After the Action

This piece first appeared in the third issue of our OWS-inspired Gazette, now available as a PDF download.

It must have been around September 17 that I glanced up at the protest poster hanging over my desk and felt my jaw drop.

This was not September 17, 2011, the beautiful and hopeful day of Occupy Wall Street’s public debut, and the poster was not the now-famous Adbusters image of the ballerina poised on the bull. It was ten years earlier, on a day when the air in my Manhattan apartment smelled of fire and death, when every lamppost outside was plastered with the images of missing people who would never be found, when the whole world was struggling to comprehend what the startling attacks of 9/11 might mean.

The poster over my desk came from the April 2001 Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) summit protest in Quebec City, one of a series of large mobilizations against corporate globalization organized in the wake of the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.  Under the banner “Carnival Against Capitalism,” the poster showed, of all things, a tall, square tower surrounded by flames and beginning to collapse. The image was drawn from the Tarot, and no doubt not intended literally. But gazing up at it as I was breathing in the ash from two towering symbols of corporate globalization, now reduced to smoldering rubble, left me feeling queasy. Had our movement really been that grandiose?

The global justice movement—so inspiring and innovative for a time, and based on a sweeping critique of how global trade agreements were undermining democracy, worker’s rights, and the environment—faded quickly after September 11. A planned mass mobilization for late September 2001 against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund was called off when the meetings themselves were canceled, and the handful of sizable street actions against corporate globalization that took place in the ensuing years were dispiriting affairs, notable mainly for police repression.

The shift in public mood after 9/11 had much to do with this rapid decline—more, probably, than any internal movement weakness. Grief and fear dampened spirits. Everywhere there were exhortations to national unity, with the clear implication that dissent was unpatriotic. With war first looming and then raging against Afghanistan, the issues of trade and democracy that had animated the global justice movement lost their sense of immediacy. Those who remained active largely shifted their focus to peace work.

But the movement against corporate globalization waned for other reasons, too. It had gotten locked into a single model of protest, had come to take itself too seriously and too literally, and had lost the sense of how much a movement’s prospects depend on how it portrays itself to the wider world. All of this made it easier for the police to contain and neutralize through simple force.

From the beginning, the global justice movement was drawn to the notion of disrupting business as usual through direct action. The images that have endured from the Seattle WTO are of tear-gas-wielding cops and roving Black Bloc anarchists. But the more striking thing about the demonstration, for those who were there, was something else: it actually worked.

The plan was to prevent the delegates to the World Trade Organization from meeting through a nonviolent body blockade. Early on the morning of November 30, 1999, while thousands of us massed on the streets, a large number of protesters completely surrounded the Seattle convention center and occupied key intersections in the vicinity. Linking arms, they peacefully but emphatically kept the delegates from entering. They literally shut the meeting down.

It was this nonviolent shutdown, in fact, that led the police to begin tear-gassing. (The Black Bloc property destruction began later, in a slightly different location, with little initial interference from police; the violent police tactics became linked to and justified by it only through subsequent media montage.)

It was of course amazing and electrifying to actually bring the WTO meeting to a halt. The Seattle WTO blockade had stopped “the operation of the machine,” to borrow from Mario Savio’s famous 1964 speech on direct action—only for a day, of course, but in a way that contributed to the collapse of official trade negotiations there and that could be claimed as a major movement victory.

So we set out to do the same thing again—and again, and again. Protesting corporate globalization largely came to mean surrounding summit meetings, and a disproportionate share of our energies were channeled into the minutiae of street tactics. The movement was noteworthy in other important ways: it did an excellent job at grassroots and popular education, organizing teach-ins around the country in the lead-up to each mobilization. It devoted a lot of energy to incorporating art and spectacle into its street actions, in ways that ranged from giant puppet allegories to sassier interventions like Radical Cheerleading. The very notion of the “carnival against capitalism”—the heading on that FTAA poster—was that we would juxtapose our exuberance and vitality with the grim destruction wrought by buttoned-down trade negotiators. But the focus on summits imposed its own action teleology—if we’re there, it must be that we’re trying to shut it down.

