First Things First

When organizing protests, what is the most important consideration?

April 13, 2000

When organizing protests, what is the most important consideration?

Stones were flying, windows were broken, police stormed in full riot gear — and all of downtown Seattle was engulfed in a level of anarchy not seen in the United States for the last thirty years. In the months before the WTO’s ministerial meeting, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell had met with several of the protest’s organizers to avoid this sort of outcome.Today’s activists are out to make a point.

But as news footage of the rioting was broadcast around the world, it appeared as though the Mayor had allowed himself to be duped by the organizers — or that the organizers themselves were simply not able to control their more radical members.

Lori Wallach, the director of Global Trade Watch and an organizer of the Seattle protests, explained in a recent interview in Foreign Policy magazine that the more peaceful protesters did try to single out the radicals among them and hand them over to the police. But authorities apparently failed to hone in on the relatively few anarchists in the crowd — and, instead, launched an indiscriminate assault on the protestors as a group. To Seattle police, anyone wearing a Greenpeace T-shirt was guilty by association.

As Ms. Wallach went on to point out, the protest leaders were very much aware that such a large demonstration could easily get out of control. While holding out the promise of peaceful civil disobedience to Seattle authorities, the protest leaders were also keen to negotiate another deal with city authorities: to ensure that no one would be arrested until the sun was up — and TV cameras were rolling.

So, was the Seattle protest about exposing an unjust and environmentally destructive system of world trade — or securing fifteen minutes of fame for a protest movement and its leaders? Of course, it is both. Just like the politicians of the hated establishment, Ms. Wallach and the other protest leaders realize the importance of a “photo-op” — and are savvy enough to make it happen. Having set out to rescue their various constituencies from the ravages of world trade, they want to bask in the limelight, too — on live TV.