Between November 30 and December 3, 1999, a mass mobilization of demonstrators shut down the negotiations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, Washington. The planning, execution, and fallout of the “Battle of Seattle” shifted the political landscape and transformed social movements. This roundtable brings together four organizers to reflect on Seattle’s victories and failures, and to consider lessons for today:
Stephanie Guilloud is a member of the Executive Leadership Team of Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Poverty and Genocide based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Garth Mullins is an activist and writer living in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territory. He has worked with many social justice and anti-capitalist movements. He plays in a punk band called Legally Blind - and he is.
Rachel Neumann is a writer living in Oakland, California. When she was 12, she helped start an anti-nuclear affinity group called As The World Burns. She’s been involved in social justice struggle ever since. Rachel writes for a variety of magazines and is currently writing a book about modern communal living. Find her at rachelneumann.blogspot.com/.
Eddie Yuen has co-edited two books on the anti-globalization movement. Eddie teaches Urban Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute and is the associate producer of Against the Grain, a radio and web media project at againstthegrain.org/.
What was your role in Seattle? What debates were you were involved in then?
Stephanie: I worked with the Direct Action Network (DAN), founded in the spring of 1999 to mobilize against the World Trade Organization. For nine months, we worked to educate communities, students, and labour unions about the specific threats of the WTO and related institutions and agreements. I co-organized a conference on trade, labour, the environment, and indigenous communities in the Northwest. DAN produced the broadsheet that went out to over 9,000 people, calling on them to shut down the WTO as an illegitimate and undemocratic institution.
We believed everyone had a stake in refusing to let the WTO meet quietly, and we were meticulous in our planning. We worked to confront racial injustice, to hold ourselves accountable and to be true to our communities. We studied and adopted tactics and strategies from the Spanish Civil War and the anti-nuke movement, including affinity group structures networked through a spokescouncil. The result was a massive locally-led demonstration with global consequences. Ten thousand people participated in direct action, with the support and solidarity of upwards of 70-80,000 people in labour and social justice movements.
Most US demonstrations during the two years that followed (including the actions against the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Republican and Democratic conventions) lacked the intention, timeline or local mobilization and support that we had for Seattle. We still have a lot to learn from that time period.
Eddie: I had just moved from San Francisco to New York and sensed that the Seattle protests were going to be exceptional. Until this period, it had been extremely challenging to build connections among disparate movements without imposing a hierarchy of issues. But by naming capitalism (or “corporate globalization”) as a common enemy, the “anti-globalization movement” (AGM) had already brought together many different issue-specific movements.
Seattle invigorated those who were there and symbolized the arrival of the “movement of movements” on North American shores. This is why I think the specific signifier of “Seattle” is useful: it showed that a coalitional politics of “one no, many yeses” was possible.
Rachel: In 1999, I was in New York City working at Dissent Magazine and active in movements around reclaiming public space and public gardens. A lot of progressive groups were trying to collaborate to build a larger movement but had trouble navigating political differences and would get stuck in small disagreements. The WTO offered us a common enemy to unite against.
I went to Seattle with a small multigenerational affinity group called the Flying Squirrels for Freedom. I knew a lot of Seattle organizers through common activity in nuclear disarmament activism and campaigns to shut down Lawrence Livermore Labs (a nuclear weapons research facility), so I helped make giant puppets and trained people for non-violent civil disobedience and police and media liaising. There was a sense that something big, joyous, and truthful was happening.
After Seattle, flush with a sense that we had successfully affected the terms of the WTO debate and strengthened our movement, some groups decided to expand and develop a national DAN linked to the emerging international World Social Forum (WSF) network. We set up a New York City DAN outpost. Some of the excitement from Seattle carried over, but for the most part the work was hard. People didn’t know how to transpose the euphoria of Seattle into daily organizing and many lacked skills in facilitation, organization and basic communication. There were many ongoing debates about inclusivity, transparency, and the definition of nonviolence, but we focused on actions that were pleasurable, such as working with Reclaim the Streets to host giant street events and engaging in subversive political humour. Street theatre, humour, and mass celebration were the most effective techniques we worked with to change policies of public land use and police intimidation, but these techniques were ephemeral and people’s energy was easily distracted. We needed to be more focused and to constantly expand our base.
