The Boston Phoenix December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001


The year of the protest

2000 brought us tear gas, rubber pellets, black ski masks, and giant puppets. Will it continue?

by Kristen Lombardi

History will find it fitting that 2000 neared its end in a burst of anti-capitalist dissent. The news that Seattle had erupted in mini-riots on November 30 called to mind the destruction that occurred there 365 days earlier, when anti-free-trade protests paralyzed the city's downtown. To commemorate the historic 1999 event, protesters went after a popular corporate target -- Starbucks -- smashing windows and spray-painting walls at nine of the chain's coffee shops.

The raucous affair pretty much sums up 2000. Y2K might not have sparked the end of civilization, but it brought us street riots all the same. The past 12 months witnessed one rowdy protest after another in cities across the nation, from Seattle to Washington, DC, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Even places known more as sunny vacation spots than as hotbeds of political activity (hello, West Palm Beach) became home to mass marches and demonstrations.

To be sure, a certain amount of public dissent could be expected -- it was, after all, a presidential-election year in which no incumbent was running. Still, people took to the streets with a passion and ferocity that this country hadn't seen since the late 1960s. What made the 2000 protests so unusual was that they weren't rooted in a single issue like Vietnam -- an issue that divided the country and touched the lives of virtually every American. Under the loose rubric of curbing "corporate globalization" -- the year's hottest political buzz-phrase, referring to the unchecked expansion of global capitalism -- activists spoke out against everything from old-growth forest destruction to Third World debt to racism, sexism, and homophobia. In retrospect, it seems, a spirit of protest once again became the national Zeitgeist.

Technically speaking, of course, the mother of all recent protests took place at the tail end of 1999, during the now-famous World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle. As many as 50,000 environmentalists, labor leaders, human-rights advocates, and self-styled anarchists shut down the city with demonstrations, giant papier-mâché sea turtles, and vandalism. Police responded with tear gas, rubber pellets, and mass arrests.

The tumultuous affair began on November 30, 1999: armies of demonstrators linked arms to block access to the Seattle convention center, where WTO delegates were trying to start a round of global-trade talks. Coverage of the event riveted the country. Newscasters broadcast dramatic footage of anarchists in black ski masks kicking in windows at the Gap, of cops in full riot gear tossing tear gas into the crowds. By the time the protests ended, activists everywhere had been inspired. In shutting down the WTO talks, the demonstrations proved that ordinary people who mobilized could make a difference -- and this intoxicating notion set the tone for 2000. No sooner had the World Series of demonstrations ceased than organizers looked to re-create the magic.

piggy bank And they did. Yet for all the comparisons that were made between 2000-style outrage and the social unrest that punctuated the 1960s, observers often missed one crucial point. Yes, the Greens, unionists, black-clad anarchists, and other advocates who spilled into the streets this year had much in common with their '60s counterparts -- both identified serious societal problems. But '60s protesters could say what they were for -- namely, peace. Protesters today couldn't do the same, at least not without ticking off a list of causes ranging from the inspired (stop the environmental scourge of globalism) to the tired (free Mumia Abu-Jamal). Their crusade's lack of coherence -- not to mention their penchant for parading around with puppets -- prompted many critics to dismiss them out of hand.

That would be a mistake, however. These activists not only highlighted the downside of American economic success (which, after all, is due largely to free trade), but also thrust prosperity's price into the American media spotlight -- which is no small feat in our hyperactive, attention-deficit culture. That protesters drew scores of once-apathetic young people into the political process -- witness the strength of Ralph Nader's presidential run -- has proven their biggest achievement yet. And it's one that could pave the way for long-term political action.

the year in review

art - classical - cultural explosions - dance - film
film culture - fiction - jazz - internet - law - local rock
local punk and metal - nonfiction - queer - pop
protest - theater - tv

Flush with the success of Seattle, activists spent the year crisscrossing the country from one major event to another. And like their '60s-era counterparts, who used mischievous, attention-grabbing tactics like taking over university buildings, the 2000 rabble-rousers tried to shut down city neighborhoods that hosted nefarious gatherings -- though they never quite succeeded in doing so after Seattle.

In April, some 10,000 activists flocked to the nation's capital to protest a joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which regulates international currency and helps countries in debt, and the World Bank, which funds development projects around the globe. Loosely organized by groups like the Ruckus Society, in Berkeley, California, and the San Francisco-based Global Exchange, protesters arrived a week early for teach-ins and marches. Their ultimate goal, though, was to stop the meetings on April 16 (dubbed "A16" by activists). Yet unlike Seattle's police force, which was overrun by protesters, DC's finest were prepared for the demonstrations -- perhaps too prepared. The day before A16, police raided a DC warehouse known to activists as the "convergence space." Claiming that the demonstrators possessed Molotov-cocktail ingredients, officers then confiscated the activists' art tools -- the paint, turpentine, and brushes used to construct the movement's signature giant puppets.

