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.
“…two projects of globalization are in dispute. The one from above globalizes conformity, cynicism, stupidity, war, destruction, death and amnesia. And the one from below globalizes rebellion, hope, creativity, intelligence, imagination, life, memory and building a world where many worlds fit.”
-Subcomandante Marcos, during the 2003 WTO Ministerial in Cancun, Mexico
I just spent a good few days with old and new friends in Seattle, reflecting back 20 years since we all shutdown the WTO, and looking forward in this moment of global uprising against economic and political injustice. Over the fall I reconnected with a few other core organizers from the Direct Action Network—the network of local groups that organized the shutdown of the WTO 20 years ago. We put together the Shutdown WTO Organizers History Project and did some writing, talking and thinking together.
Here are a few things about the organizing we did that seem important and I carry with me as I organize into the coming 20 years:
1) Globalization from Below
2) Jail Solidarity
3) Grassroots (vs Nonprofit) Leadership
4) Effective Mass Action Requires Organizing and Strategy.
5) Indymedia: Interrupting the Corporate Media Narrative
6) Art is a Hammer
1) GLOBALIZATION FROM BELOW
We were “globalizing from below”-- connected to, working with and mutually aiding movements across the globe. When we shut down the WTO in Seattle, movements on every continent were taking action with us, and when hundreds were in jail for five days, solidarity actions took place from Mexico to India. On Nov 30, 1999 in India thousands of farmers in Karnataka marched to Bangalore and over a thousand villagers from Anja (Narmada Valley) held a procession. Thousands took to the streets in the Philippines, Pakistan, France, UK, Portugal, across Europe, the United States and Canada. In 80 different French cities, 75,000 people took to the streets and 800 miners clashed with police.
We were part of the People’s Global Action network, which came out of a series of Zapatista-initiated “Encuentro"gatherings. We used the phrase, “Our resistance will be as transnational as capital.”
Here’s some backstory:
NAFTA: 5 years before we shut down the WTO, on January 1, 1994 NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) was imposed on the people of Canada, the US and Mexico. NAFTA was a kind of template for corporate globalization – or corporate rule – treaties to come and the WTO. Public Citizens’ “NAFTA at 20"report is headlined, “One Million U.S. Jobs Lost, Mass Displacement and Instability in Mexico, Record Income Inequality, Scores of Corporate Attacks on Environmental and Health Laws”
ZAPATISTAS: Also on Jan 1, 1994 the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or EZLN) rose up in the indigenous communities of Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas (after ten years of organization/movement building). They declared NAFTA “a death sentence for the indigenous people of Mexico"and took over 14 towns on the first day that NAFTA went into effect, January 1, 1994.
WTO: 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). The WTO was a bold new globalization-from-above scheme by corporations and wealthy governments–the global 1%–to remove any local or national regulations or limitations, turning every corner of the world into their giant sweatshop, Walmart, and speculative capitalist casino.
PGA: The “Peoples Global Action (PGA)” network came out of the Zapatista-initiated series of “Encuentros,"(encounters) held first in Chiapas and then across the planet. This network coordinated resistance against the WTO and “free trade"globalization treaties and institutions. It was this network that began to mobilize worldwide resistance to the WTO and the G8 in 1998 and 1999 with unprecedented global days of action and coordinated street parties. Dave Bleakney of the Candian Union of Postal Workers and another delegate with the Direct Action Network that had formed over the summer began to mobilize for a mass direct action shutdown of the WTO. They went to the PGA coordinating meeting in Bangalore, India in August of 1999 to coordinate the next day of global action around the Seattle WTO. We received the support of PGA for the WTO shutdown mobilization, the “Resist the WTO Roadshow”, and the 10 Day Convergence in Seattle.
New York City activists organized a re-painted school bus and a caravan full of PGA activists from across the globe to reach out to communities across the US as they drove to the WTO in Seattle.
“The WTO protests were the Chiapas insurrection come to [North] America. Like the Zapatista netwar, the conflict was one of civil society networks versus markets."wrote Paul de Armand in Black Flag Over Seattle, his analysis of the 1999 direct action street confrontations and network organizing in Seattle.
2) JAIL & COURT SOLIDARITY
The planning and preparation to use Jail and Court Solidarity by those arrested in Seattle paid off; it continued the pressure and public attention through the week, extending our mass action inside and outside the jail. It was this pressure, attention, and continued street actions that provided the context in which the Global South countries stood up to the rich countries and walked out, leading to the collapse and failure of the WTO Summit.
