We did good organizing
Redefining the Win for Movements Today
Conversation with Direct Action Network (DAN) organizers 20 years after the Shutdown of the WTO in Seattle, with Chris Borte, Ingrid Chapman, Stephanie Guilloud, Nancy Haque, Hop Hopkins, and David Solnit. Transcription by Cita Cook.
- Briefly, how were you involved in the organizing for the Seattle shutdown?
- What are you proud of from the organizing 20 years ago?
- What did we learn - or what could we have done differently?
- What is one lesson you carry with you in your work today?
- What do you see in the next 20 years - both threats and possibilities?
Briefly, how were you involved in the organizing for the Seattle shutdown?
Ingrid: I was a sophomore at University of Washington and a student activist. That summer, I started hearing about the WTO coming to town. I had never heard anything about global trade or the WTO. I started a No to WTO student group on campus with a few others. We organized towards a walkout on the day of. I had connected with the Direct Action Network (DAN) through the Ruckus Camp in the late summer. We did a banner hang two weeks out. I remember being so immersed to the point that I dropped out of school to devote myself to the fight against the WTO.
Chris: I helped start Art & Revolution in Portland. Nancy and I co-founded Portlanders against the WTO, closely related to Portland Jobs With Justice, where Nancy was an organizer. We had worked on anti-sweatshop organizing and joined the anti-APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation) actions in Vancouver, BC.
Nancy: I had been an activist around the sweatshop movement but had not heard about the WTO meeting until David told me about it early in 1999. I had a job which allowed me to spend time talking to people about it and helping to organize the labor march. On my other time, I worked on the Direct Action Network activities. We organized teach-ins, information sessions, civil disobedience trainings. And then I did get arrested in Seattle and spent five days in jail.
Steph: I had just graduated form Evergreen State college. I had been involved in organizing to pass a resolution in Olympia to block the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. A week after I graduated, an Evergreen professor, Dan Leahy, hired me to co-organize a conference to bring together trade, labor, indigenous, and environmental groups to learn about the WTO. It was a great day job and a way to connect to long-time organizers in the region. I was doing DAN organizing and planning in the evenings.
Hop: In ’99 I was working at People of Color Against AIDS Network (POCAAN) and going to a Hip-Hop/spoken word/art gathering called Basement Nation near the UW. I learned about anti WTO organizing some time just before or after the summer of ’99. Along with other mostly youth of color organizers and activists from Seattle formed the affinity group called the Brown Collective.
David: I heard about it in January when it wasn’t clear if they would be going to San Diego or Seattle. I was part of the Art & Revolution Collective in the Bay Area. We agreed to do some organizing around it. Sonja Sivesind and I sent a letter to the first organizing meeting in Seattle in January. We worked with other groups to set up the DAN. I got my organizing training form the anti-nuclear action movement, South Africa solidarity, and anti-authoritarian organizing.
What are you proud of from the shutdown and organizing 20 years ago?
Nancy: I feel like coming from the Global South from Bangladesh gave me a global perspective of free trade and how it affected the world. In 2000, I heard a Nike factory worker speaking at a conference, and she talked about the WTO shutdown and how important it was to her. And this was a woman whose picture I’d held up protesting Nike Town and I was like, Oh my God, something we did matters to this person. That feeling of global solidarity was just incredible. When we were in jail, hearing that people in London and Cuba and elsewhere were having solidarity protests made me proud. It was so beautiful.
Steph: Three things come to my mind. One is being a white kid from Texas trying to figure out my role. I had been doing work in Nicaragua and meeting with people my age who were teaching me about these global finance institutions. It was an act of accountability, taking solidarity to another level. Second, I am proud of all the work we did so that everyone who was out there understood why we were there. We did massive education work to expose these secretive and complex institutions making them more commonplace and accessible. And third, the affinity groups and spokescouncil model has been profound in my political work, not just as a tactic but as a strategy for organizing. Practicing a collective decision-making strategy over and over again during immense crisis has been informative, shaping my work.
Ingrid: I was also thinking about the level of mass education that we did. We had people going to every class to make announcements about the WTO. Most people were probably like me not knowing anything about it. Thousands of students ended up walking out. We won the Info War. By the time the WTO came, public opinion in Seattle was not supportive. People knew what it was and what it was about, and they didn’t want them there. The other thing that I remember during the street actions was the bravery. People really stuck it out there in with all the teargassing and rubber bullets. The next morning, after being teargassed and fleeing bullets, we were ready to go back, like going into war. I had never assumed we could attack such a huge government-supported global institution. But then to see and actually feel our collective power. Twenty years later, my still being involved is based on that foundation and sense of possibility.