Garth: Prior to Seattle, I had organized against state surveillance and police brutality used to repress opposition to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit (APEC) at the University of British Columbia. Activists began to draw connections between the APEC meeting and the broader agenda of capitalist globalization. Demands moved from individual reforms, such as barring Indonesian President Suharto from entering Canada, to more fundamental critiques of the capitalist system as a whole.
In the lead up to Seattle, I was organizing in Vancouver with a coalition of social justice, community, and labour groups. In Seattle, many of us joined DAN and were assigned a Seattle intersection to occupy on November 30 (N30). We accepted DAN’s tactical commitment to non-violence and no property damage; this had been crucial in building a wide coalition.
Upon returning to Vancouver, we founded locals for DAN and Mobilization for Global Justice, a group focused on opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the Pacific Northwest Economic Region Forum. I continued to work in the AGM even after September 11, 2001 led to disorientation and demobilization.
For many, the spokescouncils and direct action affinity groups were inspirational, allowing people to organize on a large scale while maintaining some tactical flexibility. How did Seattle inform organizational practices of the last ten years?
Stehpanie: I believe in the organizational model we practiced in Seattle. It remains compelling because it permitted a large-scale movement to maintain spontaneity, flexibility, and integrity to principles within a violent and militarized situation. But we have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our organizational innovations based on the contexts from which they emerge. Internal movement difficulties in the wake of Seattle relate to a general misunderstanding of the significance of locality, mobilization through education, and trained, skilled facilitators.
Rachel: Most of us think and function best in small, close-knit communities. Affinity groups are good because they accommodate these smaller groupings and connect them to a larger community. When organized thoughtfully, spokescouncils are wonderful, but they often become too large and alienate people who don’t relate to them culturally. Other models, such as mass gatherings, democratically-elected leadership and grassroots organizing are also important. Mexican zocalos, European plazas and open markets in Asia and Africa all allow for spontaneous community gathering that is often missing in the spokescouncil model.
Eddie: Organizational forms continue to evolve because the state now studies the “playbook” of Seattle and plans accordingly and because the spokescouncil and affinity group forms have had a productive encounter with other anti-authoritarian organizational forms from elsewhere in the world. This is good because, as Francesca Polletta has documented, “participatory democracy” has been perceived as culturally “white” for the last 40 years.
We must remember that coalitional movements like the AGM bring together a range of organizational forms and that “horizontal” groups must find a way to deal with “vertical” groups such as trade unions, political parties, and some NGOs. The relationship of NGOs to movements is especially important and has come under increased scrutiny since the publication of The Revolution will Not be Funded by INCITE. With the recent defunding of the NGO sector (and universities) we can see that the institutional structure for “professional” activists is in crisis. This will have major implications for the infrastructure and organizational forms of future movements in the rich countries.
Garth: Direct action affinity groups remain important today, but in Seattle their value was linked to the context of the wider action and the spokescouncil. The combination of the two organizational forms enabled flexibility, spontaneity, and coordination of large numbers of people who did not previously know each other. The fluid, organic formulation made police intervention difficult and enabled a wide range of autonomous actions. However, this model of decision making was never successfully established across the movement, so we were unable to respond collectively to large contextual shifts, such as September 11, 2001. In the lead up to the 2010 Olympic games in Vancouver, the affinity group and spokescouncil model will be necessary to successfully pull off large actions.
For some commentators and movement participants, Seattle marked the beginning of something new. To what extent did the promise of the “new” influence the expansion of anti-globalization struggles? To what extent did it become an impediment to the movement’s political development?
Garth: Struggling against the agenda of Western states and transnational corporations isn’t novel. It’s a worthy tradition, and Seattle was simply a visible moment in a much longer period of organizing. Civil disobedience on that scale was new to my generation, but the struggle that produced Seattle is neither dead nor irrelevant.
Eddie: The only thing that was “new” about Seattle was that millions of people around the world, especially young people, heard about the AGM, the WTO, and direct action for the first time. This unprecedented exposure politicized many people and contributed to the AGM’s momentum over the next two years. The downside of the perception of novelty, of course, is that it imposed a framework of “birth” and “death” on the AGM, instead of locating it in a much longer continuum.
