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(en) Seattle in perspective: Seeing the Elephant in Seattle

From Chris Carlsson <ccarlsson@shapingsf.org>
Date Wed, 16 Feb 2000 08:55:30 -0500


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Seeing the Elephant in Seattle
Showdown in Seattle, the WTO, the Protest of the Century Well, its
been more than a month since the exciting events in Seattle. Many of us
who wre there are still energized by it, but theres no mistaking the
sense that its all fading away. What seemed so remarkable and so
unprecedented on November 30, the physical stopping of the WTO meeting
by thousands of protesters clogging the streets of Seattle, has been
reported, discussed, analyzed, argued, categorized, marginalized, and
subjected to the self-serving spin of everyone from network pundits to
leftist militants. The breathtaking thrill of participating in a
quasi-insurrectional experience is harder and harder to remember or hold
on to as the time passes.
Precisely because it is so difficult to recognize and hold on to the
meaning of our own experiences, it is crucial that we go beyond the
anecdotal memoirs and newspaper clippings to define the WTO/Seattle
uprising in terms of our own history. Part of the beauty of Seattle, and
equally part of why discussing it is already rather difficult, is the
fact that the events in Seattle are impossible to define from any one
perspective. If there was ever a sophisticated range of voices,
experiences and ideals that came together to create a whole much larger
than the sum of its parts, it was the WTO/Seattle protests. This
multitude of perspectives leaves us facing the predicament of the Blind
Men and the Elephant. Each of us has our own idea of what happened and
what it means. Attempts to find a deeper understanding, or to situate it
in terms of any given frame of reference, threaten to subsume important
alternative understandings.
In spite of this inherent difficulty for analysis, I think there are
some basic truths about this story that bear notice and perhaps even
celebration. Firstly, ten years after the collapse of the eastern bloc,
and a sustained period of ruling class euphoria that we had reached "the
end of history," our actions in Seattle are an emphatic rebuttal to that
nonsense. Certainly Seattle did not come out of nowhere, but it did
break a media monopoly that has shaped our consciousness of what is
going on in the world and what it means. Even during the past decades
self-congratulatory New World Order, history has made itself felt
everywhere from the Zapatistas in Mexico to the massive strikes in South
Korea that helped precipitate the collapse of major industrial firms in
that country as well as provoking what has been called the Asian
financial crisis. Civil wars have torn apart societies from Africa to
the Balkans to Asia. Class divisions in every country have been
exacerbated as ruling elites have extended their power and wealth to
unprecedented extremes. As their privileges have been augmented and
extended, their increased control over news and reporting has led to a
widespread blackout on any news that contradicts the feel-good, go-go
happy news of endless prosperity and meritocratic success.
Seattle shattered that illusion, at least temporarily. Given the speed
with which the daily news "forgot" the whole story (which comes as no
surprise, after all), those of us who made Seattle happen, and
understand it as having a deeper meaning than just a confused bump in
the road to an inevitable corporate globalization, have to keep the
story alive, keep the discussions that flowed from it going forward,
deepening and learning.
The ruling class ideology of endless prosperity and growth in a
democratic capitalist world of "free" countries has suffered a slap
across the face in Seattle. History has asserted itself. But what does
history mean exactly in this context? Specifically, history means the
inevitable re-emergence of class conflict. Seattle was many things to
many people, but everyone there in opposition to the WTO knew that their
interests were opposed to the corporate agenda for unfettered "free
markets" and capitalist development. People from all walks of life, all
ages, races, and nationalities, came together to raise their specific
concerns, but for once saw that their issues were fundamentally
connected to their fellow protesters and their issues. Thus the now
famous slogan "Turtles and Teamsters: Together at Last" embodies a
profound unity among people fighting for decent lives as workers, people
fighting for a healthy relationship to global ecological well-being,
people fighting sweatshops and child labor, people fighting to save
old-growth forests and stop toxic waste dumping, people fighting to save
subsistence agriculture and family farms, and so on.