Certainly that was the explicit focus of the large April 2000 mobilization against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. We used the exact same model developed in Seattle: the area surrounding the meeting was divided into imaginary pie slices, and clusters of affinity groups took responsibility for blockading each section. I was part of the tactical team that coordinated flying squads of mobile affinity groups from the New York cluster, in conjunction with clusters from Seattle, Colorado, Florida, and several other places. We spent endless hours before the actions planning how to use radio communications, bike runners, and bullhorns to deploy protesters as needed. Our logistical discussions were filled with paramilitary lingo that became both more seductive and more ridiculous as the big action day approached. Suddenly, we were referring to ourselves as “tac” or “com,” discussing “scouts” and “recon.” What wasn’t discussed, in big meetings and small, was why exactly we were doing a blockade, and doing it the same way as in Seattle. The actions were powerful, but it felt like a slogan—shut it down—had dictated our strategy, and defined our success.

And when delegates nonetheless got through our elaborately planned blockade, there was a marked sense of disappointment. We knew we hadn’t managed to recreate Seattle, but we didn’t have a method or language for evaluating what we had done and whether it had been worth doing.

The movement seemed still to be growing, though, and growing bolder. Many of us felt like we were winning, that momentum was on our side. There were voices within the movement that decried “summit-hopping” and urged activists to organize at the community level instead, but those exhortations never had a chance against the allure of the big actions. Large European protests against the IMF and World Bank in Prague in September 2000 heightened the sense that the movement was locked in a literal battle with the forces of corporate globalization, and that activists’ job was to physically put their bodies on the line to stop destructive trade agreements.

And so Quebec City—the anti-FTAA mobilization of April 2001—became one big street fight. Our side intended to divide the action areas into color-coded zones: green for family-friendly areas where one could participate with no risk of arrest; yellow for slightly edgier and risker activities; red for the Black Bloc and anyone else who was willing to engage in direct confrontation with the police. Not surprisingly, the authorities did not recognize our topographical distinctions and instead dramatically ratcheted up their level of violence in a sign of policing strategies to come.

We had joy and exuberance and spirit on our side, but our songs and street dances and papier-mâché puppets were no match for the ten-foot-high fence the authorities built to keep us away or the weapons—concussion grenades, 10,000 volt tasers, rubber bullets, and thousands of tear-gas canisters—used to contain the crowd. We donned gas masks to protect ourselves from the airborne poison, and some threw the noxious canisters back at the police. We took over a spiral freeway ramp and turned it into a massive musical instrument, throwing a delirious impromptu rave as the gas wafted over us. The violence made what we were doing seem important; feeling vindicated, we couldn’t perceive how off-putting it all looked from the outside.

And of course once we lost the element of surprise—the factor that made the WTO shutdown possible—we could never again actually prevent a summit meeting from happening. And even if we had, that in turn wouldn’t have meant we had actually disrupted the forward progress of corporate globalization in any meaningful way. The movement had done an impressive job of raising public awareness of global trade issues and arguably derailed some of the most destructive trade schemes under consideration during those years. But we were so filled with adrenaline from the extraordinary events that unfolded on the streets that we missed something crucial: just because you leave a protest feeling exuberant about your experience there doesn’t mean it was a success.

The Occupy movement has, on the whole, been more nimble than that so far, more willing to shift tactics and approaches to maintain public sympathy and sidestep dreary wars of position with the police. Mirth keeps a movement going; self-importance makes it abrasive and clumsy. The great success of Occupy has been setting things in motion. It will win not because it sustains an encampment or shuts down a port or takes over a foreclosed home. Change happens when what a movement inspires shifts in other forces, other institutions. The bold actions that make a movement inspiring are always necessarily temporary and symbolic. Their power lies outside them, in their potential to catalyze lasting change.

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