Originally written for www.realbattleinseattle.org
I was not in Seattle…
It is strange to live through moments that you know will be considered “part of history” one day, in multiple ways. For one, everything is “part of history”. Second, you kind of know the story will be bigger than the thing itself.
I was 15 and was not clued in to the Global Justice movement. I was active in some small animal rights groups in the punk rock scene in the suburbs of Baltimore.
Seattle blew my mind open. I remember seeing the news articles, photos, hearing stories, and anticipating the upcoming World Bank/IMF protests in DC. Everyone was talking about it. We’d wear our bandanas around our necks to school and such. Nowadays everyone’s wearing a bandana, but back then it was sort of a symbol of Seattle-related activism. So people would see that and ask “do you go to those protests?”. It was a good way to start a conversation.
I was among many young people who were moved to action by Seattle. That week was a very significant week for us. We went from being fairly isolated activists to aspiring organizers. We were brought into a whole worldwide movement, at least, we recognized that we were part of it. It wasn’t that anything changed physically, it’s that a mass-understanding took place that we were indeed part of a large, significant force for positive change.
I went to the April 16th protests and saw tear gas for the first time. I saw police beat up non-violent demonstrators and I saw militant demonstrators resist the police. I started to really learn about the issues, about corporate globalization, about economics, about the U.S.-led wars in Latin America and Southeast Asia. I started to learn about the strong links between militarism and economics.
I dropped out of high school and worked full-time, organizing the rest of the time. I traveled to different demonstrations and met tons of great young people like me. Some of them are very close to me today. We have grown together and come to very similar places. I am so moved by their strength. There’s nothing like going to a function, whether it’s a protest or a show or a speaking event, and running into someone you were in the streets with 7 years ago… and they are still organizing and are up to really great stuff. That’s amazing.
There was a 2-year wave there where everything, especially to a young naive person, felt amazing. We were really winning these small battles and building momentum. It felt surreal at times, like when I traveled to Quebec City for the FTAA demonstrations in April 2001. Talk about tear gas! But those were powerful demonstrations, really huge displays or popular sentiment and really crucial interventions into the international debate on “globalization”. I almost enjoyed the tear gas, because the whole city was in open, celebratory revolt! “Bring it on cops, we’ve got the whole city shut-down! We’re changing the global debate on economic expansion!”
Those big protests really got a hold on me and a lot of other people. We were obsessed and always looking towards the next one. After 9/11, we started doing anti-war work as well. The goal was always to “re-created Seattle”. Everything was always going to be “the biggest thing since Seattle”. And I echoed that mis-guided rhetoric at times as well. We weren’t actually organizing people much, we were just trying to organize tactical success in the streets. What we thought Seattle was was a big street protest, tactically successful and spontaneously huge. What we didn’t realize was that Seattle was the peak of a huge movement, the result of over a decade of slow movement-building and over a year of hard, specific, and strategic work.
Eventually, especially by 03-04, no one was actually building these movements anymore. We were just holding demonstrations. The anti-war movement was just marching. The alter-globalization movement organizers were not doing large protests, they were working locally on campaigns or doing organizing against the war (which by they way needs to be viewed as part of “anti corporate-globalization work). But for the most part, the real work that produces the effective demonstrations was gone. We were just organizing the skeletal-frameworks which we though would produce effective demonstrations.
I went to Miami in 2003, again to protest the FTAA, and learned a very harsh lesson for a bright-eyed young person: Movements are waves. you peak sometimes but the rest of the time you have to do the hard work. A lot of people couldn’t take that step. It was too much to ask. It takes you out of your comfort zone and demands that you come down off your high-horse and listen to people. I demands that you be willing to open your political mind to new and different ideas to explore the links between them. It demands that you see yourself as one part of a fabric of movements. I realized I needed to be as effective an organizer as I could and I made the transition.
The debate at the time was this: Local organizing or mass protest? The outcome was never agreed upon, but I came up with my own: Both. They need each other. But you only go out in the massive protests when your movement is ready for it. You need to do the work first, build the numbers and capacity, have a good strategy and get prepared for the next steps. Don’t try to “re-create Seattle” or “re-create 68”, create the next big thing! Create something new. Don’t glorify or organize around tactics, like shut-downs, lock-downs, black blocs, etc. Work on strategies that win results and have goals. Work towards real goals. Let the tactics emerge as the goals emerge. Always organize with a strategy, never organize based on a tactic you want to do because it looks good or is fun or romantic. Do the hard work and dig in. You’ll be a lot more fulfilled and less disillusioned.
I am now 24 and an organizer in several key areas. I do solidarity work with Iraq Veterans Against the War and help strategize ways to organize the military community. I write song and essays for and about the social movements I am part of and support, about the global economy, about the links between the war in Iraq and the corporate global agenda. I educate the people around me and myself on the evolution of the trade-agreements we protested and effectively destroyed in the last decade. I work locally with a poor people’s campaign fighting poverty in Baltimore, MD. All these things are the results of my post-Seattle experience growing up in a post-Seattle U.S. and the roads I took the led from Seattle to new places.
When I look back on Seattle, I don’t just think about the WTO protests. I think about a lot of things, and I would say most people do as well. When we say “Seattle” it means Seattle, Genoa, Quebec City, Argentina, South Korea, Quito, Gothenburg, London, South Africa. It means 1999-2001 and the huge peak of global, essentially anti-capitalist movements. It means victories, celebrations, injuries. It means tear gas, blockades, riot-police, teach-ins, rallies, pamphlets, posters, concerts, and more. It means thousands of new faces, hundreds of friends, awful and inspiring experiences, heated debates, exciting, tense meetings and boring meetings. It’s a word the sums up an entire experience that many people shared.
The best part of this story is that we won huge victories and I was part of that. The FTAA, the WTO, they are effectively dead. They have been replaced by lite-version and alternative arrangements, but that was not planned. We helped affect that change. The huge changes in Latin American politics are largely the result of movements that would be characterized at “anti-globalization”. The IMF’s inability to find debtor-nations is out of control. They are left with a few huge projects: Iraq, Georgia, Turkey. But they are significantly weaker and less-trusted then before “Seattle”. And we continue to grow as organizers and find ways to combat these repressive and dangerous forces.
Much thanks to all the organizers out there who helped create “Seattle”, and to all the people who participated and grew with me. I hope everyone finds the strength to continue putting the work in and finds the deep understandings needed to proceed in times of repression. Great changes take time and work, but they often burst open unexpectedly. Here’s to the future!