Shutting Down the WTO and Opening Up a World of Possibilities The people, quite simply, spoke. A wide fusion of radical environmentalists, labor activists, human rights advocates, and social justice workers made the WTO listen when for five years it had adamantly refused. The terms of the free trade debate have forever been changed; no amount of tear gas or police harassment of demonstrators after the fact changed the bottom line. For one day, a ragtag army of nonviolent global citizens spoke ? and the world listened. ? Seattle Weekly 12.02.99.
I had been standing, arms linked, with members of my affinity group by my side in a street blockade for several hours on Tuesday afternoon, when word was passed along that all WTO meetings for the day had been canceled.
The day had started early ? 5:30am ? my affinity group joined thousands of people at the park to begin actions that truly felt historic. The Longshore workers had shut down the ports up and down the West Coast. Actions against global capital were taking place in dozens of countries on every continent. And we were going to try and shut down the WTO.
We were part of the Cowborg cluster ? clusters of affinity groups had been formed to take specific actions to use non-violent direct action to shut down the WTO. The city had been divided up into 13 wedges ? pieces of pie (named from A-M) and ours was Key Lime. The Cowborg cluster was one of several clusters in our wedge alone. There were hundreds of affinity groups and dozens of clusters, organizing on such a scale that I had never before participated in, the excitement was intoxicating.
The cowborg cluster had a large cow puppet with BGH (Bovine Growth Hormone) written on its side representing the grotesque use of hormones and chemicals in factory farming. We were to take an intersection and a dozen people would lock-down while 30-40 of us would protect them with our bodies and hold the intersection as long as we could to help tie up downtown and prevent any movement into the convention center where the WTO ceremonies were to begin. We marched with thousands into the downtown and then moved to our location. We took our intersection and within minutes we could see other intersections occupied as well. Communications people on bicycles zoomed by announcing which intersections had been taken ? the hotels are surrounded, clusters are taking their sections everywhere, the police are disoriented and can?t keep up with us ? we were told.
We danced, we chanted, we sang, we celebrated. A street party had begun several blocks up from us. I went to check it out and soon found myself helping blockade the delegates from China. An organizer began speaking to the delegates in Chinese and there in the street, international talks were taking place between grass-roots activists and representatives from nations around the world about human rights, social and environmental justice. The cowborg cluster ? recognizing our utter (no pun intended) success left our intersection and marched triumphantly around downtown joining other blockades and street parties. Downtown was ours ? everywhere you looked, the beautiful faces of activists realizing their dreams shined brightly.
The first announcement came ? the morning sessions had been canceled, the opening ceremonies were off.
I could hardly believe it ? we shut down the WTO! We hugged each other, we shouted, we cheered. One of the most powerful organizations on the planet had been brought to a standstill.
We rested and then returned to the blockades for the afternoon. Groups of activists were everywhere holding intersections. We joined a blockade and stood in solidarity with thousands of other activists working to keep the WTO shut down and then again the messages came that the entire day had been canceled ? shortly thereafter we heard the concussion grenades and saw the tear gas.
A group of hundreds several blocks down from us were being fired upon with rubber bullets and tear gas. What I saw would continue and get worse. The police were relentless. The defenders of power and privilege had to punish us for what we had accomplished. The next few days were consumed in marches, blockades as well as military action by the police. A state of emergency was declared by the Mayor, the national guard was called in, a curfew was put into effect, a no protest zone was created around downtown and the tear gas was flying everywhere, the pepper spray was indiscriminate, the sound of the concussion grenades and helicopters flying above was a constant ? echoing in my mind long after they stopped.
We marched on Wednesday with the Steelworkers and thousands of unionists ? alongside grassroots activists from all over the world, organizing around multiple issues and standing in solidarity with one another as a broad movement. We were fired upon by the police and my affinity group was engulfed by tear gas. As we tried to get out of there, I looked back and saw a comrade from our affinity group buckled over on the street completely surrounded by tear gas. We carried each other out of there, each of us in a different state of trauma and pain. We regrouped and made decisions ? as we had been throughout all of the actions and police madness ? as an affinity group using consensus process (we were not unique in doing this).
Being tear gassed in the streets with thousands of amazing activists brought so many emotions to the forefront ? anger and profound sadness seeing people you love squirting lemons in their eyes to get the pain of tear gas out, tears running down their face, an undeniable sense of solidarity with everyone who is struggling in the streets to resist corporate tyranny and standing up to state violence.
As a movement of people we were unstoppable. The lock-downs, the blockades, the marches, the organizing continued until finally the WTO ended in total disarray ? the negotiators of corporate power and profit oriented policy were left bankrupt by a movement of people who represented a radical coalition of activists who came from around the world and mounted an unprecedented campaign of non-violent resistance. on organizing
People were amazingly well organized. Every night there was a spokescouncil meeting where all of the affinity groups sent a spokesperson to discuss and agree on strategy for the next day.