It was absolutely exhilarating to be in the midst of this polyphonous
cacophony. For anyone who has been politically active during the long
dark era of the past two decades, the events in Seattle were a Rip van
Winkle-like experience of awaking from a long somnambulistic slumber.
After sleepwalking through the greatest speedup in human history, the
mad descent into barbarism represented by "smart wars" in the Middle
East, genocide in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, slaughter in
Indonesia, the rampant depletion of forests, fresh water, air and land,
finally the streets were filled with well-informed, committed,
self-disciplined, passionate people envisioning a very different life.
The thousands of participants in Seattle represent an important
development, especially in U.S. history. Working people came together to
contest trade policies being negotiated behind closed doors. More
importantly, in the fight over trade policies, the people in the streets
knew that their situation was fundamentally allied with people in other
countries being victimized by the same policies.
It is an old piece of Marxism that the working class is united by
capital. Originally this analytical point explained how subsistence
farmers, once evicted from their lands by the process of enclosure,
found themselves as factory workers, and eventually developed new forms
of struggle based on the new unity experienced on assembly lines and in
working class urban slums. Since the early 1970s, capitalist
globalization has ripped apart working class communities in the U.S.
rustbelt, old industrial centers in Europe, and finally even destroyed
the industrial foundation of working class life in Eastern Europe and
the former Soviet Union. Globalization has moved production to low-wage
countries around the world.
Meanwhile, urban life has undergone unprecedented transformation as
working people have been uprooted everywhere and found themselves hurled
from place to place in search of work and a living. Stable neighborhoods
and communities have been broken down by this transience, made worse in
many places in the U.S. by so-called "redevelopment" which has generally
targeted working class communities which were home to distinct
subcultures in the working class (such as African-Americans, retired
port workers, etc.). One might argue that the quiescence of the past two
decades has been a result of the success of ruling class policies in
dismembering working class communities that had a memory of resistance,
and the know-how to carry it out. Of course, trade unions, liberal
politicians, mainstream environmental and feminist groups, all played
important roles in demobilizing and demoralizing pockets of social
opposition, too.
The Seattle/WTO meeting brought all these diffuse and fragmented
constituencies back together in a unified front against the most
tangible and obvious expression of global capitalist governance.
Although the idea of class, especially working class, is not widely
understood or accepted in U.S. culture, the movement that discovered
itself in Seattle is fundamentally a working class movement. The people
in the streets may identify themselves more formally with their cause,
whether it be ecological or human rights or what have you, but you can
be sure that few if any of them are anything in their daily lives but
wage workers. In any case, the  people in the streets of Seattle
articulated a sophisticated understanding of the new global political
situation, and saw their issues as transcending borders, workplaces,
industries and populations. This alone is an earth-shattering
development, and one that you can be sure has inspired a great deal of
counter-planning by ruling class strategists. The machinations of
politicians and trade union bureaucrats will inevitably confuse and
distract us as we try to go forward from our victory and breakthrough in
Seattle. But the experiences that people had in the streets cannot so
easily be swept aside.
Direct Action Matures
Thousands of people between the ages of 17 and 25 had their first ever
experience of real politics, of nonviolent direct action as a powerful
force of mass political action, of police repression and street
fighting. The success of the Direct Action Networks strategy to shut
down the WTO meeting on November 30 was as surprising to the members of
the Network as it was to the police, media and the WTO ministers
themselves.
Much has been learned during the last twenty years of direct action at
nuclear and military facilities around the country. In 1979 the
Boston-based Clamshell Alliance staged a major attempt to occupy the
Seabrook, New Hampshire nuclear plant site, while Abalone Alliance
affinity groups tried the same in 1980 and 1981 at Diablo Canyon,
California. Police and state troopers repulsed those efforts with
relative ease. Dozens of sit-ins and civil disobedience mass arrest
actions have since been carried out at Rocky Flats in Colorado,
Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the Nuclear Test Site in
Nevada, and dozens of other sites around the country. Slowly but surely
the skill and tactical savvy of the protesters has improved. A couple of
years ago, forest protesters got national attention for sitting in a
congressmans office in northern California, their arms locked inside
metal tubes, leading the local sheriffs to apply pepper spray under
their eyelids with cotton swabs.