The second day of the WTO, Wednesday, December 1, hundreds were surrounded and arrested while demonstrating in downtown Seattle. We used our solidarity and pressure of hundreds occupying the space outside the jail to negotiate a mass release of 600 arrestees who had remained in jail on Sunday Dec 5. Ater our release we continued our solidarity pressure in the courts, demanding speedy trials. THose fo us from Seattle Direct Action Network and the Direct Action Network legal team worked for months to make sure everyone was supported and we continued to mobilize around court dates and publicly push against the city for trampling our rights and attacking our folks. Of 600 arrested together, most of their charges were dropped. Only five went to trial and only one was found guilty, sentenced to community service and a small fine.
We were prepared and had a plan: we would use jail solidarity--a tactic to use our collective action to take care of each other and assert our power in jail and court. This had been used powerfully in past anti-nuclear, Central America solidarity and other movements. (Mass disobedience and jail noncooperation was also used by the Industrial Workers of the World in 1908 Spokane, Washington fight against anti-free speech laws that tried to stifle worker organizing against “job agents"ripping off workers)
Hundreds had been part of legal and jail solidarity trainings, we had a comprehensive section on it in our action handbook that explained how it worked and we had agreed on a plan if arrested; don’t bring ID and refuse to give identifying information. The power of solidarity relies on three things: in mass arrest action authorities need our cooperation to process us (giving names, walking, etc), Jails are already full and it cost a lot of money to hold large numbers for many days, and remaining in jail can keep the action in the public and mobilize movement and community support and pressure.To work well it requires planning, preparation, and a legal team that understands and supports it—and as many as possible of those risking arrest agreeing on common demands and tactics.
Longtime direct action organizer and movement attorney Katya Komisaruk led the formation of a legal team to support jail solidarity and led a training team to prepare people. She wrote this summary of the use of solidarity during the WTO in Seattle:
Arrests: Approximately 600 people were arrested over two days of demonstrations in opposition to the World Trade Organization Conference, in November 1999.
Primary Tactics: The vast majority of people refused to give their names and remained in custody for 4 to 5 days, while thousands of supporters surrounded the jail. Although negotiations were initiated, the prosecutor never made any realistic offers. So the activists left jail and moved the struggle to the courts. They pleaded not guilty, insisting on speedy jury trials and court-appointed counsel.
Outcome: Only 7% of the activists took deals (diversion, dispositional continuance, guilty plea). As the 90-day window for holding speedy trials narrowed, 92% of the cases were dropped. In the last few weeks before the statutory limit, the prosecution chose six cases to bring to trial. Five of these defendants were acquitted or dismissed. The only activist who was convicted was sentenced to community service and a small fine.
Comments: A large proportion of the defendants were not expecting to be arrested and had not made arrangements to leave work or school for any length of time. This limited their ability to stay in jail. Realizing that many would soon have to go home, they chose to leave custody all together, rather than dwindle away. They then focused on exerting pressure on the court system, which proved highly successful.
3) GRASSROOTS (VS NONPROFIT) LEADERSHIP
The Direct Action Network formed from a network of Art and Revolution street theater collectives and groups of radical student and community organizers up and down the West Coast. We were largely unpaid student and community activists and organizers. Volunteer-led groups do well at creating spaces that other ordinary folks feel welcome to join, which does not always happen with professional non-profit staff-led groups.
We in Direct Action Network (DAN) knew we needed to build alliances and scale up to have enough people power to impact the WTO. Before we reached out to a few key nonprofits that could help bring people, skills and capacity, we first organized ourselves, creating a network with organizing hubs up and down the West Coast. We then agreed to a basic framework to reflect our values of non-hierchical organizing and directly democratic decision making: the action would be organized by affinity groups, coordinated by spokescouncils, and we would plan for jail solidarity. These were some basic organizing models that came out of a series of mass direct action movements going back to the ‘70’s—anti-nuclear, Central America solidarity, etc.
This is in contrast to many nonprofits who typically have a more top-down, action coordinator approach to actions and organizing. We invited nonprofit groups—who were already planning to mobilize folks to the WTO, but did not have a plan. To their credit, a number of nonprofit groups did have the courage to co-sponsor a mass shutdown action, including Global Exchange, Rainforest Action Network and the Ruckus Society.
