No WTO Combo

by Frank Mullen

Public memory is short, but you might remember some scenes from the World Trade Organization meeting recently held in Seattle — broken glass, tear gas, riots in the streets and protesters interrupting an international gathering and embarrassing their home town to boot.

Memory might also be jogged by the recent release of a CD from the event, a live performance by a one-time supergroup: Jello Biafra, Nirvana’s Krist Novaselic, Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, and Gina Mainwal from Sweet 75. They planned a gig as part of the protests, trying to draw attention to the “No WTO” voice. Little did they know that riots, curfews, and chaos would interfere with their plans. Only a few people saw the show, but the CD captures the event — including an original, “Battle in Seattle,” and a couple of Dead Kennedys songs, such as “Let’s Lynch the Landlord.”

Tony Gale
L-R: Jello Biafra, Kim Thayill

Krist’s role as an activist is well established: JamPac (a political action committee benefiting music artists), testimony on Capitol Hill about music censorship, and more. Jello, of course, has never shied from the spotlight (except for this interview, during which he was tied up with his own legal troubles) or a righteous cause. In this case, the WTO protest in Seattle gave him a highly visible target at which to throw stones.

I wondered, was this a heartfelt cause or just an opportunity to jump into the public eye? What were the issues with the WTO? What was the evening like? The interview below focuses more on the political side of things, and a longer version on the Ink 19 Web site has further discussion, with more detail on the show and the musical side of things.

How did the No WTO show come about?

Krist: Well, I was on the Spitfire tour with Jello Biafra in October of 1999, and we were talking about the upcoming protest against the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle at the end of November. Jello was like, “Are any bands gonna play?” and I’m like, “Well, I don’t think so — why don’t we put a band together?”

I was playing with Kim and Gina, and I said, “I’ll talk to them and we’ll put a band together and we’ll play three, four, five songs and it’ll be a lot of fun.” Sure enough, Kim and Gina were into it, and then sure enough, a show was put together, and we did it.

I heard some kind of hairy stories about the event, and I know you both had different perspectives on the evening.

Kim: Krist lives downtown, so he was out and about with his video camera, observing some of the marches, parades, and protests and recording it. I was safely out of the downtown area, so the greatest difficulty I had was trying to enter downtown where the gig was scheduled, and where our rehearsal space was.

There was a curfew at that time, right?

Kim: Prior to the curfews, a lot of incidents started around 3:30 in the afternoon. There was live news coverage as things were transpiring between the police and the protesters, so I had to deal with the television news hyperbole and de-emphasize it in my head and go, “It’ll be OK, I can make it downtown, traffic will be screwed up, but I can get to the rehearsal space.”

Once we were there, we sat in Krist’s rehearsal space, where he had a TV, and we watched all the news channels from there. It was going on within a block or two of the rehearsal space, and we could hear concussion grenades going off and tear gas canisters, yet we’re monitoring it on TV — it was like reality once removed.

We were like, “We’ve got to make it about six blocks to the venue, I don’t think we can make it right now.” And while we’re watching the events, they came on live and announced that the mayor had declared a state of emergency, and along with that comes a curfew, and after that comes the involvement of the National Guard.

Of course, since they’re military, they’re not bound to uphold anything Constitutional. The police have to, since they’re civilians, but the military — they’re not, they can just do whatever the hell they want. They can suspend the Bill of Rights. They never really actually said “martial law,” but when they say “State of Emergency” and bring in the National Guard and declare a curfew, then they’re not really obligated to the contracts which help maintain our society.

 Tony GaleKrist Novoselic

Some of the protesters were throwing rocks, tagging graffiti and destroying property — do you think that was a justified reaction or overkill?

Kim: It was definitely overkill. They were attributing some of that behavior to a group of anarchists — they weren’t really anarchists, they were a bunch of naive young people who are really more nihilistic, you know? It might seem a contradiction, but most anarchists’ philosophy is collective in nature, and very peaceful.

Krist: The damage and the vandalism increased as the day wore on, and sure enough — at 3:00 or 3:30, school got out. A lot of kids came downtown, and it was like a free-for-all. I remember walking around downtown, and there no cops anywhere. They were all in formations, making perimeters — closing certain parts of downtown off, writing off certain blocks, and that’s when it was just like… it was crazy.

