A trainer's report on the WTO, IMF & World Bank protests
By Betsy Raasch-Gilman
Saint Paul, Minnesota
The twenty-first century has begun with a surprising and hopeful upsurge of nonviolent direct action in the United States and elsewhere. The annual protest at the Army School of the Americas in November, 1999, was the largest one ever, and some four thousand protesters risked arrest in an effort to shut down the school. The WTO protests in Seattle, Washington, between November 29th and December 3rd, sent the WTO ministers home in disarray. Scarcely two months later, as many as two hundred fifty thousand people marched in San Juan, Puerto Rico, demanding an end to US bombing practice on the island of Vieques. Thousands of New Yorkers have demonstrated repeatedly against police murders of unarmed men of color, sometimes enduring senseless provocation by the police themselves. In April as many as ten thousand demonstrators gathered in Washington, D.C. to disrupt the meetings of the IMF and World Bank. A few weeks later, four thousand demonstrators braved the Thai military to disrupt the meetings of the Asian Development Bank in Bangkok. It seems this wave keeps growing and growing.
Many of these actions are militant, confrontational, and creative. Young environmentalists, human rights activists, and anarchists are expressing their sense of urgency, their playfulness, their self-determination, and their outrage through nonviolent direct action. The result is a whole different kind of mass demonstration. From my perspective as an activist and trainer for the last twenty-odd years, I want to reflect on how nonviolence itself is being shaped and pushed by a new group of practitioners. New styles of demonstrations call for new techniques in nonviolence preparation, too, and I want to suggest what those might be.
The WTO protests and the IMF/World Bank protests in Washington are my best examples, since I was at each, training and participating in the actions. I went to both demonstrations partly because its my lifelong dream to overthrow corporate capitalism (putting it simply!). In addition, I was invited in both cases as part of a team from Training for Change. Matt Guynn co-trained with me in Seattle; Antje Mattheus, Amy Steffen, and Jim Cummings from TFC all participated in the D.C. trainings with me.
Images of the "Battle in Seattle" usually focus on broken windows, graffiti, tear gas, riot police, rubber pellets, and handcuffed demonstrators lying on the ground. All of these actually happened. Matt and I were caught in some of the skirmishes between police and protesters, and Matt witnessed others. Both of us were tear gassed, and I was hit with rubber pellets. We also saw, over and over again, how activists enforced their own discipline of nonviolence, showing common sense, compassion, and determination. At one point, as we sat in the street in front of a police barricade, some demonstrators urged us to rush the police line. Instead, the crowd pressured the hotheads to sit down, and chanted "Peaceful protest! Peaceful protest!" When riot police sprayed tear gas and pepper spray on protesters locked onto heavy objects in the middle of an intersection, the demonstrators screamed in rage, defiance, and pain -- and regrouped and boldly took back the intersection. In another situation, protesters isolated a few who began breaking the windows of Niketown, chanting, "Nonviolence! Nonviolence!" With riot police in armored personnel carriers in hot pursuit, demonstrators often spontaneously acted as peacekeepers, reminding each other to "Walk, go slowly!" and kept an eye out for people in wheelchairs and parents with small children. Drummers and musicians kept people dancing, even in the middle of a downpour, and channeled anger into determination. The positive energy extended to motorists unexpectedly caught in the middle of a march, construction workers on scaffolds, residents in apartment buildings, and in some instances even to the police and National Guard troops themselves.
The media generally praised the D.C. police force for being more restrained than the Seattle police. From my perspective, as a trainer during the week leading up to the actions, the D.C. police were no less repressive than the Seattle police -- simply more cunning.
As we prepared for our actions, the police pressured us constantly. Noisy helicopters hung over our heads for hours at a time. Police informants attended our decision-making meetings. Protesters were frequently stopped for minor traffic infractions, and several were arrested simply for carrying blockade-building materials in their cars. The evening before the World Bank meetings began, police surrounded six hundred peaceful demonstrators, forcing them to create a traffic obstruction, and then arrested them for obstructing traffic. Even tourists who witnessed the event spoke of entrapment. (One of our trainers, Nijmie Dzurinko, went to jail with this group.) On the last morning of training, the police and fire marshals swept through our training site and closed it down, impounding many personal belongings, puppets, and medical supplies. I and the other trainers spent the rest of the day giving workshops in noisy, crowded churches, parks, and alleys. (Miraculously, after the IMF and World Bank delegates had gone home, the fire code violations suddenly disappeared and we could go back into our space.)
Given this background of harassment, disruption, and surveillance, protesters on the streets sometimes taunted police -- and never assaulted or threatened them. On the contrary, some protesters suffered beatings by plainclothes officers. Police in cars and on motorcycles rammed some groups of demonstrators. A mounted officer broke one persons leg. And yet protesters chanted, "Its not about the cops -- its about the IMF!"
Why do these protests strike me as such a departure from previous nonviolent demonstrations Ive been in? For starters, we marched through the streets without permits, without established parade routes, and without peacekeepers and armbands. The center of leadership in the crowds shifted constantly; I couldnt tell how decisions were being made, and actually in the moment it didnt seem to matter.
