Book Buzz: Read, Then Watch

Read, Then Watch: The Power of Protests
(DVDs related to this year’s Whatcom READS selection, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist)

If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of this year’s Whatcom READS title, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, you’ve still got time.

Author Sunil Yapa will be visiting Whatcom County March 8-10 at a variety of venues, so everyone can get a chance to discuss his visceral and unsparing but fictional account of one day during the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.

If you didn’t attend the marches and demonstrations and can’t even imagine laid-back but law-abiding Seattleites jaywalking—much less disrupting a major economic summit—head straight to your public library to check out one of several videos specifically about that tumultuous week. Having recently binge-watched these four, I can attest that each has a unique angle and message, so you may want to watch more than one.

For a clear, levelheaded explanation of what the World Trade Organization is, why so many people are against it, and what both sides were hoping to accomplish in Seattle in 1999, start with Trade Off: One Town, One Week, One Movement. This film does the best job examining all of the issues, with interviews of activists, interest groups, public officials, protestors and passersby.

Vandava Shiva from the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology is particularly articulate about her perception of the terrible injustices inflicted on all people by multinational corporations.

This is What Democracy Looks Like is louder and presents a collage of video footage shot by dozens of activists with a rock ‘n’ roll feel to it. It includes supporting material by Noam Chomsky, interviews with musician Michael Franti of Spearhead, and a soundtrack by Rage Against the Machine.

For viewers who prefer a strong narrative arc (and perhaps a little eye candy) the fictional drama Battle in Seattle may do the trick. Channing Tatum and Woody Harrelson play Seattle cops suited up like black-clad stormtroopers. Charlize Theron is Harrelson’s pregnant wife, caught up in the violence. Ray Liotta plays the mayor and Michelle Rodriguez is a fierce, experienced demonstrator. While the plot line veers slightly into melodrama, this film gives the strongest impression of what it may have felt like to be in the middle of the protests that week—exhilarating, confusing and terrifying.

Finally, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle is one photojournalist’s take on the demonstrations. Rustin Thompson was a disillusioned television news cameraman who decided to document the week independently, and came away awed and affected by the deep expression of democracy.

There are certain elements that repeat in each video: peaceful protestors in turtle costumes dancing through the streets; activists rappelling down bridges and overpasses to unfurl banners; chants of “the whole world is watching” and a celebration of all the disparate groups who came together to protest—union members, farmworkers, environmentalists, Native Americans, and regular citizens among them.

You see a limited number of anarchists bent on smashing windows and their nonviolent counterparts attempting to stop them. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz makes several appearances lamenting the protests’ impact on holiday sales of coffee. Perhaps the most disturbing images are of dispassionate police officers in head-to-toe riot gear, ripping gas masks off people seated on the ground and spraying tear gas directly into their eyes.

While many of these scenes play out in Yapa’s excellent novel, seeing the real events will enhance your understanding and prepare you to participate fully in Whatcom READS events this month.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, February 28, 2018.