Our Strategy Was to Use Art

Our Strategy Was to Use Art

Remembering Seattle – Jan Burger

I drove across country in my pickup truck from North Carolina to Seattle in 1999. I went to protest the policies of the WTO and to join with other artists in “the largest puppet convergence in the history of the world.” That’s how my friend David Solnit described it to me. We had met working with Art and Revolution in San Francisco. In my truck I brought a bundle of 10’ tall flower banners that I printed and painted thinking - there are going to be hundreds of signs with words on them, I’ll bring something that is just beautiful.

My friend Lydia Stein came along as well. We worked together at Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont helping to perform massive spectacles made of paper mache, cardboard, and cloth. Lydia bravely brought her stilts thinking she would walk on them during the protests and get above the crowds.

In Seattle we got to work painting banners and cutting cardboard. We worked in the convergence space organized by the Direct Action Network. Puppeteers and artists started showing up from all corners of the continent and beyond. Some had their own puppet troupes like “Cry of the Rooster.” Others were just ready to help and learn. We compared notes and paper mache glue recipes, teaching each other quick tricks for making giant puppets.

Ben Matchstick and Jason Norris arrived from Bread and Puppet. Ben and Jason seemed to work twice as fast as normal humans, their hands familiar with puppet building from working on the farm in Vermont. They brought with them a bundle of flags printed by B&P founders Elke & Peter Schuman. They were a beautiful offering from the grandparents of radical puppetry in the U.S.. Sadly, all of those flags would be lost in the chaos of the next weeks.

Nadine Block from D.C. made a huge hand out of cardboard for the massive liberation puppet. I copied hers, making the other one, while she got to work on the giant head. There was no way to carry a puppet that big, we were going to roll it down the street mounted on shopping carts.

Between building sessions at the convergence space, we ate together and had meetings. I wondered what the plan was. What were we going to do with all this art? I remember vividly when Nadine showed us the map of downtown Seattle. The streets surrounding the buildings where the WTO meeting was to be held were divided like a pie into sections. Each affinity group would take a slice and bottom line blockading it. We were doing a shutdown! Lock boxes, tripods and other tactics would be used to hold the intersections. Another big part of the strategy was to use art. Art as a story to help people understand why we were there. Art as a representation of how big and how beautiful we were. Art as a tool for claiming space back from a global institution who wanted to run the world.

By making art together, we were building a community out of strangers. The act of making art with groups of people is it’s own kind of spectacle, one of cooperation and creation. When the media came in the days preceding the shutdown, they would see people working together painting and sewing for a common cause. During the upcoming days in the streets, the many colored puppets and banners we created served us well. They showed the difference between us and the faceless lines of riot police.

A striking and beautiful moment came a couple of days before the meeting when we marched around the neighborhood of a local college. It is easier to create a powerful image if you are not dropping your puppets in the gutters because you are running from the police. All the colorful art we made was marching down one street together. Bread and Puppet had brought the “Same Boat”: a simple yet inspiring boat made out of cloth. The people inside of it held up the sides. It had a giant sail painted with a blue tree of life.

In the last week leading up to the WTO meetings, I helped run an alternate art making space because the convergence space was full. Lydia and I carved and printed giant banners. Downstairs people made more than a hundred cardboard sea turtle costumes. These would become iconic symbols of the Seattle shutdown. Activists from France traveling with Jose Bove, the farmer who pulled down a Mc Donald’s with his tractor, shared space with anarchists making tubes covered in tar, chicken wire, and duct tape to lock their arms inside of.

On the eve of the protest activists climbed a giant crane and hung a banner from it using their bodies as weights.Two arrows pointed in opposite directions. One said Democracy. The other said WTO.

On the morning of the meeting shutdown we rolled our giant liberation puppet through the streets. One cart had the head mounted high on 2x4s, two more had a huge hand each, connected to the head with a cloth banner, and the fourth that had been hastily added, balanced a tripod hidden within a cloth body. We had divided most of the hundreds of images we had made into two marches. These would converge on downtown from opposite sides of the city. Luckily, it turned out since the other march was stopped by the police. When we reached the intersection the tripod team had agreed to block, they broke off of the march. In a matter of seconds they had their tripod up and a person hanging from it.

We continued down the hill where the meeting was to be held and the march became a sea of people encircling the buildings. People in suits trying to attend the meeting were told, “sorry” by people with bandannas linking arms. Some angry responses as well as some smiles resulted. A cheerful mix of colorful banners and puppets mingled with blockaders. The labor march arrived at the corner but they had been told by march organizers to turn away down another street. “Join us!” was David Solnit’s call from the blockades and many did, linking arms with us and leaving behind confused union marshals.

