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WTO Shutdown: "Shut It Down. Didn't We. Don’t Let Them Tell You That It Can’t Be Done."

People say, "Why do you sing political songs?" And I say that’s the wrong question. The correct question is, "Why don’t you sing political songs?"

 It was an actual political victory, and those don’t happen very often. (Photo: Dana Shurholz)

It was an actual political victory, and those don’t happen very often. (Photo: Dana Shurholz)

WTO Shutdown 20-Year Anniversary Series: The Shutdown WTO Organizers History Project and Common Dreams have produced this series of ten people's history accounts and forward-looking lessons from organizers who were in the streets of Seattle in 1999—at the very end of last century. Articles in the series—including archival photos and videos—will be published over ten days to commemorate and reflect on the events that happened 20 years ago this month. Read all the articles in the series here.


As far as I’m concerned no political movement can be called "authentic" without music, theater, poetry, dance, the whole thing. Revolution is not just a mental exercise. For most of my life I have pursued a musical career that carries the details of reality with it. I’ve traveled and lived in places that became the songs I sing. I play acoustic guitar, which makes it easy. You can take it out anywhere, at any time. Music is the landscape, song is the form, and the guitar is the tool.

Before the WTO got to Seattle I had become cynical. I didn’t expect much. That was an obvious mistake on my part, and I should’ve known better. I had a friend from Oakland staying at my house for those days—she was doing a literature table at one of the convergent points downtown. I gave her a ride on Tuesday morning to where she was going to be working. I turned the radio on and they were talking about tear gas and people blocking the intersections and how whole streets were unusable. I dropped her off and immediately went to the Pike Place Market to park my car. I figured they had more to worry about than parking tickets. I crossed First Avenue on Pike Street right into the middle of everything. There was somebody climbing up the face of Nike Town, there was a burning dumpster at 3rd Ave, there was a police line facing off to a line of demonstrators with linked arms, there was an IMC under siege, there was a marching band—absolutely every square foot of the city center was occupied by somebody doing politics. It was the first time I heard the phrase, "This is what democracy looks like," and it made complete sense.

I made up my mind to spend the next three days swimming in over my head, soaking up as much as was humanly possible—mining for songs.

People say, “Why do you sing political songs?” And I say that’s the wrong question. The correct question is, “Why don’t you sing political songs?” Or, “Why don’t you sing more political songs?” Because, as an artist, you not only have the right but the obligation to address the world that you live in. That means all of it—sports, economics, love, war, political scandal, comedy, tragedy, fascism, religion. Everything. If you can talk about it you can sing about it.

So that’s what I did. I tried to be everywhere at once. I wore out my shoes and got no sleep. I was booked to play at the Showbox on Tuesday evening, but Bill Clinton was in town and they had declared a state of emergency. There was a lot of gas outside and the word had gotten around that there was an enforced curfew, so that the venue security people didn’t come to work and the owners were afraid they would lose their license if they went ahead with the show. So the gig was moved to Pioneer Square. The next day I played at a church on 5th Ave, in behind the no-go lines. They had said that nobody was allowed on the streets but I went around anyway, it was porous. I carried my guitar with me everywhere.

I felt fortunate to have been a part of those events, even in the limited capacity that I was. It was an actual political victory, and those don’t happen very often. My main takeaway lesson was that cooperation, variety of tactics, and unity of vision is what leads to success. And most importantly, “direct action gets the goods.” Whoever said that hit the nail right on the head.

AND—don’t let them tell you that it can’t be done.

"Didn’t We" Song

After the WTO events were over I waited a month before writing the song. I wanted to make sure that it was actually as important as it seemed. I monitored the international press—India, the UK, Ireland, Germany, Canada—and read endless commentaries, editorials, and reports. Once I understood that yes, it was a real big deal, then I went to work.

I wanted a song that was a celebration of victory.

The lyric is constructed as a rap. Not like an actual rapper would do it, but like I would. You can speak the words without music and they work. It’s also written like a movie script. It begins with the camera’s eye up in the air, circling over Seattle, laying the groundwork for the opening scene: the way big money pulls the strings, the poison in water and air, how profit is king, and how they don’t like it when you stand up to them but we did it anyway.

Then the camera begins to swoop down around the tops of the buildings, introducing the WTO—it comes to town and the people come to meet it. The police and the National Guard, the activists with their variety of tactics. And the “bombs bursting in air.” The camera is still above street level but closer now, it’s the millennium that everybody was afraid of but it’s different—giant puppets, the unions, and the delegates who can’t get in. Then the camera is at street level, at the police lines - the pepper spray and the handcuffs, the busses and the holding cells, and the unbeatable will of the people who are coming alive.

