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Some Strategic Lessons from "The Battle of Seattle"




Dear friends,

Here is a thoughtful, useful critique of the Seattle protests from within the anti-WTO movement. As an outsider, I have the luxury of simply admiring the courage, aliveness and brilliance of what WAS done by protesters in Seattle. It went so far beyond so many protests, and it served as a turning point. But for those directly involved, with their sleeves rolled up, looking ahead to what's next, the past is properly viewed as a springboard for the future, and it is as important to learn from what didn't happen well as to celebrate what did.

I offer the essay below in that spirit. It deserves a wider audience than the listserv on which it appeared. Many of its specific points are, of course, debatable, but it is an excellent example of how to think strategically towards greater effectiveness. And a lot more of that kind of thinking will be needed as we work towards more healthy power dynamics in our society.

From a co-intelligence perspective, I guess a question for the WTO movement is: "How can we generate the sort of internal conversations which will allow our movement to coherently reflect on such issues as this, without becoming more centralized in the process?" My site, of course, is filled with tools to help such conversations be productive. If anyone in the WTO movement would like to explore this further with me, I'm here. Pass this on to anyone you think might be interested...

Coheartedly, Tom

Some Strategic Lessons from "The Battle of Seattle"

John De Graaf <degrj@KCTS.ORG>
4 Jan 2000

Maybe I'm getting a little old or spent too much time in demonstrations during the 60s, but I believe the strategic lessons to be culled from "the battle in Seattle" are a little different from those outlined by Starhawk. As a Seattle resident and participant in at least part of the anti-WTO activities, it seemed to me that at least one key strategic error prevented this protest from being as successful as it otherwise might have been. In my view, it comes down to a question of timing. I have no philosophical quarrel with civil disobedience or "direct action," but civil disobedience is not a principle, it's a tactic. As such, it works most effectively as an escalation AFTER lawful activities prove unsuccessful. One does not strike before making demands, for example.

What I'm getting at is this: it was a serious strategic error to begin the use of civil disodedience BEFORE the incredible rally of labor and environmental groups which took place from 10 am to 12:30 pm on Tuesday, November 30. Anyone who was at that rally, as I was, was no doubt astounded by the show of broad-based anti-WTO solidarity that was displayed. The biggest ovation (from a crowd made up of at least half union laborers) was for Indian activist Vandana Shiva. Seeing her on the same stage with Jimmy Hoffa Jr. was something I didn't expect in my lifetime. Additionally, there was widespread representation from developing nation labor leaders, giving the lie to the idea that the anti-WTO criticisms of US labor were not shared in the rest of the world. The banners and enthusiam among the crowd of 25,000 plus were wonderful; I especially liked one banner: TURTLES AND TEAMSTERS UNITE! It seemed to sum up this new found solidarity between environment and labor.

But this massive rally, and the march that followed, which might have spoken to millions of ordinary Americans who had no knowledge of WTO received almost no media coverage at all. Why? It's easy to blame the media. After all, TV crew focused entirely on the "action"--pitched battles between demonstrators and police using teargas--going on downtown. But let's be honest: our strategy allowed that to happen.

We know that media goes where the visuals are and conflict visuals attract TV cameras more than do even massive lawful rallies and marches. Yet had the labor/environmental rally PRECEDED the disruptions, the media was prepared to cover it. Let me suggest an alternative strategy that I believe would have produced a broader understanding of the WTO and taken full advantage of the enormous numbers of people who came to Seattle to protest.

On the first day, the Direct Action Network folks should have added their bodies--some 5-10,000 of them--to the labor rally/march, making it the only event for the media to cover: 40,000 people marching to downtown and sitting down temporarily in the streets (as the labor leaders had planned to do.

Then, a series of demands should have been made to WTO. (There was, here, some confusion as to goals: the labor/environmental slogan heard at the rally was "Fix It or Nix It": that of the DAN was simply "Shut It Down.") A more effective demand would have been "Open It Up or Shut It Down." We cannot completely stop globalization and we will need organizational rules to make trade "fair." What if we had demanded three initial things of WTO at the labor rally/march:

1) Stop the secrecy. Make ALL meetings of the WTO fully open to the press so that the people know what's going on.
2) No access for corporations without access for representatives of peoples' organizations--labor, environmental, farm, etc. As it was, Microsoft et al were paying $250,000 for the privilege of meals with the WTO delegates. We could have demanded that be stopped.
3) Rescind all rulings overturning national laws which protect labor, farmers, the environment, etc.--e.g. the Venezuelan oil ruling that effectively overuled the US Clean Air Act,etc.--and agree that no future rulings which undercut national sovereignty and the right of each nation to protect its people and environment shall be instituted.

The media, and ordinary citizens would have understood these demands and they would have seemed eminently reasonable. Yet the WTO could not possibly accept them and still be the corporate servant it is.

So the first day could have ended with the ball in WTO's court: accept these demands, Open It Up, or tomorrow, if you have not, we will begin civil disobedience to Shut It Down.

This would have meant a day in which the message about what's wrong with WTO got out through the media (as a media professional myself, I know many news people who would have given excellent coverage to such demands). It would have been a day of educating the general public and building popular understanding for the civil disobedience which would almost certainly have followed.

Instead, what happened? The Direct Action Network began harassing WTO delegates by 9 am Tuesday, at least an hour before the big rally even began. Harassment of delegates was not something expected by Seattle city officials, even though they had had meetings with the DAN. At one point, a bodyguard for one delegate (and the delegates being harassed were virtually all from poor countries) pulled a gun and threatened to shoot. Police stopped him, but it was clear to city authorities that they now had an untenable situation on their hands. The one thing they could not allow was an injury to a foreign national--they had to protec the delegates from what, rightly or wrongly, was perceived by them as physically threatening. This forced the city to have the police give up the idea of individual arrests of protestors and use gas to clear the area around the delegates as quickly as possible. Once the gas began flying, the ensuing chaos provided the perfect cover for the so-called "Anarchists" on their cellphones who got the message to each other: "it's chaotic out there, so we can begin smashing windows, etc."

And once that happened, the entire issue in the mind of the public, at least in Seattle, became one of whose behavior was worse, the demonstrators or the cops. The issues of the WTO and free vs. fair trade faded into the background.
I agree that 99% plus of the demonstrators were completely peaceful and should not be blamed for the actions of a few window-smashers. I also agree that the police in many cases went much too far (especially on Capitol Hill), though anyone who experienced the police riots of Chicago in 1968 or Oakland/Berkeley 69 would agree that Seattle's police were quite restrained by comparison.

I also agree that the Seattle WTO protests were successful in that without them, there would likely have been no coverage of WTO at all. Now, at least, millions of people have heard of the WTO and know, at least, that a lot of people don't like it. But what we might have done was helped them understand why. We might have made far more effective use of the immense crowd and great energies of the people who came here to not only harass the WTO but help people understand why unrestricted "free" trade is not fair, and how, while it makes goods cheaper for global consumers, it threatens our communities, our families, working people and the earth itself.

I offer these suggestions not to condemn anyone (except the vandals, whose acts were reprehensible) but simply to suggest that amidst the euphoria of WTO post mortems we pause to consider how next time, whatever the protest, we might make our strategies more effective. Let's give timing a little thought(escalate tactics--don't start with "direct action") and consider more thoroughly what kind of message we want to leave the public with.

Unfortunately, it seems that in this case it has come down to (depending on your point of view) SEATTLE POLICE ARE MEANIES or THE PROTESTORS BEHAVED BADLY. The real goal should have been education about the WTO.

In closing, let me give a word of thanks to all the people who gave of their time and energy to come to Seattle and join the protests.