If you’d told me nine years ago that shutting down the WTO and downtown Seattle, getting tear-gassed, beaten and arrested, and organizing a grand “fuck off” to the dominant institutions of global capital would one day lead to activists partying in a luxury suite at the Westin San Francisco after watching a Hollywood star-studded major motion picture depicting the protests, I’d have told you that you were on drugs. But I guess this is yet another case of reality being stranger than I could have imagined.
On Sept. 19 we all headed downtown for the SF debut of Stuart Townsend’s new release “Battle in Seattle” to watch Michelle Rodriguez, Martin Henderson, Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron and a bunch of others play basically, well, us, sort of. They used a lot of real footage, creating a bizarre dichotomy between the film seeming realistic, yet at the same time utterly inaccurate in many ways. Happily, it wasn’t so inaccurate with the issues. The director obviously had good intentions, and all in all, I’m glad the movie’s out there. But if we’re not careful, the movie could be what sticks in people’s minds as what actually happened in Seattle. Already the mainstream media has painted Seattle as something dramatically different than what it was, rewriting history from its own interests and perspectives. Hopefully the film may inspire people to seek out the true stories, which are being compiled in a people’s history website, http://realbattleinseattle.org/, and may be compiled in a book next year. I wrote up an essay for the project, called Learning To Sing, about my experience there, and I hope many others who were there will also contribute.
But I hope people go see the movie. It’s full of inaccurate details (you don’t hang a banner planning to walk away without an arrest, cops don’t go to the jail to apologize—it would set them up for a lawsuit, and don’t expect to get a jail cell next to your sweetheart if you’re heterosexual—cell blocks are gender-segregated). The dialog is embarrassing, gender dynamics are offensive, and the characters are cliché and motivated largely by personal issues rather than dedication to global justice and systemic critique of unjust economic models. And he leaves out some of the most important parts of the mobilization, such as the anti-capitalist model of community that the convergence center embodied; with food, housing, and trainings available for everyone who showed up to take part, and everyone contributing what they could to create an abundance of resources, including medical care and even acupuncture.
I’d have loved to see a shot of the workshop schedule posted: dozens of workshops in everything from current political debates to WTO policies to legal, direct action and consensus training, to building your own pirate radio station. And it would have been fabulous if he’d showed something of a real consensus decision-making process, where leadership roles rotate and hundreds or thousands of people can take part in planning. In fact, it would have been great if he’d even hinted that maybe it was a lot more than just environmentalists and union people out there. And something of the long-term global justice organizing of which Seattle was only the visible tip of a much larger iceberg of grassroots community work.
If it was a film made by someone in the movement, I’d be tearing it to shreds. But it wasn’t. No, it was a Hollywoodish film by an actor/director who wasn’t part of the demonstrations, designed to be entertaining to a mainstream audience, while getting the issues out there. And he did get the issues out there fairly well, even if he didn’t succeed in portraying organizing work and activist cultures accurately.
But wait, how did we all end up with free food and rooms at the Westin? I’m still not entirely clear on that, but apparently a pharmaceutical company canceled their reservation, so the production company got some kind of deal, and gave rooms to some of the Seattle organizers who had harassed them to make a better movie and eventually helped fix some of the more glaring mistakes in the original script. Pharmaceutical companies, incidentally, were some of the strongest proponents of the WTO. Yes, life is bizarre and ironic and sometimes stranger than I could ever have predicted, and that’s one of the things that keeps me excited to get out of bed every morning.
So here’s the piece I wrote for the website, about my experience nine years ago. I hope you like it…
Learning to Sing
There are those moments in life that stay imprinted upon the mind like a photograph, refusing to fade with time, invoking the emotions of a past scene as if it were still on center stage. They are the memories that can add a swash of joy and a dab of relentless hope to life any time the mind’s eye stops to linger on them.
I’ll never forget the day I learned to sing. It was November 30, 1999, and I was locked in steel chains inside metal pipes to the corner of a stage in the middle of the intersection of 6th and Pike. I suppose there’s something oddly fitting about the fact that it took me being chained to the stage before I would finally sing in public.
