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Seattle WTO Shutdown 9 Year Anniversary: 5 Lessons for Today

What lessons can we learn from the shutdown of the 1999 WTO Ministerial in Seattle 9 years ago today and from the last decade and a half of global justice organizing as we face today's major crises under an Obama Administration? This was the question a group of organizers from different parts of the last decades of global justice organizing responded to last week at a forum in New York City put together by Deep Dish TV, an independent video/media pioneer. Here are my thoughts.

Nine years ago today: Tens of thousands of people from across the US and around the world rose up against the WTO's meeting in Seattle, as movements demonstrated across the planet, we shut down the WTO with mass nonviolent direct action and sustained street resistance all week in the face of martial law, police and national guard violence, arrests, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. By the end of the week, the poorer countries' government representatives, emboldened by the street protests and under pressure from movements at home, refused to go along and the talks collapsed.

Nearly 15 years ago: On January 1, 1994, people of Chiapas- calling themselves Zapatistas-rose up against the prototype free trade agreement, NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement).

Nearly 14 years ago: Exactly one year later, January 1, 1995, the World Trade Organization (WTO)-a brainchild of the annual ruling class World Economic Forum- was officially launched from out of the post-WWII General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT).

Four months ago: Last July, 2008, the WTO collapsed again, very likely for good. It was a desperate attempt to revive the WTO, using the pretense of the global food crisis in an effort to intensify the very policies that had caused widespread hunger and food riots around the world in the first place. Longtime global justice organizer Deborah James wrote, "When the history of the seismic shifts occurring today in the global economy is written, the failure in July 2008 of corporate interests and some governments to expand the World Trade Organization (WTO) through the Doha Round will stand as a watershed moment."

James explained, "It was in this lakeside town where negotiators threw in the towel on their seven fruitless years of trying to expand a particular, corporate-driven set of policies, to which the majority of governments have said 'no' time and time again (in Seattle in 1999, Mexico in 2003, and Geneva in 2006). WTO Director General Pascal Lamy attempted a last-minute push to conclude a Doha deal by calling for an exclusive, invitation-only mini-Ministerial of around 30 of the WTO's 153 members in Geneva."

In fact, the WTO had become so unworkable in recent years, it had blown off its 2007 Ministerial meeting which its own constitution requires it to hold every two years. The WTO now remains in a near-death coma-a tribute to the power of social movements around the world. But the global elites refuse to let go of their dream of the WTO as a vehicle to control the global economy...

Two weeks ago: The G20 (Group of 20) meeting of finance ministers from 20 top economies met in Washington DC November 14th to 15th in the wake of the US-led economic collapse. Again, they used the economic crisis to issue a statement that included, "we shall strive to reach agreement this year on modalities that leads to a successful conclusion to the WTO's Doha Development Agenda."

We face a series of major crises-financial meltdown (the financial institutions- hardwired to be unaccountable, anti-democratic- need to be destroyed, but the real crisis is the human and environmental suffering), climate change, and war (the US-led military empire with bases across the planet and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). What was said in the streets of Seattle 9 years ago-"casino economy," "house of cards," "doomsday economy"-  has proven ever more true in recent months. The Direct Action Network wrote 9 years ago, "Their new strategy to concentrate power and wealth, while neutralizing people's resistance, is called 'economic globalization' and 'free trade.' But these words just disguise the poverty, misery and ecological destruction of this system."

Soon we will be organizing under a popular Obama Administration. Obama and his campaign captured people's hopes and desires for a better country and world, and tens of thousands of people self-organized outside of the well-orchestrated Obama campaign. His election seems to lifted off the sense of despair that has grown since the repressive war-making aftermath of September 11th, 2001, and the following invasion of Iraq and Bush re-election. This is good for organizing- people step up out of hope, not despair. It has also left many of us radicals, revolutionaries and anti-authoritarians, who have a deep critique of Democrats, political parties, and politicians, conflicted or confused. Whether this becomes a new space for real positive changes or an era in which movements and resistance get co-opted depends on whether and how we organize- and perhaps if we learn key lessons from past global justice (and other) organizing and also understand how Obama's campaign (and the self-organized independent efforts for Obama) communicated, organized and inspired.

