The night before the "N30" WTO protest in 1999, a pep rally was held in Key Arena. One of the speakers was filmmaker Michael Moore, who came onstage and said incredulously to the crowd of activists and labor union members: "The WTO in Seattle? What were they thinking?" The crowd roared. It was as if the most indulgent parents in high school had volunteered their house for a party. Moore knew, as everyone but the Seattle police knew, that the next day's attempted shutdown of the WTO meetings was going to be an event to remember, enabled by the fact that it was happening in protest-friendly Seattle.
I was editor of Seattle Weekly at the time. We'd seen it coming months ahead of the rest of the local media. We'd been covering the coming event for nine months, we'd previewed the extravaganza in an August cover story by Geov Parrish. We'd sent reporters to Eugene and even ran an anarchist "manifesto" in the paper. We told Seattle it was going to be a big, big deal. Some thought we were engaged in reporting overkill, including my bosses in New York. Until November 30th.
When it came, we were ready, like most of the media (save perhaps KOMO-TV, which said it wouldn't cover the protests but reluctantly did anyway). We had reporters and photographers inside the WTO summit and in the streets. We posted stories and photographs immediately to the Web, and afterward the Smithsonian asked us for a copy of our electronic archive. We hosted some visiting journalists, like Bill McKibben, who wrote about WTO from the Weekly offices. We even helped the budding IndyMedia movement by donating a bunch of old computers. It wasn't an ideological move, rather that we liked the idea of democratizing coverage. We wanted to encourage a new generation of alternative media. That was one of the fascinating aspects of WTO press coverage: It wasn't controlled by the mainstream media, known today as the MSM. The Web and the fact that protesters with cell phones and cameras became their own "media" added a powerful new dynamic.
Every reporter who was able was in the streets that day, and many on subsequent days. The Weekly produced a special WTO preview edition, but also had complete coverage of the demonstrations on the street the day after N30. Distribution of the Weekly proved problematic. Most of downtown had been shut down by the police, and a First Amendment-violating "no protest" zone kept almost everyone out. Our distribution people had difficulty getting in and out, not to mention that protesters had used news boxes to break windows and make barricades. There was an endlessly played loop of WTO footage showing a Weekly box going through the window of a Starbucks. Or was it a McDonald's?
TV overplayed the violence, but the story of WTO was very complex, involving multiple events, multiple venues, multiple days, multiple agendas, multiple ideological lenses, and teeming multitudes, not to mention the complexity of world economic, environmental, and social issues. It was a local event, a national one, and a global one. It took place in Seattle, but we were a staging ground for a global message delivered by many people from around the world who convened here to protest. The WTO was a multi-headed hydra, and no one got it right, or got the whole story.
It is tempting to simplify WTO (anarchists vs. cops) and caricature it. One Weekly cover showing pigs battling sea turtles was later exhibited at the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angles in a show about political stereotypes. And while the Weekly might have been onto the fact that WTO was going to be a big event before most Seattle media, we did not cover the issues behind it in depth. Even our own columnist Parrish criticized us for this (back at you, Geov!). One reason is the provincialism of local media: We covered it because it was a local event, like a flood. If it had happened in Boise, we would have scarcely taken notice.
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