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Straying From the Script: Stuart Townsend's "Battle in Seattle" and the Politics of Truth

Jason Michael Adams marks the tenth anniversary of the storied protests at the Seattle WTO meeting in November and December of 1999 by reflecting on the much-criticized 2008 feature Battle in Seattle that purports to tell the story of the event. He argues that the film's very fictionality, coupled with its insistence on providing a range of perspectives, does a better job of capturing what made the protests successful than more "factual" accounts undermined by the doctrinaire positions they seek to reinforce.

As the tenth anniversary of the Seattle WTO protests in November/December 1999 approached, a number of prominent "on-the-ground" organizers such as the Direct Action Network's (DAN) David Solnit continued to worry that the "truth" of the events are being obscured, particularly in the now widely-available fictionalized accounts of them, such as Stuart Townsend’s Battle in Seattle (2008). But what if it is actually in the domain of the imagination that the "Battle for Reality" is most directly – rather than indirectly - engaged?

In the early twentieth century, Walter Benjamin commented on this question, arguing that modernity was becoming a period in which the wisdom of the storyteller (which was necessarily acentered and synthetic) was falling in value: instead, it had given rise to masses who demanded either abstract, disembodied "information" on the one hand or situated, lived "experience" on the other - no other form of knowledge, he observed was taken seriously. Perhaps then, there really is something subversive about fiction, insofar as it explodes this modern dichotomy.

Indeed, even when it fails to live up to our expectations, the artificial nature of narrative form provides a basis for culturo-political engagement in a manner that is necessarily radical, insofar as it is irreducible to scientism and relativism alike. Thus, while it is undeniably a big-budget, corporate capitalist endeavor, I would argue that Stuart Townsend's feature film Battle in Seattle (2008) ought to be taken seriously as a contribution to the still-unfolding legacy of the WTO protests. Indeed, insofar as it ruptures the subject/object dichotomy on the formal level, splicing documentary and staged footage together, what it reveals is a more finely-grained account of the "reality" of what occurred than what prevails in most of the existing documentaries.

Insofar as the film’s narrato-visual form repels scientistic and relativistic vantage points alike, the film brings the audience that much closer to the acclaimed "network-centric" orientation that has been widely-regarded as the hallmark of the protests. None of which is to suggest that Battle in Seattle is necessarily a great film: indeed, while it follows the ground-breaking aesthetic of such recent works as Paul Haggis' Crash (2004) and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel (2006), the moralizing approach to violence and normalizing account of love prevent it from becoming anywhere near as sophisticated as either one. Nevertheless, because it refuses what Samuel Weber calls the "one Hero" and "one Truth" dynamic that marks so much of modern narrative, Townsend's film renders perceptible the acentered state of things, that which is otherwise beyond the capacities of embodied experience and scientistic representation alike.

Thus, rather than asserting a simplistic concept of "reality", we might do well to think of the WTO protests and other events like it as a kind of story that, rather than standing in need of "defense" and "correction" may actually be enriched and enlivened by every new elaboration upon it. From such a perspective, the entrance of iconic popular culture figures such as Woody Harrelson, Michelle Rodriguez, Ray Liotta and Outkast into the narrative only provide greater opportunity for the event to impact our perceptions, emotions and actions on a potentially massive scale. While it isn't hard to imagine why many antiglobalization activists and other opponents of neoliberal capitalism tend to refuse Hollywood films out-of-hand, the aesthetic employed by Battle in Seattle is itself an opportunity to reaffirm the simultaneously acentered and resonant nature of the events.

Indeed, this is precisely what I learned from my own "lived experience" helping to organize the Seattle events. Over the course of the year leading up to November/December 1999, I had been involved in five different groups, each of which had its own founding principles, strategic guidelines and organizational narratives assisting the writing of their respective members into the "story": they were the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), DAN, Workers and Students For a Walkout Network (WASFAWN), Seattle Tenant's Union (STU) and Seattle Anarchist Response (SAR). In retrospect, it's clear that as things proceeded, each of these (group and individual) "characters" were joined by thousands of others also seeking to write their experiences into the story, most of which entered the fray bearing mutually-exclusive concepts of Truth.

