From the outside, a big protest is intimidating. There's a crowd of angry people. They are beating drums, chanting, demanding change and attention -- and they're willing to fight for a cause. In fact, they look ready for confrontation. If you were watching TV in 1999 during the World Trade Organization meeting, that's what you saw in Seattle. Images of broken windows, pepper spray, tear-gas and fighting in the streets.
But Erik Davis was inside that crowd. And he saw something completely different:
"It was wonderful!" Davis gushes. "It was a broad sea of humanity! Old people, young people, black people, white people, Hispanics, Asians . . . And then come the cops."
He didn't plan to protest against the World Trade Organization. He wasn't worried about outsourced jobs or trade deals that hurt developing countries. He was just watching the marches on TV like everyone else in Seattle when the protests suddenly spilled into his neighborhood. He went outside to see what was going on, only to find the riot squad closing in on the protesters.
"The bad guys in black were coming at us." says Davis. "The more the protesters didn't go home the more the people from the neighborhood joined them saying these people don't have to go home. And besides this is our neighborhood what are you doing here?"
Suddenly, the crowd of strangers became his allies. He and his neighbors banded together with the protesters to hold their own against the cops.
He says the old chant of "Whose streets? Our streets!" really took on meaning for him.
From that day on, he was hooked. He was caught by the thrill, the camaraderie and adrenaline of protesting. Now he's a union advocate and a regular at marches.
For most of us, protests seem like an occasional affair. Tens of thousands of people march in Washington DC and then it's back to business as usual. But for serious activists, protests fill up the calendar; not just attending them but planning them, discussing them and even celebrating them.
At Mayday Books in Minneapolis recently, activists gathered to watch a video from a demonstration they held weeks earlier. In the video they block a major street to protest the U.S. presence in Iraq.
The highlight of the video was when several of the protesters were arrested.
Protest videos are really popular among a certain set of people. In fact, they get passed around among activists nationwide -- partly to learn from victories and mistakes, and partly for pure inspiration. The Seattle WTO protest is considered the most successful demonstration in recent history, so videos about it are regularly shown at group meetings to drum up enthusiasm.
Some activists call this sort of video protest porn. Like porn, it's visceral, exciting, it gets your blood pumping. It's full of action shots, raw footage and hard-core, uncensored civil disobedience.
Martin Hoerth agrees that there is a huge rush to standing up for what you believe in, but he likes to put it in more family friendly terms.
"You're rooting for your home team and our team is the theoretical concept that the war should stop." Hoerth explains. "It's something you believe in."
A good protest gives people a sense of clarity that's hard to come by in everyday life. You know what you're fighting for and what you're fighting against; change versus the status quo, people versus oppression, protesters versus the cops.
According to protester Ahn Pham, "It's a high."
You could say Ahn is addicted. She's already preparing for the next big protest. So are thousands of others across the country who are part of the protest culture. They're hoping to recapture the spirit of the 1999 Seattle protests. This time, their target is St. Paul, MN and the 2008 Republican National Convention.
"The Republicans think they can come here unchallenged," says Pham.
But activists will be ready. The convention is a year and a half away and plans are already bubbling on message boards, in meeting rooms and at rallies across the U.S. It's not about getting the Republicans to change their stripes. Pham and others know that's being too optimistic. But that's not the point either. The point, for them, is just to stand up and say, "No!" to everything the Republicans represent. But if things turn out like they hope, maybe St. Paul will be the rallying cry for the next generation of protesters.