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Battle in Seattle: With A-List Cast, New Film Re-Creates Historic Protest Against WTO

StorySeptember 18, 2008
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In November 1999, tens of thousands of global justice activists, environmentalists, union members and anti-capitalist activists helped shut down the World Trade Organization in Seattle. It was a watershed moment for the movement against corporate globalization. The story of the Seattle protests has now been turned into a fictionalized film featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. We speak to the film’s writer and director, Stuart Townsend, as well as David Solnit, one of the key organizers of the WTO protests and co-founder of the Seattle WTO People’s History Project. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It’s been nearly nine years since tens of thousands of global justice advocates, environmentalists and union members and anti-capitalist activists helped shut down the World Trade Organization in Seattle.

Activists prevented delegates from attending the global trade talks by forming a human chain around the Seattle convention center and shutting down the city’s downtown. Police responded by firing teargas and rubber bullets into the mostly peaceful crowd. The protests resulted in 600 arrests and in the eventual failure of the talks, as well as the resignation of Seattle’s police chief.

AMY GOODMAN: The protest was a watershed moment for the movement against corporate globalization.

The story of the Seattle protests has now been turned into a fictionalized film featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron and Andre Benjamin. The film “Battle in Seattle” opens tomorrow night, on Friday. It’s directed by Stuart Townsend.

    REPORTER: It’s been thirty years since the Democratic convention riots of 1968 pitted police and protesters against each other. But some fear history will repeat itself this week in Seattle, as the World Trade Organization prepares to hold its first-ever meeting on US soil.

    DALE: Gotta go, baby.

    ELLA: Oh, no. Don’t go now.

    DALE: I wish I didn’t have to go. I’m running late, as it is.

    GORDON: We believe that all the protesters will be concentrated there.

    MAYOR JIM TOBIN: How many protesters are we expecting?

    GORDON: Several thousand.

    MAYOR JIM TOBIN: It’s taken two years to bring the World Trade Organization to Seattle, and we did it.

    JAY: Each of the affinity groups are going to shut these areas down. Now, how are we going to do it?

    PROTESTER: Nonviolently.

    JAY: That’s right.

    MAYOR JIM TOBIN: Be tough on your issues, but be gentle on my town.

    PROTESTER: Yeah, we’re moving now.

    UNIDENTIFIED: The protesters have seized the intersections outside.

    PROTESTERS: Nobody in! Nobody out!

    MAYOR JIM TOBIN: You bring in the National Guard, the whole community is going to become alarmed.

    PROTESTERS: This is what democracy looks like!

    DALE: Nervous, Johnson?

    JOHNSON: Nervous?

    JAY: They’re ruining everything we’ve worked for. Now we stop them today.

    PROTESTER: And what about tomorrow?

    REPORTER: The Battle in Seattle turns into a war.

    ELLA: What the hell’s going on out there?

    DJANGO: Battle in Seattle?

AMY GOODMAN: The film Battle in Seattle has not been without controversy. During the production, a group of activists who helped lead the Seattle protest approached the director Stuart Townsend with concerns about how the protests would be portrayed on the big screen.

Today we’re joined by the film’s writer and director, Stuart Townsend, as well as David Solnit, one of the key organizers of the shutdown of the WTO in Seattle. Partly in response to the film, David Solnit helped start the Seattle WTO People’s History Project and the website He’s co-editor, with his sister Rebecca Solnit, of the book The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle, which will be published by AK Press soon.

We welcome you both. Stuart, talk first about why you did this film.

STUART TOWNSEND: I was becoming environmentally aware. I didn’t really put the pieces together. And suddenly, I started researching globalization, and I really felt, as an issue, it was — you know, it touched upon so many important aspects of people’s lives. Trade, obviously, is a huge, difficult subject to understand. And when I saw this event in 2002, it really just — I thought it was a great illustration of all the — you know, a lot of our most important issues at the time and, you know, very cinematic, as well.

I mean, obviously, this was a moment where, you know, thousands of Americans from all walks of life came together — you know, labor unions, you had farmers, teachers, activists. And I don’t think that kind of coalition of — that diverse coalition of people had ever come together. And, you know, they shut something down. They shut this system of economic injustice. They shut this World Trade Organization down.

