The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization

Eddie Yuen, Daniel Burton-Rose and George Katsiaficas, eds.The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization reviewed by Benjamin Shepard

A friend recently suggested that perhaps the most important thing social movements can do is to create and sustain joyful communities of resistance. Evidence of such spaces abounds in this collection of essays. In the midst of continued hostility toward the global justice movement, the book’s contributors outline both why this movement matters and what must be done to maintain its vitality. In addition to the first-hand historical accounts of November 1999, the work offers ample detail of a culture of dissent and community-building. Expressive of this are both the cover art of Seth Tobocman and the joyful poem “In Praise of the Seattle Coalition” by New York/Jersey poet Eliot Katz. Recalling those heady days of late 1999 from the vantage point of his TV set, Katz ponders the fantastical convergences of that magical, millennial week:

After curfew, the skies lit up & birds flew across the continents to celebrate
Ancient redwood trees shoot their leaves to prevent WTO delegates from being received
The town salmon agreed to wear union windbreakers for the week.

Yet in the days after 9/11, The Battle of Seattle was close to being scrapped. Its anarchist publisher, Soft Skull Press, an independent press then located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, struggled to stay afloat. Eddie Yuen addresses the book’s difficult journey in a gripping prologue:

As this book was heading to press, the world came to a halt with the horrendous terrorist attacks of September 11th. The radical political space which had been opened up by the anti-globalization movement was instantly pulverized (especially in the US), and the world since then seemed enveloped in a new Cold War between a vengeful American empire and a vicious right wing fundamentalism. This project, which started out as a practical compendium of articles for use by a nascent movement, feels, as I write this prologue, like a work of history, depicting a long ago time. We can only hope the movement is able to regroup.”

Yuen’s painfully honest words are the volume’s bittersweet soul. Throughout the book’s release party in March of 2002, speaker after speaker passed out flyers calling for: “NYC Labor Solidarity with Immigrant Detainees,” imploring movement activists to respond and rally for those held without access to lawyers. Barely concealed in these pleas was a frustration that no one knew how to do much more than scream.

The work’s authors suggest that the question of illegal detainees should function as a litmus test for the movement. As of today, little progress has been made for their plight. But despite the new movement’s post-9/11 vulnerability, many are not ready to let it slide. For many months after the attack, it was difficult to gauge the movement’s fate as armchair historians and opinion makers wrote a barrage of premature autopsies. Few activists, however, were ready to write off the radical social and cultural space that had been opened up. That very space is what makes the present essays so special. In their range of voices and opinions, they maintain a spirit of earnestness and possibility within countless stories.

Toward the end of his essay, “Seattle Was Not the Beginning,” co-editor George Katsiaficas (whose activism dates from the 1960s) recalls being invited to speak at a Seattle bookstore called Left Bank Books on the night of November 30, 1999. The event was cancelled because of the declaration of martial law in the city. Instead of giving the talk, Katsiaficas ended up getting to know a young activist who had helped organize the event, “and as result we decided to work together on this book.” Such heartfelt connection between cohorts of activists is witnessed throughout the volume. Importantly, the condescending tone of some Golden ’60s veterans has been replaced by one of cooperation and mutual respect. The result of this link is a series of openings, ways to conceive of and rewrite movement history for a new generation-of activists, scholars, and followers.

As the North American global justice movement ebbs, flows, and ebbs again in a perpetual rope-a-dope with the ongoing 9/11 backlash, it’s worthwhile to pause and consider the movement’s compelling cultural contributions, which include a striking new narrative of unrest. The global justice movement has been highly influenced by the structure of email discourse. A typical movement activist receives some 25-50 emails a day, especially just before and after major actions. While much of the email amounts to rants, the writings of certain radical journalists, theorists and movement players rise above the cacophony. In much the same way that merely standing up to make a proposal at an ACT UP* meeting became a trial by fire for activists in the early 1990s, the capacity to hold the attention of readers whose fingers are one millisecond away from the delete key has created a number of prolific movement bards. Their opinions shoot around the Net as their ideas and strategies became part of the movement’s public face and debate. When report-backs from L.A. Kauffman’s “Mobilize New York” or “Free Radical” lists and dispatches from Starhawk’s travels to movement epicenters in Seattle, Genoa, and elsewhere are posted, they find their way through the virtual wasteland into the public sphere. Some appear in e-colums and discussion boards; others find their way into books such as this, establishing themselves as the literature of the movement. What makes these dispatches effective is their capacity, in the tradition of Studs Terkel, to use stories rather than didactics to convey political points. Instead of the usual political tract in which the reader is hit on the head with the obvious, this new literature uses first-hand narrative to set the scene, history to contextualize the setting, and a pinch-but only a pinch-of theory to help situate the movement’s open ended political wanderlust. There must be a premium on style for a report to rise to the level of effective movement literature.

