From Seattle to Detroit: 10 Lessons for Movement Building on the 10th Anniversary of the WTO Shutdown

Stephanie Guilloud Nov 30, 2009

For five days in 1999, 80,000 people from Seattle and from all over the country stopped the World Trade Organization from meeting. Despite extreme police and state violence, students, organizers, workers, and community members participated in a public uprising using direct actions, marches, rallies, and mass convergences. Longshoremen shut down every port on the West Coast. Global actions of solidarity happened from India to Italy. Trade ministers, heads of state, and corporate hosts were forced to abandon their agenda and declare the Millenium Ministerial a complete failure. We said we would shut it down, and we did.

“The fact is that the Social Forum and Peoples Movement Assembly process actually started in Seattle.  The Social Forum took off from the experience of the ‘Battle of Seattle’ when the Brazilian organizing committee formed in 2000 and held the first World Social Forum in 2001. Ten years later, we come back to where this started. What has been accomplished in the last 10 years? How have our social movements developed to build the power towards real social systemic change in the US? How do we map the new forces and what is the power of the social movement assembly?”
– Ruben Solis, Southwest Workers Union, participant in the Seattle shutdown, and one of the founders of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance

As one of the founders and leaders of the Direct Action Network and a resident of Olympia, Washington, I offer personal and political reflections on the WTO shutdown as a major turning point in my life as an organizer and in our lives working to build movements in the US. As an organizer with the US Social Forum process and a co-lead to develop the People’s Movement Assembly, I carry these lessons with me on a daily basis. I offer these stories with humility and a sense of responsibility. When I refer to “we” in this brief article, I refer to my community of young people in their early twenties, living in Seattle, Olympia, Portland, and the Bay Area, who, with many others, mobilized, organized, and implemented the direct action strategies we had planned for months.

1.) Know your history: Seattle was a turning point

Seattle was a historic turning point in our movements for racial, economic and gender justice for a few reasons. On a global scale, the demonstrations and effective shutdown of the World Trade Organization’s ministerial was historic because of our position and location in the US. Seattle did not mark the beginning of a movement, it marked the beginning of a significant connection between the US and the rest of the world. Global movements had and have been challenging and confronting financial institutions and their systemic effects for decades. The demonstrations – the five days of direct action, the massive and violent state response, and the subsequent alliances – accomplished a few major shifts in historic directions. The demonstrations exposed to the US public the tangible affects of globalization on regular people’s lives. The effectiveness of the actions and stalling of the meetings allowed for delegates from the global South to challenge the policies and procedures of the WTO. And for the first time in history, the decision-making rounds of a global financial institution collapsed.

Seattle also opened a door on a new era for movement in the US. The strengths and weaknesses of our organizing efforts served as a spark for new work, new alliances, new conversations, and a new generational drive. It opened the possibility for a generation of people to understand action, movement, and strategy as effective. It also offered an opportunity to see the strengths of innovation and mass organizing, as well as the weaknesses of underdeveloped leadership and lack of connection to long-term transformative practices.

2.) Claim your victories and evaluate your mistakes.

How we organize to win is still a critical question today. Winning is different in any moment given the political context as well as the will and abilities of the people involved. We made a widespread call to Shut Down the WTO without total confidence that we could or would achieve that goal. The call was a way to declare a politic beyond reforming the WTO and towards complete transformation of the economic and social systems in motion. On the first day, we succeeded at exactly what we had said we would do. Shutting down a major financial institution with tens of thousands of people and well-coordinated non-violent action was a victory.

Claiming victory is essential to tactical decisions on the ground as well as understanding the political significance after the fact. After the success of the first day, we re-convened the Spokescouncil easily. We had planned for the possibility of mass numbers being in jail, but I am proud that we saw and rose to the opportunity of victory and understood it as an ongoing process. The next few days demanded different sets of tactics to incorporate the constant influx of new people who had not necessarily gone through the preparations that led up to the November 30th action.

That’s a taste of movement building – How do you move consistently through multiple reactions from the state and opposing forces while constantly mobilizing and expanding your base? How do you shift and re-adjust when met with the possibility of victory? And significantly (because it was lacking on a mass scale following the demonstrations) how do you expand the momentum of victory with strategic, intentional plans to continue what you started? And finally, how do you evaluate the mis-steps and mistakes after such a significant and widespread experience? How do you receive and understand criticism as well as accolade without losing momentum or integrity?

3.) Make your enemy known: Mass demonstrations are not spontaneous

Globalization and neoliberalism were not common terms or centers of public debate. The WTO was relatively unknown at the time. Its meetings were secret, the levers of decision making and the connections between nation-states and corporate leaders were blurry and deliberately non-transparent. We believed everyone had a stake in refusing to let them meet quietly, especially in our town. We knew that any major action would not be spontaneous – it would need massive buy-in and involvement from many sectors of the community.

