The Year of the Protest
History will find it fitting that 2000 neared its end in a burst of anti-capitalist dissent. The news that Seattle had erupted in mini-riots on November 30 called to mind the destruction that occurred there 365 days earlier, when anti-free-trade protests paralyzed the city's downtown. To commemorate the historic 1999 event, protesters went after a popular corporate target -- Starbucks -- smashing windows and spray-painting walls at nine of the chain's coffee shops.
The raucous affair pretty much sums up 2000. Y2K might not have sparked the end of civilization, but it brought us street riots all the same. The past 12 months witnessed one rowdy protest after another in cities across the nation, from Seattle to Washington, DC, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Even places known more as sunny vacation spots than as hotbeds of political activity (hello, West Palm Beach) became home to mass marches and demonstrations.
To be sure, a certain amount of public dissent could be expected -- it was, after all, a presidential-election year in which no incumbent was running. Still, people took to the streets with a passion and ferocity that this country hadn't seen since the late 1960s. What made the 2000 protests so unusual was that they weren't rooted in a single issue like Vietnam -- an issue that divided the country and touched the lives of virtually every American. Under the loose rubric of curbing "corporate globalization" -- the year's hottest political buzz-phrase, referring to the unchecked expansion of global capitalism -- activists spoke out against everything from old-growth forest destruction to Third World debt to racism, sexism, and homophobia. In retrospect, it seems, a spirit of protest once again became the national Zeitgeist.
Technically speaking, of course, the mother of all recent protests took place at the tail end of 1999, during the now-famous World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle. As many as 50,000 environmentalists, labor leaders, human-rights advocates, and self-styled anarchists shut down the city with demonstrations, giant papier-mâché sea turtles, and vandalism. Police responded with tear gas, rubber pellets, and mass arrests.
The tumultuous affair began on November 30, 1999: armies of demonstrators linked arms to block access to the Seattle convention center, where WTO delegates were trying to start a round of global-trade talks. Coverage of the event riveted the country. Newscasters broadcast dramatic footage of anarchists in black ski masks kicking in windows at the Gap, of cops in full riot gear tossing tear gas into the crowds. By the time the protests ended, activists everywhere had been inspired. In shutting down the WTO talks, the demonstrations proved that ordinary people who mobilized could make a difference -- and this intoxicating notion set the tone for 2000. No sooner had the World Series of demonstrations ceased than organizers looked to re-create the magic.
And they did. Yet for all the comparisons that were made between 2000-style outrage and the social unrest that punctuated the 1960s, observers often missed one crucial point. Yes, the Greens, unionists, black-clad anarchists, and other advocates who spilled into the streets this year had much in common with their '60s counterparts -- both identified serious societal problems. But '60s protesters could say what they were for -- namely, peace. Protesters today couldn't do the same, at least not without ticking off a list of causes ranging from the inspired (stop the environmental scourge of globalism) to the familiar (free Mumia Abu-Jamal). Their crusade's lack of coherence prompted many critics to dismiss them out of hand.
That would be a mistake, however. These activists not only highlighted the downside of American economic success (which, after all, is due largely to free trade), but also thrust prosperity's price into the American media spotlight -- which is no small feat in our hyperactive, attention-deficit culture. That protesters drew scores of once-apathetic young people into the political process -- witness the strength of Ralph Nader's presidential run -- has proven their biggest achievement yet. And it's one that could pave the way for long-term political action.
Flush with the success of Seattle, activists spent the year crisscrossing the country from one major event to another. And like their '60s-era counterparts, who used mischievous, attention-grabbing tactics like taking over university buildings, the 2000 rabble-rousers tried to shut down city neighborhoods that hosted nefarious gatherings -- though they never quite succeeded in doing so after Seattle.
In April, some 10,000 activists flocked to the nation's capital to protest a joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which regulates international currency and helps countries in debt, and the World Bank, which funds development projects around the globe. Loosely organized by groups like the Ruckus Society, in Berkeley, California, and the San Francisco-based Global Exchange, protesters arrived a week early for teach-ins and marches. Their ultimate goal, though, was to stop the meetings on April 16 (dubbed "A16" by activists). Yet unlike Seattle's police force, which was overrun by protesters, DC's finest were prepared for the demonstrations -- perhaps too prepared. The day before A16, police raided a DC warehouse known to activists as the "convergence space." Claiming that the demonstrators possessed Molotov-cocktail ingredients, officers then confiscated the activists' art tools -- the paint, turpentine, and brushes used to construct the movement's signature giant puppets.
The day before the A16 action was supposed to occur, police also swooped in and arrested 600 people on K Street. For every protester hauled in and charged with parading without a permit, there was a DC resident observing the activities or a commuter on the way to work who ended up pinched as well. Police were embarrassed when it was later revealed that they'd netted a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post photographer in the sting.
