after seattle: an activist history of US politics from 1999-2007

from After Seattle: A Memoir, work-in-progress

On a recent lecture trip to Europe, I was repeatedly called upon to explain “what is going on” in the States. By this, people meant several things. Some of them meant how is it possible that Bush was re-elected. Others wondered what had happened to the anti-war movement. Some wondered what the alterglobalization movement was up to. The answers to these questions were similar, because they are interwoven. Each time I shook my head, took a deep breath, and launched into another intricate explanation, I noticed two things. First, the wonderment on the faces of my well-read listeners – this is a story they have not heard. And second, I wondered if this story had actually been written. I am sure many parts of it have been, but it’s such an epic tale that I wondered if anyone had bothered to write it.

We all know that any story is very strongly shaped by the perspective of the writer, and this is one in which it is absolutely necessary and revealing to make that perspective clear. Indeed, I foresee that I will have to include a great deal of my personal whereabouts in order to contextualize the quality of information and analysis that I am presenting. I participated in alterglobalization mass actions from Seattle to Cancún as part of a normal affinity group. I did not participate in national level organizing. I recognized the big organizers from having seen them repeatedly, but I did not have any communication with them. Neither I nor my group participated in the between-action structure of the Direct Action Network (DAN), United For Peace & Justice (UFPJ) or any other national network. We just did what we thought we were supposed to do, participate. We did educational events, media work, organized travel, and mobilized people from our town to go to mass actions and participate in local events. We kept up with any email lists we could get on, but we did not post to those lists. I did participate as a media person and as a legal person at two actions. In those roles, I actually spoke with some of the big organizers, but I only ever had private conversations with one of those people. Although I am a scholar of the movement, I never saw myself as important or skilled enough to participate in the high level organizing. I observed from the point of view of ‘rank-and-file’, although that is a term we do not use in the movement.

Seattle took many of us by surprise. We did not know that we were so ready, that there were so many of us, and that we could be so organized. The group I worked with was very motivated afterward, and we worked steadily on alterglobalization education (we hosted 12 full-day events in 4 years), local and regional protests around appropriate issues that “made the connections” between the local and global, as well as continuing to participate in mass actions in North America. From November 1999 – November 2003, we took more than 80 people on 120 person-trips to 11 different events (my action reports). We even wrote a handbook on how to participate responsibly in mass actions.

By mid-2000, we were dejected by critiques that the alterglobalization movement was “racist”, or anyway too white. We were perplexed that a movement that was all about addressing issues of globalization that disproportionately impact indigenous and Global South people, as well as immigrants and low income communities in the Global North, could be perceived as racist. I undertook an investigation into these perceptions which lasted several years and resulted in a series of published articles. Although the accusations of racism were accompanied by exhortations to quit mass protesting entirely, our group felt that maintaining that work was necessary in solidarity with the Global South. Instead of quitting, we worked harder to make connections between globalization and issues of racial injustice in the US, particularly in our local work.

In Europe, my colleagues are shocked. “What do you mean people said the movement was racist? There were Nazis? We never heard about this!” No, no, I shook my head, “In the US you don’t have to be a Nazi to be called a racist.” I proceeded to explain that within activist circles, there is a lot of concern for how white analyses, methods of struggle, and personalities dominate the process. The Europeans understood this, because their groups are highly attuned to gender inequalities, and they have quite strict rules to address these problems (such as speakers trading back and forth one man then one woman). “But that’s not Racism!” I explained that the history of race relations is very different in the US and therefore we address it in different contexts. They understood that. Then I went on to explain that the anti-racist position was that mass protests were a sign of privilege and that everybody should stay home and work only on local manifestations of globalization, they were horrified. “Of course,” they said “mass actions take a lot of energy. Maybe we can’t protest every meeting.” In this moment, knowing the preparations they were facing, the police they were facing, I felt very parochial. I felt that the discourse I was engaged in was not a global one, and not one of solidarity. They were disappointed in me. I expressed the anti-racist analysis with more passion and seriousness. They gained respect for it. But they could not accept that abandoning mass action was necessary.

