The days of civil rights sit-ins and anti-Vietnam marches are long gone, even our memories of ACT-UP or demonstrations against the Gulf Wars have gone a little blurry. Challenging the status quo through banner-waving and synchronized chanting has been replaced by all cap pronouncements on blogs and viral videos -- forms of protest which may reach a global audience, but lose the sense of community and power that masses of actual human bodies provide.
It's refreshing, then, and simultaneously troubling to see an account of a massive street protest in Stuart Townsend's Battle in Seattle. The story of the 40,000-person protests and riots that engulfed the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) presents an almost nostalgic image: idealistic marchers braving tear gas and billy clubs to shut down the machinations of corporate greed and globalization.
The movie weaves together archival footage taken from the WTO protests with the fictional stories of four protestors, two riot cops, a newscaster and the mayor of Seattle. Battle in Seattle creates a portrait of the city as it was during the talks -- a violent and dramatic battleground between governments who support free trade and individuals who believe that global trade policies sacrifice human rights and environmental concerns to the bottom line.
An ensemble cast featuring Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriquez and Ray Liotta lends insight into the personal dramas underlaying one of recent history's most important events. And, ultimately, Battle in Seattle delivers an inspirational message: activism can succeed. The protestors who block off intersections and infiltrate WTO meetings break down talks meant to establish a new set of trade agreements for the 21st century.
Battle for Seattle simultaneously presents the tragedy inherent to civil disobedience in the sacrifices the protestors must make to get their point across. Protestors at the WTO conference suffered through brutal and often unprovoked attacks by heavily-armed policemen and National Guardsmen. Over 600 protestors, many of whom had done nothing wrong, were arrested. And for what? For practicing their right to free speech? For standing up for the African children who couldn't receive AIDS medication because of its prohibitive cost? For speaking on behalf of an endangered turtle whose habitat was being threatened by shipping lanes?