My mom sang at church and occasionally while cooking dinner, but aside from that, there was no music in my house, except for the Italian Catholic Federation folk theme that played before Father Afron’s sermon on the radio on Sundays while my mom cooked the midday meal, and my older sister playing Cheap Trick behind her closed door. Looking back, I don’t know how my parents managed to go through life with so little music.
I don’t remember who it was who first told me I couldn’t sing. I must have heard it more than once as a kid, because I believed it almost wholeheartedly. Maybe I came to the conclusion myself, since I could quickly see that only a select few people were considered “singers,” and only some of them were “good.” Singing appeared, in my childhood eyes, to be something that only a few people could really do, and since I wasn’t ever picked to be the lead in a school musical, I probably wasn’t one of them. Certainly no one ever told me I could sing, so it was easy enough for my young brain to put two and two together. Little blond Sheri Miller could sing, I couldn’t. I was good at math and reading.
By the time I was twelve I wouldn’t sing happy birthday at a party. I mouthed the words. I didn’t want to offend the ears of bystanders, or embarrass myself.
“We can’t sing,” my best friend Connie assured me, apparently having picked up the same cues I had. We did it anyway, but only when no one else was around.
In fact, when no one else was around, I sang at every opportunity. In the shower, in the car once I turned sixteen, anyplace I could be sure no one would hear. I was sure I was doing it badly, but I couldn’t hear the difference, and it felt good.
Fast forward to age twenty-four, when I quit my cush corporate job in Los Angeles, put my business suits in storage, and got a little shared apartment by the beach in San Francisco, following a vague feeling that my comfortable and “successful” life in Los Angeles was not where I was supposed to be. For the first time in my life, I began to think of work as what I was giving to the world, rather than simply a means to a paycheck. Newly unemployed, I opened the newspaper and saw an ad for an organization looking for canvassers to help save the old-growth redwoods. I applied the following day, and the next thing I knew, I had landed in a different world. Finally, I found a circle of people who not only called out the things they saw as wrong in the world; they actually did something to change them. They decided how they’d like reality to be and then did their bests to live it. They created their own definitions of beauty, fostered cooperation rather than competition, and rejected society’s hierarchical premises. In contrast to the previous twenty-four years, suddenly the predominant belief around me was that everyone can teach something, everyone can dance, everyone can and does change the world. And everyone can sing. It doesn’t matter if other people think you sound or look good; do it anyway. Do it as a celebration of life, do it because it’s inside of you and wants to be expressed.
I quickly embraced the new paradigm, and threw myself into activism and organizing. I was a bit slower to begin dancing, but eventually I overcame my self-consciousness and dragged myself out onto dance floors, for the first time since I was rejected at the high school freshman pom-pom tryouts. And it felt good.
But singing came more slowly. I sang softly around some campfires, but you’d never hear my voice over the others. And you’d never hear me singing alone, unless you were hiding outside my shower.
I first heard about the WTO meetings in February, 1999.
“It’s going to be big,” my friend told me, excited. I didn’t know much about the WTO, but I read up and was appalled at what they were doing: imposing trade policies that subordinate all other values—environmental sustainability, consumer and worker safety, public health, freedom of labor and human rights—to maximize trade and corporate profits. They had already begun to impede nations from enforcing their own laws to protect the public good, undermining national and local democracy and transparency, and imperiling hard-earned protections won by citizens over the last century. It directly connected with many of the other issues I was working on.
I liked the organizing structure of the Direct Action Network: autonomous, non-hierarchical, well-coordinated, inclusive. I began talking with my friends, and a handful of us decided to form an affinity group.
We foresaw that divisions among groups with different backgrounds and perspectives could be one of our biggest obstacles, both as a mobilization against the WTO and in our collective work to create a better world, so we decided to name our affinity group “Unity,” as a reminder that our success as a movement depends on overcoming our differences and working together toward our common visions. We knew how often divisions had splintered and weakened movements in the past, and how the government and corporate interests actively employ a “divide and conquer” strategy to weaken anything that threatens their power or financial interests. It is a tragedy that has repeated itself over and over throughout history: good people with good intentions making enemies of those who should be friends and wasting energy either working in isolation or battling each other instead of those who oppress them. If we could contribute one thing to the demonstrations in November, we wanted it to be to act as a reminder to people to stick together despite the forces and differences that might divide us, and appreciate diversity as our strength. We all have different ideas of how to make a better world and we’re never going to agree on tactics and ideologies; but with this foreknowledge we can predict some of the pitfalls ahead of us and agree to disagree, holding strong in our common ground.