Many of the movements in North America from the ’70s through the early ’90s were as large, militant, and effective as Seattle: Seabrook, Livermore, Redwood Summer, ACT UP, the Lower East Side squatters, the Watsonville and Hormel strikes, Central American and South African solidarity, the pro-choice campaign in Buffalo, for example. However, unless you participated, you would have no idea these movements even happened. By this measure, the real novelty of Seattle was that it won the battle against historical erasure.
The leading role of anarchist and anti-authoritarian thinking in the AGM also appeared to be novel when compared to internationalist movements of the previous 80 years. In North America and Europe, the steady growth of anarchist politics and culture since the 1960s combined with an anti-authoritarian reading of the Zapatista movement in Mexico to give the AGM a different political orientation than the Old Left or the New Left.
Rachel: The “new” is always shaped by what has come before. Seattle was energized because of how these elements combined and how activists here engaged activists from other parts of the globe. We sensed a global resistance underway.
The movement lost strength when people attempted to formulaically repeat Seattle in other places. In this sense, the supposed “newness” of the movement might have been an impediment. Decentralization was difficult. With DAN, we attempted to create structure for further protest but weren’t able to connect across so many different locations, needs, interests, and resources. Now, progressive politics seems either very local or too broad, and I don’t think people share a concrete common enemy or strategic vision. The debate around health care in the United States reveals this disconnection. The issue is one of many right now that could unite grassroots and policy people, but it’s not happening. When people don’t see any pathways to change, they get discouraged and are easily distracted or exhausted, keeping their focus on daily survival.
Stephanie: Seattle led to new understandings of the impacts of trade policy on regular people’s lives. The movement better understood its strengths, such as innovative mass organizing, and its weaknesses, such as underdeveloped leadership and lack of connection to long-term transformative practices. The emphasis on the “new” movement coincided with a generational turnover that should not be dismissed; there was no infrastructure for new leadership to enter, learn, and build on existing momentum. This had much to do with a changed context, and ten years after Seattle, we must analyze important pieces of the story – internal movement debates, concurrent anti-imperialist and indigenous struggles, Northwest regional history, the economic moment, the realities of the pre-Bush and pre-September 11 eras – to understand how and why the movement developed as it did.
Eddie: The accelerated circulation of activist knowledge is a good example of how the movement was not “anti”-globalization but was in fact an innovator of “globalization from below.” Practices that had been developed over many years in particular places – like consensus process, colour-coded blocs, blockade technologies, mobile street carnivals, and giant puppets – quickly spread across European and North American activist scenes.
The creators of the Independent Media Center in Seattle deserve credit for the real breakthrough. The global expansion of Indymedia and the subsequent utilization of cell phones for “swarming” and “flash mob” protests led many to believe that the movement had an intrinsic advantage over the state due to the congruity of new technologies with network forms of organizing. The last few years have dispelled this illusion, as Indymedia has been displaced by Facebook (which was funded by right-wing libertarians) and cell phones are increasingly used by the state to data mine and monitor activists. Activists have had to learn not to fetishize technological novelty, even when such technologies are appealingly “horizontal.”
Why was Seattle as big as it was? Why did such a significant local labour and community contingent come out to protest? Why did Seattle’s labour focus not carry over into other protests in the US?
Garth: Seattle was a large nonviolent civil disobedience mobilization because it accommodated autonomous actions. In Seattle, one had the feeling of being an active agent rather than playing the spectator or consumer roles that are often ascribed to the “masses” at large traditional demonstrations where one listens to speakers and then goes home.
Labour was present throughout the anti-globalization struggle. In Seattle, when labour marched out of town, DAN was much more vulnerable (physically and politically) to police attack and aggressive arrest. The fractured coalition between labour and other social justice groups has yet to heal. Many in the movement have lost trust in organized labour and are critical of the relationship between the labour leadership and rank-and-file workers.
Eddie: Seattle made history not because of its size – numerous other protests in the US since 1971 have been larger, such as the nuclear freeze demos in 1982 and the anti-war demos in 1991 and 2003. Seattle was notable because it was visibly part of a global “movement of movements” and because of effective direct action. Sadly, the leadership of organized labour did not support direct action in Seattle or Québec City (although some rank-and-file workers did), and any hopes for union support for the planned World Bank protests in September 2001 were derailed by September 11.