There had been a successful campaign to pass an ordinance banning the MAI (Mulitlateral Agreement on Investment) in Olympia, and we knew there was a hook into our community on the issues of corporate control and local power. We studied the mechanisms of the WTO in order to describe it and educate about its relationship to our work, our food, our health, our governance, and our economies. I facilitated countless popular education-style workshops in classes, at unions, in prisons, and in the community. A team of us produced the broadsheet that went out that summer to over 25,000 people engaged in environmental, labor, peace, and social justice work. The articles exposed the WTO as an illegitimate and undemocratic institution, and we called for a Shut Down on November 30, 1999.

One of the most significant accomplishments of our organizing was that people knew the enemy – they knew the details, the characteristics, the impact, and the context of the WTO. We worked to make that happen. We studied and applied tactics and strategies from the Spanish Civil War and the anti-nuclear movement. We invented new tactics and strategies based on our knowledge of the terrain. It was a planned, locally-led massive demonstration with global consequence.

4.) They came out of the bars: Infrastructure and preparation allows for spontaneous action

On the first day of the demonstrations, there were a few different kinds of folks on the street. There were the organized labor marchers, prepared and routed. There were the Direct Action Network folks who had been preparing for months, organized into affinity groups and clusters with clear, coordinated instructions to hold particular intersections in various formations. And there were folks in Seattle who walked off their shifts and linked elbows in front of glass doors and irate WTO delegates. On the third day of the demonstrations, after two days of cloudy tear gas on Capitol Hill and rubber bullets flying, the confused media reports, and a lot of traumatized people who were either arrested or hurt – the people living in Seattle were the irate ones. We had more people who wanted to get involved, and they hadn’t gone through the trainings.

My affinity group was tasked on the second night of the protests with leading a march the next day on King County Jail where about 600 of our folks were being held and doing jail solidarity. We moved thousands of people from Pike Place Market with the plan to split the march and surround the jail. We were still successfully operating with tactics of surprise. There had been no police or city negotiations for any days past the first. No routes, no advance warning. (And remember that ten years ago there were no cell phones, no tweets and texts, and very little email.) We did it again – Surrounded the jail with 2000 people, made our demands, and got the lawyers in. But the real victory was the mass of people who was not prepared, was not experienced with actions, direct or otherwise, and who completely trusted our leadership and moved collectively.

In order for that trust to emerge, we created a culture. We prepared as best we could, and a culture emerged spontaneously in the moment as well. The way we used call and response was like poetry. We had to make the words meaningful and precise. And it worked – at that time and in that place. The experience, sometimes frustrating and frightening, still moves me to believe in people’s power and creativity.

5.) Surprise only works once: Evolve our tactics and strategies

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.

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. We learn similar lessons in the US Social Forum process. The Forum would be in danger of becoming a big conference if power building in multiple locations (including local, regional, national, and global relationships) is not inherent to the organizing and operational process. What has been powerful in my experience in working in the South and organizing the US Social Forum, a convergence process led by people of color in community-based organizations from multiple sectors, is that we understand that strategic convergence is still extremely necessary and valuable. That the model was developed and refined in the global South through the World Social Forum is critical to its relevance and success. The convergence in Seattle ten years ago was important, but we’re not always coming together to target an oppressive institution or body. We are also coming together to increase the breadth and width of community-led power bases. New tactics and strategies will rise from that convergence.

6.) It’s not about a leader. It is about leadership.

There are two major things you learn about inside of an affinity group: 1) Play your position and 2) trust everyone else to play theirs. There is no other option. If you’re locked down to 50 other people, you cannot also get water for everyone or communicate your coordinates. There are distinct and necessary roles. The group process of building trust and skills together over time allows for everyone to play their roles to the utmost efficiency. We were spokespeople, facilitators, planners, logisticians, tacticians, jail support, communication points, and when the time came to make hard decisions about how to move within and through the police violence, while still maintaining our effectiveness in blocking our coordinates, we made them by consensus. With 200 people. You can’t ever tell me, consensus doesn’t work or it takes too long – you’re just not doing it right.

We built that same model to scale for the Spokescouncil, and as with many of the lessons from this moment, there is a lot to learn and expand from being able to convene hundreds of people that represent thousands and make tactical decisions. These models are not about a single leader nor the absence of leaders. Leadership is critical to the functionality and direction of these spaces. The collective nature of leadership is not easy, we are not trained to work like that, and we must be intentional and deliberate about our principles as we practice them at higher and higher stakes. Leadership in this case looked like incredibly well-developed plans and structures by multiple people in different positions, while at the same time allowing everyone on the streets to claim and feel true victory in their bodies. What can we learn and share, about this model, and what needs to be further developed?