For instance, while many labor-oriented groups asserted that capitalism was the overarching influence driving the world into a race to the bottom, others from the global South sometimes held that it was Eurocentrism, while still others more enmeshed in environmental struggles argued that it was technoscience: not surprisingly, few of those who proclaimed themselves the one Hero bearing the one Truth were initially willing to share the narrative with others. Thus, as anyone who has played the children's game "telephone" knows, it was all but inevitable that once the events occurred, significantly divergent themes would emerge, particularly with respect to the finer details. What Battle in Seattle makes clear however, is that far from simply distorting or correcting the past en total, this necessarily decentered process of cultivating a collective memory of an event only gets more complicated, but also more potentially dynamic (despite their intentions), once the police, large-scale non-profits, the military and corporate media start adding their own representations to the mix.

After all, if it is true that it was because so many of us diverged from our own organizational and personal concepts of the "one Truth" that the protests succeeded in shutting down the WTO meetings (as has been widely noted), on what basis could we now fail to extend the same dynamism and critical capacity to of the potential audiences of Townsend's film to stray from the script? In fact, as Battle in Seattle clearly shows, self-professedly "non-violent" DAN activists did not always avoid physical confrontation, nor did black-bloc anarchists who preached the virtues of "militancy" always engage in property destruction. Similarly, AFL-CIO unionists subject to a hierarchical organizational structure did not always follow their marching orders, just as universalist environmentalists didn't amplify their "own" issues alone.

Indeed, as the fractured mise-en-scene of the film itself implies, while each of these characters entered the fray under the assumption that they would be parroting the "script" assembled by the organizations with which they were affiliated, more often than not what occurred was that they had to reinterpret their roles within the contingent terms of particular situations - an insight that can only be grasped from the position of what Gilles Deleuze in his Cinema writings refers to as the "acentered state of things". Similarly then, we should not forget that today, audiences of the mass media routinely make their own meanings for films such as Battle in Seattle, either relying on their own situationally-defined terms or creating new ones that may diverge from whatever may have been the intended meaning.

The raging arguments on IMDB make this as clear as do the endless catalogue of mash-ups on YouTube. It is "true" of course, that Townsend's film contains many factual "errors", an assemblage of tidbits that could congeal over time into a distorted image of history, which suggests that perhaps there is something to Solnit's notion that those of us who were on-the-ground organizers should try to intervene with the corrective of our own subjective memories. But as Stephen Duncombe points out in the Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, in our time it is often on the terrain of fiction rather than "non-fiction" that the most truly consequential political battles are being waged. And it may be that this is much closer to the reality of things in any case. Given the conflicting experience of the multiple groups I was involved in, were I to follow Solnit's advice I would end up approximating an approach much closer to Townsend's Battle in Seattle than for instance, Jill Friedberg's This is What Democracy Looks Like (2000).

That is why one of the most interesting elements of the film is actually the opening tableau, which begins with a clip from a faux-documentary on the WTO protest that looks very much like Friedberg's, then goes on to blend into the fictional narrative such that the two are rendered indistinct. While the Spectacle spoken of by Guy Debord may be one that seeks to rewrite everything that exists within its own image, particularly its opposition, it may turn out that in doing so, like Bush's cynical appointment of African-Americans to his cabinet, this move actually introduces the conditions of possibility for precisely that which the current configuration of reality disallows. I would argue then, that what really made the protests succeed in Seattle was not the triumph of Truth over fiction but much to the contrary, the dissolution of the factical center from which everything might otherwise have proceeded - and as we now know, in all likelihood, collapsed.

Essentially, the mutually-exclusive script of the one Truth that still holds sway over the imagination of much of the American left became liquefied in the "acentered state of things", as all of the characters involved found they had to concede a certain amount of contestability with respect to their own versions of it if things were to proceed any further. It was this process of fictionalization, indeed, cinematization, that allowed, more than anything, a network-centric "order out of chaos" to emerge between them - one that successfully outmaneuvered one of the most well-planned police and military strategies ever conducted in a major American city. Thus, even while the state attempted to transform a clunky, hierarchical organizing logic into a more decentralized, network-centric one worthy of the protests, it found that it could not compete with dynamic constituencies that proved highly capable of trading in agreed-upon strategy in favor of situationally-defined tactics.

