On Anniversaries, Part Two: Seattle

December 4, 2009 at 11:32 am (Actions) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

The first Clamor cover, featuring the 1999 WTO Protests

Last year on the anniversary of the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests, I wrote “Self-reflection is an important part of developing movements for social change, and I hope that as the 10th anniversary approaches, more long term activists will publish/post their reflections on this critical time.” I am happy that many of them have, and quite a few are linking the Seattle anniversary to the upcoming protests at the UNFCC climate talks in Copenhagen, saying that this is a “Seattle-type moment.” Naomi Klein recently published a widely distributed article on this topic called, “Copenhagen: Seattle Grows Up.

Lessons from Seattle

One of these people is my old friend David Solnit, who I have mentioned a lot before and interviewed for the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest earlier this year. Along with his sister Rebecca Solnit, Stephanie Guillioud, Chris Dixon, and Anuradha Mittal, he has produced a book called “The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle,” which looks at the struggle to claim and control the narrative of what happened there over the last 10 years. I’ve been working with them a bit to help publicize the book, because I think it is important. As David says, what people think happened in Seattle shapes what they believe about protest, direct action, social change movement, corporate globalization and capitalism.  David, and many others, believe that the fight against the WTO in 1999 has never stopped, and is linked to continued struggles against corporate power.

The booklet is great. In the section on lessons for organizers, they discuss what made Seattle so successful, including: clear what and why logic; broad publicity/outreach; mass training and mass organization; decentralization; action agreements; open organizing; and media & framing. While the booklet has a lot of historical reflection, it is so focused on helping social movements go forward, confronting myths within the activist community about how Seattle was organized and what made it successsful.

Stephanie Guillioud, in an article for the Project South newsletter, offers her reflections that link the WTO to this continued movement, particularly to the World and US Social Forums. She makes truly great comments here, lessons for organizers: “We cannot afford to dismiss the significance and influence of different tactics, strategies, and convergences in different historical moments. We also cannot rely on old models of organizing, simply because they have worked in the past. Mass demonstrations and protest rallies cannot be our default response to all injustice. Two major lessons surface. Surprising the cops in Seattle put us at an advantage at every turn. By the nature of our movements being extremely out-militarized, we are not in a position to repeat the same strategies with the same success. We will have to be smarter, one (or more) steps ahead of the turn, and completely in command of whatever local terrain we occupy.” And later, “Another major lesson from post-Seattle demonstrations was that convergence at the expense of local organizing is not effective. The local leadership and knowledge made the demonstrations in Seattle effective.”

Taking time to look at what is and is not effective will make us stronger, and we do not do it enough. I have yet to see any reflections on the birth of the Indymedia movement and how it has changed over the last 10 years since Seattle, and will post something if I find it.

Looking forward to Copenhagen

I’ve really wondered what can be accomplished by social movement groups in Copenhagen. San Francisco-area activist Gopal Dayaneni, who I think is brilliant, has said that what is at stake in Copenhagen is not carbon emissions – it is everything. That Copenhagen is about establishing global governance, and corporate dominance of that process. He is very persuasive.

What I find most exciting about this moment is that combined with the current economic crisis, people are openly questioning capitalism. Capitalism is obviously failing most people, and now failing most Americans, and many groups are pointing to capitalism as the underlying cause of the climate crisis. As Klein says in her article, “The movement converging on Copenhagen, in contrast, is about a single issue–climate change–but it weaves a coherent narrative about its cause, and its cures, that incorporates virtually every issue on the planet. In this narrative, our climate is changing not simply because of particular polluting practices but because of the underlying logic of capitalism, which values short-term profit and perpetual growth above all else.”  Rebecca Solnit wrote, “To survive the coming era, we need to re-imagine what constitutes wealth and well-being and what constitutes poverty.”

What are the possibilities? In this article by Patrick Bond, he talks with Dennis Brutus who says, “First, working together, African and global South leaders and activists have the power to disrupt a system of global governance that meets the global North’s short-term interests against both the global South and the longer-term interests of the world’s people and the planet. Second, in the very act of disrupting global malgovernance, major concessions can be won.”

This is an exciting moment.

Further Reading

Here is a list of the articles I read:



  1. Jen Angel said,

    So, I’m sitting next to my friend D, and he says that he feels that a lot of times the emphasis on new innovation and finding something different and exciting belies the fact that some of the mundane parts of activism, the day to day organizing, is not new and is the building blocks from which successful movements grow.
    I agree. And when you look at movements outside of the US, part of their success is the sheer number of people that turn out for mass mobilizations. In the US, and in Copenhagen, will a mass mobilization, in the style of Seattle, be successful? Well, yes and now. The police know a lot of tactics. Is it necessarily strategic to get a whole bunch of people arrested and/or brutalized by the police? It could be, as in the case of the School of Americas protests where people are arrested every year, or in the case of the civil rights movement, which wasn’t thrust forward by one lunch-counter sit-in, but by many, repeated sit-ins. The point is to consider what tactics are strategic for each situation – the element of surprise in Seattle is no longer possible in the US – but that doesn’t mean without it mass mobilizations can not be successful.
    Dispelling the myths of Seattle – or rather, exposing the true stories of links with local activism, lengthy preparation, that the action didn’t happen overnight – these are important lessons for new activists.

    • hey said,

      What exactly have the SOA protests won?

      The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

      Lunch counter sit-ins didn’t not directly change anything, they only exposed the state violence that maintains this system through a constant threat of force. The riots that happened in the 1960s were what changed things, and those were a reaction to the exposure of that state violence by the sit-ins, combined with economic oppression and segregation.

  2. Jen Angel said,

    Oops – another link:

    Mark Engler, “The Battle in Seattle at Ten,” at Talking Union (but posted elsewhere)

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