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.
We remember Seattle 1999 in a moment when the world is exploding with people’s uprisings.
Over 170,000 Lebanese people linked hands for miles during massive weeks-long protests that were successful in forcing the prime minister to resign. People in Hong Kong have been demonstrating for months. People in Ecuador, Chile, Iraq, and Haiti are taking to the streets with outrage about price hikes, state violence, unemployment, and cuts to basic services. Senegalese young people removed a president in 2012 and refused to become a political party. Their movement has built deep connections with Congolese young people who are risking their lives and freedom to build movement infrastructure amidst violence and crisis I cannot even begin to imagine. People’s movements are demanding complete overhauls to the current political and economic systems, and they are facing severe and often deadly retaliation.
"What do we build after we win? Governance and infrastructure. That’s the hard part. Imagining and building something beyond the protest."
We are living in a moment when the news cycle is so chaotic we forget to remember that it is was only a few months ago that people in Puerto Rico organized weeks of unprecedented protests. Close to one million people, over a quarter of the total population, flooded the streets and succeeded in forcing out a corrupt governor. The Puerto Ricans’ demands were far beyond one man’s corruption and leaked emails. The significance of the massive uprising is related to its colonial status, the devastation and lack of response to Hurricane Maria, and three years of PROMESA’s U.S.-appointed Fiscal Control Board. And the people are connected to that deeper analysis. While the state and U.S. military reconfigures to squash and minimize the uprising, people’s assemblies across the island are being organized to determine next steps.
What do we need to understand about Seattle 1999 to create strategies today that carve liberatory paths for our people over the next 20 years?
It is imperative to remember, not just to celebrate but to understand what to do next. The victory is not the end of the story. Forcing the removal of a corrupt dictator or president is a huge people’s victory. Surviving the compounded crises of hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and state violence is a necessary win, but survival is not enough. Shutting down the WTO was a significant success and marked a turning point, but turning points imply a longer story. Another kind of work begins the next day. And for the next twenty years.
What do we build after we win? Governance and infrastructure.
That’s the hard part. Imagining and building something beyond the protest. Something that replaces what the corporate-controlled state has dismantled and abandoned.
The crises we face today are growing in scale. They are more frequent, more intense, and more connected. Across the globe, people are naming the crises and calling ruling systems into question. And crumbling systems require violence and militarization to maintain some semblance of the status quo. Black people are expected to recover from constant state-sanctioned murders. Indigenous communities continue to face brutal repression and displacement. Migrants and Muslims face the mechanics of a surveillance state and permanent war built to harden borders, intimidate, and separate. Queer and trans people face new institutional threats to our very existences. Working people don’t have work, healthcare, or education.
The plan for winning has to be baked into the resistance, baked into the organizing, baked into the disaster response. Governance is the power and capacity to make decisions in this context, and infrastructure is made up by the relational, physical, and social systems required to implement those decisions. Mass organizing in the 21st century has to include a notion of what comes next as it relates to governance and infrastructure.
Building governance and infrastructure requires imagination, practice, and forecast.
One thing we need to remember about Seattle is that we made it happen because we imagined we could. Gwen Patton, a veteran SNCC leader in Alabama reminds us, as organizers, that a major component of strong movement-building is a bold vision. The bold vision calls people to action. The vision accompanied by a strong strategic plan is unbeatable.
We wrote and released the broadsheet that made the initial call to Shut Down the WTO. Our vision to create a people’s resistance to stop the ministerial from happening required an understanding about what the WTO was doing and a plan to expose them. It also required the imagination of how we could grow our ranks from 12 to 12,000 and design a plan that actually achieved what we set out to do.
Meanwhile the WTO was drowning from their own lack of imagination, planning, and capacity to make decisions. They admitted before the ministerial even began that they could not agree on an agenda. The WTO was touted as a global institution for decision-making and arbitration that could solve the world’s disputes, and it was faltering before they arrived. We were winning before we shut down one street because we held our radical position and stayed the course of the big vision. We imagined that if we invited people to understand the stakes, they would come out and participate at every level. We imagined that the people had more power than trade ministers, corporate giants, and riot police. We imagined actions with hundreds of people practicing coordinated, decentralized decision-making.