Here are five of my own lessons, reflecting on the Seattle WTO shutdown and global justice organizing 9 years ago.

We can't afford to just fight the numerous symptoms of the system or organize around single issues. We need to constantly articulate the systemic root causes of of those symptoms. The WTO and corporate globalization provided a clear anti-systemic framework for a movement of movements around the world to converge, take action and understand ourselves as a global counter-power standing up to global corporate capitalism.

The 100,000 color postcards and broadsheets that invited people to "Come to Seattle" each read: "Increasing poverty and cuts in social services while the rich get richer; low wages, sweatshops, meaningless jobs, and more prisons; deforestation, gridlocked cities and global warming; genetic engineering, gentrification and war: Despite the apparent diversity of these social and ecological troubles, their roots are the same-a global economic system based on the exploitation of people and the planet. A new world is possible and a global movement of resistance is rising to make it happen. Imagine replacing the existing social order with a just, free and ecological order based on mutual aid and voluntary cooperation."

In the wake of Seattle, many used the concept of a single "movement" focused on the "issue" of corporate globalization to limit and contain the many varied movements that fight against the system of corporate globalization. This frame of a single movement is most often used by corporate media, but also by left writers, usually to contain and marginalize and to write articles declaring it dead every so often.

There is actually no global justice movement. "Global justice" instead is a common space of convergence-a framework where everyone who fights against the system we call corporate globalization (or capitalism, empire, imperialism, neoliberalism, etc) and its impacts on our communities can make common cause and make our efforts cumulative. This anti-systemic framework helps diverse groups and movements to come together for mobilizations or to support each other. This is the movement of movements that fights for global justice, often winning, and has become stronger over the last nine years.

Strategy trainer Patrick Reinsborough writes in his essay, Post-Issue Activism, that the crises call for "a dramatic divergence from the slow progression of single-issue politics, narrow constituencies and band-aid solutions. Too often the framework of issue-based struggle needs to affirm the existing system in order to win concessions and thus fails to nurture the evolution of more systemic movements."


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In the aftermath of Seattle, many globally-focused activists anchored their organizing in local struggles against the impact of the global system (like workers, environmental justice, anti-privatization fights) and local organizers re-framed their struggles within their bigger global context (anti-corporate or corporate globalization), allowing our various efforts to be complementary and cumulative rather than competitive or unrelated.

When we shut down the WTO in Seattle (or the the San Francisco Financial District the morning after the US invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003) we had a clear strategy framework for that one city for that one day. Key elements that made the strategy framework work were: * A Clear What and Why Logic: We wrote at the time, "The World Trade Organization has no right to make undemocratic, unaccountable, destructive decisions about our lives, our communities and the earth. We will nonviolently and creatively block them from meeting." * Mass Organization and Mass Training: hundreds were directly involved in coordination and making decisions, and thousands participated in trainings to prepare. * Widely Publicized: Both movement folks and the public knew what we had planned, when and where, allowing for thousands to join. * Decentralization: Everyone involved in organizing understood the strategy, groups were self-organized and self-reliant, and the action allowed for a wide range of groups to take action in their own way.

As movements, can we develop strategy frameworks for our region, nationally or internationally, not just for one day but over time?

Most who shut down the WTO in Seattle were involved in local groups and campaigns, but some who only participated in big actions and mobilizations and saw that as the movement were lost when mobilizations became less frequent or movements switched to other tactics. Organizing for one-time actions or mobilizations or repeating our favorite or most familiar tactic  (marches, conferences, direct action, educational events, etc) without ongoing campaigns that have clear long-term goals as well as short term, winnable, along-the-way-milestone goals can lead to burnout and does not build long-term movements to make change.

This is essential as we push (or "give cover" to, depending on your analysis) Obama to bring our troops home from Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the planet and stand up corporations and their economic system driving the crisis. With Obama in office, the cutting edge of organizing for change is to clearly define and publicize very understandable goals. For example, it is not enough to say "end the war," which Obama also says, but to clearly define what ending the war means (such as troop removal by the 16-month deadline he committed to in his campaign, bring ALL troops AND private contractors home, close all bases and stop pushing for the corporate invasion of Iraq, as in the case of oil corporations and the US government) scheming to control Iraq's oil).

