MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 19

International Socialist Review, July–August 2001

Lisa Fithian

“Our tactics continue to evolve”

(Interviewed by Randy Childs)


From International Socialist Review, Issue 19, July–August 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


Lisa Fithian, one of the initial organizers in the Direct Action Network after Seattle, is currently working in RANT (Radical Action Nonviolence Trainers, a.k.a. Root Activist Nonviolence Trainers), a training collective in Los Angeles. She is a longtime community and labor organizer who has been working within the anti-corporate globalization movement for the past two years.

AS WE talk, you’re packing your bags for Genoa. You were one of the people involved in organizing for Seattle. What has changed in the movement since Seattle?

A LOT has changed or “evolved” since Seattle. Since there has always been oppression, there has been resistance. All of the work that we see today comes from that legacy. I think in the United States we have a history of nonviolent civil disobedience. It came from work that Gandhi did in South Africa and India, which Jim Lawson brought to the United States, and helped [Martin Luther] King Jr. in the South. This is a very different history than Europe.

Seattle brought the legacy of the civil rights movement back into the streets. Many of the alternative models that you see us using today around decentralized structures, nonhierarchical models, have their roots in the anarchist movement in Spain between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. These models were influenced by the feminist movement and then used during the antinuclear movement and the Central America solidarity movement. Now it’s a new thing for a whole new generation. That’s one of the things that is evolving; people are learning how they can work in alternative social structures with decision-making processes that are different than what are mainstream in our society.

I feel like there is a lot of learning and growing happening and a lot of developing of capacity that’s beginning to consolidate itself. There’s a broadening and deepening of experience, especially with young people today, which is one of the most exciting and hopeful things.

I think that issues of oppression and power dynamics and relationships need to be at the fore of a lot of discussions and debates. And this is happening. People are beginning to understand at a deeper level that we have to be ever-vigilant, particularly white people in looking at how we both participate in and are impacted by issues of white supremacy and racism. We also need to spend more time looking at issues of patriarchy and sexism, which continue to play out negatively in our work. And at issues of ageism.

What has changed is that people are consciously struggling even more with these questions of oppression. We see more and more debate, and more and more training, and more and more people struggling with how to equalize these power relationships and disrupt these oppressive institutions and practices.

I look at history and change as kind of a circle that goes forward and then comes back and goes forward and comes back. As new people come in, they have to learn what some people have already learned, but we’re always moving forward. And fortunately it seems that the learning curve is getting faster. My perspective is really just in my lifetime, but I do feel, compared with a lot of what I’ve seen for the past 26 years that I’ve been organizing, that things seem to be taking hold more quickly now.

THERE ARE different approaches that all the groups bring to this struggle. Which ones do you think are most effective?

SINCE Seattle, we are still struggling with many of the same questions. I don’t think any of us have figured it out yet. No one has the answers, and it’s too early to say what strategy or approach is the most effective. We all have different political ideologies and goals. One of the things that has changed is the recognition of how important and powerful our diversity is.

In a very simplistic sense, however, one of the discussions or divides is who is reformist and who is revolutionary. I think this is kind of a false construct or choice in how to view the world. Quite frankly, I think that we are all part of the change process and that all of the different approaches are necessary. Some are more short-term, and some are more long-term; some vehicles speak to some communities more than other communities. Some deliver small victories that are necessary to keep hope and make small improvements in people’s lives.

Whenever any of us takes a position that something else is not of value, or when we think there is only one way, then we continue the dividing among ourselves. We lose power. So, one of the things Seattle offered that I think was really good is the recognition that we don’t all have to be the same, we don’t all have to have the same point of entry, we don’t all have to have the same demands, we don’t all have to have the same message. This is big enough that all of us can fit under it.

But as a result of that, we have not yet figured out a way in which, within that diversity, we all intersect so that our energies can all be focused in a campaign, with particular places in particular times when to really try and dismantle one of these institutions and policies. That’s not necessarily going to happen at one summit, but it’s going to happen throughout.

You’ve seen demonstrations against the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, or G8 meetings, at the World Economic Forum.

On the one hand, they’re great, because we are building the movement and we are redefining the debate and we are putting them on the defensive. Their plans are no longer inevitable. And so I continue to think that we need to struggle to figure out a way in which there is some process that will enable all of our agendas, energies, and resources to intersect in an ongoing way to really, really dismantle or transform one of these institutions or their policies.

The other piece of it goes back down to strategies and tactics. Nonviolence is a strategy. Civil disobedience is a tactic. Direct action is a strategy. Throwing rocks is a tactic. I think there’s a lot of confusion about these things and a lot of unnecessary polarization. For example, in Quebec, the diversity of tactics became a principle. And it was framed in the sense that we want to respect a wide variety of tactics that people engage in. This was fine, but then no strategy was put forward.