Eventually, our decision-making beat theirs. And that was a huge victory
Aldon Morris talks about the transformation of existing resources into power instruments in Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. How do we strengthen our organizing practices and hack the existing infrastructure to build community-controlled infrastructure based in movement principles?
Churches, mosques, synagogues, YMCAs, community centers: these are models of infrastructure we can reimagine. They offer rhythms of weekly activities, physical hubs that serve as gathering places and resources, general fellowships of belonging, songs that are shared and practiced, and special celebrations spiked with food and prayers and familiarity.
In Seattle we reimagined an old nightclub in the heart of downtown, and it became our training center, meeting space, medic zone, and food hub. We created a rhythm of meeting at a particular time every night regardless of what happened during the day. Because new decisions needed to be made, new plans, new actions. We built a decision-making process and physical infrastructure to hold us through unanticipated days.
We thought we would all be arrested the first day. On November 30th, we won the day, and we gathered at the nightclub space where we had been planning and meeting. The cops had lost control, and they were tear gassing Capitol Hill. I was up in front facilitating the spokescouncil with other organizers, and I remember people kept screaming into the club about the tear gas outside the doors. We knew it was happening, and we had made a decision to get organized for the next day instead of reacting to the chaos. That was a hard decision. But it was the right one
We have a responsibility to imagine and forecast the future. Architects and engineers are responsible for the buildings they create before one brick is laid. We first have to believe that we are building a world. If we accept that challenge, then we have to pay attention to what happened, what is happening, and also what could happen. Part of the organizer’s role is to make constant assessments based on historical trends, patterns in the moment, experiential knowledge, and perspective beyond our immediate realities.
Today, twenty years after the victory in Seattle, we still face the same global institutions that assert power to shape the world. We recognize how they mutate and reconfigure to maintain dominance. We enter 2020 preparing for the crisis of a second term Trump administration OR the ascendance of an established theocrat if Trump is impeached OR the unmitigated racist rage on the ground if either of them are removed. Governance is in crisis across the globe, and we have to assess the landscape correctly to transform this situation.
"We have a responsibility to imagine and forecast the future. Architects and engineers are responsible for the buildings they create before one brick is laid. We first have to believe that we are building a world."
The lessons from Seattle, and many movement moments that followed, should inform our next steps. Forecasts are not about predicting the future but about assessing the conditions in such a way as to best prepare for the future. If we believe we are capable of building, rebuilding, and repurposing the world we need and deserve, then we have to design functional and just visions of governance and infrastructure. We know what happens before, during, and after crisis moments – including disasters, financial collapses, and social uprisings – so let’s plan for what happens after the crisis, beforehand.
Rather than allow our people, land, and institutions to be exploited and gutted during chaos, we can create people’s reconstruction plans for what happens after flooding, wildfires, housing disasters, bank defaults, housing crises, and state violence. We can take over abandoned buildings; lay claim to land and food sources; develop initiatives to ensure that displaced people can still participate in political decision-making. We can eliminate citizenship and gender requirements for services, shelter, and safety. We can grow grassroots-based governance through movement assemblies and democratic practices on the ground. We can rely on the infrastructures we built before the crisis to hold us through to the next.
We can build the governance and infrastructure we need.
If we are truly in this for the long haul, there is no game that will be called with a neat whistle and bright scoreboard. We do not always win by defeating the other team. To gain ground and power is to gain more responsibility. To govern ourselves will be full-time, participatory, and difficult. We will need to learn so many things. To work together is only one hard lesson. To share. To forgive. To grow food. To speak other languages. To access water sources. To design new arrangements. Our mandate for the next twenty years ago is to grow our faith in our collective power to shape the world.
Being part of the organizing in Seattle twenty years ago instilled a faith in me about what we are capable of at every level. I witnessed our power, our courage, and our creativity. Mistakes and missteps that we made are guiding lights not condemnations, and I carry the lessons of 1999 in my body, mind, and spirit. I am still an organizer, and I work with people in frontline communities to practice movement governance and grow movement infrastructure that fulfills the vision of all the movements that came before us.
Like young people chant in the streets today, I believe that we will win.