Affinity groups are anywhere from 4-20 people and are generally formed because everyone shares something that brings them together ? common politics, common activism, common identity (queer, women of color, transgendered, anti-racist white folks, etc.). My affinity group was made up mostly of Food Not Bombers from San Francisco. Each affinity group chooses a spokesperson to go to the spokescouncil meetings. Our affinity group tried to rotate this position. These spokescouncil meetings and others that took place regularly were excellent examples of what we can do ? of how we can operate as a strong yet decentralized movement that can come together in massive numbers and still operate as small groups. The organizing demonstrated how effective it is to operate under the principle that we are all leaders, we are all organizers, we are all participants in this struggle.
The actions were creative, the jail solidarity was brilliant. Work groups were formed to do jail support, media, first aid and a lot of other important work. These work groups operated well and allowed people to focus, share common work and utilize skills and resources effectively.
Furthermore, it must be remembered that actions against imperialist globalization and corporate tyranny took place all over the world on November 30th ? in the Philippines, England, Italy, Switzerland, India, Australia, South Africa, and beyond. The organizing model utilized ? the Global Day of Action ? helps develop international solidarity and a decentralized global movement connecting many different issues impacting many different communities. on anarchist involvement
While the media obsessed over anarchists who destroyed property ? the real story was that anarchists were simply everywhere doing a hundred different things. Anarchists were doing jail support, media work, making meals for thousands, doing dishes, facilitating strategy meetings, leading workshops and discussion groups. Anarchists were doing medical support work, security at the warehouse space, communications between affinity groups and clusters, organizing marches and blockades and lock downs and tripod sits and forming human chains. Anarchists were making puppets, banners, signs, leaflets, press releases, stickers, and costumes (like the lovable sea turtles). Anarchists were starting chants, designing posters and newspapers, playing music, negotiating with the police and jailers to get our comrades out of jail. Anarchists were squatters occupying an empty building and attracting national media to the issues of property, poverty and homelessness. Anarchists were held in solitary confinement for being such effective organizers of mass non-violent civil disobedience that rocked Seattle and ignited the imaginations of the world. Anarchists organized child care!!! And yes anarchists targeted corporate chainstores. Simply put, anarchists significantly contributed to one of the most effective mass actions in recent US history.
on property and resistance
As a movement we need to think critically about how our actions and our messages get interpreted by the rest of society. Some of the people who engaged in property destruction were very clear and left messages ?anti-sweatshop? that were easily understandable ? however, there were also people who genuinely looked like they were just lashing out randomly and thoughtlessly (which might be justifiable, but not necessarily effective in making social change).
However ? as a movement we also need to recognize the difference between property destruction and violence. I remember watching ? years ago ? thousands of people hammering away at the Berlin Wall that stood as such an obvious symbol of political oppression. I did not once think that those who were smashing the wall were violent. It was a jubilant and inspiring moment. Nor do I think that those who were toppling statues of Stalin in Eastern Europe are violent. Again another obvious symbol of oppression. In the United States, under corporate capitalism, the symbols of oppression are the golden arches of McDonalds and other corporate stores that are destroying the planet and amassing enormous power at our expense. While we need to think strategically about our tactics and be open to debate and dialogue, we also need to put things into perspective. While I advocate non-violent direct action, I understand where others are coming from and hope that we can discuss these issues as a movement that is diverse and vibrant.
The issue of violence is squarely upon the state as it attacked protesters and people in the neighborhoods and demonstrated an uncompromising willingness to aggressively assault non-violent demonstrators.
Seattle was truly amazing and it was made possible because of all of the organizing that we do day-to-day, the often unglamorous work that makes social change happen. Our ideas of what is possible have been greatly expanded. I have heard many people say that it will take them a while to process all that has happened, and I feel the same way. Hopefully we can share our ideas and think hard about what we did and what we can do so that our movement will grow. We need to think critically about how we, as organizers and activists, communicate our messages to the broader society. How can we speak radical politics in a way that will not only be understood, but will be appealing to vast numbers of people who are negatively impacted by global capital? There is another question that we must all think about: how to develop an anti-racist, multiracial movement against global capitalism.
Since the days of resistance in Seattle there has been a growing discussion about race and the fact that activists in Seattle ? especially with DAN, were predominantly white. An anti-racist analysis of imperialist globalization must include how global capitalism not only impacts people of color in other countries, particularly in the global south, but also in the United States. An understanding of global economics and anti-capitalist politics must be connected to an analysis of white supremacy and patriarchy. The movement in Seattle was truly amazing and now anarchists must seriously think about anti-racist, multiracial, feminist organizing that connects the issues and builds broad coalitions and alliances.
The struggle against global capital opens up enormous possibilities for us to organize for global economic and social justice.