Kim: You know, at this point, a lot of the damage was also being caused by the behavior of the police. They weren’t particularly organized. I’m sure they have training in crowd management or crowd control, but to some extent it was a police riot. Although they didn’t specifically damage public or private property as a goal, I think it was a consequence of their mismanagement of the crowd. When you’re firing off “stun balls” — which are sort of like a grenade that contains plastic or rubber bullets, they use it to quell prison riots and stuff like that — well, these things are going to break windows as well as bones and skin. They were throwing those out higgledy-piggledy.

Well, that makes for an exciting commute.

Kim: It kind of trapped us in downtown. They announced on the news that the mayor wanted everyone to clear the curfew area, which bordered most of downtown. The people that were allowed there were people that had legitimate business, like residents or storeowners, or downtown labor pool, but you can’t identify people that way. It’s an arbitrary thing to enforce.

 Tony GaleGina Mainwal

Ink 19: This is still the first night, and the gig was eventually cancelled?

Krist: Yeah, and I was an advocate of postponing the gig, because there were a lot of people that bought tickets that couldn’t make it downtown, and also at the venue — only about half of the security made it there.

We thought, “Let’s have an alternate show somewhere outside the curfew zone,” and this guy stepped forward and said, “Well, I book the Central Tavern, which is like half a block outside the curfew zone.” So we said, “Perfect, let’s do it!”

So everyone went down to the Central, and it was a magic show, Spearhead played a semi-acoustic show, it was really good. Jello and I did a few things.

Kim: And I was sitting in some bar about ten miles away… Gina, the drummer, she lived east of the area, and I lived north of the area, so we decided that perhaps the people that don’t live in the downtown area should leave. Krist and Jello stayed downtown.

The actual show was postponed until the next day. The curfew was extended through that next day, but we went ahead and played anyway. We were within the curfew zone, playing while the curfew was still in effect. Only about fifty percent of the ticket holders attended — many of them didn’t brave the curfew or the perimeter…

Krist: The Constitutionally dubious no-protest zone.

Kim: So the show did go on as planned. It was about 45 minutes — we threw together the set about three days beforehand. Jello doesn’t live here, so he came up and we rehearsed a total of four or five hours, just to learn the songs and try to get tight with them.

It got to be a bit of a headache with everything that was going on. The four of us were trying to get to work with each other as well as learn the material, and Jello came up and he changed some of it. He sent some tapes and we learned the tapes, then it had to be changed because the material on the tapes wasn’t as Jello had envisioned it. So we had to relearn it. We tried to put it together in as little time as possible, and I think we succeeded.

 Tony GaleKrist Novoselic

Now all through this chaos, the WTO meeting was still going on as planned?

Krist: There was going to be a big opening ceremony, but that was cancelled. The delegates had trouble getting to the convention center — people wouldn’t let them in.

Kim: The police also hassled a number of delegates, they weren’t recognizing or honoring WTO credentials in a number of cases. “I don’t care who you are, you can’t go through here!”

Here’s the creepy thing – the police were all in riot gear, so for the most part they were anonymous. They didn’t have any nametags, no badge numbers, nothing to identify them. They’re anonymous and I think they probably relish their anonymity, and it gave them a little bit more freedom in which they could extend their authority without any repercussions.

Krist: Some cops got busted, like the cops that maced those girls in the car… The police chief resigned, and the mayor’s taking a lot of criticism over it.

I don’t believe you can really point the finger at anybody — it was just one human reaction where some police behaved badly, certain demonstrators behaved badly and no one was really perfect. Everyone focuses on how exciting it is to see riot police shooting off tear gas and rubber bullets, but it was a very heavy day. There must have been fifty to sixty thousand people downtown, and people worked for months organizing that, having teach-ins and marches and demonstrations. Jimmy Hoffa was there, the head of the Steel Worker’s Union — they were marching next to people in sea turtle costumes, environmentalists, and human rights people.

Kim: To a certain degree that was somewhat romantic, as well. Jello pointed out in a couple of his speeches — having the head of the steelworkers union walking side-by-side with someone who might have been referred to as a “tree hugger” by members of their union.

Now, if you read the stated goals of the WTO, they seem to be in favor of freer trade, less restrictions, less governmental influence… why are these such bad things?

