The WTO was an example of anarchist organizing at its best using potentially revolutionary tactics, but you would never guess that by looking at the media accounts. The media has been twisting actual events by scapegoating violence prone anarchists as a small, unwelcome faction in an otherwise peaceful, responsible, and constructive protest. Although some people opposed property destruction, it's absurd to talk about a general tone or a majority opinion in such a massive, decentralized action with tens of thousands of people. The tone of the streets was fragmented changing drastically from one block to the next. People on one street were polite, respectable, and eminently peaceful just like any other routine demonstration, but two blocks away hundreds of people were militant, angry, and ready to riot. I'm so frustrated that both the corporate and the independent media have defined one narrow, politically moderate perspective as the only viewpoint despite the reality of what I saw. If radical folks are going to learn from Seattle, we have to make our own history. So I'm writing some thoughts and an eyewitness account to break the whitewash.
I was in Seattle from November 24th to December 5th. For me, the WTO was a historic moment because anarchist influence was overwhelming and because demonstrators used potentially revolutionary tactics under a unified movement.
Much of the organizing leading up to Seattle was lead either by explicitly anarchist groups like Art and Revolution or by groups with a heavy emphasis on anarchist inspired direct action like Rainforest Action Network, the Ruckus Society, and Earth First! Art and Revolution in particular had a strong impact on the Direct Action Network which organized the November 30th shut down. Although the week's events included an unprecedented coalition of labor, religious, environmental, and human rights groups, DAN and dozens of decentralized affinity groups were key to stopping the WTO on Tuesday and generating massive publicity afterwards.
In addition to preparation and leadership, anarchist organizing ran throughout the WTO. These organizing principles included direct action, small decentralized affinity groups, and non-cooperation to apply pressure at every point along a chain of bureaucratic, hierarchical control. Obviously corporate power was a main target, but people also confronted other institutions including the media, the police, the courts, the prisons, and even the city as a whole
I was particularly impressed with the wild success of decentralized direct action. The blockade of the WTO was organized around more than a dozen different zones defined in advance by open meetings of affinity group representatives. The blockade started at 7am with two demonstrations on opposite sides of downtown. I was at the Seattle Central Community College rally where there were a few speakers and lots of people giving out action guideline cards. The cards included a legal defense phone number, tips on legal defense, and color coded descriptions of affinity groups so outsiders could participate in the process. Although specific actions weren't publicized at the rally, different affinity groups carried different colored flags corresponding to levels of risk.
Once the demonstration began marching downtown, several groups with 50-100 people broke off into adjacent streets to confuse the cops and paralyze downtown traffic. By 7:30 or 8:00am thousands of people had surrounded the vicinity of the convention center. At strategic intersections and entrances dozens of people sat down and locked arms through large sleeves made of tar, chicken wire, duct tape and other material that's hard to remove. These "lock downs" were reinforced by hundreds of people forming human barricades. Other affinity groups surrounded and shut down the Sheraton Hotel where many delegates were trapped until evening. At least a dozen affinity groups coordinated movement with radios until the cops began jamming the frequency later in the morning. The subsequent arrival of thousands of people swelled the power of the small, decentralized blockades, and by midday the action had been wildly successful. I couldn't believe that such a massive, strategic action could be done without a hierarchical, central command.
During the early part of the day cops did nothing to remove the blockades. I don't know if they were under "hands off" orders, if they had lousy crowd control training, or if they were completely outnumbered, but the cops ceded control of the streets until the evening. There was no response as people rolled dumpsters directly past police lines and into groups of cheering demonstrators. At least four squad cars were left unattended with their windows open in the midst of hundreds of demonstrators. I saw about two dozen riot cops push through lines of demonstrators, get surrounded and cut off from their rear-guard, and then fight their way out. If it weren't for sloppy tactics that put individual officers at risk, I would suspect that the cops were intentionally trying to set people up to attack property so they could justify heavy handed retribution like martial law.
Anyway, once the cops began arresting people later in the week, demonstrators used anarchist inspired tactics like non-cooperation to shift the battle from corporate greed to state power. Close to six hundred people were arrested. Many of those people challenged the cops, the courts, and the jails by refusing to give their names, refusing to move between holding areas, insisting on jury trials over quick plea bargains, and demanding equal treatment for all prisoners. The solidarity on the street was equally impressive as people carried out simultaneous protests at the convention center and the jail.
In addition to the heavy influence of anarchism, WTO opposition was especially powerful because of the broad a range of tactics that were used. Instead of limiting themselves to one narrowly defined area such as creative art actions or traditional protest; direct action or electoral strategies; and violence or non-violence, people attacked the WTO from every angle with an avalanche of different approaches. Each approach reinforced another regardless of tactical differences.
Traditional protest such as vigils, rallies, and teach-ins were complemented with artwork that excited people's creative passion. Seattle was saturated with stickers, graffiti, posters, fake newspaper covers, bogus corporate dollar bills, puppets, street theater, performance art, and huge banners. The combined effect of unconventional artwork and traditional protest created a massive presence in Seattle that could not be ignored. During November 30th non-violent blockades provided massive numbers to shield other demonstrators who were attacking corporate property, and the combination of the two generated massive, international publicity. Direct action shut down the WTO but the legal march of 40,000 labor folks provided the essential numbers to bolster small affinity groups, and the combination guaranteed extensive political power and media coverage. Mass marches, direct action, vandalism, street theater of teach-ins by themselves have had only a minor impact in the past,. But the combined weight of multiple tactics working in tandem had a staggering impact on the WTO, and it's an impact that could conceivably spread to society at large if these tactics could coexist under the general direction of a unified movement.