A dynamic element of the writing on the new unrest is the way in which accounts of actions open up spaces for movement histories- from ecology, to anarchism, to labor-and their rationale within the current activist response to neoliberalism. Stanley Aronowitz’s essay, “The Seeds of a Movement: From Seattle to Washington and Beyond,” in which he actually refers to L.A. Kauffman’s Free Radical column, is an effective example. In it, Aronowitz begins with a story about feeling nervous as he walked to join the labor contingent at the Ellipse during the A16 anti-IMF protests in Washington DC. “From the moment we stepped out of the Metro and began walking toward the demonstration I had the feeling that organizers’ predictions of about ten thousand protesters were a little overstated.” Like a good storyteller, Aronowitz gives his recollections a double meaning. The anxiety he confesses to feeling appears to be as much about labor’s recent struggles as it is about the demo at hand.

From here Aronowitz offers a brief history labor’s relationship to the rise of capitalist globalization. His review of the Cold War compromise between capital and labor is effective and concise. By the time Welfare Reform ran its course in 1996, the underpinnings of this safety net had been all but dismantled. What follows is the sense of awe as Aronowitz watches a radical opposition emerge from these losses. Unlike labor’s fruitless struggles against NAFTA in 1993, by 1999 labor re-emerged to put together a series of victories, including ILWU workers shutting down Westcoast ports in solidarity with the WTO protests. And a generation took a second look at labor.

Within this context, Aronowitz’s enthusiasm is undeniable. “It’s happening again,” he recalls a colleague from the anti-war days excitedly observing. They were witnesses to a movement led by activists under 30 who had organized a coalition willing to name what it was up against: “capitalism.” This generational and strategic turn is at the heart of the essays. “Each year millions of rural people leave their ancestral homes for the megalopolis, thousands of indigenous people have cultures shattered by the missionaries and multinationals, their temporal sensibilities replaced by clock time and their myriad aesthetics pasteurized Spielberg and Disney,” Yuen explains, detailing corporate globalization’s homogenizing steamroller over distinct public spaces.

With the birth of the global justice movement has come a vast expansion of the global public sphere. The present essays narrate a new movement’s capacity to re-ignite the idea of a truly global political project. While events in Seattle, Prague and Davos made headlines, countless micro mobilizations-from the formation of ACT UP (1987) to the present-made solidarity and resistance experiences for a new generation of activists. This is not to deny that there are vast strategic differences. Tensions between struggles against capitalism with a capital “C” and the necessity to make advances within a system recognized as inherently flawed can be witnessed throughout the collection. These complexities are embodied in the book’s amazing dispatches. While some of the selections are better than others, the great essays-by L.A. Kauffman, Rachel Neumann, Barbara Epstein, and the Surrealist Movement in America-far outweigh any of the problems.

The one major gap is the lack of any discussion of AIDS or queer activism in general or, more specifically, the role of ACT UP in revi- talizing the use of civil disobedience in the late 1980s, and in later challenging the WTO and the system of global patents that impeded “pills into bodies” of people across the globe.

While the editors pay homage to a new activism of “praxis,” the essays sometimes neglect the practical tasks involved. The difficult challenge for many in the global justice movement is reconciling a struggle against unbridled capitalism with the need for immediate limited reforms to make the system function less harshly. During the next WTO round in Qatar (2001), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including Doctors Without Borders and the Healthgap Coalition followed up on Seattle by sending members into the meetings. There they fought for and won concessions allowing countries to manufacture generic AIDS drugs at cost without reprisal.

Rather than acknowledge this sort of necessary work, the volume reveals an opposition to the work of NGOs regardless of what role they are playing. The sentiment is certainly understandable. One of the volume’s most complex essays, James Davis’s “This Is What Bureau- cracy Looks Like: NGOs and Anti-Capitalism,” specifically responds to the moment in Seattle when professional reformers in NGOs directly assisted the police in blocking anarchists from breaking windows. In the next global justice protests against the IMF/ World Bank in Washington (2000), trade union leaders actually called for labor not to participate in the day’s blockade, and organized labor failed to play much of a role in global justice protests after this. Both organized labor and a number of NGOs, including Global Exchange and Public Citizen, benefited from the momentum created by Seattle. Yet anarchists did much of the heavy lifting, creating changes and breakthroughs seldom witnessed during the previous years of domestic battles over trade. Within this context, Davis suggests that celebrities and NGOs achieve little by seeking a compromise with capital. “NGO’s, however well intentioned many may be, are not a substitute for real social and political movements,” he contends. Davis is right to question the hierarchical, even sectarian, nature of many organizations, be they NGOs, non-profits, or movement-based organizations. And most certainly new approaches and thinking are necessary. But this should not lead to the neglect of short-run goals. Many low-income people depend on NGOs to provide vital services, including clean needles, dental dams, stem kits, housing, food and healthcare. Respecting this imperative is part of the “diversity of tactics” which gives the global justice movement its thriving energy. Instead of acknowledging that different groups play different roles, Davis offers a dismissal: “NGOs are to imperialism what artist bohemians are to urban gentrification.”