Though not without some tensions and problems as nonprofit staff merged into the Direct Action Network planning, the nonprofits respected and followed our framework and leadership. At the same time, the Direct Action Network was mobilizing hundreds of grassroots community members in the Seattle, up and down the Western US and Canada and across the country, and getting people to self-organize into affinity groups.
4) EFFECTIVE MASS DIRECT ACTION REQUIRES STRATEGY & ORGANIZING
Several years after the Seattle actions, a group of us calling ourselves the People Powered Strategy Project reflected on the key elements that made the one-day mass urban action and week of struggle in Seattle successful. We identified the following elements in an effort to bring a people-power strategy to the antiwar movement, which had little after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003--and I have added a few more.
On November 30th the hundreds of people self-organized into clusters of affinity groups, and who had been through training and had sent spokespeople to coordinating meetings grew into thousands as people joined us; it went from an organized resistance to a public uprising. Maybe people from Seattle or elsewhere just showed up and joined the shutdown blockades, often linking arms in block-long human chains that were turning away WTO delegates. Their were just not enough people in affinity groups, but people on the street would jump in and link arms to fill out the blockade lines. I believe it was these elements that were key to the action, drawing in the public and community members beyond our organized groups.
These same principles worked in San Francisco on March 20, 2003 — Direct Action to Stop the War organized the day after the U.S. invasion of Iraq — when 20,000 people from the area shut down and occupied the Financial District, 2,000 of whom were arrested.
7 ELEMENTS OF SUCCESSFUL MASS ACTION
1) Clear What-and-Why Logic: A simple rationale for the mass action that makes sense to people.
Direct Action Network wrote, “We are planning a large-scale, well-organized, high-visibility action to SHUT DOWN the World Trade Organization on Tuesday, November 30. 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.”
2) Broadly Publicized: Lead-up actions, press conferences, a widely-distributed broadsheet newspaper, nearly 100,000 full color postcards, a massively visited website, widespread emailing of our call to action and action info, a West Coast performance/education/training roadshow and broad regional and North American mobilizing made sure many people knew what was planned, why, and how to prepare and plug-in.
3) Mass Training and Mass Organization: Thousands of people received nonviolent direct-action and related trainings in the days and weeks leading up to the action and in communities up and down the Western U.S., and well over 1,000 people were directly involved in organizing through affinity groups and clusters, working groups, and public meetings. The Direct Action Network was initiated by a network of local grassroots West Coast activists and was able to involve many varied segments of the movement — students groups, nonprofits, environmentalists, community organizers, labor organizers and members, and a wide range of activists and concerned folks.
4) Decentralization: A wide range of participating groups and individuals helped to shape, understand, and support the basic strategy and agreements. At the core of the action were self-reliant affinity groups who organized into clusters, thus the core action participants were well-organized, able to be flexible and make quick decisions, and respond easily to changes. This meant that the action was less vulnerable to repression or disruption, for example, if and when key organizers were arrested. Additionally, many like-minded groups and individuals who had no direct contact with our organization understood and supported the basic strategy, and participated in the action without ever coming to an organizing meeting.
5) Media and Education: Direct Action Network aggressively communicated in plain language to participants, movements, and the public through our own printed materials, website, emails, road shows, and to both independent and corporate media what we were planning, why and what was wrong with the WTO.
• Distributing nearly 100,000 outreach postcards and 50,000 broadsheet newspapers with in-depth articles to potential participants and supporters.
• Numerous cosponsoring groups communicated with their own members, communities, and networks.
• Holding educational roadshows; a People’s Global Action caravan bus made stops in cities across the entire country—from New York City to Seattle—doing outreach events and media work as they went.
• Art and Revolution street theater troupe traveled from Central California to British Columbia giving popular education performances, direct action and theater trainings, and doing media about issues around the WTO, corporate globalization, and the global movements of resistance.
• Indymedia and hundreds of independent media journalists and outlets covered the events as they unfolded. Many, many participants also did their own media, writing accounts, taking photos and video, sending them out through email networks, independent media outlets, and face-to-face report backs and storytelling.
• DAN held press conferences, sent out press releases, made spokespeople available, and aggressively engaged independent and corporate media in order to assert our views and perspectives before, during, and after the anti-WTO actions.