Chris: I was proud of all the small things. I was poor-ish, like most of us, just ragtag. We couldn’t pull together $100 very easily, so I went to Goodwill to get the pieces that I need to make a suit so I could go to the Lion’s Club in a conservative part of Oregon. We talked to the Lions who somehow found out about the WTO, and wanted to know about it. We talked to EVERYONE. It was truly a beautiful expression of so many people. The art was so beautiful, the most beautiful of anything at that scale. I’m proud of our leadership. It did not happen magically but built on more than a decade of alliance building.
Hop: It was a very magical and formative moment for me that informs how I move in the world today. There are several things that come to mind. First, I’m proud I was able to move from guilt and shame of being so ignorant about the WTO to anger and action and hold the line demanding that a race, class and gender analysis be applied to the multiple ways the WTO was screwing us over. Secondly, I am proud to have been part of the mass exercise of two forms of organization – the affinity group and spokes council. Those tools were powerful and allowed me and others to work on collective action outside of our paid or volunteer organizing work in a way that achieved way more fucking results than would have been possible as an individual activist. It is a cornerstone in my belief that we can and must develop similar forms of democratic organizing models outside of the non-profit industrial complex in order to achieve the type of material gains needed to match the scale of the problems we face. Lastly, on the movement level, we helped reignite public dissent in the US and were able to send a signal of solidarity to our international sisters and brothers that we had woken up and were willing to use our “First World” power and privilege by literally putting our bodies up against the gears of the machine in order to, if only momentarily, shut some shit down! And, it was done so chaotically beautiful in the face of state violence on the level that shook folks into another level of consciousness about the intimate handshake between police and capital.
David: I’m proud of folks on this call and others who were so brave and creative. I was older, 35, at the time. We asserted leadership in the midst of big labor and stuck with it and ended up with them following our leadership to some degree. I think we did good organizing. We self-analyzed afterward and came up with seven things that were key to transforming an action with the people we knew into an actual public rebellion, where people we had never had any contact with, because we laid a good foundation, actually stepped up and joined a public uprising. The seven things: Everybody knew about it; mass training; mass organization; decentralization; popular education; media and framing; and open organizing. We weren’t trying to be clandestine, so we could scale up. People knew what to expect of each other. I’m proud of those pieces.
What did we learn—or what could we have done differently?
Steph: There’s lots we could have done differently, but the real question of challenges we could learn from was about the after. In my organizing work today, I continue to struggle with and try to prioritize the basic debrief. We needed to take a moment to ask what happened, how did we do it, who are we dealing with, where are we positioned, what worked, what didn’t, where are we weak. Some kind of assessment. If we could have done that kind of debrief, we could have continued to organize not just in the streets but tracking the institutional and police training that happened after Seattle. We could have learned, watched, researched every threat and opportunity. Dan had me find out where they got the tanks and weapons and riot gear. They came from some weapons manufacturer in Utah and were flown into Seattle within 24 hours. From an organizing perspective, the debrief and working strategies differently could have prepared us for 9/11 in a different way.
Ingrid: What afterwards that was most apparent to me was Elizabeth Martinez’ article on “Where was the Color in Seattle?” – asking why was it mostly white communities, young white folks. I know that after the WTO protest, those conversations started to happen. Most people were pretty clueless about racism in the movement. The message was that we needed to do work on the internal racism in our movement, as well as in the society, in order to have a successful, unified movement. Being back in Seattle now, there’s still a lot of work to do on racism in the movement, but we’re not in the same place as in 1999.
Chris Borte: Another lesson in working for the long haul is burnout. After the WTO, I had no emotional reserve. It took me years to recover from it and name it. Since, I’ve been able to help others go through that. I don’t have it all figured it out but helping each other and being aware of it is so critical. It’s legit when you put every cell you have into it that it’s hard to be sustained in it. We need sustainable work.
Nancy: I think on what we could have done differently, we didn’t really know about health care or trauma or so much that we know now. We were struggling a lot in the months after the WTO. I feel very protective of us. Ingrid was 19. We were just kids doing this work. People saw me as an experienced organizer, and I was 25. Being three years older put me in a supposed position of leadership. What it actually means to take care of yourself I’m still learning. That speaks to organizing with communities of color. I’m from that and it did not occur to me at the time to reach out to other people of color. When I read the article, I felt a lot of feelings. I went through a cycle of defensiveness. You don’t know what you don’t know. We should all be doing that better now. If we had more of a racial justice lens then, in a local rather than just a global way, things could have been different, as Stephanie suggested. Things got hard after September 11. As a Muslim, I felt abandoned by my supposedly anti-racist friends. There wasn’t a movement to protect us and to make my struggle theirs. I felt turned off by the people I loved for a long time. It felt really hard. I saw these nice older church people surrounding mosques when mosques were being attacked, and I didn’t see anybody I knew doing that work, any of you. It felt really hard. I felt really betrayed. The politics we believed in should have showed that it mattered. It’s important to acknowledge that there were missteps that we could have built a stronger movement with that debrief time and a little more knowledge of what it means to take care of yourself.