The attack on NGOs speaks to a larger difficulty in The Battle of Seattle. With so many essays about a single week, albeit a great one, one gets the feeling that the authors are hanging on for dear life. Saul Alinski once said that wins are necessary to keep movements vital. But by making Seattle the standard against which everything else is measured, another unmatchable monolith-another Woodstock¾ emerges as a commodity to fetishize instead of build upon. Since the book was released, Eddie Yuen has argued that local community organizing, not Seattle-like protest (which can only happen with an element of surprise long gone), is the most effective way to respond to the 9/11 backlash. Translating the goals of the global justice movement into such local struggles thus becomes a central challenge. Given the current context, it may be easier to look backward to glorious victories than forward to a future that might bring compromise, tough economic decisions, or the slow road into political oblivion. After observing the Democratic National Convention (2000), just miles from the South Central LA streets which sparked the 1992 riots, Juan Gonzalez suggests: “The movement. must expand to America’s heartland, or it will slowly wither and die.” A number of other writers suggest that the movement needs to diversify and deal with the question of race.

It’s an essential point that countless writers express as an imperative-“must,” “should,” etc. The protests against the prison industrial complex during the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia offered just such a possibility. Since then, however, the movement appears to have turned its back on continuing campaigns, such as New York’s Drop the Rock [-efeller Drug Laws]. One senses an aversion to the slow work of building local alliances or dealing with policy decisions. But a better road exists. The scenario of activists joining local struggles for racial justice, community labor alliances, queer public space groups, and campaigns organized by people of color offers a more useful model than bemoaning why activists of color from Harlem and the Bronx are not joining in protests initiated by middle class whites. In the context of a permanent war economy in which drug users and activists are equated with terrorists, global justice activists assisting struggles against an escalating War on Drugs offer a useful way out of the dead end. An aversion to anything that smacks of incrementalism only gets in the way. Unfortunately, the movement’s often oppositional nature, reflected in the unfortunate use of the term “antiglobalization” instead of “global justice” throughout the volume’s introduction, presents just such an impediment.

If there is a useful lesson in Bill Ayres’s recent memoir of his SDS and Weather Underground days, it is that he wished his movement had spent more time converting its suburban parents (as Ho Chi Minh had asked) than engaging in guerilla warfare. The same could be said of today’s struggles. If the movement fails to engage local political realities, it is difficult to imagine it enduring.

All this being said, the world is a much better place with a fabulous global justice movement of colorful actions. In the end, what unfolds in The Battle of Seattle is a frustrating and wonderful set of essays-frustrating because of the political and cultural forces that have slowed this movement, but exciting because of the continuing possibility of the movement’s carnival against capital. The moments in which loud samba beats have blended with propaganda are some of the most amazing I have had as an activist. Yuen et al’s collection delightfully captures this spirit, while offering the necessary questions for the movement to continue to thrive. Yuen counsels, I believe correctly, that the movement is at its best when rejecting the hairshirt left. Perhaps my favorite essay in the volume is George Lakey’s “Mass Action Since Seattle: Seven Ways to Make Our Protests More Powerful.” I will summarize those seven ways here:

1. Create more “dilemma demonstrations,” placing the powers that be in the awkward position of either allowing the demo to succeed or exposing their own moral bankruptcy by attacking a peaceful protest. Do not give cameras images of police as protectors of the peace.

2. Decide specifically who you are trying to influence (e.g., policymakers or general public); it’s not always possible to do everything.

3. Use campaigns more often; become proactive rather than reactive.

4. Understand the role of mass media. “We free up our creative energy when we simply acknowledge that these biases exist, rather than go into righteous indignation every time we read or see a new piece that puts us in an unfavorable light.”

5. Heighten the contrast between protesters and police behavior, “using appropriate symbology so that the part of the public we most want to influence will see us as the people standing for justice.”

6. Take a powerful attitude toward the prospect of state repression. Use it rather than waiting for it to use you. Closing a group to avoid infiltration is often worse than maintaining the high ground and staying open to new people and ideas.

7. Fully and explicitly commit to strategic nonviolent action. Clearly outline a position on violence, especially when working in coalition with people who risk parole violation.

Finally, what about the general question of “violence”? Many essays in this book raise the question of “tactical diversity,” i.e., respect for a diverse range of tactics-from permitted marches to civil disobedience to property destruction. As the ACME Collective noted shortly after Seattle, there is property damage against companies, and then there is violence against human beings, and they are two very different things. It is difficult to describe property damage against a Starbucks or other company that damages the physical or mental environment as violence. Part of what brought all the attention to Seattle in 1999 was the fact that the left had deployed righteous muscle and broken a few windows, shedding its image as a neutered political consciousness. And the media feasted. It’s important to recall that Nightline planned to run a 20-minute segment on the then prophetic critique of “crony capitalism” at the heart of protests during the World Economic Forum protests in NYC in January 2002. Yet, when activists acted “responsibly” and there were no headlines about “property destruction” during the peaceful 20,000-person-strong rally, the segment was canceled. In a P.T. Barnum world, sometimes a little spectacle is necessary for a political idea to garner attention. Notions of respect for a diverse range of approaches to social change make the global justice movement a pulsing force. The vast majority of the essays in The Battle of Seattle highlight this possibility within an effective framework for future successes. They are ideas movement activists can use both to create more successful actions and to sustain joyful communities of resistance and liberation.

Reviewed by Benjamin Shepard
Social Worker and Writer
New York

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