MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 12

International Socialist Review, June–July 2000

Birth of a new movement

Ashley Smith

The turn to direct action

From International Socialist Review, Issue 12, June–July 2000.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

The protests in Seattle that disrupted the World Trade Organization meetings in November have inspired a new generation of activists. Seattle stoked the fires of outrage against America's new robber barons, the sweatshops they have built at home and abroad, and the institutions they have created to extend their domination of a global capitalist economy.

Seattle also gave the burgeoning movement a tactic: direct action. Seattle proved to the new radicals that thousands of students and workers could engage in civil disobedience and make an impact.

Coming out of Seattle, activists formed the Mobilization for Global Justice to try to repeat the success of Seattle against the IMF and the World Bank. They called for a permitted demonstration to back up direct action aimed at stopping delegates from attending IMF and World Bank meetings on April 16 and 17.

National leaders from the Direct Action Network and the Ruckus Society laid out the plans for the civil disobedience. They called for activists to gather in a “convergence center” in the week running up to the protest. There activists formed a “spokescouncil” to decide on the course of action, get training in nonviolence, and make puppets and banners for the demonstration.

Over the course of the week, the convergence center grew from a handful of counterculture types and hard-core anarchists to a mass meeting point for hundreds of activists representing thousands beyond them. Among the predominantly student activists, the excitement and determination was palpable. Many participants were clearly new to activism.

Direct action

On April 16, thousands of us hit the streets at six in the morning to attempt to block the delegates' entry. The International Socialist Organization's flying squad of around 50 people stationed ourselves at the corner of Pennsylvania and 21st, where we and about 300 other protesters protected a group of about 30 people who had chained themselves together and sat down in the middle of the street. We held the intersection for six hours while chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!”

The entire direct action was a carnival of protest. Waves of chants would flow from one intersection to another. A group of labor activists toured the crowd leading activists in new renditions of great labor anthems such as Solidarity Forever. “Puppetistas” marched with giant puppets that lampooned the IMF and World Bank.

But A16 was not – and really could not have been – a repeat of Seattle. The cops learned from Seattle – where police were caught completely off guard – and were determined not to make the same mistakes. They infiltrated the spokescouncil meetings and clearly knew our plans in advance. They also waged a campaign of harassment throughout the week. The authorities pressured universities to deny their students the right to assemble and have teach-ins.

Two days before the action, police shut down the convergence center. On April 15, they arrested over 600 activists protesting the prison-industrial complex who were calling for a new trial for political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Police closed off a city block and arrested not only protesters, but shoppers and tourists as well. Finally, they simply outwitted us, escorting the delegates to the meeting at 5:30 in the morning before we even hit the streets.

The actual physical terrain of the city also posed difficulties that Seattle did not. When several other activists and I walked the streets to plan the action, we were stunned by how wide they were. Estimates vary wildly, but we had somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 protesters (with another 12–15,000 at the Ellipse) – simply not enough to shut down the meetings.

But our inability to shut down the IMF and World Bank meetings did not make A16 a failure. On Thursday night, three days before the action, the spokescouncil – which had swelled to about a thousand – broke up briefly to discuss what we would count as victory and then report back to the larger body.

Person after person told the group that whether we shut down the meetings or not, we were carrying on the “Spirit of Seattle,” we had exposed the IMF and World Bank, and we were going to continue building the movement against corporate globalization. People felt that we were making history for the first time since the 1960s and that we were at the beginning of something new.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned. The question of size is pivotal, because for us to win victories not only in particular actions but also in the movement as a whole, we have to reach wider and wider layers of newly radicalizing students and workers.

But this is not at all apparent to many of the activists who are committed to direct action in all circumstances. This was especially obvious on Monday, April 17, when a much smaller direct action was called to stop the second day of meetings. There was even less chance of success with a smaller group, but activists tried anyway. They were initially brutalized by the cops, then finally negotiated with the police to get arrested deliberately.

Such determination is admirable, but without the force of numbers, it is little more than an act of moral witness – an important individual statement, but not much more. A moral commitment to direct action and a desire to risk arrest, while admirable insofar as they show a willingness to put oneself on the line, are not necessarily the keys to building a movement.

Among some activists, there was also a tendency to portray the demonstration and march from the Ellipse as a sort of dumping ground for the less serious. This elitist attitude will weaken the movement and turn it inward. Moreover, our tactics should not be ends in themselves, but means to an end.

Therefore, we need to be far more flexible in our activism. We have a range of possible tactics from something as simple as press conferences and speak-outs to demonstrations (permitted or otherwise), direct actions and strikes. For the movement to grow and pose a real challenge to the forces of the state and capitalist corporations, we must think through the right tactics to build the largest possible action capable of having the most success in achieving our goals.

Last updated on 20 0ctober 2021