That lock-down technique, augmented by cement and chicken wire, and
employed by several dozen affinity groups of 5-25 people in many
locations simultaneously, proved to be too much for the police in
Seattle. The inspiring courage of the direct action activists helped
them survive frontal assaults and chemical attacks by the police, who
eventually withdrew demoralized. Intensive preparation and role-playing
had readied the demonstrators for the counterattacks they faced. Many
had come with gas masks. Every affinity group had its own medical and
legal auxiliary, the medics bringing water and first aid to those most
severely attacked by the police. It was a brilliant demonstration of a
self-organized "army" of peaceful, determined protesters who had made
elaborate contingency plans and organized the whole thing from the
bottom up through the tried-and-true structure of affinity groups.
The extensive and intensive training that preceded the November 30 day
of action, combined with the super-accelerated learning experience of
living through that day and the following ones, sets the stage for a new
generation of activists. The thousands of young people who had their
first experience in Seattle could have hardly had better training,
either from the tactical side or from the political education side. It
was also an inspiring, confidence-building experience for hundreds of us
who have organized politically (and largely ineffectively) for the past
two decades.
Counter-Propaganda
The galvanizing success of that week in Seattle cannot be easily drowned
in propaganda.  The Independent Media Center, the grassroots
counter-information system that reached a new level of sophistication in
Seattle, is generating dozens of videos, newspapers, flyers and books.
Based in a storefront in downtown Seattle, unfunded and lacking any
formal staff, the Indy Media Center provided a focus for over 200 people
participating in a newsgathering operation that sent out dispatches
throughout the five days of the protests. Online streaming video and
audio went out over the internet, while a half-hour documentary was
produced each night and sent out by satellite to a network of
independent cable tv stations around the country. Those five video half
hours are now circulating in thousands of copies, being shown at public
screenings, classes, and living rooms all over the country and the
world. . .carrying the powerful experience well beyond those who
immediately lived itbut even more crucially, creating a representation
of the Seattle protest that stands in permanent antagonism to the myriad
attempts by pundits of the left and right to narrow its meaning to their
own agenda.
A daily newspaper was produced out of the Indy Media Center, along with
dozens of radio programs as well. The Independent Media Center succeeded
in breaking the blockade of information usually thrown around an event
like this by the mass media, who did their part by emphasizing the
actions of a few dozen window-breakers over tens of thousands who
remained paradoxically peaceful in their unambiguous war against the WTO
and its delegates. (An Italian journalist, Pierluigi Sullo, said "The
medium, beyond words, is nonviolent struggle, which, as we have seen,
does not mean unwarlike struggle.")
During the darkest times of the Soviet Union, when secret police sought
out dissidents who painstakingly typed up each and every copy of
underground manifestos (called samizdat), the power of those dissident
publications went a long way toward undercutting the credibility of the
ruling party. In the post-Cold War era in the U.S., underground media is
not seized because this culture uses a more sophisticated form of
repression: pretend such alternative views simply dont exist. Drown
them in the incessant roar of One Big Channel of Corporate Infotainment
24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Seattle videos, though, are a great
example of a new grassroots system of undercutting the centralized
control of a few media corporations. As the videos, documents, and
personal accounts slowly circulate around the country, the credibility
and authority of the current "order" erodes.
The  power of camcorders and computers was thoroughly harnessed by an
anti-corporate, anti-capitalist media in the service of the broad and
diverse popular movements that came together in Seattle. For future
political campaigns, rallies, even for helping a day-to-day attack on
the infotainment monopoly of the media conglomerates, the Indy Media
Center in Seattle was a vitally successful experiment that far
out-performed anyones most optimistic fantasies. The financial and
personal resources needed to make this ad hoc phenemonen an ongoing
presence in U.S. society are not in place. The Seattle experience was a
wonderful demonstration of just how much techno-wealth and know-how
exists, and how easy it can be to divert it to other ends than that for
which it was originally intended.
