a few months later, the state was prepared. No "global village idiot" would embarrass their American family. He disses the environmentalists in "suits" (Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange) for following the money stick as well as the progressive press (Molly Ivins, Marc Cooper, Jim Hightower) for falling prey to conventional judgments.

Amid their screed, Cockburn and St. Clair are optimistic about the triumph of the street warriors. In the end, the little guy stopped the WTO from having its meeting. "That's nothing compared to what those CEOs are doing to us daily," they quote a farmer from Oregon. St. Clair tells of being stopped by a young black teen as he gets in his car to drive back home. The kid grabs his arm and shouts, "Hey, man, does this WTO deal come to town every year?" Optimism, say the authors, goes a long way to fueling the next radical cause.

The mad-dash tone of Five Days That Shook the World is its strength. Given people's short-term memories about world events, this book is an intense volley reminding us to prepare for the next Seattle (or D.C. or Philly or L.A.). Allan Sekula's numbing color images reflect people that look like me and my neighbors--being bludgeoned by police; blocking the delegates from entering the WTO meetings; chanting, singing and having fun. As an artist, Sekula ascribes to the anti-photojournalism creed: no telephoto lens, no gas mask, no pressure to grab the one defining image of dramatic violence. I found myself hypnotically thumbing through those photos over and over.

A final irony lies within the text of Five Days That Shook the World. Numerous typos and grammatical errors signal a mechanical spell-checker at work. Considering what the authors are scrambling to document--how the global economy is screwing its laborers and the environment--couldn't they have at least hired a proofreader and paid her above minimum wage?