Vol. 3, No. 1
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Wars of Religion
Charitable Choice and the New Religious
Religious Ironies in East Timor
Jesus, Political Philosopher
What's in a Name? The EgyptAir 990 Crash
Waiting for the Shoe to Drop
The NCC's Near-Death Experience
On the Beat: Condoms and Constitutions in Kenya
Letters to the Editor
Seattle?: The WTO Protests
Patricia OConnell Killen
Media reaction to the mass protests at the World Trade Organizations meeting
in Seattle last fall was alternately perturbed, perplexed, bemused, and even appreciative.
Editorial and news writers characterized protesters as driven by "the protectionist
agendas of their own special interests" (Indianapolis Star, December 3);
"intellectually incoherent" and out to "dignify some very bad ideas" (Detroit
News, December 3); giving "this soggy city a taste of Mardi Graseven if it
does so with more of an edge" (Christian Science Monitor, December 1, and,
"modern Maccabees" standing up for the rights of people to shape their lives (Los
Angeles Times, December 3).
"[T]wo things are clear," concluded the London Independent. "One
is that something changed in Seattle last week, sending shivers down the spines of the
worlds most powerful leaders. The other is that a politics is emerging which insists
that, if the anti-democratic tendencies of international capital are to be opposed, the
movement against them has to be global" (December 5).
Without question, journalists faced a challenge figuring out just how, in a city where
one out of three jobs flows from international trade, a WTO meeting intended to celebrate
the spread of global commerce was effectively shut down by the largest rally of its kind
in modern history.
Several themes emerged as they tried to explain what was going on in the land of Bill
Gates and Boeing.
One was the unprecedented coalition of groups-from environmentalists to mothers with
children to anarchists to food safety advocates to indigenous peoples to rank-and-file
labor unionists. A second was the simultaneously warlike "battle for Seattle"
and giddy "carnival against capitalism." Battle imagery won out with pictures of
anarchists and roving bands of adolescents destroying property, but the carnival kept
erupting in descriptions of protesters dressed as trees and turtles. A third theme was
how, ironically, the protests had been made possible by the latest in electronic
What all but the local press missed entirely was the protests religious
In the weeks leading up to the protests, Sally MacDonald and Robert Nelson of the Seattle
Times and Steve Maynard of the Tacoma News Tribune did see this side of the
story. Reporting on a three-day conference on global economic justice held at St.
Marks Episcopal Cathedral at the end of September, MacDonald wrote, "Many of
those at last nights meeting said they planned to be among the 10,000 to 50,000
protesters expected at the [WTO] talks." Nelson covered two Seattle
churchesCrown Hill United Methodist and Seattle Advent Christian Churchthat
were motivated by their "concern for the homeless in Seattle" and had agreed to
"house 50 homeless men in tents erected in their parking lots" during the week
of protests (Seattle Times, November 23). Maynard perceptively described the
religious rationale for participation in the protests given by congregants from Tacoma
churches and Christian social justice groups, many of whom said they intended to be part
of a human chain around the Seattle Exhibition Center (News Tribune, November 11).
On November 29, the first day of the protests, both Maynard and the Timess
Lance Dickie covered a "Jubilee 2000" gathering of 3,100 people who packed the
sanctuary and overflow rooms at First United Methodist Church. "All the strength of
Jubilee 2000 was found in the eloquence of readings from the Koran, the joyful noises of a
cappella hymns, a rabbi blowing on a rams horn and Hindu prayers punctuated by a
conch shell," wrote Dickie. The Times and the News Tribune also covered
the small counter-demonstration of Christians supporting free trade keynoted by Randy
Tate, former Ninth District congressman from Washington now serving as senior
vice-president of the Christian Coalition.
By December 1, however, institutional religion had faded out of even the local
coverage. To be sure, occasional mention was made of protesting religious groups and
individuals, and of the religious presence in a vigil for the release of arrestees outside
the King County Jail. But there were no stories about how churches provided sleeping space
for protesters coming into town and extended themselves to find even more space when other
venues canceled. There was no coverage of the Peoples General Assembly, a weeklong
counter-WTO meeting at First Methodist that provided a platform for workers, women, and
indigenous peoples from around the world. Nor was notice taken of the ongoing cooperation
between labor organizations and churches.
Understanding the role of religion in the WTO protests requires an appreciation of the
distinctive social ecology of the Pacific Northwest. Three factors are critical:
- Mobility. People come to the Pacific Northwest from elsewhere, and when they get
there they continue to move around more than in the Midwest, South, or East. Moving
disconnects people from social pressures to conform.
- Lack of attachment to the past. People did not and do not come to the Pacific
Northwest if things are good at home. Lured by economic opportunity or driven by economic
necessity, few have a stake in remembering or replicating what they left behind.
- Low cultural density. With the exception of a few little rural communities, any
particular social, ethnic, or religious group is too small and dispersed for members to
presume that they will encounter people who think or see the world as they do on a daily
These three factors combine to make all social institutions in the Pacific Northwest
weak. Compared to the rest of the country, collective identity matters less, whether it be
family, ethnicity, social classor religion.
Since the region was settled by whites in the 19th century, it has been
notoriously unchurched. Relatively few people participate in religious institutions, and
the 30 percent who do are spread among a wide range of denominations. For example, the
largest single group, Roman Catholics, make up only about 11 percent of the population. In
addition, an unusually large segment of the population is religiously uninterested,
although there are also many persons who claim a commitment to "spirituality"
rather than organized religion. Just as the region has no easily recognizable cultural
style, it has no single religious style.
