IN THE WEEKS leading up to the WTO conference last November, I had made up my mind about what the protest was going to look like. As with most neo-liberal demonstrations, it would be a big puppet show: The professional protest crowd of hippies and fleece-jacket lefties--replete with capitalist-pig masks and grim-reaper clown paint--would all be there. I pictured a "whose streets?" scream-a-thon in front of the Federal Building, a few over-earnest undergrads getting handcuffed by aloof cops; you know the drill. I thought it would be a lark to go down and get a chuckle from the human comedy, so the morning of November 30, a couple of friends and I dressed up like CIA agents and went downtown to spoof the whole futile show.

What we saw, and ultimately participated in, is by now familiar to everyone--so by the middle of the day we were chagrined at having tried to mock what turned out to be a conscientious and well-organized movement to thwart the forces of evil. A new documentary, Trade Off, by Shaya Mercer, introduces us to the organizers and power players on both sides of the barricades, and goes a long way toward explaining the politics behind the protest.

The nominal star of the film is the head of Public Citizen, Mike Dolan, a preppy radical who leavens his political message by acting like Meatballs-era Bill Murray. His manner tempts you to regard the week of protest as a giant panty raid, but it becomes clear that Dolan's manic energy reflects the enormous pressure of organizing a confrontation of this scope. Much of the film is given over to speechmaking by various international figures--speeches the majority of protesters never saw--intercut with Dolan mugging with the likes of Jello Biafra, Tom Hayden, and filmmaker Michael Moore, who shares a name with the WTO chief.

The film starts two weeks before the conference, with Han Shan of the Ruckus Society explaining clearly in a radio interview how the protesters intend to shut down the city in order to stop the trade meeting. WTO Director General Michael Moore blithely praises Seattle in a press conference, and Charlene Barshefsky, U.S. Trade Representative, ominously proclaims that the trade meeting will succeed because "failure is not an option." In the week prior to the meeting, we see a few quaint, exploratory civil protests. At first, the police behave the way Paul Schell imagined they would throughout the whole week. There are friendly waves and conspiratorial smiles. Only Han Shan's wariness suggests there are bigger things afoot.

Soon the protests begin in earnest, but the film doesn't focus much attention on drum circles or hippie sloganeering. The clanging and shouting is mostly a backdrop to interviews with luminaries from diverse factions of the international anti-corporate movement, carefully explaining the pestilential threat of genetically modified corn and the pernicious power of the WTO to force it down our throats. The scale of the protest so wildly exceeds every-one's expectations that many of the speakers, while delivering messages of the looming apocalypse, can barely conceal their glee.

Media coverage of the WTO protest centered on the police riot and anarchist rampage of November 30. Trade Off covers those events judiciously, but doesn't lose sight of the big picture. The police were obviously unled and out of control; the paramilitary frat party made great press, but in the end they were powerless to restrain the protests from derailing the opening day of the sessions. Paul Schell plays the paternalistic ex-radical like a dad playing Foghat records for his bored kids, and Norm Stamper, in a condescending exchange with a British journalist, reveals himself to be a petulant bully completely out of his depth.

The film is even-handed--Mercer doesn't try to make the police look dumb or the protesters valorous. She doesn't need to: A few shots of young women being tear-gassed as they sit on the pavement holding hands accomplish both things. Trade Off's triumph lies in reminding us that despite all attempts to reduce the protests to questions of site-specific public policy (e.g., how could the city fathers let downtown get trashed with only 25 shopping days till Christmas?), the important matters remain political. The film lets us remember that the Battle of Seattle was a skirmish in a much larger world war.

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