Anarchists and Corporate Media at the Battle of Seattle

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The Anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle, along with, to a much lesser extent, the Anti-Clinton demonstrations in Greece have raised the profile of anarchists in the United States to a level not seen in quite some time. Anarchists have struggled to make an impression upon larger segments of the public for more than the last decade. Events such as the Critical Mass bike rides and increasingly large numbers at public demonstrations, often as a "Black Block", have made the anarchists more difficult to ignore. When the police decided to riot in Seattle, the anarchists were ready to fight back.

The media stood up and noticed.

For instance, a search of Reuters newswire from November 19 to December 2 produced 27 articles with references to anarchists. Many references were bland, especially at the beginning of the week of protest. In one Reuters article the simple statement concerning mass arrests of demonstrators was, "The police moves came a day after protests by groups ranging from anarchists to environmentalists and labor activists threw the start of the World Trade Organization meeting into chaos." In later articles the anarchists were almost always linked with violence, although not always completely unflatteringly, e.g.: "Some of the vandals were self-described anarchists who said they saw the WTO as a symbol of an emerging world order subverting national laws, a concern shared by labor activists, environmentalists and even conservatives like Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan."

On National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" nightly news program of December 2 there was an in depth discussion of anarchism with Peter Walman of the Wall Street Journal in which he described the anarchist movement in the United States as "growing" and a "national phenomon". The discussion also mentioned John Zerzan and primitivism at length, calling it a minority within a minority, but rather disappointingly ended with a discussion of right wing vs. left wing anarchists, referring erroneously to nazi skinheads as right wing anarchists who hate and fight the left wing or "progressive anarchists".

This is not entirely in contrast to the far more common habit of corporate media of only using the word anarchy to refer to a state of violent disorder, as almost all of these statements have occurred in reference to the violent nature of the recent demonstrations. The New York Times was especially paranoid in its coverage of the Seattle anarchists. In one article about the demonstrations entitled "The Blame: Clenched Fists in Seattle Lead to Pointed Fingers" the reporter, conveniently overlooking the police role in the demonstration, noted, "How the thin line was crossed from nonviolent protest to urban disorder was being dissected here Wednesday as the World Trade Organization got down to business. The conclusion: the anarchists were organized." A follow-up article revealed an even more concerned establishment. Recalling the property destruction in Eugene Oregon the previous June at an anti-capitalist demonstration the article, entitled "Dark Parallels With Anarchy Concocted in Oregon" began ominously, "They call themselves anarchists, and they go by first names only: Spider, Possum, Nimo, Hawaii, Burdock, Rob. Some come from Eugene, Ore., where the anarchists have had regular clashes with the police, most seriously after a march last June turned into a riot, with smashed windows and 19 people arrested." The article goes on to portray the Eugene group as a bunch of disaffected teenagers led by "The group's intellectual cheerleader...56-year-old author of anarchist tracts, John Zerzan, who has attracted some local attention by carrying on a regular correspondence with Theodore J. Kaczynski, the man imprisoned as the Unabomber." Still, it is impressive in the U.$. For the media to acknowledge that anarchism is an actual political philosophy, with adherents no less, even if such acknowledgement is given negatively.

The point here is not to analyze the U.$. media, but to pose a question regarding strategy and tactics of anarchist propaganda. In spite of the overwhelmingly negative tone of corporate media, there was still more discussion of anarchism and anarchists than can be recalled in the last twenty-five years (at least). What significance does this have for the movement?

It also seems that although the media blame the anarchists for violence at the WTO, there is plenty of blame being laid at the feet of the police, who showed up in scary Star Wars style black SWAT outfits in striking contrast to the butterfly and turtle costumes of the demonstrators. Public opinion will likely be divided over those images.

Also divided is the larger left-wing movement that came together in incredible diversity to protest the WTO. Already accusations against anarchists have been made by reformist and pacifist elements present in Seattle. One New York Times article contained the following quote from a pacifist, " 'Here we are protecting Nike, McDonald's, the Gap and all the while I'm thinking, 'Where are the police? These anarchists should have been arrested,' " said Medea Benjamin, a leader with Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based protest group. Ms. Benjamin was arrested later inside the trade meeting on trespassing charges." On the one hand, great success in solidarity was achieved by the mingling of anarchists, unionists, environmentalists, and others over a week of direct action. On the other, some sympathetic allies have been alienated.

Tactically, it is in the best interest of reformist factions to continue to use the anarchists to blame for violence even while benefiting from the extensive media coverage violence against property achieves and the fear it puts into the hearts of the reactionaries they hope to obtain concessions from. The mass demonstrations in Seattle, even with a police riot, would scarcely have received as much press attention had there not been some willing to stand their ground in the face of police repression. It is likely that reformists will continue to scapegoat anarchists even as they benefit from the growing numbers of this youthful and increasingly organized faction.

The WTO protests are a watershed in North American anarchism. As we move into 2000, with the overt politics of national elections and issues such as the case of Abu-Jamal, American anarchists need to consider carefully how to seize the day, and not let the opportunity to spread our views in the most positive way possible pass. One thing is certain, the authorities are paying attention, and, for better or worse, after the Battle of Seattle the anarchists will no longer be ignored.

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From: Independent Media Center

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