Religious institutions in the Pacific Northwest are weak and for the most part
invisible. Conscious of this fragility, religious leaders historically have understood the
need to work together if they want to influence the social order. In 1924, for example, an
ecumenical alliance of Protestant businessmen joined with Catholics to defeat a Ku Klux
Klan-sponsored ballot initiative to abolish private parochial schools because this was
seen as bad for the community.
The WTO protest was classic ecumenism, Northwest style. The human ring around the
Seattle Exhibition Center was organized by the Washington Association of Churches, an
alliance of 16 Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church that works to bring
ecumenical Christian principles to bear on social questions and political decisions. As
the Seattle Timess coverage of the Jubilee 2000 gathering made clear, the
interdenominational character of the service extended beyond Christianity to interfaith
ecumenism among world religious traditions.
Nor is the cooperative enterprise limited to the religious community. In 1946,
Teamsters Union leader Dave Beck and wealthy Lutheran businessman Emil Sick, with the
support of such other community leaders as Rabbi Samuel Koch, spearheaded a fundraising
drive to retire the debt on the foreclosed St. Marks, to get the city back its
Episcopal cathedral. Early in his career, Beck also frequented the rectory of Immaculate
Conception Church, where he and Msg. Theodore Ryan, the first Washington-born Seattle
diocesan priest, discussed papal encyclicals on labor. Prominent Protestants like
Methodist pastor Oscar H. McGill and prominent Presbyterian layman James
("Jimmy") Duncan also played a role in the regions unionism.
The importance of the labor movement in Seattle did not escape the Los Angeles Times,
which suggested that the anti-WTO union protest would earn a footnote in labor histories
next to Seattles "bloody general strike of 1919" (December 12). Tom Wolfe
of Bellevues Eastside Journal pointed to Seattles "particular
sensitivity to labor and environmental issues" (November 11). But no mention was made
of the long history of anarchism in the regionwhich would have injected some needed
journalistic skepticism into the reporting of officials oft-repeated charge that the
anarchist protesters were "outsiders."
If all the disparate elements are to be drawn into a coherent image of the WTO
protests, it is worth pondering the apparent contradiction of anarchists organizing for
collective action. In the cultural quasi-anarchy of the Pacific Northwest, what made the
protests possible was the fluidity of social boundaries-between rich and poor, young and
old, union and non-union, religious and nonreligious.
In a place of fluid boundaries, unusual alliances can be formed and reformed. New
strategies of communication and organization can be tested because commitment to old
strategies based on traditional loyalties is weak. Outside the grip of social forms,
people look for meaning in many placestrees and turtles and food safety. And under
the right circumstances, the varied identities and means flow together into a common
experience of communionas St. Paul put it, where there is neither "Jew or
Greek, slave or free, male or female" (Galatians 3:28). Indeed, the best way to
understand the WTO protests as a whole is as a religious event.
Their religious character comes across most clearly in the observations of
participants. "My whole life Ive been about money and myself and my $800
stereo," a 20-year-old mechanic who joined the 24-hour vigil outside the King County
Jail told the News Tribune. "I came down because I saw people getting beaten
up and tear-gassed on TV." He was "converted," said the paper, "once
he heard firsthand protesters concerns about impacts of free trade on the
environment, human and labor rights" (December 12).
Angela Storey, a student of mine who participated in the protests, recorded a detailed
account of her experience for this article. For her, the attraction was "the
opportunity for so many different groups of people and issues to work in synchrony."
At the Seattle Center gathering before the union march, when silent people carrying black
cardboard coffins inscribed in white with the words "forests,"
"butterflies," "justice," and the like entered, "there was a
definite reverence given to these unassuming people. Without a word aloud they made us
more serious, more determined that this was the day for change to begin."
Police use of tear gas to disperse the protesters enhanced the sense of commonality:
"Many people were walking back into the gas, towards the police line to help the
people who had fallen. One man, wearing a gas mask and riding a bicycle with a
riders seat in the back, was taking trips to get those unable to walk out quickly.
"Food Not Bombs was serving the marchers tofu stew, fruit, bread, and water. This
kind of voluntary help, unsolicited and free to anyone, was easily representative of the
majority of the people in attendance as well as the protests themselves. People were
constantly attentive to anyones needs, volunteering information, food, water,
directions, and any help available. I saw individuals give their clothing and food to
complete strangers, people picked up and carried when they could no longer walk, coffee
served at midnight by union organizers to Earth Firsters locked to a hotel door, the man
with the bike-cart still taking trips into gassed areas when he could no longer wear his
gas mask in the no-protest zone. Protesters brought their children, knowing that at any
sign of danger, all eyes and hands would be protecting those kids before shielding
"Seattle became a community, not just a city, for a while."
The protesters experienced themselves committed to and acting for a purpose that went
beyond their own individual livesthe welfare of working people, the environment,
future generations. They experienced themselves creating something new. They felt a sense
of self-transcendence, of transcendence.
The Seattle protests were an expression of the unique culture of the Pacific
Northwesta culture that in its dispersed and anarchic character itself mirrors a
world far more heterogeneous than the agents of the global economy would have it be. In
assembling their various forces against the alleged imperatives of that economy, they
sounded a spiritual trumpet that will echo well into the new millennium.