David: We didn't really tell the story of how we organized so the narratives that went out were often based on pundits or people who weren't involved in the organizing and based on mythologies. We could pull off one mobilization but the ongoing organizing is what really builds movements. We didn’t have a next step for the network. As a teenager, I was in the anti-nuclear movement and didn’t have skills for navigating with a racial justice lens. We didn’t have the skills and capacity to hold that. Additional challenges were handed to us by the seventies’ movement of blame, shame, political correctness. We ended up, like them, with divisiveness and backlashes. We didn’t have a clear analysis on War on Terror, so we didn’t pivot after 9/11. During the War on Iraq, the global justice movement wasn’t there to give an anti-capitalist perspective rather than a defensive anti-war stance. By the time 2008 came around and the economy collapsed, working people were pissed. We let the tea party take that space.
Hop: I remember going to the 420 Space and initially being super pissed off. I was like, “see how they do us?” That space used to be a Hip-Hop club that got shut down and now it’s central command for crunchy hippies and black clad anarchists to shut the city down. POC couldn’t have that space for cultural expression and socializing and now in the same space white folks were allowed to plan public mutiny! I was hot. Additionally, no one up in there seem to be making that connection and at the same time no one, it seemed to me, had made efforts to connect with local organizations, organizers and activists to understand the local lay of the land economically, politically or socially in order to see how or if those issues could benefit from mutual aid during the planned No WTO protests. That was an error and it continued to replicate itself in subsequent “anti-globalization” organizing. It wasn’t until a major dust up at a Ruckus Camp about racism went down that folks really began to take seriously how they were showing up and showing-out. I also hold onto the fact that POC were there before, during and after the WTO organizing, it wasn’t, in my view, that POC weren’t present it was the space was not welcoming to us and we were speaking different political languages which took a whole lotta “bridging” on the part of organizers of color to participate in the planning and activities associated with organizing against the WTO.
What is one lesson you carry with you in your work today?
Nancy: I often think about that morning of at 5am when Chris Borte said, "even if we shut it down for one second, we will have succeeded." I was arrested, and when the cop read us our Miranda rights, we all sang back “We choose to remain silent.” We showed him that we knew what we were doing, and he laughed. I’ve been in larger demonstrations, but in Seattle there were thousands willing to do direct action and be arrested. There’s been nothing that had prepared me for that. That mass scale of people willing to risk arrest changed everything. I hold that lesson. Escalating tactics. What we need to do to get things done. To know it is possible and that we did it. We have so many ways of protesting and making change. It made me an organizer, thinking about all the ways to make change.
Ingrid: It was a level of coordination I had never seen before. I got my mom and my little brother to protest. He was in high school and skipped class to go. We were getting anybody in. We did a lot of education and preparation in a short amount of time.
Steph: We were in a position to connect to those global movements who had done solidarity with us and were asking how we did it. I wish we had been able to keep the connections and deepen them. The challenges of white supremacy often broke our ability to organize. Lessons I learned: We did not understand our impact, but the state did. The police state reconfigures pretty quickly and reworks how it moves. The economy reconfigures. The WTO has been faltering, but the financial system is reconfiguring.
Ingrid: Being nearly forty and reflecting back, we did a lot as very young people. There’s something there about trusting young people to do a lot. There’s part of not knowing what you can’t do that matters, not having the cynicism of age and repeated failure.
Hop: Mobilizing, as beautiful and exciting as it is, it is not organizing. It’s a tactic rather than a strategy. It’s breath not depth. We kept mobilizing and it became our strategy. We conflated mobilizing with organizing and we kept mobilizing the same way so it became easy for the state to organize against us. We needed a clearer vision and strategic direction. At the time we were all about “NO WTO” and didn’t have a “Yes” to represent what were we for. Political education, consciousness raising and capacity building have to be part of those long-term strategies and being clear on what winning looks like even when we lose is essential. Additionally, trusting in young people is a good thing. Some of the elders we worked with didn’t understand what we were doing and didn’t have the confidence that we could do it until we were actually shutting the meetings down. We needed them and could’ve benefited from their participation. History teaches us that successful movements are intergenerational and have mass appeal. None of us can scale to the level we need alone.
Chris: Ten years ago, Nancy spoke on I panel I organized around the 10 year anniversary that we have to go back to democratizing the organizing skills. Actual organizing where you are building relationships. Nancy was right about that ten years ago, and she’s right about it now.