Krist: Well, that’s what they say on the surface… I mean, free trade is great, I think it should be encouraged, but someone told me some head of some corporation said the corporation has a right to profit — so I guess human rights and environmental concerns all go down the toilet when you have the right to profit? I think free trade is great, and I’m really encouraged by elections around the world — Taiwan, Mexico, there’s been a real changing of the guard and progressive leadership has been elected, and they rout out a lot of the corruption. A place like Mexico could really benefit from free trade.

Kim: Exactly, the situation in Mexico may have benefited from NAFTA, as a matter of fact.

Krist: Did you know that Mexico has very good environmental and labor laws? It’s just that they’re unenforced. It’s very corrupt.

Kim: The change in Mexico could be attributed to NAFTA, which is sort of like a mini-WTO, freeing up the borders. Because when there isn’t free trade, people ultimately aren’t accountable to anyone else but their jurisdiction, their little protective interests. And Mexico has behaved that way without any accountability to its trading partners. And now perhaps it has to clean up their act in dealing with the US more.

But of course whenever you free up something, you allow liberty in social or economic exchanges, it always benefits the strong. So the big corporations are helped out. It’s great to help out the small people, the subsistence farmers and everything like that, but ultimately, the people who are against the WTO are afraid about is that we’re empowering the already-powerful. We’re giving them freer reign to be exploitative.

So you’re saying if the trade was freer, that social issues could become secondary to corporate issues?

Kim: I think that’s a concern of people who are against the WTO, and I think it’s a legitimate concern; I think that Krist and I were describing aspects of relationships and political relationships which could be benefited by the actions of the WTO or could be damaged by the actions of the WTO. I think that most of what I was just saying was in support of the WTO, I was also pointing out the things that I think are critical of the WTO as well.

Your desire to understand and learn these things is one of the positive outcomes of the WTO meetings and protests here in Seattle. Most people didn’t know about the WTO, what it did and what its objectives were. I think more people know that now and a lot of questions were raised, and Krist and I benefited from it. Jello is really well versed — he keeps himself really well read on these issues. Krist knew something about these issues, and I was a little bit more ignorant.

I understood various economic ideas and political ideas, but I didn’t really know what the WTO’s objectives were, and I think that I benefited from being involved with this, and I’m sure that the general public across the country benefited from watching this on the news. “Gee, maybe I’ll read about this in the newspaper, or ask someone who does know a bit about what’s going on and what the issues are.” Ultimately, the protest served its purpose by raising questions and educating the public as to the issues involved.

Kim, you studied philosophy in school – has this given you a lot of opportunities to be involved in debates and discussions?

Kim: It did, but the objective of any debate or discussion is really to learn something and to explore an idea, have someone present something to you that you may not know or understand. And in any decent conversation, the objective isn’t to be right. A good debate or argument is a tradeoff where both parties benefit from it, but if someone’s just going to be dogmatic and opinionated, then it’s kind of a waste of time for that person to be involved in a debate.

In talking about these issues, do you find a receptive, educated audience, or a dogmatic one?

Kim: I’m sure there’s a but of dogma on both sides. I think certainly that some of the protesters were full of dogma, came with their issues and their platform. If you come with your platform, and spend your time and money, I guess you might as well be inflexible. I don’t think people made the trip to learn new things, they did so to present their interests and concerns.

Krist, you’ve been involved with freedom of speech issues, JAMPAC, working within the system; what would you recommend for people who want to take action or educate themselves, whether on WTO or any other issue?

Krist: It’s always good to vote, first of all. Be an active member of your community; talk to your neighbors and friends about issues that affect your community, and your environment around you.

I don’t work so much with freedom of speech issues, but I do advocate on behalf of the music community here in Seattle and in Washington State, and a lot of times that goes hand in hand — advocacy and fighting for our liberties.

So you’ve localized your activities a little bit?

Krist: Yeah. I like to watch the pundits on TV, as much as I can take; I know a few state legislators, congresspeople and city councilpeople. JAMPAC right now is working on throwing out the teen dance ordinance in Seattle. We’ve been lobbying the city council and the mayor; we’ve been working on this issue for a while.

I guess it just means being engaged. It depends on writing a five-dollar or ten-dollar check to an organization you feel is worthy, that believes in the same things you do. Volunteering, testifying at city council hearings. It’s all really open and transparent, or can be. It depends on the situation, and how much nepotism, cronyism or whatever, but our democracy can work.