Their methods were crude -- and their intent all too apparent: the police had done their damnedest to rid the streets of as many protesters as possible, locking them up in jail until the crucial IMF/World Bank meetings were completed. In the end, though, the Washington affair may have solidified the budding movement against corporate globalization. What might have happened if the DC police had played by the rules? Would the action have collapsed under the weight of its unmet expectations? Indeed, despite the hype, nowhere near the number of protesters who had descended on Seattle showed up in the nation's capital. Even if police hadn't locked up so many, the demonstrators probably wouldn't have succeeded in shutting down the city and blocking the meetings. But ironically, the DC cops may have given protesters a unifying goal -- that of "fighting the Man," as their '60s brethren used to say. After the gross injustices committed by the DC police, who could blame activists when they seized the opportunity to strike back at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles?
The four-day Republican National Convention, held at Philadelphia's First Union Center July 31 through August 3, boasted its share of bold, Seattle-style stunts. Activists wearing George W. Bush and Al Gore masks duked it out in a staged mud-wrestling match. They parodied Bush's "compassionate conservatism" with a makeshift homeless camp dubbed Bushville. They poked fun at corporate America with an 80-foot float christened Corpzilla. Even reformed political columnist Arianna Huffington showed up to object to the lack of debate over substantive issues.
But just three days into these peaceful -- and festive -- gatherings, the rage returned. On August 1, protests led to the hospitalization of three police officers, including Police Commissioner John Timoney, who said his bike had been used as a weapon against him when he confronted protesters in the streets. By the time GOP delegates rang farewell to the Liberty Bell, police had arrested 404 demonstrators. Days later, Timoney stunned the public by accusing six leaders of prominent protest-training groups -- including John Sellers, the Ruckus Society's director -- of colluding and orchestrating madness and mayhem during the Republican get-together.
Sellers was arrested and charged with a laundry list of 14 misdemeanor offenses, including conspiracy. He was then slapped with $1 million bail. He spent six days in jail before his bail was reduced and he was released. On November 14, when his charges were finally heard in court, prosecutors said they didn't have enough evidence to make their case. All charges were dropped. Ever the activist, Sellers came to embody the Zeitgeist by voicing his outrage over what he called "an unconstitutional, pre-emptive, and illegal strike by the Philadelphia Police Department to silence dissenting opinions."
Not surprisingly, it didn't take the Los Angeles Police Department -- the department that brought us Rodney King -- nearly as long to crack down on protests at the Democratic National Convention, held August 14 through 17. On the meeting's first night, while the Clintons delivered their farewell speeches inside the Staples Center, the politically active, anti-establishment band Rage Against the Machine entertained protesters who had gathered outside. At the set's end, as police prepared to close down the concert, some concertgoers took to throwing rocks at the cops, who, in turn, fired rubber pellets into the crowd. Once again, the country focused on dramatic TV images of riot-gear-clad police terrorizing protesters. And again, observers drew parallels with the 1960s: the clash between protesters and police outside a Democratic convention called to mind the riots that took place at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Activists continued to challenge authority -- in far more peaceful, productive ways. They called attention to police brutality by marching to the LAPD's Rampart division, which is now under investigation for widespread abuse of citizens. Hours later, they gathered outside police headquarters to protest the criminal-justice system. But activists had not come to take on the police. They came to say that Democrats were just as guilty as Republicans of pushing a domestic policies that promote the almighty buck over every other consideration. They even put Gore to the test, organizing a well-attended march against his investment in the Occidental Petroleum Corporation, whose Colombian operations threaten to wipe out the indigenous U'wa people. Rallies and teach-ins went on without a hitch all week -- although ultimately they had little effect on the convention itself.
Despite the failures in LA, protesters remained undeterred. No sooner had the political conventions ended than they set their sights overseas. In late September at least 8000 activists arrived, as eager as ever, in the Czech Republic to try to shut down a meeting of the World Bank and IMF in Prague. They failed -- but this time they blocked all exit routes to the city's convention center, trapping delegates from 182 countries inside for six hours.
Prague turned the anti-corporation protest into a bona fide worldwide institution. American activists joined Italian, British, and German advocates who had long spoken out against globalism. By doing so, they made their commitment clear: they weren't about to stop until policymakers took their complaints seriously.
Passions erupted in Boston again on October 3, when Bush and Gore squared off at the UMass Boston campus for the first of three presidential debates. The barricaded lawn outside UMass was dubbed the "protest pen" by the media, and rightly so. Thousands of protesters turned out, ostensibly to object to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's exclusion. But drums were beaten for everything from ending capital punishment to campaign-finance reform. Nader and Gore supporters went mano a mano over who backed the better candidate. As the dust settled, police arrested 16 people, some of whom were caught throwing an eight-foot steel fence at passing cars.
