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Twenty Years After Seattle: Dispensing with Myths

Canadian Dimension just posted this piece, my latest “writing with movements” column. I’m re-posting it here. This article is part of the Shutdown WTO Organizers’ History Project, a collection of histories and reflections from people directly involved in organizing the Seattle mass direct action in 1999.

November 30, 2019, will mark twenty years since “Seattle 1999.” This week of mass direct action, involving tens of thousands of people, successfully undermined the Seattle Ministerial of the World Trade Organization and helped to propel a critical public discussion about neoliberalism.

Over the last two decades, counterproductive myths have developed around “the battle of Seattle.” Now is a good time to dispense with them. One way to do this is to revisit the history from the perspective of those who were involved in organizing the mass direct action. I was one among them – at that time, a 22-year-old activist living in Olympia, Washington. Along with dozens of others, I helped found the Direct Action Network (DAN) and spent months organizing for the protests.

There are three myths about Seattle that are especially harmful. The first is that what we did was altogether new. In fact, our efforts were inspired by and followed in the footsteps of militant movements in the global South, which led the global revolt against neoliberalism. Building on anti-colonial legacies, this cycle of struggle started with protests against structural adjustment measures in the 1980s, especially in Africa and Latin America, and further cohered with the Zapatistas’ emergence onto the world stage in the mid-1990s.

In addition, much of our political framework in Seattle – from affinity groups to direct action – grew out of previous movement experiences. These include the labor radicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World, revolutionary pacifist efforts, grassroots direct action initiatives in the Black freedom movement, various strands of feminist organizing, the queer radicalism of ACT UP and the Lesbian Avengers, and the forest defense activism of Earth First!.

The second myth is that the Seattle actions were largely spontaneous. “This myth,” writes former DAN organizer David Solnit, “overlooks the massive amounts of grassroots organizing, mobilizing, networking, education, alliance building, media work, and the creation of a unifying strategic framework.”

The vision for mass direct action in Seattle developed through an informal West Coast activist network, primarily involving anti-war activists, anarchists, direct-action environmentalists, international solidarity groups, and anti-prison activists. We formalized as DAN in the summer of 1999. Through months of meetings, debates, and work, DAN generated an action strategy, built relationships with other organizations, and mobilized on an ambitious scale.

DAN developed and distributed more than 50,000 copies of a broadsheet with information about the WTO and detailed instructions for participating in the direct action. DAN also organized a roadshow that toured along the West Coast, offering performances and action trainings. DAN members regularly facilitated popular education workshops and spoke at events throughout the region. And just before the WTO meetings began, DAN ran a nine-day “convergence” in Seattle, where we offered orientation, trainings, meals, and space for protest preparation.

Not everyone – and probably not even a majority – of those who protested in Seattle came through DAN. But we trained thousands of people and reached tens of thousands more. Our efforts created an infrastructure for what unfolded in the streets.

The third myth is that what we did in Seattle was magical, even flawless. In reality, we made many mistakes. As former DAN organizer Stephanie Guilloud notes, “We were not building a long-term resistance movement: we were mobilizing for a protest.” As we urgently mobilized, many of us overlooked the political implications of the fact that we were predominantly white.

Privilege framed white organizers’ experiences in many ways. We mostly stayed within our limited activist networks and social scenes. Many of us didn’t think about the different meanings and risks of direct action tactics for communities that face police repression every day. And for the most part, we were only beginning to understand the interconnections among colonialism, capitalism, ableism, hetero-patriarchy, white supremacy, and other systems of domination.

The people most affected by what we protested in Seattle were not majority white, and significant numbers of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color did participate in the protests. Those of us who were white should have worked more intentionally in solidarity with their efforts.

While mobilizing, we also didn’t consider how to lay the foundations for a resilient movement. As a result, we didn’t grapple with crucial questions: How should we be consciously connecting movement efforts to ongoing community-based struggles? And how should we, in Guilloud’s words, “challenge the dynamics of privilege and oppression while also building large, wide, and deep movements that are led by and rooted in the experiences of people who know injustice and exploitation – currently and historically”? These questions continue to be some of the most pressing for movements in North America.

Seattle 1999 was a tremendous victory. Let’s celebrate it and learn from what actually happened, including the mistakes.

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