“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
In 1999, the World Trade Organization decided to hold global capitalism’s board meeting in Seattle, WA. Most Americans had never heard of the WTO before, but savvy organizers across a spectrum of single-issue silos, including labor, environmental, human rights and others, decided that they would team up and act like a movement for a change. Our critiques of neoliberalism varied widely and there were both reformers and abolitionists in our ranks, but we were united in the recognition that the meeting represented a potent symbolic target for anyone challenging the juggernaut of undemocratic global corporate power.
Radicals and liberals agreed early on that a healthy inside/outside strategy was called for. A critical mass of activists began organizing, recruiting and training together to attempt a many-thousands-strong blockade of the WTO ministerial. We believed that if we could achieve the tactical victory of a mass shutdown of the WTO’s coming-out party, it would strengthen the hands of everyone working against corporate globalization.
Scores of affinity groups organized themselves into thirteen “clusters” and through a highly functional (and democratic) spokescouncil, hammered out a plan to capture the key intersections around the Seattle Convention Center in a massive nonviolent blockade. And so, in the predawn darkness of November 30, 5,000 direct actionistas marched through the streets of Seattle toward their targets. Each individual action had its own logic and narrative. Each would have stood on its own as extraordinary. When connected together, they became unstoppable.
The action frame we chose was carnival-protest, equal parts communicative and concrete see PRINCIPLE: Make your actions both concrete and communicative. Outside the stodgy corporate meeting, a giant dance party broke out, complete with marching bands, dancers, theater troupes, giant puppets, radical cheerleaders, a phalanx of 300 turtles and even Christmas carolers. Thousands of folks joined together (with hands and chains) around key entrances and intersections, preventing delegates from entering (that was the instrumental part). It could have looked threatening, but with all the celebratory art and solidarity, we looked beautiful and human doing it. Our theme was “Another World Is Possible” and we were living it out.
By morning, 5,000 more folks, inspired by the audacity and courage of these artful actions, had spontaneously joined the human wall around the WTO. Teamsters and turtles were literally dancing together in the streets. A few hours later, as the Seattle police unleashed a torrent of tear gas and pepper spray to crack the blockade, 50,000 labor marchers defied their own marshals and reinforced us with a sea of humanity. The biggest business meeting on Earth had been shut down, a tactical victory most thought impossible. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The impact of Seattle was enormous. It launched the global justice movement in the Global North. It showed that a people’s victory against global capital was possible. It created a teachable moment — for the public, on the WTO and the dark side of corporate globalization, and also for the movement, showcasing direct and mass action tactics and a carnivalesque sensibility that are still influential today, as well as training a new wave of actionistas who have gone on to play critical roles across the next decade of progressive movements.
We had a great democratic process that let us hammer out agreements on both actions and messaging frameworks that thousands of people signed onto. We picked the fight early and framed it well. We planned for nine months. We started the media story months in advance. On the day of the event, we surprised everyone, even ourselves.
The shut-down of the WTO blended both soft and hard blockade technologies. Of the thousands who participated, all but a few hundred simply joined hands and stood shoulder to shoulder with their comrades to prevent delegates from getting through. However, several hundred people used lock-boxes, chains, barrels, and other hard blockade technology to hold key intersections where we knew our people power would be lightest. With art and costumes and good cheer, we made these gear-intensive technical “lockdowns” look beautiful, not scary.
When 50,000 lefties take the streets to confront corporate power, you’re going to get 50,000 different critiques. To try to unify all that message diversity, we designed a “framing action.” The day before the big protest, four climbers dropped a massive banner 300 feet above Seattle’s main commuter highway that framed the action as a choice between democracy and the WTO. The photo of the banner went global on the day of the mass action, summing up in stark and simplest terms what Battle in Seattle was all about.
Whether your YES! was the freedom to keep making the Roquefort cheese that your great grandfather made or to continue living in an ancient rainforest unpoisoned by Big Oil or to keep your good union job and not have it outsourced to a sweatshop, you shared a NO! with billions of others. This “unity in diversity” was present on the streets with Teamsters and Turtles linking arms, and in the “movement of movements” that organized the protest.
Before the WTO uprising in Seattle, relatively few people in the Global North questioned the process of corporate globalization and so-called “free” trade. Seattle jolted the entire Overton window sharply to the left. Fair trade and other alternatives moved out of the fringe. The idea that militant mass action could stop corporate globalization in its tracks became not only thinkable, but popular. Every major summit between Seattle and 9/11 was met with mass protest.