This is What Democracy Looked Like

This is What Democracy Looked Like

By Chris Borte (with Julia Steele Allen) 

“In the process of working throughout the South, and going to jail, and getting beat, and being in mass meetings, and singing, this one particular song became a theme song of this movement. It is a powerful song and you can go anywhere in the world where there is struggle and you will find this song, and you will still see people in the streets singing it. It is our gift to the world; the world of people in struggle.”  

-- Cordell Reagon’s introduction to We Shall Overcome

“This is What Democracy Looks Like!” is a joyful and defiant chant heard at countless marches since it’s origins in Seattle in 1999. But like much of our shared movement history, you don’t know where it came from. Before sharing what happened on that cold and rainy November morning, there’s even older context that adds depth to that movement moment.

Ella Baker, Seashells, and Anarchists

The democratic roots of the WTO opposition practices can be traced back to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Movement for a New Society (MNS). Both organizations had strong democratic practice and strategically used nonviolent direct action. MNS was preceded by a decade and inherited much from Ella Baker and the young black leadership of SNCC and their radical democratic practice. MNS, who’s decision making process was also drawn from their AQAG/Quaker roots (likely influenced by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy which also influenced early American democracy). 

Anarchist veterans of the anti-nuke movements in the 70s and 80s who participated in Clamshell and Abalone alliances and Livermore Action Group (along with a few Earth First!ers) were some of the only leaders in our “leaderless” movement who had direct experience with affinity groups, spokescouncils, action agreements, strategic mass arrest, and jail solidarity. There is a connective thread that Andy Cornell skillfully traces from MNS through ACTUP, Books through Bars, Infoshops, Food Not Bombs and Art and Revolution - the anarchist scene of the 90’s. In the northwest participants in the anti-nuke movement simultaneously brought the same culture and praxis into ecodefense work with Earth First!

This history is not more important than the individuals involved and their individual experiences, but it’s important context because movement history is hidden history and movements don’t wholly spring from nothing. Our movements are more connected than we can always see on the surface and can be documented by journalists and historians. Movement participants, who best know this context, far too rarely tell their own stories.

Hooray for the Riff Raff

The cluster of affinity groups that anchored the actions where the chant arose were based out of Olympia and Portland. In the summer leading up to the protests, we were just learning about affinity groups. While a few of us were familiar with them, most had never heard of them, let alone the concentric decision making of a spokescouncil. Those of us in the Superstars affinity group knew each other through our friend Nancy Haque, a young Bangladeshi movement leader and staff organizer at Portland Jobs with Justice. We knew we needed to popularize the idea of affinity groups. We lovingly lifted a motion and exclamation from Sister Mary Katherine and gave each other ‘stick and poke’ tattoos to push our comrades to up their affinity group game. 

In Olympia, this challenge was met by a group of primarily queer women and trans leaders who had co-founded Olympia Art and Revolution. They boldly named their formation Sleazy Small-town Cowboy (and Lady) Puppet Rodeo Association. The name alone was enough to inspire affinity groups in both Portland and Olympia to coalesce with names like the Muppets, SoulForce, RAG (Radical Action Group), SPUDS (Some People Upholding Democracy), Cobra, and the Debonaires (lil’ Debbies). 

Grace Cox and Harry Levine, co-founders of the Olympia Food Co-Ops led facilitation trainings that introduced leadership of our clusters to strong democratic practice that was used leading up to and in the streets of Seattle. After nonviolent direct action training at SEIU Local 49 led by our lawyer Katya Komisaruk, the stage was set for the formation of the Key Lime and Reddi Whip Clusters.

Our cluster was the first to take responsibility for blockading a section of the area surrounding the WTO - the ‘K’ slice. We named ourselves the Key Lime cluster after taking that section. As the day approached, we expanded to occupy two intersections, one surrounding our genetically engineered Cow-Borg (hopped up on rBGH), and one led by the Sleazy Small-town Cowboy (and Lady) Puppet Rodeo Association. They pulled affinity groups from the Key Lime Cluster to form a second cluster called Reddi Whip. 

