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WTO Protests Retrospective: Seven Years Later

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Seven years ago yesterday, protestors in Seattle effectively disrupted and shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting and essentially launched an anti-corporate globalization movement that put the spotlight on a variety of little known entities including the World Bank/International Monetary Fund (IMF), the G8, the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue, the World Economic Forum, and others. In the intervening five years, mass mobilizations across the globe–from Seattle to Cancun–greeted nearly every meeting of the global elites. While the effects of these protests can (and should) be debated, they were successful in establishing a movement in the global north that was able to act in solidarity with movements in the global south to limit the expansion of the neoliberal agenda, with planned agreements such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) or the Doha round of WTO negotiations coming to a standstill due to widespread public opposition while also playing a significant role in reinvigorating an anti-capitalist movement within the United States.

Out of the context of Seattle, Media Mouse was formed here in Grand Rapids in the fall of 1999 and actively participated in the anti-corporate globalization movement. In Grand Rapids there was a rise in activism following Seattle, with groups like Media Mouse and Students Against Sweatshops forming, as well as community, labor, and church groups putting a focus on trade and participating in the movement. Like Seattle and subsequent protests, the resistance in Grand Rapids was varied and incorporated educational events, street protests, and even a coordinated graffiti campaign (in the Grand Rapids Press’ reporting on the Seattle protests they mentioned a graffiti campaign and communiqué by a group calling itself the Midnight Special Committee). Media Mouse, taking its inspiration in part from the global indymedia network and the Independent Media Center movement, emphasized the role that grassroots media plays in building movements for social change and covered protests both in Grand Rapids and across the country. Media Mouse covered the June 2000 protests against the Organization of American States and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Detroit, the April 2001 protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Quebec City and produced video and photos, the 2002 World Economic Forum protests in New York City, and the 2003 FTAA protests in Miami.

Because of the importance of the WTO and the subsequent anti-corporate protests in Media Mouse’s history, Media Mouse is printing the afterward from a new 64-page booklet on the 1999 WTO protests released yesterday by CrimethInc. While the analysis in the afterward does focus somewhat narrowly on the anarchist portion of the anti-corporate globalization movement, the booklet is essential reading for those involved in movements to challenge corporate power and is useful for remembering an important moment in recent radical history. The forward-looking analysis may be helpful in reinvigorating current movements and fostering a renewed sense of commitment and motivation in light of a disempowering fight to stop the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the invasion of Iraq. Those organizing in the United States should also not lose sight of the fact that while times may be difficult here in this country, recent events in the Americas, from the Oaxaca and Zapatista struggles in Mexico to the electoral victories of leftists in Central America, give plenty of reason to be optimistic.

WTO Protests Retrospective: Seven Years Later…

…From this vantage point, it is possible to interpret the WTO protests according to any number of frameworks. They were a watershed in the development of the contemporary anticapitalist movement, at which thousands of disparate groups discovered each other and the power they could wield together. They were the point at which, a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the old “democracy versus communism” opposition, the fundamental dichotomy of global politics was recast as corporate capitalism versus the common people. They were, as the researchers of the RAND corporation self-servingly discovered, the substantiation of theories about how new communications technologies would shape social conflict. They were simultaneously the beginning and the high point of a “movement of movements” which ended when terrorists hijacked the global stage on September 11th, or when communist splinter groups hijacked the anti-war movement a year and a half later, or which continues so long as certain anthropology professors require a subject for inquiry.

The only thing that matters for us anarchists, of course, is what we can learn from the past to act effectively in the present. Does it make sense to pursue “another Seattle,” or is that just a will-o’-the-wisp? Could any of the tactics that succeeded in Seattle be as effective today, or are they subject to a law of diminishing returns?

What Happened in Seattle

Immediately following the Seattle WTO protests, some reformists moaned that the confrontational tactics and far-reaching goals of militant participants alienated people and ruined any chance of concretely affecting national policy. Yet by reformist standards, the so-called anti-globalization movement [1] associated with the Seattle protests achieved practically unprecedented triumphs, and the credit for this must go at least in part to the militants. The next WTO meeting had to be held in Qatar, cementing the image of the WTO as an anti-democratic, oppressive elite. Many of the proposals that had most outraged activists were immediately dropped; likewise, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement is now essentially dead in the water. Some analysts have concluded that the mobilization against corporate globalization peaked early because its goals were not ambitious enough.