Do you see yourself continuing to work within the system? Would you ever run for office, or are you happy doing what you’re doing?

Krist: I’m pretty much happy just doing what I’m doing. That’s a lot of work, running for office, and I’m not interested in building an organization, I’m not interested in a political career, I’m just interested in getting things done.

We’ve been doing that with JAMPAC and really getting some results, influencing policies, and making changes. Washington State was a terrible place in regards to young people’s access to small-scale music events. We’ve been working with the state legislature, the mayor, and the Washington state liquor control board, and now there are more all-ages events where they’re serving alcohol. That had to do with presenting a coherent, straightforward argument, and just stating our case that the music community contributes cultural and economic vitality.

A large section of the Seattle city establishment is anti-teen, they’re a bunch of old fogies, and they don’t see that value of young people going to a place and the magic of live music.

Kim: Not only that, it thwarts the ability of young people in bands, young songwriters and musicians to be able to do their craft. When Soundgarden started, Chris [Cornell] was underage. He had to fill out special permits if we were playing a gig in a bar. During the past twenty years, there have been a number of brilliant bands that have started when they were younger, and these guys have a hard time playing.

I read that the proceeds from this will benefit the Institute for Consumer Responsibility?

Kim: The benefits from the actual show went to that group. The proceeds for the record sales will be distributed as the individuals in the band choose. I know Krist and I will donate all of our checks from the WTO record to charitable organizations of our choice. That hasn’t been decided upon yet, because it’ll be a while before we see any checks…

Have either of you seen the recent video on the Internet of George Bush all drunked up and sarcastic at a friend’s wedding reception?

Krist: No. If he did drugs and drank booze, that’s fine, we’re all human. But when he becomes governor of Texas and passes all this draconian anti-drug legislation — that’s hypocrisy, and that’s what I’m upset about. Where’s his compassionate conservatism? A lot of times people use drugs and alcohol because they’ve had a rough time in life or maybe their families aren’t functioning right. To lock them away in prison is wrong. Where’s the compassion?

As you’ve been testifying in front of Congress and working with political groups, have you found idealistic politicians, or mostly the clichŽd power-hungry type?

Krist: Well, there’s the person and then there’s the politician. I believe that politicians and lawmakers don’t really have to care what people think, they just have to care about what voters think, and there’s a very big stigma about drugs and legalization of drugs right now. I don’t think drugs should be legal at this point, but I do think they should be decriminalized. Like if you’re caught with, maybe an ounce or two of pot, you should just get a ticket. There’s no reason to go through the whole criminal justice system, right? There are stories in the paper today saying if Texas were a country, it would have the highest incarceration per capita of anyplace in the world.

Kim: It’s a way to establish a slave labor pool. Here, there are inmates in Washington State that work for Microsoft; I think they do some packaging, putting boxes together. They make well under the minimum wage and it’s certainly a way to keep a labor population going that gives a break to the labor overhead of large companies.

I think that’s a great example of a state that comes up with goofy legislation that allows them to draw from this labor pool.

Krist: A lot of these legislatures meet for too long. Washington State’s really lucky — it meets for three months the first year, then the second year it only meets for two months. Then they do a lot of busy work and just pass laws that sound good on campaign literature, and that’s what the root of a lot of this censorship is. If you can just bust musician’s butts about their supposedly nasty lyrics, then you can have campaign literature that says you’re doing something about youth violence or teen pregnancy. It’s all a ruse. It doesn’t matter how hideous the legislation is, or if it makes it out of the respective chamber, or even if it’s passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, it’ll just fail in court.

Kim: Then the politicians look well intentioned to the voters, like, “I did this, and I did all this work for this, and look what happened — they shot down my…”

Krist: “Joe Blow has fought against teen pregnancy and teen violence, he’s made your streets safer!” And how did he do it? He just introduced really stupid legislation.

Wrapping up, does it seem odd to you that 45 minutes of a one-off show was documented and you’re still answering questions about it?

Kim: Not really, because it certainly was an important series of events — not just regionally, but across the country and internationally. That is the ultimate positive outcome of this whole project. I don’t think the record sales are going to generate enough income to benefit any charitable organization. I think ultimately the outcome of the protest and the sales of this record are to add to the general edification of the public with regard to the WTO.

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