This I think, was the most truly radical moment in the entire affair: the realization (as the opening tableau suggests) that no single "script", no more than any center of perception, can ever ensure that the center will hold and that the task, therefore, is to figure out how to proceed in a manner that allows difference to resonate for a greater purpose. What was learned "on-the-ground" in Seattle then, is what is shown "in-the-film": that by liquifying our respective scripts - or our respective shot-sequences, if you prefer - of the one Truth, a provisional community can be achieved that need not deny conflict in the process. Not by reducing the common story to the preferences of a particular group then, but instead by emphasizing the coexistence of difference and commonality within an acentered framework of multiple truths - an ethos that William Connolly has dubbed "agonistic respect".

For this reason, rather than asserting the one Truth against the many "lies", I would argue that the film should be engaged as a demonstration of how powerful the network-centric approach can become when it adopts a more fluid, cinematic posture to the political identities that our respective scripts solidify, trading in a mutually-exclusive politics of "big-T Truth" for the more acentered and resonant one of "small-t truth". Such truths are best discovered not in abstract scientific reports or relativistic personal accounts, but instead in such fictional sources as a powerful narrative film, a heartfelt poem, a pithy joke or a well-crafted song, all of which approach the question of reality from the acentered, synthetic position of the Benjaminian storyteller. In other words, they do so in a very different manner than that which still seems to hold sway over most of the progressive left today, including Solnit.

None of which is to suggest that only fiction can provide this higher level of perception: oddly enough, rather than any particular activist account per se, up to the release of Battle in Seattle recently, I would argue that it was a chapter in the RAND Corporation book Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy entitled "Netwar in the Emerald City" that grasped the power of this agonistic ethos more thoroughly than any account available. What it suggests is that what allowed the WTO Protests to successfully overcome the police and military strategy and successfully shut down the meetings was not the solidification of the different groups into discrete organizations or larger coalitions so much as it was their dissolution in the zones of indistinction between them.

As the report states, "at the critical moment in the street actions, the balance shifted to the Direct Action Network as nonunion protesters and a few union members left the AFL-CIO parade and joined the street protests, effectively sealing the success of the Direct Action Network’s day-long blockade". While this contradicts some aspects of the narrative account employed by Townsend's film and some would dismiss this information since it is based on military intelligence, I would suggest that it is precisely for these reasons that, especially together with everything else that is now available, it tells us so much about what went right on that day. For instance, whereas most activist groups' primary gripe is often why their own "pet issue" didn't receive the greatest amount of attention (devoted as they generally are to their own one Truth), from the perspective of power, the real concern couldn't be further from shoring up mutually-exclusive constituencies in such a fashion, but is instead committed above all to preventing the triumph of the "acentered state of things".

This then, is how we should read RAND's observation that rather than those who stuck to the one Truth, allowing the police to sweep the protestors out of downtown and into the redirected labor march back towards Memorial Stadium as had been the plan, it was actually those who strayed from the script, which is to say, those who refused to fall in line even with their own particular group, that had the greatest impact. Here's how the RAND report narrates the progression of events:

Several thousand people broke away from the march, just in time to run into the renewed police push to move people away from the Convention Center. The momentum of the thousands moving toward the Convention Center carried several blocks south, past the parade’s planned pivot at 5th and Pike…the vandalism and looting occurred in the area evacuated by police to create a buffer zone between the DAN protesters and the AFL-CIO parade. The center of the vandalized area coincides with the turning point of the parade…[all of this meant that] the WTO protests succeeded in the streets through a combination of strategic surprise and tactical openness.

The three key phases of the street actions leading to this success consisted of the Tuesday morning "swarm", which blockaded strategic intersections; the collapse of the police strategy to suppress the Direct Action Network protests while allowing the AFL-CIO parade; and the failure of the AFL-CIO parade to engulf the Direct Action Network protests. Three things distinguished the N30 protests from the others that followed in other cities and countries. None of the later protests had an AFL-CIO contingent, a rampage of vandalism by anarchists, or a divided police command. The much-touted "Teamsters and turtles together" alliance evaporated immediately.

Clearly then, Battle in Seattle as a film can't be much more threatening than any one of the groups was alone to the story that many of us fondly recall today, perhaps hoping for a return in a new form. Just as the AFL-CIO members, DAN protestors and black blockers did when boxed-in by one of those groups, we too can most effectively intervene into the appearance of Townsend's cinematic rendering not by shoring up mutually-exclusive identities under the banner of the one Truth all over again, but instead by honoring the protests as we did in the heat of the moment, by positioning ourselves in the "fictional" interstices between them, by allowing ourselves to become cinematic, along with the film.