Then, 2001. Of course I had to explain the climate following 911. I drew timelines, on which I marked the slow increase of space for dissent. At the end of September 2001, we were planning a huge IMF/WB protest in Washington DC. The unions would be participating on a large scale for the first time since Seattle. The Europeans were shocked to hear that almost every single NGO pulled out of that protest and has not been seen in the streets since. They knew that we have a blind patriotism problem in the US; they were surprised to find that it permeated the supporters of our most radical NGOs, causing them to back out of the protest in fear of losing donations. (Apparently they lost them anyway.) I described the dogged rag-tag crew that tromped around DC, small enough to be accompanied by a ring of police entirely encircling us.  Abandoned, the direct action sector of the US alterglobalization movement lay low until February 2002 when we went to New York for the World Economic Forum protests. Here for the first time, we found ourselves across the barricades from ANSWER, which organized their own march for the same day, to the same location. Well of course, they are taking this opportunity to oppose US militarism and it’s good that they are making connections with economic policies, We found it odd that they made a separate march, but we didn’t like their matching signs anyway, so we ignored it. New York seemed to be some breathing room, we were still here.

Throughout 2002 and 2003 it made sense to focus on the war, and there were lots of opportunities to connect the issues of economic globalization and war, and the war on terror and the war on dissent. The direct action alterglobalization movement joined in. But we found that this anti-war movement, this movement of which we felt smoothly a part (although we hoped to get back to work on the nonstop keelhauling of the Global South as soon as possible), did not see us as part of them. We did not expect their ideology to get upgraded much, although we were happy to see the world ‘imperialism’ used so popularly and anyway we brought our own signs and made great posters.

We did expect the anti-war movement to get something about diversity of tactics, and diversity of participants. Instead we found ourselves in permitted march after permitted march, shouted at by parade marshals, and demonized by those with whom we were protesting. A Veteran for Peace attacked me and tore off my cock-rocket feeling that street theater was undignified and did not befit his protest. In many parts of the country, direct actionists created their own, vibrant anti-war actions, but were often quite isolated from the mainstream anti-war movement. We were horrified that the main anti-war group, ANSWER (considered to be a front group for International Action Center and the Workers World Party, collected money (in garbage cans) at protests. We never asked for money. ANSWER’s ideology was ok, but they gave endlessly ideological (rather than analytical) speeches, and even their educational events were just speeches. They violated our ethics of careful research, and space for diversity. I went to an educational meeting about Venezuela in LA and they required people to sign in at the door. Of course many people at that meeting were dissidents and immigrants from Latin America and should not be signing their names there. Moreover, they charged money for a political education meeting. Finally, there was no education, just “Viva Chavez!” over and over for 90 minutes.

Shutting down San Francisco on the day the War on Iraq started showed that at least in the stronghold of the US alterglobalization movement, the tactical vision, support infrastructure, and committed participants were still alive. The rest of the country breathed joy and relief that we still existed. Later in 2003, Sister Ardeth Platte (67) was sentenced to 2 years in federal prison for pouring her blood on a missile silo, a sentence that upped the ante for traditional pacifist civil disobedience.

We got slammed at Miami FTAA. Really slammed. And the rest of the country didn’t even know about it. The message from the US government (funded by an $8M+ line item in the Iraq war appropriation) was that there was no tolerance for dissent. Our compatriots in the anti-war movement didn’t even know it was going on. We lost a young medic. After the experience of being hunted for 30 blocks, a lot of people haven’t been able to be back in the streets. That was November, 2003 and I think it was the start of serious repression of the direct action movement and the dissenting movements in the US in general. June 2004, the FBI visited (in riot gear) a few activist houses, accusing people of planning terrorism for the Republican National Convention later in the summer. On December 7, 2005, the Green Scare arrests, indictments, and grand juries began, disrupting and silencing activist communities. On the 19th of the same month, the Attorney General of the US admitted to wiretapping US citizens without warrants, scaring the bejeezes out of the law-abiding anti-war movement. Shortly thereafter, NBC published a leaked list of organizations (many pacifist and mellow NGOs) that the Pentagon was labeling as suspicious, possible criminal extremists and domestic terrorists, sending a clear message about the criminalization of dissent.[1]

But in the midst of that was the election. 2004 was one of the worst years of my political life, because I didn’t do anything, but every day I got an email message from another radical who had never voted urging me to vote for Kerry, a candidate and a party that were not against the war – the war which we had dropped everything to fight. I stopped going to political meetings because everywhere I went, for months –even meetings about things like community gardening—ended up with these rabid, hysterical Kerry people frothing at the mouth for our vote. Long-time radical friends were afraid to ask each other their election intentions. Anarchists were registering voters in red states. The world was upside down. And worse. The precious Green Party, so painstakingly built over decades, was all but destroyed in this election. Privately, I was much more worried that Kerry would win than Bush. Because, I reasoned, if Kerry won, the anti-war movement (although I’m not sure it can still be called that) would be so relieved that there would be no criticism of anything he did. Like Clinton, he could keel-haul the poor, pummel the Global South into free trade agreements, destroy social security and God knows what else, but at least he wouldn’t be Bush. I wasn’t worried about Bush being elected, because I thought then the protest movement(s) would remain vigorous. I was totally, utterly shocked at the lack of reaction to the election. From what I can tell people collapsed. The first place they went was not to the streets to protest the further erosion of election procedures, but to church.

