What Democracy Looks Like
If you have read my other essays, you will have seen that I am consciously vague about my geographic location. However, just this once, I will be specific. No, I was not in Seattle during the 1999 WTO meetings. That is why I WAS in Olympia, Washington -- along with 700-odd other people -- on 10 December, 1999, for the community debriefing at Captial Theatre. People who were in Seattle for the protest gave their firsthand accounts, and there was film, music, and spoken word -- all punctuated with great cheers and applause.
At the beginning of the debriefing, moderator Dan Leahy raised the question of why these nonviolent demonstrations were considered a threat to the state. He then offered a number of possible reasons, but one which particularly struck me, and which raised a great shout of jubilee from the audience, was this: "The youth were engaged in creative activity -- and it didn't have to do with shopping!" What better expression against the WTO agenda could there be? The WTO is all about commerce -- so, by gathering in droves in the commercial distict, but not engaging in commerce, the protesters made their position crystal clear, especially since this was December, when everyone is "supposed" to be thinking about holiday shopping. (Actually, I scarcely even thought about Christmas that year.)
As the people came one by one to tell their stories, I was touched by the fact that every one of them was a member of my own generation. Yes, I know that the protesters in Seattle came from many generations; but those generations were not speaking in Olympia that night. My generation was.
Remember -- we grew up amid the self-indulgent materialism of the 1980s; we saw firsthand how empty it was. Many (not all) of us had workaholic parents, trying to give us all the things they thought we wanted, but never available when we wanted them. So what do we care about commerce and free trade? What we are interested in was stated very beautifully in a little booklet made and distributed by a group calling themselves the Small Town Sleazy Cowboys and Lady Puppet Rodeo. Their booklet had three lists: things we want, things we don't want, and things we fear. Beautiful as it was, I will not repeat their words here, for their creative effort belongs to them. But one young woman who spoke that night expressed herself well: she said the reason they marched on King County Jail was that, "We're not going to go away when you're abusing our friends." Friends matter to us; we treasure our friends, and will not stand by and let them be abused. And abuse it was: one young man who had been arrested told of what he had seen with his own eyes -- a fellow inmate, already strapped down immobile in the restraining chair, sprayed full in the face with pepper spray, then covered up with a blanket and rolled away as the guards laughed. Laughed! About an utterly sadistic act! If I had been there to see it, I would have had difficulty maintaining the nonviolent approach. (Was that the intention? Try to provoke their victims into "assaulting an officer," in order to tack on additional charges?)
Even the aftermath reveals who holds what values. An announcement was made that the Seattle police were going to hold a benefit "for all those businesses who lost so much money." (Here there were sarcastic expressions of "sympathy.") Meanwhile, those involved in the protests were engaged in trying to gather information and evidence as to whether or not a neurological agent was used against their friends and fellow human beings. Thus, we see the dichotomy -- those who care about business and money, and those who care about people.
According to my dictionary, the term "democracy" is drived from demo-, meaning "people," "population," "common people," and kratia, meaning "rule, authority." Thus, democracy is a situation in which the population, the common people, have the authority. In Seattle, while the political elite sought to meet in secret and make our decisions for us, the common people filled the streets, demanding to make our own decisions. And what were the common people saying? Simply that we value our friends, families, bodies, and earth more than economic advancement. The political elite had best listen to the common people, for history has shown that when nonviolent protest is brushed aside, revolution may follow. Seattle, from 28 November to 4 December, 1999, is what democracy looks like right now. My generation will not buy your lies of an economic utopia. We will not let you make our decisions for us. And we will not be scared away by you abusing our friends.
Ever since that day, I have never spent any money in Seattle, and will not, until such time as Seattle openly repents of its actions. As I write this update, in November of 2011, the Occupy Wall Street protests have spread across the country; news headlines mention Occupy Boston, Occupy Oakland, and, yes, Occupy Seattle. I could not help noticing that the arrests began at least three days BEFORE any violence erupted -- no surprise there; the powers-that-be are still unrepentant. I am beginning to feel the pangs of guilt over not being there with the protesters. After all, I am part of the common people, so if I believe in democracy, I ought to be taking part.
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