How We Shut Down the WTO
It’s been months since I joined the blockade that shut down the opening
meeting of the WTO. Since getting out of jail, I’ve been reading the media
coverage and trying to make sense out of the divergence between what I
know happened and what has been reported. Most of what has been written
is so inaccurate that I can’t decide if the reporters in question should
be charged with conspiracy or simply incompetence.
The police, in defending their “mishandling” of the situation, have said
they were “not prepared for the violence.” In reality, they were unprepared
for the nonviolence and the numbers and commitment of the nonviolent activists—even
though the blockade was organized in open, public meetings and there was
nothing secret about our strategy. My suspicion is that our model of organization
and decision making was so foreign to their picture of what constitutes
leadership that they literally could not see what was going on in front
When authoritarians think about leadership, the picture in their minds
is of one person, usually a guy, or a small group standing up and telling
other people what to do. Power is centralized and requires obedience. In
contrast, our model of power was decentralized and leadership was invested
in the group as a whole. People were empowered to make their own decisions
and the centralized structures were for coordination, not control. As a
result, we had great flexibility and resilience, and many people were inspired
to acts of courage they could never have been ordered to do. Here are some
of the key aspects of our model of organizing:
Training and Preparation: In the weeks and days before the blockade, thousands
of people were given nonviolence training—a three-hour course that combined
the history and philosophy of nonviolence with real life practice through
role plays in staying calm in tense situations, using nonviolent tactics,
responding to brutality, and making decisions together. Thousands also
went through a second-level training in jail preparation, solidarity strategies
and tactics, and legal aspects. As well, there was first aid training,
training in blockade tactics, street theater, meeting facilitation, and
other skills. While thousands took part in the blockade who had not attended
any of these trainings, a nucleus of groups existed who were prepared to
face police brutality and who could provide a core of resistance and strength.
In jail, I saw many situations that played out just like the role plays.
Activists were able to protect members of their group from being singled
out or removed by using tactics introduced in training. The solidarity
tactics became a real block to the functioning of the system.
Common Agreements: Each participant in the action was asked to agree to
the nonviolence guidelines: To refrain from violence, physical or verbal;
not to carry weapons; not to bring or use illegal drugs or alchohol; and
not to destroy property. We were asked to agree only for the purpose of
the November 30 action—not to sign on to any of these as a life philosophy,
and the group acknowledged that there is much diversity of opinion around
some of these guidelines.
Affinity Groups, Clusters, and Spokescouncils: The participants in the
action were organized into affinity groups. Each group was empowered to
make its own decisions around how it would participate in the blockade.
There were groups doing street theater, others preparing to lock themselves
to structures, groups with banners and giant puppets, others prepared to
link arms and nonviolently block delegates. Within each group, there were
generally some people prepared to risk arrest and others who would be their
support people in jail, as well as a first aid person.
Affinity groups were organized into clusters. The area around the Convention
Center was broken down into 13 sections, and affinity groups and clusters
committed to holding particular sections. Some were in “flying groups”
that moved to wherever they were most needed. All of this was coordinated
at Spokescouncil meetings of representatives from the affinity groups.
This form of organization meant that groups could move and react with great
flexibility during the blockade. If a call went out for more people at
a certain location, an affinity group could assess the numbers holding
the line where they were and choose whether or not to move. When faced
with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and horses, groups and individuals
could assess their own ability to withstand the brutality. As a result,
blockade lines held in the face of incredible police violence. When one
group of people was swept away by gas and clubs, another would move in
to take their place. Yet there was also room for those of us in the middle-aged,
bad lungs/bad backs affinity group to hold lines in areas that were relatively
peaceful, to interact and dialogue with the delegates we turned back, and
to support the labor march that brought tens of thousands through the area
at midday. No centralized leader could have coordinated the scene in the
midst of the chaos, and none was needed—the organic, autonomous organization
proved far more powerful and effective. No authoritarian figure could have
compelled people to hold a blockade line while being tear gassed—but empowered
people free to make their own decisions chose to do that.
Consensus decision making: The affinity groups, clusters, spokes- councils,
and working groups involved with DAN made decisions by consensus—a process
that allows every voice to be heard and that stresses respect for minority
opinions. Consensus was part of the nonviolence and jail trainings and
we made an attempt to also offer some special training in meeting facilitation.
We did not interpret consensus to mean unanimity. The only mandatory agreement
was to act within the nonviolent guidelines.
Beyond that, the DAN organizers set a tone that valued autonomy and freedom
over conformity and stressed coordination rather than pressure to conform.
So, for example, our solidarity strategy involved staying in jail where
we could use the pressure of our numbers to protect individuals from being
singled out for heavier charges or more brutal treatment. But no one was
pressured to stay in jail or made to feel guilty for bailing out before
others. We recognized that each person has their own needs and life situation,
and that what was important was to have taken action at whatever level
we could. Had we pressured people to stay in jail, many would have resisted
and felt resentful and misused. Because we didn’t, because people felt
empowered, not manipulated, the vast majority decided to remain, and many
people pushed themselves beyond the boundaries of what they had expected
Vision and Spirit: The action included art, dance, celebration, song, ritual,
and magic. It was more than a protest; it was an uprising of a vision of
true abundance, a celebration of life and creativity and connection. Many
people brought the strength of their personal spiritual practice to the
action. I saw Buddhists turn away angry delegates with loving kindness
and Witches lead rituals before the action and in jail, and call on nature
to sustain us.
I’m writing this to give credit to the DAN organizers who did a brilliant
and difficult job, who learned and applied the lessons of the last 20 years
of nonviolent direct action, and who created a powerful, successful, and
life- changing action in the face of enormous odds, an action that has
changed the global political landscape and radicalized a new generation.
The true story of how this action was organized provides a powerful model
that activists can learn from. Seattle was only a beginning.