Then the music comes, soaring with a kind of nobility, giving you time to reflect on all that’s been happening and what it means. And the camera is above ground again, reflecting on things. The media, the politicians, the police chief. Things have changed and there’s no going back. And now the camera goes higher still—even than at the beginning of the song—it’s global now. It’s David and Goliath. It’s changing the world, and it’s taking the inspiration of Seattle and carrying it outward. The music plays out to honor the people who did the deeds of those days. Because we did, didn’t we.

'Didn’t We' Lyrics

By Jim Page

November 30th, ‘99
history walkin’ on a tightrope line
big money pullin’ on invisible strings
gettin’ into everything
so deep, it’s hard to believe
it’s in the food and the water and the air you breath
and the chemistry, the bio-tech
the banker with the bottomless check
the corporations and the CEO’s
and the bottom line is the profit grows
the money talks, you don’t talk back
they don’t like it when you act like that

but didn’t we
shut it down
didn’t we

November 30th, ‘99
it was a Tuesday mornin’ when we drew the line
it was the WTO comin’ to town
and we swore we’re gonna shut it down
and they stood there with their big police
they had the National Guard out to keep the peace
with the guns and the clubs and the chemical gas
but still we would not let them pass
and they raged and roared and their tempers flared
and there were bombs bursting in the daylight air
and they’d run us off, do us in
but we came right back again

yeah, didn’t we
shut it down
didn’t we

November 30th, ‘99
millennium passing as the numbers climb
and the people came from everywhere
there musta been 50 thousand out there
there were farmers, unions, rank and file
every grass roots has it’s own style
there were great big puppets two stories tall
there were drummers drummin’ in the shoppin’ mall
there were so many people that you couldn’t see
how that many people got into the city
and the WTO delegates too
but we were locked down, so they couldn’t get through

yeah, didn’t we
shut it down
didn’t we

November 30th, ‘99
lockdown at the police line
and they’re hittin’ you with everything they got
but you ain’t movin’, like it or not
and they’re tyin’ your wrists with plastic cuffs
and they’re loadin’ you up on a great big bus
and they’re takin’ you down to the navy base
pepper sprayin’ you right in the face
try to break you down, try to get you to kneel
but you got the unity and this is for real
and they can’t break a spirit that’s comin’ alive
that’s the kind of spirit that’s bound survive

didn’t we
shut it down
didn’t we

the media loves on the glitter and flash
and the newspapers talkin’ out a whole lot of trash
about the violence of the people in black
and how the cops were so tired they just had to attack
and the secrets hidden in that deep dark hole
that they call City Hall may never be told
the mayor’s out doin’ the spin
the police chief quit so you can’t ask him
well they can swear to god and all human law
but I was there and I know what I saw
and the visible stains’ll wash away in the rains
but this old town’ll never be the same

‘cause didn’t we
shut it down
didn’t we

it’s the greatest story ever told
David and Goliath, how you be so bold
standin’ up to the giant when the goin’ gets hot
and all you got is a slingshot
well they tell me that the world’s turned upside down
you gotta pick it up and shake it, gotta turn it around
you gotta take it apart to rearrange it
I don’t want to save the world I want to change it
don’t let ‘em tell you that it can’t be done
‘cause they’re gonna be the first ones to run
just take a little lesson from Seattle town
WTO and how we shut it down

yeah, didn’t we
shut it down
didn’t we

Jim Page

Jim Page

Jim Page has recorded 22 albums and toured in 14 countries. His songs have been covered by Christy Moore, Dick Gaughan, Roy Bailey, and The Doobie Brothers. Jim arrived in Seattle, where he now lives, in 1971. When the last folk club closed he took the whole city to be his stage. In 1974, after being threatened with arrest for singing on the street without a permit, Jim took on the Seattle city government to overturn the law and to legalize street performing.  He sang his testimony to a packed council hearing and the streets were opened by unanimous decision. It was a landmark case and Seattle is now an internationally famous city for buskers of all styles. Jim was one of the founders of the Pike Market Performers Guild, Seattle’s first buskers union. As Utah Phillips said, “Jim Page’s songs get right to the point. He looks at the world clearly and reports what he sees with compassion, humor and a biting sense of irony." Website: https://jimpage.net

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