I heard that help was needed elsewhere so we turned the Liberation puppet down the hill to try to bring aid to another blockade. We soon realized that it is easier said than done for seven people to turn three shopping carts with a puppet that is 30 feet wide built on top. It caught the wind like a sail. We had two people holding ropes attached to the top of the head. They would tug opposite the wind, and stayed uphill when we were on a hill. The previous day, when I had walked away from the puppet and left it with others for a few minutes, it fell. Frightening, since it was so big. From then on, I never left the puppet’s side.

Some folks with banners and smaller puppets followed us. A juggler and a belly dancer attached themselves to our group. We were the “Big puppet flying squad,” for lack of a better name. A joyful meeting ensued in the street when we saw that people had made it through from the other march. Ben’s backpack skeleton puppet was sticking up over the crowd, and there was Lydia stilting in a monarch butterfly costume. There was such a fecundity of art and tactics being used on the streets around us. Radical marching bands played. A giant earth ball rolled by, pushed by people in dung beetle costumes. Dancers danced to choreography illustrating the harmful effects of the WTOs structural adjustment policies.

We came to an intersection with an overturned burning dumpster. A line of riot police with shields advanced on people dragging newspaper boxes to add to the blockade. The sound of teargas launchers popped and gas started to fill the air. We kept going up the hill not feeling like we were prepared to help much in the situation.

We came to a quieter street where a line of people sat with arms in lock box tubes. They were surrounded by police who had been trying pain holds on them to try to get them to unlock. The police were attempting to open the meeting up by whatever means they could. An unmarked vehicle sped towards the blockade but we rolled the liberation puppet right up to the sitting people stretching their arms across the street helping to block it. The media had been following our roving spectacle. We sang as our juggler juggled and the belly dancer danced. You could see in the tear filled eyes of some of the police that they were struggling with what they were being told to do. More people joined us and the police backed off. It seemed like it would have been hard for them to arrest a belly dancer and people who are singing. Hard also to topple a giant puppet representing liberation.

We did it. We shut down the meeting of one of the most powerful organizations in the world. That night, as the police continued to fight with people in the streets, some of us tried to catch a few hours of sleep.

The next day we continued the opposition. The WTO was determined to try to meet. Most of our puppets and banners had been left in the streets during the previous day. Despite marshal law being declared, we carried some flat cardboard puppets and a few of the remaining Bread and Puppet flags with us. A police car stopped us and stole all of our puppets and flags-except one flag that I hid in a bush. When I came back later and hid it in my coat, I realized they had pepper sprayed it.

We walked on a few blocks joining a larger group moving towards downtown. Some people were wearing sea turtle costumes. Soon we were stopped by a line of very agitated police. We stood at a stalemate for just a couple of minutes before the officer in charge gave the order, and the police rushed us. They threw us to the ground, tearing the cardboard shells off of those who were wearing turtle costumes. David, Ben and I were arrested along with many others that day.

I was brought to a holding facility on the outskirts of town in an old navy base. There were hundreds of arrestees there chanting and singing. The mood was raucous . Before I was added to the holding pen, an officer took me and a woman I didn’t know down the road in a police car. He just left us there saying , “This is your lucky day.”

After finding our way back on public transport, I rejoined those who were at the convergence space. People were coming into the medical area with nasty wounds. The shock of the day’s events sank in and I cried in a friend’s arms. Going from the success of the previous days outpouring of art to the disappointment of having our art taken from us was frustrating.

During the spokes council meeting that night, the mood was grim. So many of our people were in jail. I found myself representing the puppet folk in the meeting, as the discussion went back and forth about what we could possibly do the next day. We proposed a plan in which we would take all the remaining art, the giant liberation puppet, and what smaller puppets and banners that were left, and we would march through town to a rally at the waterfront. We would end at the jail where many were being held.

That is what we did the next day, rolling down the hill with all of the art we had left. Skeleton cow and tree puppets followed the liberation puppet pulled by Jason Norris. We were followed by a wide line of police on motorcycles and in front of us were dozens of journalists and photographers. When we arrived at the jail we decided that we would stay. An occupation began. Someone took down the American flag and hung one of my flower banners in it’s place. A young man wanted to burn the flag, but an older vet in the crowd wouldn’t let him.

My role shifted then from art, to hanging tarps at the jail occupation. For the next couple of days I delivered mattresses and food in my truck. We stayed until everyone was released from jail. We had accomplished what we set out to do. There were so many contributions to our success: thousands of striking union members, international solidarity, a diversity of tactics. I believe that art played a key role in centering our efforts. It helped to bring us together and it helped to diffuse violence. It amplified our message and told our story to the world. We won the “Battle in Seattle,” partly because of the way we worked together, and partly because the beauty of our art, made clear that we were right and the WTO was wrong.