Left History on-line review

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (New York: Verso, 2000)
For anyone seeking to understand what happened in Quebec during the FTAA summit of April 2001, there is no better place to start than Five Days That Shook the World, a book published six months earlier which offers an essential road-map to popular protests in the age of globalization. Many reporters, especially from elite publications, were surprised by the anti-globalizations protests which derailed the WTO meeting in Seattle in December 1999 and launched a wave of street actions in cities such as Washington DC, Prague and Quebec. Veteran radical journalists Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair were not among those caught off guard. Over the last three decades they've covered environmental, labour, and anti-war protests for publications as diverse as The Nation, The Wall Street Journal, LA Weekly, and their own feisty newsletter, Counterpunch.

Like radical historians such as George Rude and Eric Hobsbawn but unlike most journalists, Cockburn and St. Clair understand that a riot is not a random acts of violence but an "insurgency from below" growing out of "popular outrage." In this type of insurgency, the police and the protesters are engaged in a dialectic ballet, each side seeking to anticipate and pre-empt the moves of the enemy.

One advantage the protesters had in Seattle was the element of surprise. "Once a generation you can catch the ruling class off guard," Cockburn and St. Clair note, sardonically adding that "you spend the next twenty years paying for it. In Seattle, at the start of December [1999], the Direct Action Network, the Rucus Society and other organizers outmaneuvered the cops and shut the World Trade Organization down. By the time these same demonstrators got to Washington DC the following April, the state had pulled itself together."

In a brilliant chapter on "The Jackboot State" Cockburn and St. Clair document how the U.S. government is pushing for a steady erosion of civil liberties to facilitate the "new militarized police." Using the military theory of "asymmetrical warfare" the police now plan for "urban assaults against a city's own citizens." Anyone who saw the garrison-like fence that surrounded the core of Quebec city as well as the thick cloud of tear-gas that hung over the downtown knows that "asymmetrical warfare" is exactly the right phrase for current government tactics.

Cockburn and St. Clair not only describe the events in Seattle with journalistic flair and bravado, they also give a clear outline of political contours of the anti-globalization movement, a very loose coalition of groups held together more by what they oppose than common goals. Instead of being simple cheerleaders of the left, Cockburn and St. Clair are willing to confront the internal contradictions of their own side.

With great intellectual honesty, Cockburn and St. Clair describe the tensions that exist among anti-globalization forces between the "genteel" forces supporting orderly protest ("big labour" and "establishment greens") and the "street warriors" who engage in more direct action. "The crucial division was always between the kids et al. seizing the streets and the big institutions (notably labor) marching safely: illegal and legal, mutually sympathetic (broadly speaking) but mostly separate and certainly unequal, certainly suspicious of each other." At Quebec city as well, the big institutions and the street warriors worked together only precariously and always with the potential for conflict.

Another deep division exists between labour and environmentalists, who are currently united in fighting corporations that are both anti-union and anti-green. As St. Clair notes, the current alliance between the teamsters and the turtles is a "tenuous marriage" which for "all its promise ... might end badly." There "are deep, inescapable issues that will, inevitably, pit Steelworkers, fighting for their jobs in an ever tightening economy, against greens defending dwindling species like sockeye salmon that are being killed off by the hydrodams that power the aluminum plants that offer employment to steel workers."

Like other books compiled from reportage, Five Days that Shook the World suffers from being a bit of a hodge-podge: the reporting on protests in Washington DC and Los Angeles lacks the depth of the coverage of Seattle and doesn't fit well within the larger arguments of the book. Occasionally Cockburn and St. Clair fall into the unreconstructed sexism that aging male New Leftists are prone to. At one point they argue that the Black Bloc was not much of threat because it "amounted to 50 people, many of them young women." (As if young women are incapable of street fighting).

Despite these flaws, Five Days that Shook the World is written with blunt eloquence and analytical honesty. The book has the additional virtue of being adorned by the powerful photographs of Allan Sekula that somehow manage to freeze ever-shifting street actions into snapshot moments. This book will be an essential guide as the movement against corporate globalization picks up speed.

Reviewed by Jeet Heer, co-editor, Left History


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