The night before the direct action, the Rainforest Action Network and Ruckus Society hung a powerful banner visible across the city which had an arrow pointing at the WTO and an arrow pointing the opposite direction towards democracy. 

Dancing on the Ruins

Painfully early on the Morning of November 30th, 1999 (N30), the Reddi Whip cluster took their intersection. They had planned weeks in advance to push the envelope of their Art and Revolution street art praxis by attempting to incorporate spoken word and graffiti writing/mural art. They erected a canvas sheet in a 10x20 wooden frame to capture the visual art and had thought about and practiced bringing spoken word into the intersection. This was all surrounded by multiple affinity groups literally locked arm in arm that included Lewis and Clark students, Pagans, Unitarians, Catholics, and others from Portland and Olympia.

Julia Steele Allen shares her firsthand account of writing the words “This is What Democracy Looks Like” on Nov 30, 1999:

“...We had a freestanding canvas that we were physically attached to as part of the action, which was at the center of the circles of protesters and had a title: “The Seed” And we were looking for content to paint up there through the many hours of holding the intersection. I didn’t come up with the phrase ‘This is What Democracy Looks Like’, but I suggested we paint it on our canvas and so we did, in big letters, but because it was raining,it washed away immediately and no one could read it., So I started the chant so that people in our action would know what it said. 

Like you, I’ve heard it chanted, at basically every protest I’ve been at since, for the past 20 years! From Susan Sarandon leading it over a jumbotron at the NYC protests against the invasion of Iraq, up to the recent climate strike in NYC surrounded by  hundreds of kids and teenagers screaming it joyfully at the top of their lungs. I’ve heard all the iterations, like: “This is what democracy sounds like! This is what democracy smells like!” And sometimes found myself in places or moments where the crowd is chanting it and I think to myself: God, we really don’t know what democracy is!” 

But on that morning, they did. What those who haven’t experienced it first hand may not believe is that under threat of pepper spray and tear gas, in that intersection and across the city, they were making decisions in real-time together, democratically.

The chant that started that morning spread like a prairie fire throughout the city. Later it became the title of the best documentary of that battle in Seattle and today it can be heard amongst people’s movements across the world. 

Didn’t We

What’s transformational about democratic organizations and movements where everyone participates in the decision making is that it’s not someone else telling you what to do. It’s not national staff deciding strategy cut off from people with their bodies on the line. You know why you’re there when you’re threatened as we were with fire hoses (rank and file firefighters said,”NO.”), with bulldozers a block away from the mural intersection, with police in riot gear, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and arrest. The overwhelming majority of participants had never faced any of those things. And yet they faced that all down nearly unanimously because THEY DECIDED to, together.

Democracy must be more than one meeting, more than a process, more than a day of action or a tactic. It must include deep deliberation, a commitment to intersectional justice, creative and compassionate shared leadership and governance. It must include non-instrumental organizing to build democratically run movements and communities powerful enough to run candidates AND hold them accountable.

In the “Shut it Down!” broadsheet that went out to announce and educate about the direct action, we put in a small paragraph about the Seattle General Strike of 1919. What Dan Leahy taught us about that strike was that not only did they shut down the city but after it was shut down, they picked up the reigns of power and began to run the city. We weren’t ready for that in 1999. If we work on our democratic practice, our just decision making, if we build democratic movements, maybe next time we will be.

Julia Steele Allen is an award-winning multi-disciplinary artist and a community organizer from New York City. She worked for many years as an educational justice organizer in the South Bronx, and is the Co-producer and Impact Producer of a recently released documentary film on the burning of the Bronx: Decade of Fire. From 2014-2017 she toured her play, "Mariposa & the Saint: From Solitary Confinement, A Play Through Letters" across ten states as part of the growing movement to end solitary confinement in this country. She is half of queer country duo My Gay Banjo. 

Chris Borte, inspired by the power of democratic practice in the planning and in the streets of Seattle in 1999, co-founded Creating Democracy with his partner Amy Dudley.