It is mysterious that there was no challenge to the legality of the election. Radicals had organized huge election watch organizations, websites where violations could be reported, tracked, and compiled. And UFPJ (the national legacy of DAN, run by direct actionists) claimed to have signed up tens of thousands of people who promised to take action should the election be questionable. I think there was a second, more mainstream, organization which had promised the same thing. But nothing happened. This fact was the first time I seriously considered the possibility that our whole “leadership” (we don’t call it that) might have been compromised somehow. I still have no idea what goes on in UFPJ, who they are accountable to, what their agenda is.

The destruction/setback of the Green Party is especially significant.  I think it’s important not to consider the Green Party primarily as an electoral contender. It was a long term effort which successfully developed an anti-oppression framework which asserted the inseparability of ecological and social justice concerns and critiqued multiple dimensions of the US and international power structure. It was an institution which nurtured, educated, and extended these critiques to a growing diverse constituency. In doing so, it slowly articulated a non-rigid unity and identity which could recognize itself nationally and internationally. Third, it was an inclusive space for experimentation with lots of different kinds of political projects, some of which were electoral, but even those had a healthy emphasis on local government. The best manifestation of this success was the merging of the Cambridge/Boston MA  Green and Rainbow parties, asserting and celebrated the inseparability of multicultural, ecological, and redistributive concerns.[2]

Following the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the direct action sector of the alterglobalization movement got their chance to respond to the anti-racist critique. The movement embraced the most radical rebuilding of New Orleans, establishing a well-regarded “solidarity, not charity” organization called Common Ground which worked on housing, food, and other needs under the direction of local radicals. Altergloblaization medics were so effective that FEMA gave them security clearances, and eco-pagan activists researched and taught bioremediation. Indymedia activists set up an IMC for New Orleans. All of the sustenance infrastructure developed at mass actions was brought to New Orleans, as well as the passion of activists to get to work, which we hadn’t really been able to do for a while.

While white alterglobalization activists were finally hunkering down/settling in to live and work with communities of color, radicals of color were discovering mass actions. A network of immigrant and low income workers from the US traveled to Hong Kong for the 2005 WTO protests. At the Multiethnic Immigrant Workers Organizing Network (MIWON) report-back in Los Angeles I recognized the way the activists were standing and speaking, the profound weight and inspiration of the experience of an international action, the awe in which they held direct action, translating in jail, jumping into the water. I thought wow, the US alterglobalization movement is starting again, but this time it’s starting with people of color.  That does not seem to have attained liftoff…

The massive immigrant rights protests which followed in the Spring of 2006 were the next hope of, well, everyone. Personally it was a little freaky for me here in LA to see the pickup trucks flying twin US flags – after 911 that meant danger to dissenters. Here in LA the meaning had been completely inverted to mean “we are going to make this damn country ours whether it wants us or not.” Unfortunately, the immigrant rights movement was so inexperienced and ill-resourced that there was neither vision nor organization to carry it forward. I also thought that the issue itself (new federal regulations) came out of nowhere. It was a bit like throwing a hundred dollar bill into the crowd. “Let’s distract them with this one.” Interestingly, it really did push the issues forward for middle-of-the-road whites. And it did give credence to the importance of framing. The recent movie, A Day without a Mexican was the hegemonic theme of discourse, pro-immigrant and otherwise.

The July 2007 US Social Forum was held in Atlanta. I planned to attend, but in the end could not afford it. It was an expensive proposition. As an activist, it was extremely alienating to learn that the event would take place in corporate hotels. I was pleased to hear that a lot of the leadership was radical folks of color. From the early reports, it sounds like the whole thing took place with very little awareness of the international WSF process or the meaning of that process.

[1] “Is the Pentagon spying on Americans? Secret database obtained by NBC News tracks ‘suspicious’ domestic groups.” By Lisa Myers, Douglas Pasternak, Rich Gardella and the NBC Investigative Unit

Updated: 3:18 p.m. PT Dec 14, 2005