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Seattle: Violence vs. Non-Violence

--Eileen, Sandpaper Collective

Last November the world was rocked to see giant sea turtles, topless dykes, black clad crusaders, and steel workers join forces to shut down the world trade organization (WTO). Naturally, the conventional media diminished the numbers and muddied the message. But there was no mistaking the fact that hundreds of people gathered sufficient force to stymie the police and even the delegates from meeting for an entire day.

One of the most exciting and powerful things that followed the actual event was the intense effort to get the message out. Many many people wrote articles, went on tour, flooded the internet and even, poor souls, guest starred on 60 Minutes. The discussion was part factual: what happened, who came, what's a WTO. And part philosophical: violence versus non-violence. An important theme common to much of what was said was that Seattle represented a beginning, a new surge in the power of radical protest and the potential for previously untried alliances. In fact, conversations between historically disparate groups have already begun in earnest-across both national and conceptual divides.

But I'm skeptical because I don't know if this energy and connectedness can be channeled into a concerted sustained radical attack. I know it feels like a political treatise is about to happen . . . no worries . . . I'm more a skimmer than a thinker. Instead of a study of how movements emerge or a study of the left in america, I'd just like to look at some of what went right and some of what went wrong and see if it's possible to draw any conclusions about what might come next. (Just a note, my focus is on the activities of the Direct Action Network.)

But, while I was inspired by what happened in Seattle, I was somewhat skeptical about this prognosis. Anyone who has participated in a successful direct action would agree that there is an unbearable intoxication that comes from standing among dozens (or thousands) of righteous people facing down the bad guys—and winning. The power of prevailing over things that are unfair and unjust is something that we too rarely experience. Seattle veterans speak with infectious enthusiasm about the energy they felt, the connectedness, and the united strength.

I don't think that any of these weaknesses dilutes the power and wonder of what was accomplished in Seattle. They just identify some of the pitfalls that I feel will be faced over and over as people try to build momentum. May Day is around the corner and hundreds of Chicago activists are organizing several related actions—the extraordinary interest in these actions is due in large part to the optimism inspired in Seattle. One activist I know is hoping to encourage this many-headed group to build a coalition around one targeted issue that is appropriate for May Day and would also reflect their own priorities.

One such cause might be the horrible economic conditions experienced by temporary workers. This is an excellent focus because it speaks to economics, immigration laws and practices, working conditions, family life, prejudice, income disparities, and homelessness. Lots of different radical agendas can be served by bringing attention to this issue and highlighting the collateral implications.

I hope Seattle will wake up the dormant radical left. The level of (non-hierarchical) organization and cooperation and the splendid use of technology indicate that there are lots of dedicated people willing to work hard and shake things up. The question that we have to answer is how we will move from stopping something to creating something else to replace it?

what was Good?

1. Organization: The action in Seattle represented an astonishing level of coordination. Thousands of people converged on the city and had adequate food and shelter. Meetings were held for weeks ahead of time to discuss what would happen and where, and to go over the "how-to" of direct action. Some people took to the streets, others stayed behind to organize, and others took pictures. I think this incredible amount of VOLUNTEER organization was largely responsible for the dramatic success.

2. Use of Technology: Between the internet, walkie-talkies, and cell phones, the organizers and activists made superior use of all the most cutting edge technological tools. Technology helped people stay informed, safe, and efficiently deployed.

3. Resonant Themes: One of the most exciting moments in Seattle was when the labor march made an inadvertent left turn and hundreds of its members spontaneously joined the street blockades. Apparently they found ideas and goals in the group that inspired their support. This type of cohesion among strangers is truly wondrous.

4. Anti-Authoritarianism: More amazing than the level of organization was the fact that it was accomplished according to principles of non-authoritarian collective action. The building blocks for the action were small affinity groups; people who agreed to work together and to absorb new members as the action grew larger. The affinity groups provided information, direction, and support when things grew dangerous. For people who argue that success requires bosses, Seattle is an amazing example of how successful anti-hierarchy can be.

5. Increased consciousness: It's safe to speculate that few americans had a clear idea of what the WTO was six months ago, much less the abuses it perpetuates. Nor did they really believe that the police would turn on the citizens.Nor did they pause to think about the power structure that undergirds their lattés and air jordans. The combined voices of thousands did, if only temporarily, penetrate people's day to day fog and succeed in raising consciousness.

6. International power: It's not surprising that international media outlets gave much more space and respect to what happened in Seattle than local press. International activists, particularly in nations oppressed by the WTO, clearly felt heartened that so many americans were willing to confront this system. In turn, it is likely that these international groups will provide education and energy to help sustain our long-term strategies.

7. Exposed power: Finally, it's always a good thing when bad guys are exposed. When police start teargassing yuppies and union members, radical protest wins allies. The most enduring images of the 1968 yippie protests in Chicago are those that demonstrate the brutal excess of the police.


what wasn't so Good?

1. Message: One danger of diversity is a diluted message. Philosophical compatibility does not have the same ability to focus people and sustain long-term protest as a more or less narrowly defined "cause." Despite its incredible success as an action, the protesters were not entirely successful in conveying a message more detailed than "Stop the WTO". Consequently they could not use the media to their advantage and were the victims of mainstream spin.

2. Dissension: A second danger of diversity is dissension. The most alarming element of the protest was the self-appointed peace keepers who actively fought off the black bloc as they attacked downtown store windows; some of them even swept the streets the next day. One cannot expect—nor should one want—uniformity among such diverse people. Public dissension of this kind, however, opens huge holes for the bad guys to co-opt.

3. Next Steps?: One woman after telling how exciting it was to stop the convention and take the streets, admitted that there was a general confusion as to what to do next. When you don't have a unifocal message and you fear creating dissension by narrowing the message, you limit the amount that can be accomplished.

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