We weren’t sure exactly how we were going to do that, but that was our intention.
As the year crept on more and more people began to talk about going to Seattle in November. We knew the goal was to surround and block access to the convention center, and soon our affinity group expanded to include a few people I had worked with in another campaign, who had experience with hard blockades. I had supported several lockdowns by that point, but had never actually done it myself. A feeling began to grow deep inside me; this would be my time.
The energy was building. Soon everyone I knew was talking about Seattle. The atrocities of the WTO were on everyone’s lips, and I was reaching a new level of commitment in my activist work. I’d quit the canvassing job after a few months and had been working selling medical equipment for almost two years, with activism encompassing most of my free time. This had allowed me to put a bit of savings aside, and I decided that although I liked my job a lot, I wanted to do activist work full-time. I gave notice that I’d be leaving my job and my apartment in October to move temporarily to Seattle. After that, I wasn’t sure where I would go, but I had a feeling the answers would come when the time was right.
“But I thought you liked your life in San Francisco so much?” my older sister asked, confused and probably a bit worried at my decision.
“I do,” I replied, unable to give her an explanation she would really understand. “This feels right.”
I wasn’t sure what I would find when I arrived alone in Seattle in early November, a couple weeks ahead of the rest of my affinity group. I had an address for a “convergence center,” and as I approached the door with my oversized backpack, I suddenly felt apprehensive and a bit shy. But I walked in to find an old friend I knew from previous organizing work sitting at the welcome desk, and he jumped up to give me a big hug and show me around the space. I was surprised to find a couple other people I know from previous projects, smiling and enthusiastic, and suddenly my apprehension transformed into a warm sense of welcome.
“This is the workshop schedule for next week,” my friend explained as he pointed out the large calendar on the wall. I was amazed at the breadth. Not only direct action, consensus, and legal training, but a pirate radio skillshare, medic training, and workshops on a wide range of diverse campaigns, projects and skills. I was excited. I started scribbling down the times.
“Are you hungry?” he asked, showing me to a large table of dumpstered or donated bagels, fruit, and snacks. “Food Not Bombs will be serving dinner in a couple hours.”
I had arrived with no idea where I would sleep, but I was soon set up in a large garage, where I could lay out my sleeping bag and store my things. It was basic, but sufficient. And free.
I think this was one of the most beautiful strengths of the Seattle mobilization. If you showed up to take part, you were taken care of. There’d be food, a place to sleep, medics, counselors, training, legal support, art supplies, even acupuncture. And none of it with a price tag. We were modeling an anti-capitalist world: Everyone contributed what they could, and together we had what we needed.
I spent the next few weeks learning, preparing, and planning. I served as the “spoke” for my affinity group in a large spokescouncil that grew by the day. I was struck by the skill of the facilitators, as I watched hundreds of people take part in decision-making and come to agreements by consensus. I took mental notes: This was a skill I wanted to learn.
We gathered around a large map of the city that had been divided into thirteen sections, like slices of a pie, each labeled with a letter. Each slice would be taken by an affinity cluster that would organize to shut down traffic and access in that area. I found some people I knew from previous actions and our affinity group joined the other groups that made up their cluster. I didn’t know exactly what they would be doing, since the details were on a “need to know” basis. What I needed to know was that several affinity groups would bring things to the intersection that several other groups, including ours, would lock down to.
When my affinity group arrived, we sat down to figure out how we’d play our part. A few of us had decided we would lock down. Others would be our direct support people, sticking by our sides through thick and thin. They’d have the gas masks, we decided, since there weren’t enough for all, and would take care of the rest of the rest of us if things got hairy, including putting themselves physically between us and the police. They were prepared to go to jail with us if necessary, but would try to avoid arrest so they could serve as jail support. We also had a team of indirect support people, who did not want to risk arrest, but would do everything short of that to support us and help hold the space.
