By Chris Dixon, May 2001
On Tuesday, November 30, 1999, I was in downtown Seattle–an unremarkable place amidst remarkable circumstances. Directly in front of me stood a reinforced line of police in full body armor, carrying clubs, rubber bullet guns, and grenade launchers. All around me, hundreds of protesters packed into a solid human wall, taking up half a block. And directly behind us in the middle of an intersection, at least another 100 people surrounded a large wooden platform underpinned by metal pipes. Each pipe had the arm of an activist carefully secured inside. Resolute and defiant, we were there to stay.
“This is the Seattle police,” an amplified voice crackled. The rest was drowned out by the booming discharge of a grenade launcher and the foreboding hiss of tear gas, punctuated by the rapid shots of rubber bullets. Suddenly we were scrambling, coughing, gasping, and crying. With shoves and confused stumbling, we fled. Yet just as quickly, we returned, this time with bandanas on our faces and water for our eyes. Together, we were visibly and physically confronting the logic of global capital-the assumption that multinational corporations somehow have the natural right to move freely, dismantling any barriers that interfere with their profit margin. In short, we were there to shut down the World Trade Organization.
That week in Seattle was the culmination of months of work by countless people. I was one among them. In fact, I was at the midsummer meetings when we launched the Direct Action Network, one of the organizations that put out a call to “shut down the WTO” in Seattle. At the time, those words seemed like an idle wish, an impossible dream. At best, we hoped to be a significant blip on the nightly news and perhaps a noticeable inconvenience to trade delegates. Yet, for the first time in my activist experience, the rhetoric became the reality. On that Tuesday, the first day of WTO Ministerial meetings, most sessions were canceled because we had so successfully blockaded the Convention Center. And by the end of the week, the Ministerial was deadlocked by a coalition of delegates from Asia, Africa, and South America, who stubbornly refused to sign on to an agenda in which they had little voice.
Those heady days were incredibly transformative for me, as I imagine they were for many others. For one, I experienced our collective capacity to make an imprint upon history. Moreover, I saw that “inevitabilities,” like power, wealth, even capitalist globalization, could be challenged and changed. It was a passionate, intensely liberating moment. And predictably, a week after the Seattle protests, Newsweek tried to capture it, announcing “a new mood of radical activism of a kind–and perhaps–scale not seen for years.” Other media sources trumpeted this sensationalized surprise at the “new radicals,” as if we had just plopped down from out of nowhere. Their analysis, vacant as it was, also verged on being willfully ahistorical. I was no neophyte, nor were most of the young people around me. My presence and commitment in Seattle–like the movements that converged there–grew from deep roots, not fads. My determination was a product of my radicalization.
Activists are made, not born. My story begins in Anchorage, Alaska with a black permanent marker and a secondhand army jacket. At 13, I took the marker and scrawled “I SUPPORT RADICAL DISSIDENCE” on the back of my jacket. The most common response I got was, “Is ‘Radical Dissidence’ a band?” Despite the bewilderment and questions from my friends, that message was an important hallmark-a graphic representation of my radicalization.
My true wake-up call came by way of two radicals–a closeted queer man and a Black woman. The man was Tim, my anarchist high school teacher, and the woman was Angela Davis, the undaunted revolutionary, whom I saw speak in Anchorage in 1990. Together, they fundamentally challenged everything that I had ever known. In a word, they embodied dissent. Writer Paul Rogat Loeb, who spent years interviewing students and coming to understand their political choices, encapsulates my experience quite well: “For students who grow up insulated and protected, the stories that stir their souls often come through involvement with foreign worlds.” For me, the “foreign world” was that of dissidents dismantling my comfortable reality, as Tim and Angela so clearly did.
Time has flown since those days. And I’ve long since retired my tattered army jacket, though not its spirit. In the process, I’ve found a vibrant sense of hope. I saw the first sparkles as a teenager, in the small-scale efforts of my friends and I as we asked hard questions and struggled for democratic control over our school. They shone brighter as I discovered courageous groups of people steadfastly organizing against poverty, imprisonment, corporate sponsored environmental devastation, police brutality, institutionalized racism and sexism, labor exploitation, and the many other faces of systemic injustice. That everyday resistance is still what keeps me afloat.
I’ve found additional hope in learning to confront my privilege. Little did I know at age 13 that serious radical dissidence also means critically understanding the social forces that have shaped me as a white, middle-class, seemingly straight guy in a society founded upon structural inequalities. And I still have much to learn. Patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression have awarded me considerable privilege and comfort, blinding and cutting me off from the daily realities of most people. Consequently, dissidence–directed both outward and inward–has offered an important tool for challenging and changing not only the world, but also myself.
