The whole world is watching

Direct action comes to the WTO, and members debate what the meaning of "non-violence" is.

Published November 30, 1999 2:00PM (EST)

When the World Trade Organization begins its meetings Tuesday, the massive and well-organized protests by the AFL-CIO and environmental groups may not be center stage. Using a wide array of direct-action tactics, hundreds, maybe thousands of activists are planning to literally shut Seattle down, blockading streets all around the convention center.

For a week now, a group called the Direct Action Network (DAN) has been training protesters in a sprawling warehouse just east of downtown. Activists are learning not only basic principles of nonviolent protest, which have been standard preparation for civil disobedience since the anti-nuclear campaigns of the mid-1970s. Many are also being trained in elaborate "lockdown" techniques pioneered by Earth First! and animal-rights groups, in which protesters use bicycle locks and other equipment to create immovable human barricades that are difficult and time-consuming to dismantle.

There will be plenty of peaceful demonstrations, ranging from the permitted labor march and rally to in-your-face -- but nonviolent -- road- and building blockades. And a sizable minority of self-described revolutionaries are planning to engage in property destruction. These are largely seasoned activists with experience in direct-action campaigns who now feel themselves to be part of a worldwide struggle to topple capitalism.

Expecting 50,000 delegates, journalists and activists, the city of Seattle has closed streets throughout the conference. Downtown malls have hired extra security guards and complained of slow business, despite the tens of thousands of extra people in the area. Hundreds of downtown office workers have been asked to work from home.

Though Monday's prelude resulted in no violence or mass arrests, several small incidents and individual arrests in various parts of the city set the tone for the week to come. Several hundred WTO delegates and journalists were kept waiting approximately four hours Monday morning while police and Secret Service agents investigated a possible attempted break-in at the Washington State Convention Center downtown, the site of the first official conference event.

Meanwhile, a mile north of there, five members of the Rainforest Action Network were arrested for criminal trespass and reckless endangerment after unfurling a banner on top of a construction crane next to Interstate 5. The banner read "WTO" with an arrow in one direction and "DEMOCRACY" with an arrow in the other.

Over at the DAN warehouse, which has become so packed you can hardly move, the workshops now spill over into several other nearby spaces. But the most crucial preparation is taking place elsewhere, in decentralized "affinity group" meetings all over town, in order to preserve an element of secrecy and surprise about Tuesday's events.

DAN has developed a sophisticated, decentralized system for covering different areas of town. Organizers have divided the area around the WTO meeting into 13 "pie slices," which scores of small tactical groups are planning to blockade. (And they won't just be sitting in -- many will be locking themselves together as described above.) The efforts of the blockaders will also be augmented by dozens of roving teams, both of protesters and "support people" -- medics, lawyers, communications squads, videographers and more.

Already the protest has an exuberant and carnival-like character, reflecting a little-known culture of direct action that has been building throughout the 1990s. Major influences include Critical Mass bicycle rides: "organized coincidences" in which large numbers of cyclists take over city streets en masse. Others are inspired by the outlaw street parties of Reclaim the Streets, a movement that began in England but has spread to the United States in recent years.

The overwhelming majority of the protesters will be nonviolent in the strictest sense of the term, having agreed to DAN action guidelines that disavow property damage and even "verbal violence," as well as physical violence toward people. Guidelines of this sort have been integral to every major direct action campaign in the United States since the mid-1970s, adopted in reaction to the "wild in the streets" chaos of late 1960s protests, and have been fairly uncontroversial among activists.

Suddenly, though, a significant minority of protesters have tired of this ethos, decrying what they term "tactical stagnation." These militant anarchists say they're seeking a revolution based on "liberty, mutual aid and wildness" and bitterly criticize DAN for "nonviolent dogmatism."

"We want no partnership at all with the discredited institutions -- unions, government, the Left -- now being rehabilitated due to the 'new menace' of globalization," reads an article authored by the visiting Anarchist Action Collective of Eugene, Ore., in the current issue of the Seattle Weekly. "They are part of the glue holding a rotting order together, an order that must be totally dismantled."

The militants take inspiration from two Reclaim the Streets actions this past June that turned into riots, a small-scale one in Eugene and a much larger protest in London that caused an estimated $3 million in property damage. Leaflets have been circulating here with hardcore slogans such as "Bomb the Mall," "We're Doomed" and "Civilization Is Collapsing ... Let's Give It a Push."

It's hard to know how influential this point of view is. But even some people at the nonviolence trainings I've attended are saying they don't view property destruction, for instance, as "violent." This is unprecedented: While there certainly has been debate in radical circles in recent years over whether, say, tree-spiking is a legitimate and nonviolent tactic, on balance most activists have emphatically embraced peaceful styles of protest.

The rioting will certainly be the most sensational of Tuesday's events. But the attempts to more peacefully "shut down" Seattle are worth watching. Only once in the last 70 years has any movement sought to shut down an entire city: during the huge and almost-forgotten May Day 1971 antiwar protests in Washington D.C., in which over 13,000 people were arrested.

But where the May Day organizers detailed their targets in a widely distributed tactical manual, the DAN activists have been more prudent, with affinity groups keeping any sneaky plans to themselves.


As might be expected in the wired Northwest, activist groups are using the Internet to organize. Locally produced sites bemoan "the WTO's bias against the public interest" and aim for "Mobilization Against Corporate Globalization," with schedules of events and tips for getting last-minute accommodations. The Seattle Indy Media Center's site promises real-time coverage of protest events. The Global Trade Watch site, maintained by Public Citizen, features "A Citizen's Guide to the WTO."

Additional reporting was provided by Fiona Morgan.

By L.A. Kauffman

L.A. Kauffman is completing a history of American radicalism since the 1960s.

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