It’s important to remember that movements can have a labour focus without waiting for union leadership to participate. The 2006 May Day protests in the US and the precarious workers movements in Italy, France, and Spain have shown the potential for struggle by the majority of workers (87 percent in the US) who are non-unionized.
One of the most famous images to come out of the Seattle protests was that of “We are winning” spray painted on a wall behind a line of riot cops. In the lead up to the 2007 G8 meeting in Germany, the Turbulence Collective used this image to initiate a discussion about what it means to win today. Thinking back on the experience of Seattle, how have our conceptions of victory changed?
Stephanie: Often we say that movements and communities must claim their victories, no matter how small. Seattle was ambitious because we issued a call to “Shut down the WTO” with no guarantee that we could. Our success on the first day surprised and energized us. We reconvened the spokescouncil easily that night, and even though we didn’t agree easily on how to proceed, no one talked about stopping or slowing down. I am proud that we saw and rose to the opportunity for victory and understood it as an ongoing process that would demand different tactics and the ability to absorb a constant influx of new people, many of whom had not gone through the formative trainings and discussions. That’s a taste of movement building: how do you respond to reactions from the state and other opposing forces while constantly mobilizing and expanding your base? How do you shift and readjust when met with the possibility of victory? And, significantly (because it was lacking on a mass scale following the demonstrations), how do you follow the momentum of victory with strategic, intentional plans to continue what you started?
Eddie: Seattle had a key role in the successful delegitimizing of the institutions of the “Washington Consensus” and neoliberal theory. Winning an argument is not the same as winning a struggle, however, as capitalism has often shown itself to be “trans-ideological.” The rich countries have never adhered to “free trade” principles, and global corporations see no contradiction in asking the Communist Party of China to save capitalism. In practical terms, this means that neoliberal policies such as structural adjustment, are being applied (in California and South Africa, for example), even if the ideology has been totally discredited.
It’s clear, though, that the impetus behind that graffiti was much more immediate. The great actions of that period (J18, Davos, Barcelona) themselves produced a community in the streets and, it seemed, a global community through the internet. The graffiti speaks to a shared sense that the “movement of movements” was finally manifesting as more than the sum of its parts, that the necessarily diverse struggles around the world had finally found a way to speak and act collectively.
Quite apart from their efficacy, Seattle and some of the other moments of that period were transformative experiences for those present. It can’t be predicted when such moments of freedom will occur, but it’s necessary to keep producing the conditions that can make them possible so that this experience can be shared.
Rachel: At that time, we focused on challenging despair and the view that the world was, and would continue to be, dominated by capitalist/military power. Much of our work was to remind people that an organized body could make extraordinary changes and could imagine the impossible. Obama’s campaign similarly invested people with “hope.” The problem for us then, and for supporters of Obama now, is the vagueness of the words “hope” and “win.” What do winning and hope actually look like? The global economic downturn should compel people and governments to rethink priorities and philosophies (such as unregulated capitalism), but the danger is that people will start thinking small again.
My general idea of what constitutes “winning” hasn’t changed. I still believe that we need a system that prioritizes people and the environment rather than capital and that this would include health care, child care, clear air and water, and art and music for all. But I think to get there we are going to have to work very hard, harder than we have worked before, on prioritizing concrete action and taking care of each other each step of the way – or everyone will be too tired and burned out to do anything. I say that as a full-time working mama, who knows that actively creating change has to be all around me and nourishing me because, if I just try to “squeeze it in” amid everything else, it isn’t going to happen.
Almost from its inception, the cycle of struggle that began in Seattle was noted for its whiteness. These discussions were stimulated by Elizabeth Martinez’s article “Where was the Color in Seattle?” How should predominately white movements relate to broader struggles for social justice?
