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How We Shut Down the WTO
Its been months since I joined the blockade that shut down the opening meeting of the WTO. Since getting out of jail, Ive 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 cant 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 activistseven 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 of them.
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 traininga 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 actionnot 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 neededthe organic, autonomous organization proved far more powerful and effective. No authoritarian figure could have compelled people to hold a blockade line while being tear gassedbut 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 consensusa 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 didnt, 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 to do.
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.
Im 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. Z