Last night I watched the film This is what Democracy Looks like (a documentary produced from footage shot by over 100 journalists at the 1999 Seattle WTO protests) and am still reeling from the experience. I can’t even begin to describe the roller coaster of emotions one experiences wehn watching it.What I will say is this… the movie shows both one of the most beautiful pictures of humanity that I have ever seen, but also one of the most ugly pictures of humanity. It gave me such hope to see so many willing to lay down their lives for global justice, students, union members, anarchist grandmothers, and so many others, facing arrest, facing horrendous abuse, facing discouragement and fear, and yet refusing to give up.
It also though discourages me very much. I have tried in recent times especially to resist the dehumanization of those that I disagree with, but it so hard to not do that when seeing this film, particularly in the terribly potent images of police power abused.
At one point a police spokesman is saying on the evening news “we’re not using tear gas,” we’re acting in a controlled way, etc, but then you see the lies in this next shot. You see cops firing tear gas into crowds, you see the hyper-aggressiveness of this police in the face of passive resistance in the protesters. You see people being beaten for no reason.
But it goes beyond just flared tempers in a moment, but rather a complete institutional decision to destroy freedom as we know it, as the city of Seattle declares an effective complete suspension of free speech for a 25 block area (where you could be arrested for simply walking down the street with a button opposing the WTO) and by mayoral decree the possession of gas masks in the city of Seattle is outlawed.
But even more disturbing than the many cases of police brutality and institutionalized oppression was how easily the movement was divided. The media played factions of the movement against each other, turning labor against students, and focusing on the violent acts of a very, very few (a few broken windows downtown at a Starbucks) to discredit the peaceful acts of 30,000+. What was sad though was how this disunity and media manipulation was so easily masterminded and how damaging this was to the cause.
I don’t even know where to begin in trying to see the big picture. I guess the positive was that the protests gave courage to the WTO delegates from the Third World to refuse to give into the demands of Western Imperialism and the talks did in fact break down (much as they did more recently at the meetings in Cancun). Yet at the same time, it is so hard to even respect the democratic process when you see it circumvented by the police, media, and government in such a drastic way. In general, the police (at least as depicted in this film) were shown to not only be threatening, but rather to be militarized. They were dressed in full combat gear and acted in such inhumane and inhuman ways that you can’t help but feel that there is no hope and that on another day it wouldn’t just be beatings and tear gas and CS spray in people’s faces, but next time it will be killings of those who dare to speak against corporate power.
I don’t like to be afraid of my own government, and I certainly do not want to see the legal system in this light but I don’t know how one cannot see things like this. In the end though, I guess to cite Thoreau, maybe the only place for a righteous man or woman in times like those, is in jail or on the receiving end of a police beating.
But maybe the greater challenge is to stay cheerful through it all. That is what I still have to learn, to not respond to hatred and injustice with hatred. My friend Mark from the Green Party always says, “you can’t hate the haters” and he is right. I need to learn to be able to see past the gas masks and tactical gear of the police even in place like Seattle, and see the human underneath, the person who is a victim of a horrible system that is using them to hurt others. I need to learn to love even the police who are beating innocent people and to pray for those who are doing bad things. I am not there yet but I sure want to be.