Remember, according to RAND, "the balance shifted to the Direct Action Network as nonunion protesters and a few union members left the AFL-CIO parade and joined the street protests, effectively sealing the success of the Direct Action Network’s day-long blockade". Of course, even before the WTO protests occurred, many of us had consciously sought to adopt this "network-centric" approach: it wasn't an entirely spontaneous affair, given that we learned how to do so at least partially by studying the cross-group coordination that emerged during the Events of May '68 in France. It was for instance, in relation to my own attempt to apply the lessons learned by reading Roger Gregoire and Freddy Perlman's Worker-Student Action Committees, through the ad-hoc WASFAWN that I was interviewed by Jeremy Simer of the University of Washington's Center for Labor Studies (CLS) in March 2000, in order to consider as he put it, "the pros and cons of working with coalitions" ( Comparing the RAND and CLS text, particularly in the sections that concern the breakaway labor march, it becomes especially clear why the primary reason for the WTO protests' success was not the adherence to any particular group, but the scrapping of that self-centered conceit in favor of openness to a more cinematic multiplicity of truths - otherwise, tactics could not have taken over from strategy and differences would have been disenabled from resonate effectively.

For instance, in the CLS interview, I discuss how when WASFAWN/IWW activists in the labor march got word that the meetings had been shut down, we attempted to convince the parade marshals with the megaphones to amplify that message to the thousands of assembled union members so that they would join the protesters downtown and solidify the success. Since they refused, we ran around informing all of the unions known to have militant rank-and-file memberships (such as the ILWU and the Steelworkers), of the news. When we reached the turnaround point, as it is stated in the CLS text, "we started chanting, 'Go downtown. Don’t turnaround. Go downtown. Don’t turnaround'. Everyone around us started chanting it. So we come to the line of marshals who are completely blocking off the way to get downtown and directing people to go back, and we’re like, 'We’re going downtown'. They’re like, 'You’re part of the labor march. You’re not going downtown. You’re going back. This is what we’ve negotiated with the Secret Service. It’s not going to happen'. We were like, 'We’re an autonomous union. We’re not part of the AFL-CIO, and we can do whatever we want. We’re going downtown'. So we started chanting, 'Go downtown. Don’t turnaround'. We finally just broke through".

In the film, of course, it is not fellow labor activists or workers employed in the same industries as those marching who breakaway along with thousands of others (most IWW members and many WASFAWN participants in Seattle at the time worked on the docks), but upper-middle class "dropouts" from DAN who converge at the outskirts of the turnaround point wielding megaphones from outside the milieu with which they then attempt to persuade rank-and-file unionists to break off and go downtown. Thus, when it is announced that DAN has shut down the WTO ceremonies, the supposedly jobless, suburban activists celebrate, with the scruffy Jay (Martin Henderson) regaling Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) and Django (Outkast), with the condescending statement, "welcome to the first Internet protest in history - think labor's ready to join the party?" In order to then discover whether the assembled working-class people are in fact the Luddite dinosaurs they apparently assume them to be, Jay implores into his megaphone "don't go this way, we need you downtown".

After the parade marshal replies "this is what we were told to do and that's what we're doing", Lou fires back in her best do-gooder voice "we're fighting for the same thing". Instead of a largely spontaneous decision by thousands of rank-and-file workers themselves then, we are presented with the image of an upper-middle class vanguard, as Jay, Lou and Django from DAN begin chanting "Teamsters and turtles together", leading several thousand to break off towards downtown, as Jay pats the passing workers on the back. As I've already stated, in many respects, it's not a "great film": but while this sequence as well as the representation of the protestors as mostly upper-middle class - and specifically, "not anarchist" (as the police chief states), is far from the truth of what actually occurred, on the more formal, aesthetic level, the greater point doesn't seem to be so much getting the story "right", but rather asserting that there is only ever what Michel Foucault described as a politics of truth.

Indeed, despite his complaints, this rendering seems to rather unduly flatter Solnit, vis-à-vis Jay's character - not surprising however, since it was he who insisted on advising the filmmaker on the "facts" of what had transpired! All the more reason then, to appreciate how, as in Haggis' Crash and Iñárritu's Babel, the film constantly shifts between characters and situations that are always already in conflict and yet nevertheless interpenetrated, such that no single constituency can ever give way to the one Hero or the one Truth. Always already mediated by age, race and gender, communication and transportation technologies, body armor and street weaponry, not to mention sharply divergent ideologies and personal backgrounds, the multiply-situated protagonists never completely transcend their environments to engage one another "directly".