People directly asserting their power can win changes and shift the underlying power relationships; from the WTO shutdown, to its near death last summer, to anti-corporate victories like the Coalition of Imokalee Farm Workers recent victory over Burger King, or the Water Wars in which Bolivia's movements drove out multinational corporation Bechtel, who had privatized their water. This means also creating directly democratic, participatory organizations and asserting our power from below to force changes or remove those who have taken power from above if they refuse to make needed changes.

If movements don't articulate their own people power-based strategies to achieve changes, our movements will be demobilized every two or four years as people get drawn into the official, established channels for change, national elections. We saw this in 2004, when, lacking a viable well-publicized strategy framework to stop the Iraq war, many people instead worked to un-elect Bush. Whatever ones belief about elections or parties or politicians is, most would agree that it is always independent movements who force (or support) politicians into making positive changes either in conjunction with or in place of elections.

Nobody knows exactly how to change things. New forms of resistance, communication and organizing from experimentation have been key to the successes of the global justice movements. Alternately, when we repeat a tactic or rhetoric that worked once or fetishize and build our identity out of a a certain tactic (like parading giant puppets, reclaiming street parties, black bloc, vigils or Seattle-style shutdowns), they not only can be more easily repressed or co-opted, but the system can inoculate the people against them. Our actions are experiments in a laboratory of resistance. The value of any experiment is when we analyze and reflect together on what worked and what did not and why. Creating a culture of creativity, reflection and analysis is key.

The world is made of stories, and our battles for social change are battles of competing stories. Out actions can be our most powerful storytelling, like the Zapatista uprising, the Seattle Shutdown, or the Feb. 15, 2003, global antiwar protest of millions everywhere. The system fights back by trying to take control of the meaning of our stories and by telling its own stories, like the post-September 11 War on Terror. We need to be able become powerful storytellers, to fight and win control of the meaning of our stories. Many of us have been giving "Battle of the Story" storytelling skills trainings developed by to be able to better fight and win stories and have fun and keep engaged in the process.

My sister Rebecca Solnit wrote in her essay in the soon-to-be published booklet The Battle of the Story of the Battle in Seattle: "Official history is an accretion of acceptable versions. Before those arise there are great ruptures when the world actually changes and no one yet is in control of the meaning of what has happened or what kind of a future it will lead to. In these great pauses, much is possible, including a change of mind on a broad scale. November 30, 1999 was one of those ruptures. Before Seattle, the WTO had seemed indestructible, its agenda of taking over the world and creating the most powerful monolithic institution in history inevitable. What happened in Seattle mattered."

Since then corporate media, cops and even a movie actor-turned-director have tried to assert control of the meaning of November 30th, 1999. That's why we who are part of that history need to become historians and tell our own people's history, because what people think happened in Seattle shapes what we think about capitalism, resistance and repression. It matters. That's why a small group of us Seattle WTO shutdown organizers set up the Seattle WTO People's History Project website,, and have invited people who were there to tell their stories, and invite everyone to read them.

Next November 30th will be the ten-year anniversary of the shutdown of the WTO. As I write this, a global network of climate justice groups is meeting in Poznan, Poland, to organize around their call for mass global direct action next year against the root causes of and false solutions to climate change. The call reads in part: "On November 30, 2009, exactly ten years after the historic WTO shutdown in Seattle, world leaders will come to Copenhagen for the UN (CAPS) Climate Conference. This will be the most important summit on climate change ever to have taken place, but there is no indication that this meeting will produce anything more than a green-washed blueprint for corporate control of the world. We have to take direct action against the root causes of climate change during the Copenhagen talks."

David Solnit organized with the Direct Action Network in Seattle in '99 and currently organizes with Courage to Resist supporting GI resistance. He edited Globalize Liberation and has co-written/edited with Rebecca Solnit the forthcoming book The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle (AK Press).

For the Copenhagen 2009 call for action:

Seattle WTO People's History Project encourages everyone to enjoy or post people's history at:

David Solnit

David Solnit

David Solnit is an arts organizer with the Climate Justice Street Mural Project and co-author of "Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World," and co-author of "The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle."

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