Refusing Automation Down on the Farm
The day before the WTO shutdown, Monday the 29th, a smaller march of
about 2,500 people converged on a McDonalds in downtown Seattle where
French farmers passed out 2 kilo blocks of delicious Roquefort cheese.
Numerous vegans in the crowd turned down the smelly largesse with
dismay, but some of us were delighted to be freely sharing some of the
worlds finest cheese with its makers, as a public repudiation of the
vapid fare served up in fast food joints across America. Family farmers
from Canada, rural U.S., Japan, and France all spoke out against the big
multinational food companies who are bent on driving family farms,
organic agriculture, and even traditional low-tech farming into
bankruptcy. Meanwhile a couple of thousand of the people gathered
against the WTO and global capitalism lent their presence to a raucous
warm-up to the next days Main Event.
Environmentalists, unionists, farmers, activists of various stripes,
found an easy unity in their wide opposition to the latest technological
developments in agriculture, namely genetically modified foods. The
entry of bioengineering into the generations-long process of capitalist
centralization and intense automation has in its own way brought
together an unprecedented spectrum of opposition. Regrettably, a good
deal of this upsurge against bioengineered food is falling into the
liberal trap of basing its opposition on mere food safety. No doubt the
campaign planners think theyll be able to mobilize many more
"apathetic" Americans by scaring them about their food. But this is a
recipe for failure. Reducing the issues surrounding genetically modified
foods to one of "safety" pits corporate mercenaries in white lab coats
against underfunded, earnest gadflys plaintively seeking media attention
for their "sky is falling" rhetoric. This serves to accept (or at least
to ignore) the deeper problem of genetically altering the web of life,
destroying the integrity of distinct species, and doing such dramatic
things without any idea of what the outcome might be for planetary
ecology. Essentially, the food safety argument focuses (out of
expedience, I suppose) on our status as guinea pigs for agribusiness,
but in so doing, casts aside the much larger problem of subjecting the
entire planet to bizarre, unpredictable, dangerous experiments in
genetic manipulation.
The convergence of constituencies around opposition to Monsanto and
Terminator seeds and genetically modified foods in general is better
seen as a profound refusal of the "normal" trajectory of capitalist
development. Since the original uprooting of farmers from common lands
over two centuries ago, the expansion of capitalist production has made
food production more and more remote, while enforcing a rigid separation
between urban dwellers and nature, only vaguely assuaged by parks and
camping trips to the mountains. Perhaps the contemporary booms in
organic foods, community gardening, habitat restoration, and yes, food
safety, are all manifestations of a quest to overcome the old division
between city and country? The incredible distances that food travels is
part of the impetus for its genetic modification towards greater
durability and longer shelf lives. As we reject genetically modified
foods we also inherently embrace a return to local production, and a
greater integration with natural resources in our immediate environment.
Perhaps this new "food activism" represents a reappropriation by workers
of their own activity, a making time for digging in the dirt, growing
and preparing food, re-establishing a closer connection with natural
cycles of crops and seasons. Its important to reject corporate
manipulation of genes and germ lines, the monopolization of seeds and so
on. Harder to understand and embrace is a crucial rejection of a
helpless detachment from the real decisions that shape our lives, a new
insistence on our right to decide together the limits to the
marketization of life itself. In the streets of Seattle, such larger
issues were vitally alive.
The Elephant In Seattle Has Many Sides
The debates which erupted during and after Seattle among activists are a
welcome blast of political wind through the narcoleptic stillness of our
apolitical culture. Some nonviolent protesters fell into a familiar
self-righteous anger at the autonomists who attacked corporate property.