The day before the A16 action was supposed to occur, police also swooped in and arrested 600 people on K Street. For every protester hauled in and charged with parading without a permit, there was a DC resident observing the activities or a commuter on the way to work who ended up pinched as well. Police were embarrassed when it was later revealed that they'd netted a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post photographer in the sting.

Their methods were crude -- and their intent all too apparent: the police had done their damnedest to rid the streets of as many protesters as possible, locking them up in jail until the crucial IMF/World Bank meetings were completed. In the end, though, the Washington affair may have solidified the budding movement against corporate globalization. What might have happened if the DC police had played by the rules? Would the action have collapsed under the weight of its unmet expectations? Indeed, despite the hype, nowhere near the number of protesters who had descended on Seattle showed up in the nation's capital. Even if police hadn't locked up so many, the demonstrators probably wouldn't have succeeded in shutting down the city and blocking the meetings. But ironically, the DC cops may have given protesters a unifying goal -- that of "fighting the Man," as their '60s brethren used to say. After the gross injustices committed by the DC police, who could blame activists when they seized the opportunity to strike back at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles?

The four-day Republican National Convention, held at Philadelphia's First Union Center July 31 through August 3, boasted its share of bold, Seattle-style stunts. Activists wearing George W. Bush and Al Gore masks duked it out in a staged mud-wrestling match. They parodied Bush's "compassionate conservatism" with a makeshift homeless camp dubbed Bushville. They poked fun at corporate America with an 80-foot float christened Corpzilla. Even conservative political columnist Arianna Huffington showed up to object to the lack of debate over substantive issues.

But just three days into these peaceful -- and festive -- gatherings, the rage returned. On August 1, protests led to the hospitalization of three police officers, including Police Commissioner John Timoney, who said his bike had been used as a weapon against him when he confronted protesters in the streets. By the time GOP delegates rang farewell to the Liberty Bell, police had arrested 404 demonstrators. Days later, Timoney stunned the public by accusing six leaders of prominent protest-training groups -- including John Sellers, the Ruckus Society's director -- of colluding and orchestrating madness and mayhem during the Republican get-together.

Sellers was arrested and charged with a laundry list of 14 misdemeanor offenses, including conspiracy. He was then slapped with $1 million bail. He spent six days in jail before his bail was reduced and he was released. On November 14, when his charges were finally heard in court, prosecutors said they didn't have enough evidence to make their case. All charges were dropped. Ever the activist, Sellers came to embody the Zeitgeist by voicing his outrage over what he called "an unconstitutional, pre-emptive, and illegal strike by the Philadelphia Police Department to silence dissenting opinions."

Not surprisingly, it didn't take the Los Angeles Police Department -- the department that brought us Rodney King -- nearly as long to crack down on protests at the Democratic National Convention, held August 14 through 17. On the meeting's first night, while the Clintons delivered their farewell speeches inside the Staples Center, the politically active, anti-establishment band Rage Against the Machine entertained protesters who had gathered outside. At the set's end, as police prepared to close down the concert -- which was over -- some concertgoers took to throwing rocks at the cops, who, in turn, fired rubber pellets into the crowd. Once again, the country focused on dramatic TV images of riot-gear-clad police terrorizing protesters. And again, observers drew parallels with the 1960s: the clash between protesters and police outside a Democratic convention called to mind the riots that took place at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Few observers remarked on the fact that the 1968 protesters had raged against the war; in 2000, protesters seemed willing to antagonize the Man over little more than a concert.

protest in L.A.
SOCIALLY ACTIVE: the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles

Activists continued to challenge authority -- in far more peaceful, productive ways. They called attention to police brutality by marching to the LAPD's Rampart division, which is now under investigation for widespread abuse of citizens. Hours later, they gathered outside police headquarters to protest the criminal-justice system. But activists had not come to take on the police. They came to say that Democrats were just as guilty as Republicans of pushing a domestic policies that promote the almighty buck over every other consideration. They even put Gore to the test, organizing a well-attended march against his investment in the Occidental Petroleum Corporation, whose Colombian operations threaten to wipe out the indigenous U'wa people. Rallies and teach-ins went on without a hitch all week -- although ultimately they had little effect on the convention itself.

Despite the failures in LA, protesters remained undeterred. No sooner had the political conventions ended than they set their sights overseas. In late September at least 8000 activists arrived, as eager as ever, in the Czech Republic to try to shut down a meeting of the World Bank and IMF in Prague. They failed -- but this time they blocked all exit routes to the city's convention center, trapping delegates from 182 countries inside for six hours.

Prague turned the anti-corporation protest into a bona fide worldwide institution. American activists joined Italian, British, and German advocates who had long spoken out against globalism. By doing so, they made their commitment clear: they weren't about to stop until policymakers took their complaints seriously.

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