The combination of non-violent blockades and destruction of corporate property was especially exciting despite the media whitewash. This combination showed that people were using violence or non-violence as tactical questions rather than as absolute morality. Relying exclusively on non-violence at all times, political action can easily become predictable and manageable within the limits set by capital and the state. Flexibility, surprise, and militancy will go a long way towards giving activists the upper hand in political struggles.
It was hard to find explicitly articulated, public support for property destruction because people were rightly afraid of conspiracy charges, inciting to riot, etc. However, I saw a lot of implicit and informal support in people's actions throughout the day.
Along Seneca Street dozens of people tore apart a long chain link fence to create a huge maze in the middle of the street. I think the cops put up the fence at a nearby park to stop disruption of the highway, but ironically it was a great tool for shutting down traffic.
One block away nearly 50 folks barricaded a highway off ramp using dumpsters, trash cans, and construction barriers. After one or maybe two hours the cops finally evacuated the off ramp by backing up hundreds of cars and re-routing them onto the freeway.
Along 6th Ave two to three hundred environmentalists had blocked off a convention entrance with a 50 foot dolphin. When dumpsters toppled into and clogged up a nearby intersection, the crowd cheered.
Downtown looked like Paris in May 1968. Dumpsters, newspaper boxes, iron grating, and trash cans had been thrown onto piles stretching across Pike and at least three other streets. Some of the dumpsters had been set on fire, and many more were painted with anti-WTO slogans. The barricades paralyzed traffic, but they also helped to slow down the police attack later in the day. When barricades were being built, cries of support came from the non-violent blockades, and non-violent protesters physically blocked incriminating photos taken by TV and video crews.
Practically every corporate chain store in the immediate area - Nordstroms, the Gap, Disney, Banana Republic, etc. - was covered in political graffiti. I saw smashed windows at Bank of America, FAO Schwartz, Starbucks, Niketown and other corporate giants. Anarchist symbols had been painted everywhere along with "WTO" in a circle and slash, "We win," "Free Mumia," and many other slogans. One limo had been etched with anarchist and anti-WTO graffiti, and at least four cop cars had slashed tires and new paint jobs. My favorite image was "We win" on the hood of one squad car. I wish I had my camera. There was only one business open - a small independently owned coffee bar. It seems typical that you couldn't have an insurrection in Seattle without rioters lining up for espresso.
By 10 or 11am the cops tried to open up a corridor through the crowd along Union Street. Even though there were people who were locked down, immobilized, and defenseless, the cops let loose with a volley of tear gas and pepper spray. I think the police attack inspired even more support for property destruction. The cops were able to open up one street, but their progress was checked at every intersection by mobs of people and newly built barricades. After the police attack, dozens of trained medics and impromptu activist medics circulated through the crowd with water helping those who had been gassed or sprayed. The solidarity and mutual support among absolute strangers was very moving.
In the afternoon a man with a megaphone gave an update to nearly 200 people who were locked down or standing in solidarity at an intersection near University Street. When he described police cars with disabled tires and graffiti, the non-violent blockade cheered wildly.
Most of the support for property destruction seemed to come from the crowds along the western and southern edge of the convention center. Apparently different interest groups had staked out different sides with labor in the north, anarchists on the west, and environmentalists in the south. I never made it over to the eastern side so I don't know who was there. The western area near Pike Street seemed to attract the militants since it was along the main path between the hotels and the convention center. The northern periphery felt noticeably more moderate and orderly with a large truck for union supplies and lots of expensive sound equipment. Along the northern side I heard rumors that some demonstrators tried to point out vandals to the police.
By the afternoon tens of thousands of people had jammed the streets, the WTO had been shut down, and the overwhelming mood was jubilant despite (or maybe because of) the upheaval. It was like a surreal carnival. Amongst the broken glass, the graffiti and the barricades people were having a street party. Folks were dancing, socializing, and doing street theater. I even remember seeing a couple of yuppie joggers running through the crowd. As the day wore on the celebration became somewhat more depressing. In the morning there were very specific and politically targeted attacks on corporate property, but by the late afternoon graffiti and property damage seemed more random and unfocused. I think a lot of people who didn't have political motivations saw the spectacle on TV and came downtown to make their mark, literally.
Around 5pm one of the main blockades on Pike Street announced the end of the action over a loud speaker. There were still thousands of people in the streets, but folks began dismantle the lock down, and small groups of people began drifting away or picking up litter. A few minutes later the cops who were within earshot of the announcement began firing tear gas, percussion grenades, and rubber bullets. I don't know if they were clearing the streets for Bill Clinton's arrival in a few hours, or if they were worried about a full scale riot after dark. or if they just wanted revenge before they lost an opportunity. Anyway, thousands of demonstrators surged away from the convention center followed by a marching phalanx of riot cops. Many people were shot in the back as they fled, and many more were hit with tear gas. Actually, one woman was hit in the face with a tear gas canister while another person had his eyeglasses explode into his eye thanks to a rubber bullet. Once again medics moved through the crowd dousing people with water. Hundreds of people were crying, screaming, and gasping for air.
Despite the deafening explosions, the sparks from the grenades, and the advancing riot cops, thousands of people made an orderly retreat. The cops pushed people back several blocks to Pike Place Market where many people dispersed into smaller and smaller groups. I heard that hundreds of people battled the cops late into the night, but unfortunately I didn't see it.
I was impressed that people didn't stampede each other in a panic. I think that people knew that we had won and anything the cops did couldn't change that reality. For once it wasn't the cops, the corporations, or the businessmen who defined public space. For at least one day ordinary people came together and created a temporary autonomous zone. It was the power of the people that finally controlled the streets, and it was beautiful. Hopefully, lessons from the WTO can be passed on, and we'll create one, two, three, many WTOs into the future.