Which obviously is not to say that cross-group engagement did not occur - rather it is to suggest that when it did, it proceeded without the benefit of a grand narrative, neither that of DAN nor the AFL-CIO, nor of any other group could make the center hold, as each constituency at least temporarily conceded the non-universality of their own vantage point. Although the IWW in some ways might be argued to have stuck to its own acclaimed script in this example, in the sense of "burrowing from within" already-existing labor unions, the same couldn't be said for the several thousands of rank-and-file unionists who peeled off with us and the WASFAWN activists, "effectively sealing the success of the Direct Action Network’s day-long blockade" (in the words of RAND). For many of these workers, the refusal of the upper-level union bureaucrats to at least honor the spirit of Ron Judd's initial call for a General Strike immediately put them at odds with the received wisdom about how to "properly" engage the WTO.

The statement "Oh, great solidarity there, brother", that was asserted to me by one of the parade marshals as thousands of rank-and-filers broke through to join DAN downtown demonstrates clearly how the notion of one Truth can just as easily serve the official line as it can, under the right conditions, that which breaks with it. From his perspective, solidarity meant following what the organization's officials call for – that is, after negotiating with the police and Secret Service - while from that of the breakaway Steelworkers and Longshoremen, it was more cinematic, provisionally dissolving these supposedly mutually-exclusive boundaries, not in the name of the affirmation of some greater strategic Truth that would consolidate everyone, but rather in the name of a tactical politics of truths, in the plural. As I replied to the parade marshal at the time (and as recorded in the CLS interview), "that’s exactly what this is. We’re going downtown and trying to support the people who are actually shutting this thing down. That is solidarity".

The general reaction to Townsend's film then, suggests that much of the left still hasn't learned the lesson our own actions at the Seattle WTO Protests ought to have taught us: that working together in a network-centric manner requires a loosening of one's own sense of self, so that the "acentered" politics we espouse can actually function as such. Therefore, if one of the most contentious aspects of the film is that it is Dale the riot cop (Woody Harrelson) who receives the most three-dimensional role, perhaps we shouldn't contradict "on-the-ground" activist critics who suggest that this is where our critical attention ought to be focused. But instead of trying to "redress" the inadequate representation of protestors with the corrective of either scientistic objectivism or relativistic subjectivism, perhaps the contemporary moment would be better served by building precisely on the fictionality of the film.

For instance, the notion of the "dynamic riot cop" that Townsend's piece asserts is not itself unsusceptible to subversion, championing for instance, the notion that all people, police includesd, are full of contradictory impulses and potential becomings. In Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (as Slavoj Zizek has famously noted), was it not the "patriotic" soldier who engages in the most direct act of rebellion, rather than the hippie? Recall once more the RAND Corporation analysis about why this first protest of the last cycle of global social struggles proved so successful: "none of the later protests had an AFL-CIO contingent, a rampage of vandalism by anarchists, or a divided police command".

The division to which they refer was not only on the upper levels: when Ron Judd called for the general strike and many rank-and-file unionists took him on his word even after the message ended up getting watered down into a mere "Day of Action", several officers themselves photocopied the more militant General Strike posters, even posting them on their own lockers at the station, in protest of the conditions they were being exposed to. Maybe if they had seen those in the streets as their natural allies rather than obvious adversaries, things might have turned out differently, as is directly suggested in Townsend's aesthetic choice to frame several shots of Dale such that he too is positioned behind the jail-cell bars and wires that later hold the protesters.

When Dale’s pregnant wife miscarries after being beaten by fellow riot cops, the contingent basis upon which the police institution’s claim to universality relies is revealed just as dramatically as it was for the multiply-situated activist groups in the heat of the moment. If the docudrama begins then, with the statement "while this film is inspired by real events, the characters in it are fictional", perhaps the most radical response to the subject/object distinction it problematizes would be to revisit the great, albeit seemingly counterintuitive insight of Siegfried Kracauer's Theory of Film, "the cinema can be defined as a medium particularly equipped to promote the redemption of physical reality"

Jason Michael Adams is completing a Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Hawaii.

Copyright © Jason Michael Adams. All rights reserved.