Murmurs of a new movement
Think, Question, Resist
Last Thursday marked the first anniversary of the rambunctious protest in Seattle against the World Trade Organization and possibly the birth of a new movement of global resistance to injustice. With the support of many organizations, notably including labor, Seattle set the mark for the movement through the mobilization of 40,000 to 50,000 people in the legal march.
Generally marches are ignored, but what distinguished this protest were the courageous nonviolent activists who blocked delegates from attending the meeting and the violent acts of the police who generously applied tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets against these nonviolent protesters. The police attacked the peaceful protesters while blatantly ignoring the acts of a small minority of activists who were engaged in a strategy of corporate property destruction. The media ate up the violence, the WTO meeting failed and activists called it a success.
At first look, it appears that the new movement's primary issue is to replace corporate sponsored globalization with a new process that will bring global justice. Indeed this was true for protests in Seattle, D.C., Melbourne, Windsor and Prague — all in the past year.
However, the same movement appeared at the Republican and Democrat national conventions over the summer and the presidential debates. What globalization and the presidential race share is that they are both broad enough to help protesters achieve a critical oppositional mass necessary for resistance. I suspect that the root issue is nothing less than the transformation of our society along radical democratic lines to place economic and political power in the hands of the people.
While activists do not agree on the specific details of a program, at a minimum they would agree that we need to limit corporate power, move dramatically to protect the environment, abolish racism/sexism/heterosexism, reduce the military, end poverty, reform the political system and build democratic non-governmental organizations.
Reiterating this incomplete laundry list of issues fails to convey the revolutionary spirit of the movement. Perhaps its greatest contribution to society is hard to explain with words, as it can only be witnessed in the streets. For before the downtown high-rises of corporate America and around the world, thousands of people are mounting mini-insurrections.
As people have recently proven by overthrowing Milosevic in Yugoslavia and in previous years across Eastern Europe, the power of the people lies in the streets. Enough people can, especially if the state is too weak or too susceptible to moral persuasion, overthrow an unjust regime.
The refreshing spirit of this new movement lies in its radical militancy and embodiment of its own values. Each demonstration is an act of radical democracy, ideally with decisions made by consensus in small groups where everyone is heard, that teaches us how life could be. Whether or not it succeeds in its specific goal, each demonstration trains hundreds or thousands of people in nonviolent resistance and provides them with an alternative analysis of the issue.
This new movement emphasizes nonviolent disruption over the traditional rally tactic. Instead of calling for injustice to stop, people are recognizing the power that lies within each of us and that we can stop it ourselves.
This is not new, but the scale is. Also some of the tactics are new. Thanks to the radical environmental movement (e.g. Earth First!) we know 101 ways to lock yourself to something or someone, making it hard for the police to remove you. Another example is the Ya Basta movement from Italy which demonstrated in Prague their tactic of wearing protective padding and other body armor so that they can take police baton blows while attempting to nonviolently break through a police line.
Activists are taking significant risks for global justice. Police tear-gas, pepper-spray (even directly applying it to protester's eyes with swabs), shoot rubber bullets and use pain compliance holds to get nonviolent protesters to move. Police infiltrate activist groups and attempt to provoke violence. They have also arrested around 500 people each at Seattle, D.C., and the Republican convention for the vicious crimes of owning a radio or cell phone, making a puppet, looking like an activist, standing on the sidewalk or blocking a street.
Protesters have responded to the mass arrests by practicing jail solidarity. Jails are brutal places, but by refusing to give your name, hunger-striking or other group forms of non-cooperation protesters have often been able to negotiate their "crime" down to a minor traffic offense.
As the corporate owned media fails in its coverage of this movement, activists have created a Web site (www.indymedia.org) with 40 geographical affiliates, providing alternative coverage in text, with pictures, audio and video. Recent protests in D.C., Philadelphia, Boston and Seattle featured live audio coverage with cell phone-equipped reporters.
Last Thursday several thousand mostly young people demonstrated in Seattle to mark the birth of the movement and 140 were arrested for refusing to disperse. What's next? Hopefully the presidential inauguration.
Beyond that it is too hard to say. But from the increased militancy and new slogans that I saw a couple of weeks ago at the School of Americas vigil at Ft. Benning, Georgia, to the 180 students who blockaded the administration building at a small Californian college last April — I detect a change in the air.
Already at an early elementary school age, Aaron liked to engage in a traditional anarchist activity which was seen on the streets during the D.C. protest, namely playing soccer. His column appears every other Monday.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Monday, December 4, 2000