Rachel: “Where’s the colour?” is always a good question, as is “where are the poor folks?” (We know where the rich folks are!) It’s the question I ask about my daughter’s school, about what neighbourhood I choose to live in, who I choose to live with, and about what organizing I choose to support. Mostly though, I think people have to do the work where they’re able, and as long as they are speaking for themselves and their experience, they’ll be alright. We get into trouble when people try to speak for others, saying “we” without making sure that the “we” they speak of is actually present. Movements, like individuals, need to check themselves and constantly be open to the idea that there’s more to learn. This doesn’t mean don’t do the work. Do the work, and get out of your comfort zone, but keep your eyes open and don’t take all the credit.
Eddie: I think that the debate stimulated by Martinez’s article was helpful. It inspired many white activists to immerse themselves in the vibrant debates on white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and intersectionality that have taken place over the last few decades. Many activists of colour, in turn, were inspired by the AGM (and the Zapatistas) to re-examine non-white traditions of direct action and radical democracy. As important as these cultural considerations are, however, we must not lose sight of the material realities of the racial state. Since the 1960s, the US has effectively engaged in a pre-emptive war against black and brown people using the tools of mass incarceration and selective immigration policy. As the recent work of Pamela Oliver and Ruth Wilson Gilmore shows, social movements (or their absence) over the last 40 years cannot be understood outside of this context. This is why when movements ask “where is the colour?” they should always draw attention to the prison industrial complex and the focused state violence that is directed against working class people of colour.
Garth: For the AGM, the challenge was devising ways to express solidarity and make links with the struggles of indigenous peoples and people of colour. Now the challenge is figuring out how activists can best follow their leadership. Currently, the Olympic Resistance Network (ORN) is debating this same issue. The ORN was formed under the banner “No Olympics on Stolen Land” and was brought together by a group led by native activists and elders. Given that there are many indigenous “leaderships” and differing ideas about how to work under that leadership (exacerbated by the lack of a coherent non-aboriginal struggle), our movements have yet to answer this question. The possibility of solidarity between struggles relies on the existence of coherent struggles; in the case of the ORN, for example, we need a coherent indigenous leadership that non-indigenous social movement organizations can work with. What exists, however, is emerging struggles composed of indigenous and non-indigenous individuals. Both indigenous and non-indigenous communities are fractured and split along a number of lines, and this presents many challenges.
Stephanie: Martinez’s article and the debate it provoked are not as relevant today as the persistent broader question of how white supremacy and racism manifest in our social movements. Seattle did not represent “white movements” because there is no such thing, but it did involve some old and painful dynamics concerning leadership, culture, and styles, and it introduced new dynamics related to the nature of massive convergence that are simultaneously local and international.
The unfortunate outcome of the article and conversations it encouraged was a culture embedded in identity rather than experience. The identity politic of deconstruction and punishment was already plaguing this new generation but has since ballooned. The critique-for-critique’s-sake nature of anti-oppression dialogue at that time showed real misunderstandings of history and race in the US. Instead of emerging from this historical moment to build deeper connections to local and global struggles, young white activists questioned their right to act. Confronting white supremacy is not an existential activity. Nor is white people’s role limited to security for marches and endless anti-racism workshops. The lesson here for US movements is about understanding how to challenge the dynamics of privilege and oppression while also building movements that are led by and rooted in the experiences of people who know and live with injustice and exploitation, currently and historically.
In 2010, the G8 will meet in Canada for the first time since 2002. This event will likely rekindle the debates about summit hopping and local organizing that emerged after Seattle. Reflecting on N30, what did we gain through mass convergence that we couldn’t have built otherwise?
Eddie: The mass convergences of the Seattle period were only possible because of years of dedicated local organizing. We gained many things through mass convergences, including a re-evaluation of the “Think Globally, Act Locally” slogan, which has been popular since the ’70s. This local/global dichotomy suggested a relatively straightforward geography of inequality (north/south, developed/underdeveloped) but, by 1999, the landscape of neoliberal “global apartheid” had become more complex. If globalization meant anything it was that capitalist and state power were becoming both more intensive and more diffuse, and this changed the dynamics of struggles.
By 1999, social movements around the world had recognized that it was not just capitalist elites who could act “globally”; ordinary people could as well. Neoliberal capitalism was exposed as being in some ways more vulnerable to disruption than Fordist capitalism. For example, just-in-time production means that supply chains are very tight, which gives workers in transport and distribution sectors increased power, even as factory workers are losing power. Globalized capital is also more vulnerable to financial contagion than ever before, as we have seen in the past year. Even the accumulated debt of the American working class (accrued mainly through “local” consumption) is now one of the “time bombs” in the heart of the global financial system.
