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
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
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
cultural explosions -
film culture -
local punk and metal -
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
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.
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.
the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles
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
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