This has led to debates in newspapers and different forums around the
country about the meaning of violence, the strategic importance of a
focus on the unassailable behavior of the demonstrators (as opposed to
the ongoing "normal" behavior of the corporate targets of the protests),
the tactical value of a self-disciplined, broad-based movement for
attracting new participants, and so on. Any social protest movement has
to allow for a real diversity of strategic and tactical choices. It was
curious to see various organizers claim that their choices of
nonviolence up to and including respect for property was somehow a rule
that anyone who showed up in Seattle was ethically bound to respect.
Several dozen or several hundred people joined in the protests with a
clear conviction that attacking the storefronts of multinational
criminals like The Gap, McDonalds, Starbucks, etc., was a perfectly
legitimate form of political expression. Their detractors, who
deliberately denied WTO delegates physical access to their meeting, thus
taking away their freedom of mobility, assembly and speech, saw the
trashing of stores as a major public relations setback, or worse, a
complete moral failure.
The AFL-CIO union leadership organized a large demonstration of
unionists, but then tried to keep them away from the Direct Action
Networks occupation of downtown at the precise moment when 35,000
unionists would have had an incredibly supportive impact on the whole
campaign to stop the WTO. In spite of organized monitors attempts to
turn the union march away, thousands of rank-and-file workers poured
into the streets in support of the mornings seizure of downtown. Joined
by student, leftist and environmentalist marchers, the front-line
blockaders were reinforced in their efforts; the surge of new people
into the streets during the afternoon consolidated the days victory and
made possible the victorious retreat in the evening, in spite of the
dubious directives from national union leaders.
The peaceniks and the trade union leaders both represent a version of
loyal opposition. The anti-WTO demonstrations coincided with the end of
a long period of neo-liberal loosening of government intervention and
non-market controls. The de-control of the last two decades has led to
an unprecedented concentration of capital, the most recent merger of AOL
with Time-Warner being only the latest in a long line of such events.
The protests in Seattle are in an ambiguous relationship to this
historic moment. Many protesters were clearly anti-capitalist and ready
to overthrow the system without a clear idea of how else we might
organize a complex material life for the planets six billion
inhabitants. But a number of organizers and participants seek to reform
the system, to the point of beseeching the globalizing technocrats for a
seat at the table. For these reformers, "irresponsible" behavior by
demonstrators hurts their credibility. In fact, if they prove unable to
"control" it, their usefulness to world capitalism is harder to justify.
Moreover, the union leaders and "progressive" lobbyists all work
comfortably in a world of hierarchical organization, deal-making, and
reasonable negotiation. When groups outside of that world take action on
their own, for their own strategic goals and with their own tactics, it
threatens the careful attempts by reformists to bring the neanderthals
into a process of change that will ultimately stabilize the world
economic system for the benefit of future profitability.
The authorities are working as hard as we are to digest the lessons of
Seattle. I expect they will devise pre-emptive strategies that involve
greater surveillance, more police and military offense, and more
counter-intelligence activities (disinformation, sowing discord, agents
provocateurs, and so on). Our own thinking and planning will have to go
beyond what weve done before and find new ways of consolidating and
carrying forward a coherent opposition. An important part of that is to
build on the amazing connections that were made in action in Seattle to
begin a far-reaching public discussion of the world we want to live in.
It is much easier to be against, than it is to know what were fighting
for. The shape of a society beyond the economy, one in which we freely
and democratically choose how we live, is an untried creative challenge.
How do we provide adequately for everyone, live in a new conscious
harmony with global ecology, repair the enormous damage to the planet
and our psyches? How will we overcome the entrenched power and violence
of a smart and vicious ruling class with the passion, good will, and
convivial brilliance we tasted so briefly in Seattle?
An old saying dating from the Civil War and then the huge migration west
was to "see the elephant," meaning you personally had seen something
quite remarkable. As we grope to understand the political and social
meaning of our experiences in Seattle, there's no doubt that we all saw
the elephant.
Chris Carlsson,
San Francisco
January 19, 2000
Version 1.4

A bit late, I wrote this mostly 6-8 weeks ago. But here it is for you to
beat up...



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