In addition to giving the WTO a public image makeover and successfully forcing concessions from it, the militancy of the demonstrators in Seattle pushed its supposed critics to adopt a more uncompromising stance. Organized labor and segments of the Democratic Party have to present the illusion of being oppositional in order to justify their existence. As was frankly acknowledged in the RAND report, they hoped to maintain this illusion and simultaneously absorb and neutralize any radical tendencies by putting in an appearance at the Seattle WTO protests. Once they found themselves caught up in a huge, obviously popular demonstration against the WTO, they had to feign at least some sympathy or else reveal their “opposition” to be a mere pretense. Thus we can see that direct action is the most effective means both for putting pressure on adversaries and for exerting leverage on supposed allies. Even if you don’t want to overthrow the government, forget about voting and petitioning–the only hope for change is in the streets.

Finally, the successes in Seattle brought US anarchists worldwide visibility, along with a needed morale boost, and provided a format for future actions. The “summit-hopping” model made a virtue of the transience that has been such a stumbling block for anticapitalist organizing in North America; like it or not, a movement must make the best of its weaknesses, and if many anarchists couldn’t be counted on to stay in one place long enough to do effective local organizing at least that mobility enabled them to come together occasionally at capitalist summits.

The breakthroughs in Seattle that affected the anarchist community turned out in the long run to be dangerous gifts: as soon as the media attention, the thrill of victory, and the effectiveness of the new model were taken away, many anarchists felt they were back at square one.

A Complex Legacy

In reflecting on the mobilization in Seattle, people often overlook the years of failure that had preceded it. What happened in Seattle was possible precisely because it had been years, if not decades, since so many people joined in disruptive action against a capitalist institution in the US. As noted in the RAND analysis, police expected symbolic arrests à la the anti-nuclear demonstrations of the 1980s, not the coordinated obstruction and rioting they got. Subsequent mass actions were much more difficult to pull off, as the authorities mobilized every resource to ensure that what happened in Seattle would not happen again.

Despite this, Seattle was followed by a series of demonstrations unlike anything in the preceding decade: Washington, D.C. was shut down the following April by protests against the International Monetary Fund, and a year later the FTAA ministerial in Quebec City occasioned the most intense street fighting since the Los Angeles riots of 1992. All the teargas in the country was no match for the enthusiasm of the anticapitalist movement once people had a model to work from and a structure to plug into. It was not until after September 11, 2001 that the tide finally began to recede, and this occurred primarily as a result of the widespread self-fulfilling prophecy that the high point of anticapitalist mass actions was over. The momentum that followed Seattle was not destroyed by the government response, it was abandoned by those who had maintained it: the most significant question presented by the post-Seattle phase of struggle is not how to handle repression, but how to sustain morale.

After anticapitalists lost the initiative, it was inevitable that the partisans of willful impotence would regain it. Proportionate to the number of participants, the antiwar movement of 2002 to 2003 was incredibly ineffectual, largely due to the machinations of liberals and communists who did their best to prevent anyone from taking effective action. And once the legend of Seattle ceased to be the origin myth of an existing, vibrant movement, it became a burden upon everyone who tried to apply the mass action model. Even though many anarchist demonstrations between 2002 and 2005 put everything that happened in the mid-1990s to shame, they seemed stunted and disappointing compared with the Battle of Seattle. Past accomplishments always cast a shadow over the present, and shadows loom bigger the further the object casting them recedes.