The fracas surrounding the first debate was more than appropriate, given the rage over the political process that has ensued since Election Day. No sooner had November 7 passed than Jesse Jackson led the rallying cry against voting snafus that had resulted in thousands of African-Americans' being denied the right to vote in Florida -- in a year when blacks went to the polls in record numbers. The AFL-CIO brought in scores of union members to boost Democratic demonstrations over the Florida recount; it bused in hundreds for a December 6 demonstration on Capitol Hill, during which demonstrators decried action from the Florida State Legislature, which was preparing to call a special session to name the state's 25 electors. And a parade of Democratic officials traveled from DC to Tennessee to Florida to demand an accurate tally of all ballots.
But when it came to sheer, unbridled rage, the Republican camp -- with its rent-a-mob partisans -- truly outdid everything the year had witnessed up to that point. Of course, the act of protesting was about the only thing the GOP demonstrations had in common with those of the youthful Y2K activists. Overwhelmingly, Republicans spilled into the streets not out of idealism or a desire to better the system, but because their political party had appealed to their economic self-interest. W. attracted them with the very item that made their counterparts recoil in disgust: the dollar bill.
And the Bush camp -- which, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, paid party operatives to travel to Florida and protest -- got its money's worth. As soon as the recount of Florida ballots commenced, far-flung GOP followers poured into the Sunshine State and proceeded to lash out in mass gatherings orchestrated by the Republican Party. In Broward County, a crowd of angry GOP protesters chased down one Democratic official who was suspected of stealing a ballot; it turned out to be a sample. The day before Thanksgiving, demonstrators in Miami-Dade County showed their gratitude by screaming, pounding walls, and waving fists while storming the offices of the election commission. Amid the vitriol and confusion, some GOP protesters shoved, kicked, and punched Democratic spokesman Luis Rosero.
When the Florida Supreme Court handed down its December 9 decision to allow 14,000 contested ballots to be recounted, hundreds of Bush loyalists flocked to Gore's DC residence -- only to turn their jeers into cheers less than 24 hours later with the US Supreme Court's ruling to halt the count. Spontaneous outbursts soon shifted to the front of the US Supreme Court, where hundreds of Republicans and Democrats spent December 11 in a partisan shouting match while the nine justices heard legal arguments on the Florida recount. The clamoring grew so intense that DC police in riot helmets separated the two sides with metal barricades.
The election outbursts provided the perfect end to a perfectly tumultuous year. But the very people who had expressed the most vigorous dissent over the previous 12 months were conspicuously absent: the young activists. This could be because many of them voted for the anti-corporate Nader, derided as a campaign spoiler. Maybe Y2K activists were nursing their wounds after their man had been blamed for the election fiasco. (Under other circumstances, it was Patrick Buchanan who might have been the spoiler: he won crucial votes in four states -- Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin -- that, had they gone to Bush, would have won the Republican 30 additional electoral votes and thus the presidential election.) Maybe their anti-establishment mindset simply prevented them from taking up the fight for a major-party candidate. Whatever the reasons, in retrospect it may be that, ironically, Republicans and Democrats who engaged in spontaneous outbursts (as opposed to the meticulously planned "actions" by the Ruckus Society, complete with training sessions on how to avoid arrest by secoring oneself to a fence with a U-lock) will be credited with preparing the ground for immediate change. After the mess that was the Florida recount, who doesn't believe that the next crusade on Capitol Hill will be an attempt to overhaul the way we vote?
After such a spirited 2000, 2001 seems destined to carry the fiery flame forward. True, we probably won't see the numbers we saw during the last great period of activism, the 1960s. For one thing, today's protesters embrace such a buffet of causes -- everything from environmental damage to sweatshop labor -- that they confuse the rest of us. And a confusing message makes for a tough sell with mainstream audiences.
Still, the seeds for widespread mobilization were planted with the remarkably odd coalition of activists that organized demonstrations this year. Labor leaders, environmentalists, death-penalty opponents, gay-rights activists -- a host of advocates worked together under the anti-corporate banner. These seeds should grow and bloom before they wither. After all, when it comes down to it, Y2K activists are not all that different from their counterparts in the '60s. Like their forerunners, young people spent the year protesting because they expect their country -- their government -- to live up to its ideals.
Besides, the passion that characterized 2000 is bound to be fueled further once Bush and his fellow Republicans come into power. Talk of a Seattle-like demonstration at the January 20 inauguration has already circulated among this year's young crusaders in more than 30 states. They will join Jesse Jackson and others in speaking out against what they call the anti-democratic US electoral system, as well as the "gross disenfranchisement" of black voters in Florida. If the GOP's hungry ideologues succeed in passing even a fraction of their regressive policy agenda -- if they reverse the social, environmental, and educational gains made under the Clinton-Gore administration -- we can expect the outcry to be amplified. Says Boston University professor Joseph Boskin, who studies social movements: "Conservatives in the Republican Party are nasty, nasty people, and their nasty policies will translate into greater activism."
And if that happens, then maybe, just maybe, we can watch the Year of the Protest turn into a year of sustained political action.