7.) Strategy, please: Action-hopping is not movement building

Most of the demonstrations that followed the Seattle demonstrations over the next two years in the US (specifically the actions around the IMF, World Bank, and political party conventions) did not have the intention, timeline, or local mobilization and support that would allow for 10,000 people to do direct action while having the support and solidarity of upwards of 60-70,000 people in the labor and progressive movements. Though there were different levels of success and effectiveness in different convergences over the next few years, we played to many of our weaknesses rather than move from our strengths and unique positions.

There were opportunities to build with broader, more grounded global movements who felt connected to what we did in Seattle. Part of what’s necessary to do this work effectively is knowing the landscape – literally and politically. In order to organize for global justice in our communities, we need to understand that the forms and functions of international financial institutions and groups change and shift to meet new economic conditions. The exclusive club of primarily colonial powers, the G8 just became the G20. How are we shifting and changing to meet new conditions? How are we building in our communities in ways that are rooted to the local conditions and responding to broad systemic realities?

8.) Leadership development, thank you.

Where there were intergenerational relationships there was strength. Where we relied on only ourselves as isolated young people, we stumbled. The impediments were age-old internal and external barriers to serious, strategic organizing. Most of us were young (I was 22) and having participated at the helm of the protests, we held this depth of experience but struggled with what all new leadership struggles with – clear political direction, strategy development, and organizing skills. The generational turning point here cannot be dismissed. I was hired and trained by a seasoned organizer and strategist, and he challenged me, supported me, and connected what was happening to a broader, historical context. That daily training I received laid the foundations for me to develop my skills as an organizer for long-term work. Others in my community also had relationships with key mentors and advisors, but there was not a movement infrastructure for that leadership to enter, learn, and build on the momentum after the demonstrations. I am still wildly cognizant of that immense and specific need on a large scale, and I strive to carve out space and time to give and receive what I can to people who are battling on the frontlines of our communities.

9.) Guilt slowed us down: Solidarity is action

Elizabeth Martinez’s article “Where was the Color in Seattle?” sparked debate following the demonstrations about race, leadership, and global justice. Though there were great points to discuss, the debate it sparked is not as relevant as the larger context of how white supremacy and racism manifests in our social movements. The Seattle demonstrations did not represent “white movements” but it did reflect many dynamics – old and painful dynamics around leadership, race, culture, and styles, as well as some new dynamics about the nature of massive convergences from a local base with national reach. The debate and challenge around the roles of white people in leadership was happening within the organizing bodies. We challenged racism where we saw it, we attempted to advance our communities’ understanding and skill through trainings and workshops, and ultimately the affinity group I was working with in Olympia made a decision to resign from the Direct Action Network if we did not examine our broader positions as a leadership body and our roles within that context.

One outcome of the dialogue at that time was a culture embedded in identity rather than experience. This culture had already begun plaguing this new generation but has since ballooned. The critique for critique’s sake nature of anti-oppression work showed a lack of development as well as real misunderstandings of history and race in the US. Instead of emerging from this historical moment to build deeper connections to local and global struggles, young white activists questioned their right to act. Confronting white supremacy is not an existential activity. The lesson here for our US movements is about understanding how to 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.

10.) Know your vision:  Learn lessons in order to move forward.

The lessons of that time are with me in my everyday organizing work. I moved back South (I’m from Houston and live in Atlanta now) in 2003 to work with Project South and practice movement building in Southern grassroots communities. After Seattle, I knew I needed more development around strategy, history, and developing long-term organized formations to build instead of react. Project South was one of the primary anchors for the first-ever US Social Forum in 2007, and for me the Forum was a continuation of the momentum we built in Seattle. In an exciting shift and in less than ten years after the demonstrations, the Forum represented more vision, more leadership from frontline communities, and more strategic connection to global struggles.

From that process and within the context of global dialogues about coordinated actions, we are building the People’s Movement Assembly as an organizing process to prepare for the Forum, to make decisions at the Forum, and to advance new directions after the Forum. We are pulling on all these lessons from 10 years ago to facilitate Movement Assemblies – mass convergence, collective decision-making, political clarity, shared leadership, and trust that we will move forward together. What will we build over the next ten years in order to shift, evolve, and grow our movements to win?

Stephanie Guilloud co-founded the Direct Action Network with other organizers from California, Oregon, and Washington. She also edited and produced Voices from the WTO, an anthology of first-hand accounts from the demonstrations and is a contributor to The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle, a short anthology released for the tenth anniversary of the WTO protests that examines how this watershed event has been misrepresented.

This article originally appeared in Project South‘s fall newsletter.

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