Because of this major effort to tell our story, and despite corporate media efforts to weaken public support for our direct actions, a month later, a January 2000 opinion poll by Business Week found that 52 percent of Americans sympathized with the protestors at the WTO in Seattle.
Too often, a healthy, radical critique of the corporate media leads to groups deciding to not even try to engage with them, standing by while they get beaten up in the mainstream press, and sometimes not even making the effort to communicate through independent media or directly through their own media and outreach. Yes the corporate media, like the police, are in part instruments of control, but would you stand by and not protect yourself against a cop’s club, because their authority is illegitimate?
6) Open Organizing: The decision had been made early on to organize openly, as mass nonviolent direct actions had done for many years. This was a learned response to government efforts to infiltrate or disrupt past mass actions and movements, such as the FBI’s Cointelpro efforts to destroy the New Left, civil rights, and anti-Vietnam war movements. If a group’s plans for mass actions or demonstrations are public and open, it is less vulnerable to government infiltrators or informants and its plans are not ruined if they are found out. It also makes group members less susceptible to the goal of government disruption, which is, in the words of one FBI Agent quoted by Brian Glick in his excellent writings on how to deal with infiltration and disruption, “to make activists think there is a cop behind every telephone pole."Our basic plan, to march on and blockade the WTO on the opening morning of their Ministerial, was very public, printed on tens of thousands of outreach postcards and broadsheets, and even on the front page of the Seattle Times. Keeping planning secret goes against the need to attract and involve large numbers of people, to have open democratic decision-making, which seems to be essential in getting large numbers of participants who are informed and empowered. Small self-reliant affinity groups of five to 25 people were the basic planning and decision-making bodies of the action, and their decentralized planning within the larger strategy did create an element of surprise. They formed into thirteen or so clusters to take on blockading the thirteen “pie slices,"that downtown Seattle around the WTO had been divided into and some remained mobile. How each affinity group or cluster would blockade was an element of surprise, as groups were autonomous to do it as they chose.
7) Action Agreements: The groups and activists of the Direct Action Network knew it would take a diversity of participants — thousands of people from different groups, movements, and traditions — to shut down the WTO.
We made some basic agreements early on about what types of mass action would best shut down the WTO and would create a space that could involve a wide diversity of participants, because we would need hundreds or even thousands to shut down the WTO. We agreed that the direct action blockades would be nonviolent, and would not include property destruction (except for moving objects as blockades). We agreed that we would organize ourselves in affinity groups who would coordinate in a spokes council and that we would support and prepare for jail solidarity. Voluntary agreements are the foundation of any collective project and are the basis of trust for alliances of different people and organizations.
In the wake of Seattle, parts of the anarchist and anti-capitalist scene adopted and strongly promoted a “diversity of tactics"framework, which in practice means refusing to discuss which tactics are or are not strategic, and refusing to make agreements about which tactics would or would not be used. It was seen as a pushback against the rigidity of “nonviolence"with all its baggage, allowing more space for property destruction and street fighting with—or fighting as self-defense against—cops.
Most movements around the world, nonviolent or not, discuss strategy, make agreements about which tactics are strategic, and organize to follow those agreements. Where diversity of tactics has replaced action agreements in the United States, the effect has been that mass direct actions are less massive, less strategic, less frequent, with less public support, and more vulnerable to infiltration, repression, and corporate media distancing the public, and the alliance of groups and constituencies participating have become narrower.
5) INDYMEDIA: Interrupting the Corporate Media Narrative
One of the obstacles social change movements face is that mainstream media is owned by our opponents and works to ignore, marginalize and distort movements and our stories. Without the coordinated efforts of hundreds of grassroots independent journalists, it’s hard to know what might have happened to the stories of the shutdown and mass actions. These journalists efforts coordinated by the Indymedia office space and amplified by the self-publishing website indymedia.org went around the corporate media to tell what happened--and was picked up by readers and viewers across the planet. A few days ago, Jill Freiberg of the Indymedia Center and the co-director of the WTO Shutdown documentary ‘This is What Democracy Looks Like’ spoke on the Democracy Now feature, “Don’t Hate the Media, Be the Media”: Reflections on 20 Years of Indymedia, a Radical Media Movement. She explained,
"..the capacity of that Independent Media Center on the ground combined with the reach of Indymedia.org, which was, if not the first, one of the very first open publishing platforms ever.