The FTAA ministerial in Miami four years after the Seattle WTO protests showed how much ground anticapitalists had lost and how much their adversaries–both those in uniform and those carrying protest signs–had learned. While there were probably almost as many committed anarchists in Miami as there were in Seattle, far fewer other protesters showed up–partly because Miami is so far from the rest of the US, partly because it has the most reactionary Latino population of any US city, and partly because the ability of anticapitalist networks to bring out protesters had been sapped by demoralization and competition with antiwar organizing. The AFL-CIO duplicitously coordinated with the police while asking demonstrators not to carry out direct action during their march, and the demonstrators–insanely–agreed to this request. This enabled the police to concentrate on beating and pepper-spraying people before the union march, controlling the streets during it, and then viciously brutalizing and arresting everyone who remained in town after it. The police tactics in Miami, which were significantly more aggressive than those of the police in Seattle, showed that the fluke in Seattle was not that the police were so aggressive but that the corporate media were caught off guard and accidentally reported on their violence [2]. Finally, the strategy of the demonstrators in Miami, which consisted of a largely symbolic assault on the fence surrounding the meetings, had no hope of actually interfering with them. The protests in Miami only succeeded in disrupting business as usual and giving the FTAA a bad name because the authorities, still transfixed by the specter of Seattle, went to such lengths to repress them.

As of this writing, the Miami FTAA ministerial is itself three years behind us, and there have been no major mass actions in the US since Bush’s second inauguration almost two years ago. Paradoxically, the good news is that enough time may now have elapsed since the WTO protests that a mass mobilization with a clever strategy could catch the powers that be by surprise again–but the bad news is that anarchists, demoralized from so many years of trying to “repeat Seattle,” may not yet be ready to stake everything on another attempt.

What Next?

The presidential campaign of 2008 will be the next backdrop against which major mass actions can be expected to take place. Whatever misgivings some of us currently have about them, for anarchists not to have a powerful presence in mass actions in 2008 would be tantamount to our disappearance from the national arena of social struggle.

The essential challenge of the mass action model is that its greatest strengths and weaknesses are identical. Working from the physics equation tension=force/area, this model brings together a great number of people in a small space so their coordinated actions can have exponential effects–but with sufficient warning, the state can also concentrate its forces to neutralize their efforts. Consequently, successful mass actions must either come as a surprise themselves or employ an unexpected strategy. At the G8 protests in Scotland in 2005, for example, participants outwitted the authorities by dispersing into the countryside to block roads outside the areas where police forces were concentrated.

Effective mass action necessitates that people from a broad range of perspectives work together without limiting each other. In that regard, mass actions are good practice for building the symbiotic relationships fundamental to an anarchist society. The mobilizations that succeeded in Seattle, Quebec City, and elsewhere succeeded because a great number of people simultaneously engaged in a diverse array of complementary tactics. Regardless of the success of a particular action, the ability to do this itself constitutes a victory over the segregation, isolation, and conflict promoted by the capitalist system. In that regard, the Seattle WTO protests were not an unrepeatable miracle, but rather an example of how powerful we can be whenever we find ways to work together.

Suggested Reading

We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism–Through testimony, photos, tactics, and history, this book provides an excellent context for anticapitalist organizing in the years up to and immediately following the WTO protests.

Five Years After WTO Protests” by Chuck Munson–In this article, one of the administrators of http://www.infoshop.org refutes corporate media reports that the movement behind the WTO protests had come to an end by 2004.

N30 Black Bloc Communiqué” by the Acme Collective–Some of the participants in the Black Bloc in Seattle released this excellent and nuanced defense of anarchist property destruction at the WTO demonstrations immediately afterwards.

Demonstrating Resistance,” the feature article in the first issue of Rolling Thunder–This extensive analysis follows the anarchist experimentation with mass action and autonomous action models that occurred between 2000 and 2005, drawing conclusions about what factors must be present for each approach to succeed.

1–Ironically, the “anti-globalization movement” was perhaps the most globally interconnected movement in the history of protest movements. The corporate media christened it with that misnomer because identifying it for what it was–a movement opposing capitalist globalization–would acknowledge the existence of capitalism, and thus the possibility of other social and economic systems.

2–Likewise, as the dramatically militarized police force in Miami consisted of at least six times as many officers as protected the WTO in Seattle, and they faced off against crowds perhaps a fifth the size of those that had gathered in 1999, they could not fall back on the excuse of being “overwhelmed” and forced into violence. If anything, the police in Miami were more violent than those in Seattle, thoughtlessly attacking demonstrators, retired union members, and corporate media reporters alike.