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  • Every Corner of the Globe
  • Charles Barbour (bio)

A commentary on “The Battle of Seattle” by Corey Robin, Theory & Event, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2000)

In November of 1997, almost exactly two years prior to the Battle in Seattle, a group of world leaders met at the Asia Pacific Economic Council or APEC in Vancouver, Canada. The meeting was held on the campus of the University of British Columbia—a silly mistake that economic summit organizers would not make a second time. It was greeted by a significant protest—one that, I have always believed, in some sense paved the way for what would happen in Seattle a short time hence. I was a graduate student, a member of the teaching assistant union’s executive, and a budding leftist. But APEC was my first real political protest. To my naïve astonishment, protest leaders were summarily arrested early in the day and detained for the duration. It seemed like anyone with a bullhorn got tackled and thrown into the back of a police car, never to be charged with any crime. Tensions mounted, but things remained relatively peaceful—until, that is, the very end of the day. At the time when the world leaders (including President Clinton) were expected to leave campus, small groups of protesters sat down to block each of the exits. A decision was made somewhere, and one of the exits was quickly cleared with a liberal dose of pepper spray and brute force. For a couple of months, the episode was a minor scandal in Canadian politics. The Prime Minister dismissed the protesters, and joked in public that he ‘put pepper on his plate’. The media dubbed the police officer in charge of the operation ‘Sargent Pepper’. The militants who had been arrested without charge, or harmed in some fashion during the day, got bogged down in juridical processes—investigations, committees, hearings, and the like. They splintered in various ways, and after a while, the whole thing blew over—the only lasting change being that, because of the event, a considerable number of people had become instantly radicalized, myself included.

Two years on, Seattle hit like Mike Tyson in the 1980s. For a generation that had been brought up on the dying embers of identity politics, and a theoretical frame the main purpose of which was to promote [End Page 19] something called ‘democracy’ so as to prevent the return of something called ‘totalitarianism’ (a non-concept, as far as I am concerned today), Seattle was more than a revelation. It felt like history, which we previously had been assured was well and truly dead, was now alive again. Exaggeration ruled the day. 1999 would be our 1968, even our 1917, our 1871, our 1789! It set off a whole series of exhilarating protests at economic meetings all around the world—‘summit hopping’, as we called it at the time. We had been told by nearly everyone that ‘taking it to the streets’ was not an option, that we had to struggle for hegemony within established political institutions, or work inside the system. Do not take it to the streets. At best, take it to the courts. But now the romance of revolution was back. Balaclavas. Smashed shop windows. Paving stones versus tear gas. Barricades. Hardt and Negri. Pitch battles with police in riot gear in the dead of night. And then came 2001, or more specifically, September 11, 2001. And all of a sudden, everything seemed to change again. In fairly short order, enthusiasm was vanquished by paranoia. For example, at the time, I was a member of a small organization that called itself the ‘extreme theory collective’, or ‘etc.’—little more than a reading group, really, and hardly that. But, fearing unwanted attention from unspecified authorities, we had serious discussions about replacing the word ‘extreme’ with something less inflammatory—as if anyone, anywhere, could possibly have cared in the least.

Corey Robin’s ‘The Battle in Seattle’ captures the mood of that narrow window between 1999 and 2001 extraordinarily well. Like much of the writing for which he has since become a bit of a leftist icon, Robin’s piece mixes together a sense...


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