I have never in my life had such a strong feeling of strength and determination as I did during those days. Those of us in the lock boxes decided that we wouldn’t unlock for anything. We fully anticipated being gassed, pepper sprayed, and beaten, then dragged away to jail. We expected nothing less, and we were prepared for it. We had done our training and role-plays, we’d watched the videos of pepper spray being applied to the eyes of demonstrators, and we were ready for any of it. We would hold our space, and nothing but steel cutters and brute force would move us from it. And that brute force could perhaps move our bodies, but it wouldn’t move our spirits. I had an inner strength more powerful than anything I’d felt before or since. We didn’t realize at the time that we would be a part of history in the making, or that thousands around us would share the same iron-willed determination we did. I certainly didn’t think we’d actually shut down the WTO. All I knew was that we were going to give it every ounce of our passion, courage, and will, and that I would, maybe for the first time in my life, put one hundred percent of my will against forces that appeared to be stronger than me. It was all the love for life and humankind inside me pushing through in full force. That love made me, for the moment, fearless.
We didn’t sleep much the night of November 29. We’d been up late going over last minute decisions and preparations, but still, I awoke before my alarm clock. Groggy but wired with nervous energy, I jumped out of my sleeping bag into the cold pre-dawn darkness. We forced down a bit of breakfast, gathered our things, and piled into the car that would drop us at our cluster’s meeting place. Half the cluster was there and we huddled nervously, looking for police. The minutes passed and people began to worry about a group that was missing. They were an important group, we learned, one that was providing part of the infrastructure of our blockade. This was not what we wanted to hear. Finally, it was time for the march to start toward the convention center, from which our cluster would deploy. Hesitantly, we left without the absent group.
Singing and chanting, we marched toward our destination. We were all relieved when the missing people arrived to join us. Their truck had been pulled over, and a tripod confiscated.
“That’s ok,” someone from another group said, “we have other structures. It will still work.”
Before we knew it, we were at Sixth and Pike. This was our stop.
A flurry of activity began. A huge stage was being assembled in the center of the intersection, as the crowd of marchers formed a circle to protect it. This was the critical moment: Police could easily arrest people now, but once the structure was up and we were locked in place, it would take specialized equipment to cut us out. We linked arms around the people in the center, looking around wildly for police. None were in view from inside the circle.
“OK, NOW!” our cluster liaison shouted.
“That’s us!” my friends and I looked at each other. Someone pointed to the metal bars at the corners of the stage, and we ran toward them. Two of us could lock in at each corner. Another group had already begun locking to one of the two spots in front of me. I threw myself at the other spot, and my support people secured the lockbox in front of me. I fumbled to hook the carabineer chained to my wrist around a metal bar in the inside center of the metal pipe. Ok, it was locked. I was in. My direct support person, a strong, heavyset guy, was positioned directly behind me, with our other support person by his side. My heart was racing, and I tried to see what was going on amid the chaos. People were locked down all around the stage, with many more gathered behind them. I half expected police to descend right then and drag us all away, but the seconds passed and we were still there.
“We did it!” someone in my group shouted. A cheer went up. The intersection was ours.
And someone began to chant, “WHOSE STREETS?”
A nervous but exuberant smile crept across my face as I chanted.
For the next hour, between chants and songs, we got word that blockades had been successfully erected at every intersection surrounding the convention center.
“Delegates can’t get in!” someone shouted gleefully.
But our elation fizzled down into anxiety as we heard that police had begun tear-gassing some of the intersections. Still, we only chanted louder.
Finally, the announcement came that we’d been dreading. Police were tear-gassing a block away, and were headed this direction.
“OK, this is it,” my friend said softly from behind me. He pulled a vinegar-soaked bandanna out of a plastic zip-lock bag and secured it around my mouth, for a bit of protection against tear-gas. He then took off my glasses so he could put on the goggles, which would protect my eyes. But my vision without glasses or contacts was negative 8.5 diopters nearsighted, which means at that point, I was effectively blind. So sat there, blind, face covered, arms chained in front of me, and waited for the worst. Every muscle inside me clenched in anticipation of attack, as if the tension would somehow make the batons hurt less.
