dorset chiapas solidarity

December 5, 2015

Why ‘Seattle’ Still Matters 16 Years On

Filed under: Zapatistas — Tags: , , — dorsetchiapassolidarity @ 7:30 am


Why ‘Seattle’ Still Matters 16 Years On

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By Ryan Harvey

Sixteen years ago, at the end of 1999, 50,000 people participated in civil disobedience actions around Seattle to shut down the ministerial of the World Trade Organization (WTO). I am not alone in saying that those events changed my life—and I wasn’t even there.

One cannot tell the story of Seattle without discussing the significant historic context that produced it. But history is strange, and it doesn’t have to make sense. In telling it, we have unlimited options. What do we include and what do we omit? What perspectives do we represent, which do we silence? Where do we begin? How many roads do we venture down to explore the topic?

The effects of what became known as ‘Seattle’ were enormous. The anti-globalization movement had arrived in the U.S. What the WTO was trying to pull off, veiled by the poetics of some of its intellectual defenders in American think tanks, was to push the poisons of the great American Ponzi schemes onto the world. They were trying to send the message, in the words of Rage Against the Machine, that “there is no other pill to take, so swallow the one that made you ill.”

Unfortunately for the WTO, the protests were too big and too significant to spin the story too much in the press. Talk of “violent anarchists” was the best they could come up with, and that only took them so far. No one could hide the fact that the WTO was up to something very sketchy and that people were mobilizing against it in massive numbers. “Once the WTO looked unstoppable,” Rebecca Solnit reflects about Seattle in her book “Hope in the Dark,” “now its survival had been thrown into doubt.”

A 16-year-old me watched people on the news getting brutally beaten and tear gassed by riot-police in Seattle. I saw myself in them, and I began to educate myself about the situation, about neoliberal economics, and about political repression. I attended the next “big thing” after Seattle, when 30,000 or so of us marched to disrupt the World Bank and IMF meetings in Washington D.C. on April 16, 2000, and I tasted tear gas for the first time.

Between 1999 and 2001, it seemed like every month or two there was another massive demonstration against the global agenda of the neoliberal institutions; in Prague, Quito, Soweto, Seoul, Buenos Aires, Geneva, Evian. There were also massive political situations, like when Argentina’s economy collapsed at the end of 2001, causing a sort of revolution in the country as successive governments were brought down.

Though my involvement in this movement started in Seattle, the history I tell of it does not. Even the nine months of major organizing drives, the major education efforts, the major cross-political alliances, and the major civil disobedience trainings which culminated on November 30, 1999, were just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

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For many of us, we start our history of this movement in Chiapas, Mexico on January 1, 1994, when the Zapatista Front for National Liberation (EZLN) emerged from the jungle armed, with masks over their faces and a red star flying above them. Timed to coincide with the initiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Western Hemisphere’s first official collaborative neoliberal system, and armed with the spirit of a century of Mexican revolutionaries, they drove the Mexican government and its military out of the region.

The Zapatistas redefined guerrilla struggle as they claimed their lands back from the Mexican State while refusing to attempt a national overthrow of Mexico. They spoke of direct democracy, of “Zaptaismo,” and of a new way of doing politics steeped in their own radical traditions throughout the new “Zapatista Territories.” Like the Kurdish and Arab revolutionaries in Rojava today, they sought autonomous, non-state solutions to replace not just the state but also the previous generation’s version of National Liberation. They moved, in the words of anarchist Black Panther and former political prisoner Ashanti Alston, “beyond nationalism,” but were “not without it.”

The Zapatistas represented a new way forward in the global struggle for economic and social justice. Only a year after their revolt, they called on social movements from any corner of the universe (literally), to come join them and 3,000 others for an “Encuentro”—a global meeting—to discuss their common enemies. There, a unified strategy of confronting the institutions behind the neoliberal project was born, combining the efforts of many grassroots movements that had been confronting those forces in their own countries; farmers from Thailand, South Korea, and France, poor tenants from Soweto, South Africa, Spanish anarchists, landless peasants from Brazil, former Guerrillas from across Latin America, students and activists from Europe and the United States.

But the Zapatistas were the tip of their own iceberg too. What would they have been without the Latin American Marxist insurgencies that, through trial and error, tested models of resistance before them? And what would their internationalism mean without all the histories of those other movements that answered the Zapatista’s call to confront “el enemigo común;” militant unions like South Korea’s KCTU, support campaigns like The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, the divestment movement against Apartheid?

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Indeed, the spirit people like me discovered in Seattle was not “blown’ in the wind,” it was put there on purpose by dedicated social movement participants spanning many generations’ trials, errors, successes, failures, experiments, winning-strategies, and accidental victories.

The movement was at its strongest point when the September 11 attacks came, and we in the U.S. were never able to push further afterwards. The protests died with significant speed, and the now-fragmented movement mostly dissolved into a new, unfortunate anti-war movement.

As energy fell, many of us still clinging to this movement of movements organized protests with the hopes of recreating the spirit of Seattle. “This is going to be the next Seattle” or “the biggest thing since Quebec,” we would tell people as we prepared for the next round of protests. Each time we tried we failed, at least in the short-term, and after a few years we ended up let down, bitter, and often depressed. The final straw came in Miami in 2003, where a 10,000-person march against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations was brutally attacked by an equal number of cops.

By the end of the first day, a journalist would lose his eye, reports of sexual assault would come from those arrested, and several would receive significant injuries to their heads and faces—while the FTAA meetings went on unhindered. Our spirit was high and our willingness to take the streets was brave and noble, but we simply could not counteract the power that the State had in this time period. It is important to note, though, that we tried—and that we had to try.

Was this movement a success or a failure, we asked. Could it have been both? We succeeded, globally-speaking, in pushing Latin America to the left, defeating the WTO and the FTAA, and in many local campaigns. We also significantly advanced anti-capitalist ideas and rhetoric globally, and laid the cultural groundwork for the movements that followed.

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It took me until 2006 or so to come to such realizations, especially with the help of a great essay by David Graeber called “The Shock of Victory.” At the time, many of us couldn’t see those futures, only the failed present moments as we stared across empty intersections at walls of riot police, defending representatives of the wealthiest people in the world as they sat in conference rooms planning their future dominance.

“(In) most of our immediate objectives, we’d already, unexpectedly, won … All the ambitious free trade treaties planned since 1998 have failed, The MAI was routed; the FTAA, focus of the actions in Quebec City and Miami, stopped dead in its tracks. Most of us remember the 2003 FTAA summit mainly for introducing the ‘Miami model’ of extreme police repression even against obviously non-violent civil resistance. It was that. But we forget this was more than anything the enraged flailings of a pack of extremely sore losers—Miami was the meeting where the FTAA was definitively killed.” – David Graeber, “The Shock of Victory”

It took half a decade to realize it, but Miami was in fact a victory; the FTAA, like the WTO, was defeated. Today, through projects like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the WTO’s back-room strategists continue to try to write a new global trade agenda. Thankfully, the TPP too has been taken on by a grassroots movement.

As we look out at the world now, we can see the long-term impacts of that week in Seattle, of the other protests that followed it. These effects aren’t just abstract; many of us who were radicalized in that movement are still fighting and organizing today, applying the lessons we learned in those days with a more matured political-framework and understanding. A look at the COP21 protests this week in Paris, or at the Occupy protests across the U.S. a few years back, will show you that.




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