Confronting privilege is hardly an individual project. In fact, the hope that I’ve found here largely comes from understanding my small efforts as part of broader radical currents crossing and critically addressing race, class, gender, and sexuality, among others. Altogether, they hold the vital promise of building, in the words of organizer Helen Luu, “a movement (or movements) that is dedicated to bringing down all forms of oppression simultaneously with challenging global capitalism.” Privileged folks like me have a lot to learn from those who experience the brunt of marginalization and oppression. People of color, working class folks, women, indigenous peoples, queers, immigrants, and many others have been engaged in inspiring, frequently interconnected, struggles for a long, long time. I find hope, then, as I continue to learn how to work as an authentic ally. It’s necessarily a difficult, protracted process but always enriching.
I’ve also located hope in the wisdom of elder radicals such as Peter Bohmer. His striking emphasis is that everyone can contribute to social change in both small and large ways. Seemingly small efforts can have important–and far-reaching–results. Educating others creatively, establishing community and cultural centers, demanding authentic public oversight of police, building art installations, organizing in our workplaces, sustaining nurturing relationships, constructing alternative media, struggling for control over our schools, painting graffiti, planting community gardens, protesting welfare cuts, confronting oppression in our daily lives–these and many more contributions can be immeasurably powerful and deeply inspiring. Seen as complementary demands and tactics, these actions harbor valuable lessons about challenging power, fermenting social change, and developing directly democratic control over our lives. Indeed, they are the potential building blocks of vivacious, diverse movements capable of making key gains and ultimately transforming our society.
It is an approach that resonates for me. Though I’ve seen the astounding success of large, more militant actions, in my experience, the scale of activism doesn’t always correspond with its potential impact. I think, in particular, of the widespread success of a handful of us graduating students at Evergreen State College in 1999. We stubbornly organized to have political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal as a commencement speaker. And our small efforts created a more animated public discussion of Mumia’s case and the US criminal (in)justice system than the 35,000 people who had marched in support of him just two months earlier. With some ingenuity, luck, and determination, we discovered that we could make a substantial contribution.
I caught another glimmer of hope in 1997–long before most anyone had even heard of the WTO. Some other Americans and I joined young Canadian radicals in Vancouver who were organizing to “crash the summit” of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)–a free trade agreement between a number of Asian economies, Canada, and the US. Those radicals unabashedly took their inspiration from people in the global South, like those who had protested the preceding APEC summit in the Philippines and faced severe state repression; and from indigenous peoples worldwide, who have resisted a colonial project spanning centuries. The Vancouver activists consciously saw their actions as part of a rich history of international anti-capitalist struggle. And when they went to disrupt the summit, they were met with a level of police violence that clearly anticipated what we would later see at the WTO protests. Two years later, on the streets of Seattle, I took my inspiration from those Canadians and the tradition of resistance in which they so determinedly embedded themselves.
For me, shutting down the WTO was at once a continuation and a beginning–rooted in a personal and historical legacy of struggle and hope, yet harboring a new potential for collective action. I remember it best as a single moment on November 30 when everything paused. A radical dance troupe performed wordlessly in an occupied intersection as hundreds hummed “Amazing Grace” (an echo of an earlier movement). This was the same pregnant pause I recall noticing as Mumia’s prerecorded speech played during my college graduation. Indeed, this was the very same pause that I remember feeling at 13 when I heard Angela Davis shout, “Fight the power!” Those magical moments are hints of hope woven into an artful tapestry of struggle. They’ve sustained me since my earliest days of marker pen and army jacket.
I actually haven’t changed all that much over the years. I’m still a firmly rooted radical punk rock kid from Alaska. I still grapple with the privileges that have been afforded me. And I’m still relentlessly hopeful. These days I’m particularly excited because so many promising organizing efforts are afoot across the world. Movements are growing, innovative actions are multiplying, we’re learning from each other, and elites are increasingly defensive. For sure, radical change isn’t just around the corner. We seem, however, to be in the midst of an upsurge. The old adage, “the sixties are over,” is disappearing as we build a resistance that, while owing a debt to the old, also transcends it.
In April of 2000, shortly after the Washington, DC protests against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Time weighed in with an article entitled “The New Radicals.” “Are they dreamers,” the subtitle asked pointedly, “or sly subversives?” At first glance, it looks as though either way–as starry-eyed idealists or conniving troublemakers—us young radicals are easily dismissed. But taken another way, what about both? To dream is to imagine a different world, and to be slyly subversive is to start by strategically revolutionizing this one. In that light, with our respective roots and some hope, I’d say that Time might be on to something. The point now is to insure that the tradition of dreams and subversion continues. It didn’t start in Seattle and it won’t end in Qatar. Collectively, across the globe, we’ll have to make sure that it doesn’t.
This essay was included in the collection Global Uprising: Confronting the Tyrannies of the 21st Century edited by Neva Welton and Linda Wolf (Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society, 2001).