I guess my biggest thing is that as people who are trying to create a new world, I do believe we have to dismantle or transform the old order to do that; I just fundamentally don’t believe it will ever serve our interests as it’s currently constructed. I recognize that what we are doing is inherently political, and we have to engage the political system. Again, every time we pit each other against each other we lose our power.

On the tactical question, I think a lot of what happened in Quebec was fabulous. I think it was one moment in which you saw tremendous solidarity across a broad range of interests, but we sacrificed having a plan and a goal. So while it was a very liberating experience, we could have been so much more effective had we had a real plan that people were trained and prepared to do.

In Quebec there was not a lot of emphasis on training and preparation. The more prepared you are, the more likely you are to sustain your action. And you didn’t see anybody really holding ground in Quebec. You saw a fluid dance of ebbing and flowing. It was fine, it was beautiful for what it was, it was a beautiful dance. We took space, but we never really moved forward. Our impact was limited.

This whole question of tactics has continued to evolve. I think the question of tactics cannot be completely separated from state repression. If you look at history, whenever movements have begun to increase their militancy in terms of the tactics they use, whether it be rock throwing to breaking windows, Molotov cocktails to street fighting, to bombs to guns, whatever, we always lose.

I have no issue with property destruction. I think sometimes it’s appropriate, sometimes it’s not. Again, I look at it strategically. Does this help us or does it hurt us? Does it help us achieve our goal, or does it not? We’re in a society where property is idolized, so a lot of people don’t get it yet that it doesn’t really matter. It’s just glass or products.

It’s exactly what we do in training. We try to help people understand that what’s violent to one is not violent to another. And what might be violent in one situation might not be violent in another situation. It’s very subjective.

The windows being broken in Seattle had absolutely nothing to do with whether we shut down the WTO or not. It didn’t add value in that sense. And if the goal was to cost these corporations some money, well then maybe it’s an effective tactic. But I’d have to weigh it against what we gain and what we lose by it.

I am of the belief that we need as many people as possible involved in this movement. Do our actions bring people in or push them out? Because there is a process of change that people go through, we have to start where they are and move them a step at a time and support them in taking that step, which involves risks. I believe strongly in direct action because it moves people a lot of steps really fast. It’s one of the most transformative vehicles I’ve ever seen for people.

There’s a time and place for everything, including tactics. If you’re doing a sit-down blockade in a place that’s completely unstrategic, and you’re going to get the shit beat out of you, that doesn’t seem especially smart. Our bodies, our lives, are too valuable to unnecessarily sacrifice them. But if our bodies are being used in a place that is strategic and effective and that’s the consequence of it, then I think people are willing to do it.

I think that what we found in Seattle is that people felt hugely successful because, while their bodies received a lot of abuse, those blockades were effective; they kept people out. In D.C., where some of our bodies received some real abuse at blockades that were not necessarily being effective, people thought, well, this is stupid. So we need to recognize that we are valuable and limited resources and need to take care with how we apply them and use them.

That’s why I had such mixed feelings about Quebec. On one hand, it was just amazing and liberating, but many were hurt. Overall, it was such a missed opportunity.

AS SOMEONE with a background in labor organizing, how do you see that we can keep the student and labor solidarity built in Seattle going in future demonstrations?

I THINK the coalition is continuing to build. When Sweeney came in and started doing “Union Summer,” he really ignited a lot of interest among young people in the labor movement. Since then, you’ve seen much more involvement in sweatshop stuff, living wage and union organizing drives. In fact, it’s really the students that are leading labor at this point.

The big question always is what labor is going to do about some of these big global issues. They have taken some good positions, but will they hold them, and how far are they willing to go? I think if labor does not continue to take steps to be an equal partner in a coalition around these critical issues, or if they make agreements that lead to unsatisfactory settlements, taking them out of the movement, a lot of young people will become very disillusioned with labor, and we will have lost any hope of building the power base we need.

I really hold labor responsible for a lot. They have a lot of power and resources. I think that they had a wake-up call in Seattle. I really feel that in Seattle they finally realized that they were not the only 800-pound gorilla around. There are actually other forces out there that have power to change things.

And then at A16, they were not really coming on board. And then, two weeks before, when they realized that something was going to happen there, they’d better be a part of it than not. And a lot of good work that some groups did around them allowed them to come on board. Since then, a lot more good work has happened, especially by Jobs with Justice, to make sure that labor is a player early on in the upcoming mobilization against the IMF and World Bank in September/October.

Last updated on 28 July 2021