“They’re coming closer!” someone warned. I braced myself. OK, this is it, I prepped myself. This is the moment I trained for. Stay strong. Don’t do anything they say. Go limp once they cut me out. They’re going to hit me and I can take it. I will heal. The gas or pepper spray will burn but it will pass. My group is behind me.
“They’re here!” someone shouted.
I’m ready, I thought. I closed my eyes and tucked my head down, every muscle in my body still clenched.
The minutes passed. I couldn’t make out what people were saying. I could sense a lot of commotion around me, but I was in my own world, where it was almost still. I tuned everything else out, eyes squeezed shut tight, braced for anything.
It felt like forever that I sat there. Maybe it was twenty minutes, maybe longer. I had very little sense of time. It was a shout that broke me out of my internal capsule.
I looked up. “Is it true?” I asked my friend.
He waited a long minute before replying.” Yeah, I think so! Yeah, seems like they’re gone!”
“Holy shit!” I gasped, muscles finally releasing. He untied the bandanna and put my glasses back on me, and I took a deep breath, looking around me. Everyone was smiling and cheering.
“Why did they retreat?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I guess they went somewhere else.”
I looked around like I’d never seen the world before. Colors seemed somehow brighter, and the people around me all looked beautiful. The crowd began to chant, and I joined in at full volume, smiling widely, my heart exploding with joy and relief.
It was at least an hour until the next scare came: Police were headed this way again. They were going to disperse our corner.
And the whole process began again: Muscles clench, the wet bandanna is put on my face, again I’m blind behind the goggles. My buddy sits close behind me, whispering whatever information came he could glean from around us. I tuck my head down and squeeze my eyes shut, all thought subsiding as I brace for the worst.
And again, the word comes back: No police. They’re gone again, miraculously. We’re safe. I open my eyes and begin to breathe again, tension releasing through screams, cheers, and chants.
And so the morning went: Bracing for the worst and then rejoicing when the threat disappeared in the nick of time. In between we chanted and sang with an exuberance that made the hair on my arms stand on end. I got to know the people around me and felt like I would throw myself in front of a police baton for any one of them.
“They’re smashing the windows of the Niketown,” my friend reported from behind me. I craned my neck to see, as the building was directly behind us, but I couldn’t even catch a glimpse over the crowd. We kept chanting, singing, and talking.
The police were nowhere to be seen. We caught word that as soon as they would disperse a soft blockade, more people would fill in to take their place. We were holding a ring around the convention center. I wanted to believe it, but I was skeptical. Was it really possible? How long could it last?
Despite eating and drinking very little, I had to pee. I was wearing an adult diaper, but was hoping not to have to use it. I decided to unlock and go duck around a corner. It seemed the perfect time to do it, and I was excited to see what was going on beyond my limited range of vision.
I looked around in wonder as I walked down the street. This didn’t look like the Seattle I knew. All the businesses were shut down, and the streets were filled with wandering demonstrators. Fresh graffiti adorned corporate stores, and the windows of the Niketown and Starbucks were in chards. I walked past the now-famous swash of red graffiti: “We are winning.” Are we? I wondered. I was in awe.
I got back and locked in just in the nick of time.
“Better put this back on,” my buddy said as he handed me the bandanna. “They’re headed this way again.”
I went through the now-familiar drill, slightly more relaxed this time. But my calm evaporated when I heard an urgent, “Oh shit!”
“What?” I asked urgently.
“You ready? Is your bandanna on ok? Goggles set?”
“Yeah, yeah, what’s going on?”
“They’re here. Right here. I see them. Rows of riot cops. They’re got their gas masks on. Shit, Asha, I think this is it. It’s for real this time. They’re moving toward us. OK, remember, we’re here for you. Get in to fetal position with your face and neck covered as much as possible if they start hitting you. We’ll do everything we can to protect you.”