It was a new and unprecedented thing that independent journalists could share their content directly to a website without an editor in between them and the site. And the combination of those two factors really facilitated independent media not just providing a strong alternative to the corporate media, but interrupting the narrative that the corporate media was trying to construct about what was happening in the streets of Seattle that week.
All of that came together because people around the world, but also on the ground in Seattle, anticipated ahead of time that the corporate media coverage would be slanted, narrow and inadequate, and also anticipated that hundreds of independent journalists from around the world would need a space, infrastructure, collaboration and support. “
6) ART IS A HAMMER TO SHAPE THE WORLD
One thing we did well was centering the arts in our education, organizing and direct actions — and scaling it up to fill the streets with art, song and theater, as the authorities filled the streets with riot cops, teargas, and National Guard.
The spread of arts organizing is one legacy of the Direct Action Network’s effort to create new forms of resistance. Today we see mass art builds to prepare for teachers union strikes and the widespread use of arts organizing in the climate justice movements.
Our commitment to fusing art and organizing followed years of experimenting. In 1996 I worked with an amazing group of artists, muralists, puppeteers, and mask-makers to lead an Art and Revolution skill sharing and art-making track at the Chicago Active Resistance gathering of radicals and anti-authoritarians during the Democratic Party convention.
The following year 1997 I worked with Alli Chagi-Starr and others to form a street theater collective—Art and Revolution—in the Bay Area. We worked with longtime Seattle arts organizer Dana Shuerholtz and others in 1997 and again in 1998 to organize the “Art and Revolution Convergence,"a massive training, crossing direct action organizers/activists with artists and performers. Dana writes, “The Art and Revolution Convergences in ‘97 and ‘98 was a key part of preparing for the WTO. It was a large scale 4-day arts and direct action skills sharing gathering and training for over 100 activists, artists, and organizers across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Many people were able to come together to share and learn both arts and direct action organizing skills. It was a “convergence"of both seasoned and green activists, inspiring one another to use art to open and ignite the imagination of the public we hoped to connect with. I still think about building giant puppets, writing songs, and learning about nonviolent civil disobedience. It was fun, exhausting and memorable. People went back to their communities and organized creative actions. It inspired some of those affinity groups and individuals to then apply that knowledge and experience to the WTO protests, where we were able to build upon that culture of resistance. “
In 1999 a network of Art and Revolution street theater collectives and other groups formed the Direct Action Network. We put everything we had learned about using the arts at the center of our WTO education, organizing and direct actions.
RESIST THE WTO ROADSHOW: We toured up and down the West Coast with our Art and Revolution Street Theater troupe, joined by former Saipan sweatshop worker and organizer Chie Abad and David Reid, a locked-out Kaiser Aluminum worker. We used song, dance, puppetry and theater to convey the real-life impact of the WTO and David and Chie told their own stories, explaining why we needed to protect our communities from the WTO. We would follow these performances with art-making and nonviolent direct action trainings for people who would later join in the Seattle shutdown.
In the weeks before the WTO protests, we set up a mass 10 day “Convergence"(taking the word we used for the Art and Revolution “Convergences”) art-making space in a big former Dance Club at 420 Denny St — also used for training, meetings, food and medical support. It became the direct action movement hub that involved hundreds of people, and supported groups getting training and info, attending coordination spokescouncil meetings, and making the art they needed for the streets.
As we wrote in our 1999 call to shut down the WTO:
Tens of thousands of people will converge on Seattle and transform it into a festival of resistance [and] mass nonviolent direct action… [R]eclaim the streets with giant street theater, puppets, celebration, music, street parties and pleasure; vibrant sounds of community, creativity and resistance and glimpses of life as it could be in the face of hundreds of deadening businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians. Street theater used as a tool for making social change can break into people’s consciousness, communicate powerfully and capture the imagination of participants and observers.
There is an incredible opportunity to use street theater—art, dance, music, giant puppets, graffiti art and theater—and nonviolent direct action to simplify and dramatize the issues of corporate globalization and to develop and spread new and creative forms of resistance. This will help catalyze desperately needed mass movements in the U.S. and Canada capable of challenging global capital and making radical change and social revolution.
There is still an incredible opportunity—and an urgent need.