And the police response was — you know, is very heavy-handed. Things got out of control and escalated, obviously, into riots and a state of emergency.

And I wanted to really take that idea and fictionalize it and bring it to a new audience, because I feel like the event itself really was forgotten about, and I feel like the media really misrepresented the story in the first place.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your ability to recruit major stars to get involved and to get sort of backing in Hollywood for the film? What kind of a problem was it there?

STUART TOWNSEND: Well, I didn’t get backing in Hollywood. They didn’t want to touch it. You know, I used personal friendships, like I knew Woody, and Woody really helped out, and he said, yes, he’d do it. But it’s — you know, it’s an independent film. It’s been really difficult. People don’t want to touch this subject. And so, it’s been six years of my life trying to actually get it, you know, ’til tomorrow, when it opens. It’s been six years.

AMY GOODMAN: Opening around the country?

STUART TOWNSEND: No, it’s a limited release in five cities. And then, if people go see it, then it gets to open nationwide.

AMY GOODMAN: David Solnit, what is your problem with it?

DAVID SOLNIT: I don’t fundamentally have a problem with it. We’re actually — you know, I watched you, two weeks ago, get dragged off with three members of my affinity group in St. Paul, and the foundation, the context of repression, was set with a corporate media myth of Seattle. So we’re actually — I’m actually pleased to see the film out, in that it, I think, is shifting the public view and the corporate media distortion of Seattle very much in the right direction.

A group of us who are organizers with Direct Action Network engaged with Stuart, I think two years now ago, and we had particular criticisms about different pieces, but overall I think almost everyone in the movement is pleased to see it out. And Stuart probably regrets engaging with us two years ago, but, you know — I mean, the reasons that brought us into the streets of Seattle are actually in crisis now. They’re much greater. And there are some lessons that we need to learn about how can we actually turn organized resistance into a popular rebellion.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the concerns that you had, what were they? And were they addressed? Because, obviously, fictionalized accounts of real-life events are always difficult to capture sometimes the soul or the essence or even the facts of what happened. So, what was some of the concerns, and how do you think they were addressed?

DAVID SOLNIT: The concerns were around portrayal of activists, including the Global South movements, which were sort of out inspiration and we were playing catch-up to. But — and I think Stuart’s addressed some of them, and he’s also been educating us about what — how much you can actually fit in a — the difference between a book and a film.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to turn to another clip of the film. This is Battle in Seattle. This section features the actress Charlize Theron playing the role of Ella, a pregnant woman who works in a high-end boutique in downtown Seattle.

    ELLA: I just wish there was better timing, you know?

    CARLA: There is never a good time. You just do it, and it’s right.

    ELLA: I just — I feel like my life is being shuffled into this next phase, and I don’t feel quite ready for it. I don’t want the cover of some brochure or magazine to be the closest thing we ever get to adventure.

    CARLA: You want adventure? You just signed up for the biggest adventure of all. It’s going to be great. You’ll see. Maybe I will go visit a sperm bank.

    ELLA: If you’re going there, you don’t have to.

    CARLA: Oh, that would be better, wouldn’t it?

    What are you doing? This woman is pregnant!

    PROTESTER: Oh, yeah? You’re going to have a kid? Do you want your kid to work to death in a sweatshop making baby clothes?

    ELLA: Of course not.

    PROTESTER: Then don’t [blank] shop here!

    ELLA: My god! What the hell’s going on out there?

AMY GOODMAN: And this is another excerpt of The Battle in Seattle, Ray Liotta portraying the Seattle mayor, Jim Tobin.

    MAYOR JIM TOBIN: Gordon, I thought you said they wouldn’t get past the barricades.

    GORDON: We’ve got a lot bigger problems than that, Jim. Right now, they’ve captured the entire downtown core. There are so many of them out there, we couldn’t arrest them all, even if we wanted to.

    MAYOR JIM TOBIN: I thought they were nonviolent.

    GORDON: They’re not being violent.

    MAYOR JIM TOBIN: Alright. What are we going to do?

    GORDON: I have called every patrol in the state. I’ve even called the fire department to hose down the protesters, but they refused.

    MAYOR JIM TOBIN: Well, what are the options then?

    GORDON: There’s only one option left.