Oh, god. I didn’t like the sound of this. I really didn’t want to be beaten up. OK, no, be strong. I’m ready. All the false alarms had gotten me almost believing somehow we’d get out of this unscathed. But now I was jolted back into the reality of what we were doing. Hold strong, hold strong, hold strong, the mantra ran through my head until I was ready again, braced for whatever was to come. Every muscle in my body clenched itself tight, and my breathing died down to a shallow rasp.
“What’s going on?” I asked after a few minutes.
“They’re being held back by a row of people linking arms, I think. Doesn’t seem like they’re moving. I don’t know, it’s hard to see. But I think it’s just a matter of time. Stay ready.”
It felt like forever that I sat there. I didn’t know if it was sweat or cold rain dripping down the sides of my face. I thought of my friends locked to the other side of the stage. I hoped they were ok. I desperately wanted to see what was going on, but opening my eyes was futile—nothing but blurs in muted colors. I was facing the wrong direction to see anything anyway. People around me were chanting, but I fell silent.
Suddenly I heard a yell from the other side of the stage.
“What’s going on?” I asked again.
He didn’t answer, but the crowd was obviously getting excited.
“I don’t know,” he said finally. “Seems like more people are arriving… Yeah, lots more… Oh, shit, this must be the union march! Hang on—” He got up to look over the crowd. “Damn! That’s a lot of people! Oh, I wish you could see this—there’s thousands of people coming down the street! And the cops—the cops are backing off! Yeah, it looks like the union march is pushing them back! Holy shit! Yeah—” he jumped back down and pulled the bandanna and goggles off me, and put my glasses back on. “They’re gone! The union march pushed them back! You gotta see this!”
On impulse, I decided to “cheat.” I unlocked the carabineer and pulled my arms out of the lockbox, jumping up to look over the crowd. It was amazing. As far as the eye could see in every direction, the streets were filled with people. Banners, signs, puppets, songs—and no police. It was a sight I’ll never forget. We were so much bigger than I’d realized. The corner was ours again, and it would stay that way for the rest of the day. The crowd was roaring around me.
And then a woman was on the stage, calling for silence. A group of women and men, all dressed in black, were on the stage performing the most beautiful dance, in slow, synchronized movements. The crowd fell silent, and I sat up as tall as I could now that I was back in my lockbox, mesmerized. The power of a crowd of fifty thousand people falling silent together combined with the power of the dance ignited such joy in me that I couldn’t suppress the enormous smile on my face throughout their entire performance.
When the dance was over and the crowd was again roaring, we got the message that cemented that moment forever in my mind’s eye.
“We did it!” one of group shouted as he came running up to us. We all stared, wondering what we’d done.
“The delegates can’t get in! They’ve called off the meeting! It’s really true! We shut down the WTO! We actually shut down the WTO!”
We all screamed. I couldn’t believe it. Through all those meetings, we’d plotted and planned how we’d do everything we could to shut them down, and I knew I’d give it my all, but to be honest, I never actually believed we could do it. They seemed so huge, so powerful, and they had all the force of the police and military behind them. But we had really done it. We’d shut down the WTO for the day. Later we would find out that our demonstrations also helped empower the more marginalized countries to stand up to the superpowers and derail the negotiations.
The guy locked down to the left of me, with whom I’d been chatting all morning, turned to me with a smile that was almost wider than his face.
“Holy shit!” he yelled over the din. “We might just save this planet yet!”
I laughed and cheered, and soon the whole crowd was singing a song we’d learned that morning. Still smiling, I heard my voice rise to full volume, and I sang. Really sang. In key and everything. Maybe for the first time in my life, there was nothing holding me back. No self-consciousness, no fear, no hesitation. Just pure energy, pure love, pure exhilaration, pouring through me. It felt amazing. My voice rose loud and clear above the others, and I could hear it, and it sounded beautiful.
It was a moment in time, permanently etched in my brain, which changed me forever. From that day forward, I would never again doubt that everything is possible, that we can and do change the world, and that yes, everyone can sing.
- The Kamagasaki Patrol: What the G8 Means on the Street
- The Other Big Earthquake