I just got back from watching the film “This Is What Democracy Looks Like” at a Social Concerns Committee presentation at a local college, and it brought to mind so much of what I wrote here earlier today. If you haven’t seen this documentary, I recommend it lightly. It has much to say, and much to show you, but it wears its heart on its sleeve, so to speak. You can very much tell the position of the filmmakers, so keep that in mind while you watch it; if you’re able to glean things from a documentary without swallowing everything (or without getting upset because you disagree) then I recommend it more heartily.
The film was entirely shot by independent media (i.e. people with cameras and without press credentials) on the streets of Seattle during the World Trade Organization protests of 1999. Protesters from every camp (unions, environmentalists, human rights advocates, women’s rights advocates, etc. etc.) were coming together to protest outside the meetings of the World Trade Organization, which is an organization that controls global trade, and whose decisions affect all of the above causes because they profoundly influence (and sometimes even overrule) governments. One goal of the protests was to blockade the meeting venue, so that none of the WTO reps could get inside on the first day of the meetings. In that respect, they were successful: non-violent protest won the day.
By the next day, a few anarchists had broken windows at Starbucks and Nike stores; actions like these gave the authorities the illusion of the moral high ground, and they began to treat the protesters as if they were all violent subversives. Police used batons, paintballs and rubber bullets, pepper spray, and even tear gas to disperse protesters. I remember watching it on television in 1999, and while I admit I didn’t pay it much attention then, it was at least partly because it seemed irrelevant to me: all the news agencies would show was the damage caused by the few, and gave almost no attention to the reasons behind the protests. To me, it was nothing more than a bunch of crazy hippies who are anti-establishment and want to riot – because that is how it was portrayed.
In this film, I saw a different side to the story. The solidarity between different types of activists, the constant focus on unity and non-violence, gave the protesters the moral high ground. To hear the protesters say “I’m not resisting, please remove your knee from my back” and chant “the whole world is watching” as the police sprayed harmful chemicals in their faces, ripping away their bandanas to get a better shot at the eyes and mouth, really brought the message home. Of course, none of that reached the media (50% of which is owned by 8 large corporations in the US – corporations that have representatives at the WTO).
The media had all of the footage they needed: the occasional protester who would break something, spraypaint something, or even shove a police officer not only got good ratings, but served the media’s interests in that it gave the moral high ground to the police, who were charged with “keeping the peace”. With images like that to fill their time slot, they didn’t need to mention that the city of Seattle systematically took away civil rights, day by day as the protests continued, even making the possession of gas masks illegal within Seattle so that any protester who was immune to tear gas could be arrested on sight.
The WTO conference collapsed eventually, at least partially because of the protests. The protests outside the conference centre were matched with protests all over the world, which sprang up because of the media attention on the protests in Seattle. These massive actions all across the globe emboldened the smaller member nations of the WTO to stand up in their informal meetings (because they never did get into a real session at the convention centre as they were supposed to) and say that the actions of the WTO were not in the best interests of their people. All talks collapsed…for the time being. The protesters by then had moved to the King County prison, where over 600 of their number were being held because of their connection to the protests. Overall, about 50,000 people took part. Their long-term success, however, was limited. In fact, though these particular protests had more of an impact than almost any before them (at least in regard to this issue), they failed in many ways.
First, the WTO still exists. The WTO exists because corporations exist, and corporations exist solely to profit off of our consumerist ways (but that’s for another blog). It’ll take more than a well-aimed protest to change the world – but that’s not really how the protests failed. They failed because, at certain points, certain protesters sacrificed the moral high ground. They had a morally superior message to that of the WTO, but that message was not heard because the actions of a few ruined the credibility of most. But even in their successes, I was struck by some fundamental failures:
A constant cry at these rallies was “POWER!” and “POWER TO THE PEOPLE!” While I understand that these rallies took place in a democratic society in which the people are supposed to have the power, such a slogan reveals the true underlying issue in human politics. It turned a message of justice into a cry (and struggle) for power. At one point, one of the organizers reminisced in an interview after the fact, saying something along the lines of “in those streets, in that moment, we belonged to ourselves.” Self-determination is a central right in a democratic context, but once again it revealed an underlying issue, another Power that we are subject to: Self. Seeing these themes coming over and over again, it struck me that these protests were missing a fundamental thing, without which they will always fail to live up to their full potential: they were missing Christ.
Rather than saying “POWER TO THE PEOPLE!” we can say, with all honesty “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power.” (Rev. 5:12) Rather than saying “in that moment, we belonged to ourselves,” we can say with gratitude that we belong to Christ, forever. When our whole allegiance is to Christ, we will never compromise our message or our authority; we can never be said to be seeking power, as we proclaim that all power belongs to Christ; we can never be said to be seeking glory, as we live to glorify Christ.
I may have given the impression in the last post that we are to submit to all Powers and Authorities: I should underline that this must be thought through very carefully. Christ himself submitted to an authority that was unjust, but did so in a way that made his allegiance to the Father very clear. If Materialism is a Power, that doesn’t mean that you should go buy some shoes; it does mean that you should respect their property, copyrights, etc. The key is in being blameless: it is only when your message and your actions are just that you can make a difference as Christ did. Yoder said that we should be resisting, and submitting at all times: that means, in large part, that planting a bomb is not planting a message. When a criminal takes on the establishment, he loses – no matter how just his cause may be. But when someone of good repute, honest and trustworthy, blameless even; when that person speaks up about something, people take notice.
This is the ethic of Jesus Christ. Go and do likewise.