Since Seattle, the scalar organization of capitalism has shifted further, and this has consequences for both summit protests and local organizing. During the Clinton era of neoliberalism, it appeared to many that a new kind of globalized power was emerging in which nation states and direct military violence were no longer the most important institutions for capital accumulation. Thanks in part to the AGM, this model was derailed, and the Bush/Cheney era can be seen as a failed attempt to install unipolar US hegemony through military expropriation. Many social movements responded to these developments by refocusing on national level struggles, at the expense of both local and global orientations.
Rachel: One of the main things we gain through mass convergence is that sense of larger community, that we are part of something broader. Those who witness our large convergences have a sense of our numbers and strength. We get to talk to each other and learn from each other’s tactics and ideas. Ideally, our time together is a mixture of action, sharing ideas, and celebrating being together. Of course, mass organizing also requires huge resources and isn’t the only way to organize. It only works when it takes place alongside local organizing. But there’s no point in creating a false dichotomy between mass convergence and local organizing. Movements need more, not less, avenues for creating change, from micro-organizing to global coordinated events to everything in between.
Garth: Convergences are a tactical choice and not a principle. The conditions of the struggle, nature of the event and degree of movement mobilization should dictate whether we call a mass convergence instead of a series of actions across the country, continent or world. I agree with Rachel that convergences and local actions are not mutually exclusive.
There is a lot to gain sometimes from staying put. During the FTAA, for example, I argued that Vancouver-based activists should stay at home. Along with grassroots groups and labour on both sides of the US border, anti-FTAA forces shut down the Peace Arch border crossing for an hour in solidarity with actions in Québec City.
Whether a convergence should be called for the 2010 G8 is up to those organizing for Huntsville. Summit hopping was an effective tactic for mobilizing the anti-globalization movement, but relying on it at the expense of local organizing could hurt the movement.
Eddie: We need to ask what it is that summit protests can achieve and whether, on balance, they will invigorate or sidetrack existing movements. I agree that one vital aspect of protests is that they build community and solidarity, and that this value should not be underestimated. The second vital purpose of protests is to actually disrupt the functioning of institutions, and this took place to some degree in Seattle in 1999, Prague and Davos in 2000, and Québec City in 2001. Since 2001, it has been very difficult for protesters to shut down summits, as the delegates are barricaded inside fortresses and the host city is turned into such a police state that any semblance of “business as usual” is already disrupted. On the level of spectacle, this could be seen as a kind of victory, deploying a lesson from Sun Tzu (making your enemy do your “disruption” for you), while also “exposing the violence inherent in the system.” In practice, though, most summits have felt more like laboratories of repression than carnivals of dissent. This is partly because publics in Western democracies (especially the US) are no longer shocked by police violence: images of the brutality in Miami or Minneapolis, when they are shown at all, are greeted more by resigned familiarity than horror.
This does not mean that disruptive action is impossible, but merely that summits may not be the best place to look for it. The converging capitalist and environmental crises will provide many opportunities for mass, non-violent disruptive action in the coming years, and still mass protests are important for many reasons. But activists should be mindful not to use the memory of Seattle to set inflated expectations. Just as anti-war protests can’t in and of themselves stop a war, summit protests are simply parts of much broader campaigns.
A third purpose of protests is to communicate a message of dissent, both to decision-making elites and to ordinary people. This ritual of petitioning authority is increasingly in crisis, as many elected leaders no longer even pretend to pay attention to people in the streets. In this regard, George Bush’s statement in response to the unprecedented anti-war protests of February 2003 that “I don’t listen to focus groups” was surprisingly profound (compare it to the responses of LBJ and Richard Nixon to protests against the Vietnam War, for example). Far from making protest obsolete, this debasement of democracy makes it even more important that social movements direct their messages at ordinary people as well as decision makers.