Nancy: I think that especially now, authentic relationships matter more than ever. People crave connections to something larger than themselves, and we can provide that. We could all remember what it felt like to feel part of a movement, even it was just momentary. It felt like winning. Like it was really lovely. I work on policies and help pass legislation and it’s important and it often doesn’t feel like movement. I think that we need to keep putting our resources into what organizing means into 2019 and beyond. It’s what helps change the world.
What do you see in the next 20 years—both threats and possibilities?
Ingrid: It looks like there is a crisis of capitalism happening and in the US. We can either go more towards fascism and authoritarianism, or there can be some beautiful bottom up movement that really reworks our economy and social organization in this country. Whatever movement it is will have to be a global movement. We can’t keep it local. We have to be part of global organizing that works for regular people.
Nancy: I agree with Ingrid. Young people are questioning capitalism in a way that wasn’t popular 20 years ago. I was anti-corporate globalism, which was anti-capitalism. We were trying to say it twenty years ago, but people are hearing it now in a different way because it’s not working for more people. More young people are starting to think about being socialists. There’s a lot more systemic thinking. A lot of young people are thinking they don’t want to do what was done before, whether college loans or a mortgages, practices that no longer make sense. We can be a part of that conversation.
David: In the Bay Area, we have two extended families staying downstairs because of the fire crisis in California. On the one hand, these crises will be escalating. There is PG&E and the hedge fund capitalists who brought on this monopoly utility and have neglected the basic maintenance to the point of falsifying records on maintenance, now killing people. Other hedge fund people trying to get more capital out of it. The good side is the firefighters, local communities doing self-organizing to take care of each other. The ability of people to self-organize based on taking care of each other rather than extracting resources and money. Disasters are opportunities to organize ourselves.
Hop: Generally speaking, the left is in a state of disarray and disorganization while reactionary and authoritarian forces have seized state power and are rolling back hard-fought rights. These forces will continue to evolve social forms of organizations to support the Republican Party’s authoritarian agenda and mobilize and organize larger swaths of the populace towards neoliberal ideals. This presents lots of threats in an increasingly climate compromised environment and makes the quest for freedom and liberation all the more challenging. On the left, our democratic processes are weak, neglected and atrophied. And if there were to be a revolution or systemic change tomorrow, we would be unable to govern in a way in which lived out our vision for the kind of liberated world we want - we’d be a major risk of recreating the very “isms” we’ve struggled against. That's a pretty significant problem and that’s where the opportunity is. The next 20 years ought to be full of experimenting with new forms of organization that examine the idea and give us chances practice and fail at governance and democratic decision making at increasing larger scales. Another threat and possibility is that many social leftists are employed and spend most of their time struggling in non-profits that are committed to tweaking the system rather than systemic change. In the coming years we need projects that recognize this and aim to develop the strategic and analytical capacities of organizers and activists towards collective liberation frameworks and create projects that test these ideas and strategies.
Steph: Over the next twenty years, one major ground to be contested is governance itself. How we organize around that question and build governance practices from the bottom up and on the local, regional, and global level will be the hard work we have to do. Remembering Seattle is so important because our responsibility is to bring it forward and apply the lessons. I like what Hop said about redefining the win. We have to do that now and over the next 20 years.
Chris: As somebody who identifies as an anti-authoritarian committed to intersectional justice, I did not expect to see self-identified white supremacists and self-aware, self-proclaimed authoritarians rise like they are today with Bannon and Trump building a global network of authoritarians. Combining climate change with the economic equality and the authoritarians makes things worse. There is probably not going to be a single crisis but many crises. To respond to the crises heading our way, the work of building governance, our ability to bring our movements together, to govern ourselves and our world together. I think a lot about capitalism. I had Pete and Larry teaching me about it in my twenties. I think there’s something interesting to thinking about democracy as an alternative to capitalism rather than equating it to capitalism. The first time I heard the term democratic economy, it didn’t catch on. Everyone talked about being anti-capitalist. I think there’s a huge potential in democratic economy, especially when we're literally facing the destruction of the planet. Socialism is hard for people to understand and to get past the hundred years of propaganda against it. The idea of running everything democratically can help us move those conversations forward. It’s easier to have that conversation with everyday people by talking about how we can run it together. Socialism leads to people thinking about someone else running their lives. Democratic economy means running it ourselves.
Steph: It’s imperative to remember the particular win of Seattle. Learning what we need to learn so we can shape the next twenty years. It requires us to recognize the impact of the WTO shutdown in 99 and what it sparked: the World Social Forum process in Brazil; emboldened trade ministers abdicating their loyalities to the U.S.; the US Social Forum in 2007; the People Movement Assemblies as a methodology for governance that emerged from that. I think about 22 year-olds today. How do we connect to them now and bring this history forward? The forecasting is a key part of organizing. Vision requires memory, and the lack of vision is a hindrance to strategy. It’s been a continuum. There are many other moments we need to remember. We cannot concede this moment to collective amnesia.