    MAYOR JIM TOBIN: Gordon, I am not going to start gassing people. Do you hear me? I gave the protesters my word. The press would have a field day with me.

    GORDON: But Jim, I think we’re past having that choice.

    MAYOR’S AIDE: Sir, the White House is on line two.

    MAYOR JIM TOBIN: Alright, OK. Alright, just do whatever you have to do. Just do it fast.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Battle in Seattle, that’s opening in five cities tomorrow in this country.

David Solnit, talk about the strategy for shutting down the city, how the activists organized, and then the issue of the police response.

DAVID SOLNIT: I mean, I think key to it was the fact that there was nine months or a year of grassroots mobilization, and key to that is that there was decades of movement-building leading up to it. And in analyzing what made that shutdown work, some of us have extracted some key elements, which were that there was a clear what and why logic to the shutdown, that there was a huge amount of alliance-building, grassroots organizing, mass organization and mass trainings, and that it was decentralized. There was no one group or leader that could be taken out and stop it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what the WTO was, why you targeted the WTO, what you saw it representing?

DAVID SOLNIT: I mean, the WTO was a favor to social movements, in that it was one institution that destroyed all different communities in all countries around the world. So it was actually able to unify a movement of movements to stand up to that corporate power that’s actually escalated its destruction of our economy and our environment today.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You know, we were obviously — at Democracy Now!, we were there covering the events in the streets those days. And I think the amazing thing to me, as a longtime professional journalist, was the degree of complete surprise that the protest caught the established, not only the economic forces, the media — everyone was surprised, even though, as you say, there were years of buildup and organizing and grassroots mobilization. It was almost like the Million Man March. It came out of nowhere, as far as the establishment forces in the society were concerned.

But obviously, there’s been adjustments by both those who were in the streets as well as those who were confronted since then in trying to deal — preventing those kinds of events from happening in the future. I’m wondering — obviously, the film deals with the enormous surprise that this created, but I’m also wondering, in terms of the adjustments that the movement has had to make since then to continue its life and its ability to effect change?

STUART TOWNSEND: One thing that’s happened is, since Seattle, because of Seattle’s success, you know, it’s very hard now to actually protest, have real dissent, because there’s two-mile exclusion zones. The Navy is out there in Cancun stopping protesters. And every event, every G8 event, any World Trade Organization meeting, now has massive security. And at the RNC and the DNC, where I was there, as well, I mean, it was very hard to really have any form of real dissent. So I think that’s a problem that, you know, you guys have to deal with as activists.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your hopes for this film?

STUART TOWNSEND: My hope is to inspire people, particularly a young and new audience, who — you know, most people don’t remember this event. And I was shocked when I sort of found it — you know, like found it. I was like, this is an incredible, important event about so many important issues. You know, even look at the financial crisis of two days ago, that’s the same system that people were fighting against in ’99. And, you know, we’re now reaping those — you know, the whirlwind of that.

AMY GOODMAN: And you show very well how — I mean, we’re not talking about the Bush administration here; we’re talking about the Clinton administration and how, in the end — the pressure they put on the local authorities to deal with this, you know, sort of whatever means necessary, with Clinton ultimately coming in in the middle of the night, flying in.

STUART TOWNSEND: That was the thing. You have a president come into a town, you have to clear the streets. And obviously the streets were in riot. So I think he was a major problem, just by actually entering the city of Seattle. The police — you know, the mayor had to give those orders to clear the streets at all cost.

AMY GOODMAN: David Solnit, what are your hopes for this film?

DAVID SOLNIT: I’m hoping it will stimulate interest in people getting involved in change in the world. And, you know, we are in a more repressive time, but we have the examples of movements in places like Oaxaca or Bolivia or South Korea, who are in much more repressive environments. By doing smart, strategic organizing, people can overcome that. And if there’s a time where it’s needed, it’s now.

And I think the other thing is —

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.

DAVID SOLNIT: We take the film as a challenge to movements to actually tell and amplify our own stories. So, one small way we’ve done that is through the website, which we’re inviting people to post their accounts, their photos and their films.

STUART TOWNSEND: About other websites, we’ve spent six months really doing a major content website called If people get inspired, they know where to go.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there. Stuart Townsend, David Solnit, thanks so much.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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