In the 1980s, there were strong movements in solidarity with the struggles in South Africa, Central America, and Palestine, but these movements did not forcefully make connections to domestic issues in the US. These movements were very effective but were criticized in their own time for not speaking to the everyday life experiences of their participants. By the time of Seattle, a broader view of solidarity had emerged – especially in terms of geography, as the dispossessed from the global South could now be found in any locality. This was further driven home in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which made it clear that one did not have to leave the US to find “Third World” conditions of poverty and racist oppression. I also think that, compared to the solidarity movements of the ’80s, many activists in the AGM were more open, thoughtful and unapologetic about their own motivations. On this point, I really appreciate Stephanie’s remarks on the demobilizing effects of anti-oppression dialogue, and I hope that newer generations of activists can constructively move beyond some of the paralyzing identity politics debates of the ’80s and ’90s.
If we have to think in terms of dichotomies, I’m not sure how much more insight we can get from global/local. A different binary that is gaining traction is to think about struggles in terms of commons versus enclosures. That is to say, consider all struggles from the framework of whether they challenge the logic of enclosure and commodification.
Stephanie: I agree with Eddie on several points. What has been powerful in my experience in working in the South and organizing the US Social Forum – a convergence process led by people of colour in community-based organizations from multiple sectors – is that strategic convergence is extremely necessary. And it’s important that the model was developed and refined in the global South. The purpose of this model is not to target an oppressive institution or body but to increase the breadth and width of community-led bases of power, and this emphasis reflects the new moment we are living in. We cannot rely on old models of organizing nor dismiss their historical significance and influence.
We drew similar lessons about the need for local organizing during the US Social Forum process; we recognized that the Forum is not enough in and of itself but that it relies on the maintenance of power-building in multiple locations to strengthen local, regional, and global relationships. I argued in 2003 against attending the FTAA protests in Miami, because to do this work effectively, it’s necessary to know the landscape, literally and politically. To organize for global justice in our communities, we need to understand the G8 as a body that changes and shifts to meet new economic conditions. We need to shift and change to meet those conditions as well.
Ten years later, how do you see your current organizing work in relation to what you were doing in Seattle? What is different about our current context?
Eddie: Military analogies are always a bit dodgy, but it is good to remember the adage that we shouldn’t fight the last war. Seattle played a part in shaping the world today, but we must now address this different world. The collapse of free trade orthodoxy and the accelerating decline of US power have increased competition between capitalist states and blocs, and the crisis of profitability of the system as a whole is profound. In some ways, 2009 looks a lot more like 1929 or 1979 than 1999. For decades, radicals have been predicting the capitalist and environmental crises that are now upon us. We need to think through the possibilities for organizing in the convergence of these two crises.
One issue we must take seriously is the global resurgence of right-wing populism. In the absence of visible and articulate radical movements, right-wing arguments (as well as conspiracism and Malthusianism) will sound like common sense to many people. One of the best things about the AGM in its heyday was the atmosphere of debate.
Stephanie: The lessons of that time are with me in my everyday organizing work. I moved back South (I’m from Houston and live in Atlanta now) in 2003 to work with Project South and practice movement building in Southern grassroots communities. We anchored the US Social Forum in 2007, and for me it was a continuation of the momentum built in Seattle but with more vision, more leadership from front line communities, and more strategic connection to global struggles.
Rachel: Seattle was a magical moment in that there was the space for a variety of modes of protest – from song to spray paint – with a clear shared understanding that there was a better, more humane, less capitalistic way to live. The hard work continues and so we need these moments of inspiration.
The questions on which I’d like more discussion are the following: How do we engage with traditional politics/politicians/policies in a way that is meaningful for creating concrete change? At the local level, how can we affect national and international change? When we’re in the trenches of local issues (“how do I get some street lights and decent schools and after school programs in my neighbourhood”), then how do we keep from feeling like we’re just slogging through? How do we keep the sense of larger community discussion about where we’re hoping to go? In other words, how do we move from triage to building lasting foundations?
Central to the character of Seattle was the level of joy and lightness that many people felt. There was dancing, drumming, and cheerleading in the streets along with the many serious and organized body-on-the-line blockades. I think it was this combination of the seriousness and the joy, the decentralization and the global unity, that made me and many others I talked to feel connected and hopeful. It reflected the different facets of who we are and what the world around us can be.