In Seattle, after November 30th, when much to our surprise, we actually did shut down the WTO meetings, we felt a growing sense of our own power. This was no symbolic display of discontent -- we were really having an effect! It was an exhilarating experience. Similarly, the IMF and World Bank delegates only managed to meet in Washington by leaving their hotels at 5:30 a.m. Some World Bank employees slept in their offices; others sneaked through the crowds in jeans and T-shirts, carrying suits in their backpacks. Alleviating world poverty was practically all the officials talked about in their public statements about the meetings. Clearly, it was not business as usual for the IMF and World Bank!
Even the violence employed against us told us that wed hit a nerve in the global capitalist system.
Going back to the Black-led pro-democracy movement of the sixties, nonviolent strategy was calculated to reveal the underlying violence of the system. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought his campaign to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 largely because he knew the police chief could be counted on to unleash dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protesters. King had just suffered a humiliating defeat in Albany, Georgia, because the police chief there studied the dynamics of nonviolence. Instead of beating and jailing demonstrators, the Albany police chief presented himself as a reasonable, nice guy. He outmaneuvered King, and King needed to regain the moral high ground by once more exposing the naked violence of racism. So King went to Birmingham, although he believed he might not live through it himself, and indeed four young girls died when segregationists firebombed their church. King repeatedly put his own life and the lives of many other African-Americans on the line in order to make clear that the powers that be would use violence indiscriminately to maintain their power.
That risk-taking edge to nonviolence became duller when translated to the white-led peace and environmental movements of the seventies and eighties. Peace activists (including myself) propose nonviolence as an alternative to international warfare -- and quite subtly, nonviolence becomes a way to resolve conflict rather than a way to conduct conflict. In demonstrations, nonviolence became a way to keep people safe, rather than a way to dramatize underlying injustices. We somehow hoped that we could express our opposition to the mightiest killing machine in all of recorded history without being hurt ourselves -- and acting nonviolently was the way to avoid getting hurt. As a nonviolence trainer, I used the example of the Birmingham campaign with a womens peace group in the 1980s, and one of the participants reacted in shock and horror. She thought that King had acted violently in Birmingham because he had calculated how to provoke violence, and put peoples lives in danger.
While being critical of the goal of being safe through being nonviolent, I also want to notice that there are situations in which a nonviolent activist can and does promote safety. When repressive governments threaten the lives of activists, unarmed supporters go to their countries and accompanying them day and night. Many lives have literally been saved by nonviolent activists, who volunteer weeks or months through Peace Brigades International, Witness for Peace, and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Sometimes this job is as fun as playing ball with the children of the family; sometimes it is as terrifying as confronting army sharpshooters with loaded rifles. In this instance, a nonviolent activist does promote safety -- not necessarily her/his own, but quite certainly the safety of the person s/he accompanies.
Back in the Belly of the Beast, though, losing the risk-taking edge to nonviolence has sometimes prevented peace activists from forming important alliances. For example, during the early and mid-eighties, peace activists in the Twin Cities carried on twice-yearly blockades of an arms manufacturer. Each action drew more and more blockaders, until hundreds of people risked arrest. These events had an orderly, predictable feel to them: demonstrators would block a doorway to prevent workers from going in, talk quietly among themselves or sing, and wait for the police to take them away. (Meanwhile, the workers would enter the building through tunnels and overhead walkways from the parking ramp, which never got blocked.) The police would mill around for a while letting us have our media opportunity, issue an arrest warning, and escort the demonstrators one by one to a waiting bus. Supporters would cheer and clap for each arrestee. Demonstrators would be ticketed and released later in the day, and often the charges were dropped a month later. The wife of the chief of police got arrested several times. The police chief arranged for coffee and donuts to be served to the detained activists, and made a point of dropping his wife off at the demonstration site and kissing her good-bye.
On the one hand, this gave us the feeling that we were making in-roads into the halls of power, and refreshments certainly brightened up the booking procedure. On the other hand, I had the uneasy feeling that our police chief, like the chief in Albany, Georgia, had outwitted us. Here we were, protesting the military, and our nearest paramilitary outpost came off looking like genial hosts! Furthermore, people of color protesting their treatment at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department got no sympathy or support from the white-led peace movement -- surely, our nice police chief wouldnt let anything racist happen! We learned to say "peace and justice" in one breath, but we didnt always recognize injustice, even when it was right in front of our noses. We "knew" that as long as we stayed nonviolent the police would also stay nonviolent -- therefore, if the police got violent with someone, it must be because s/he had provoked them.
Predictable, safe civil disobedience reached a point of almost absurdity during the last phase of the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. Blocking the doorways at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., became somewhat trendy, and US Representatives and Senators were arrested practically by appointment with the police! I participated in a dissatisfied discussion with other life-long nonviolent activists, where we complained that the tactic of civil disobedience seemed to have no zip or zing to it anymore. On the exciting side of the equation, many people who thought of themselves as ordinary citizens got arrested for taking a political stand. The disappointing part was that it all seemed so tame!
And yet, the lack of risk (for European Americans) in risking arrest was not all bad. When the Nicaraguan solidarity movement asked people to pledge that they would peacefully take over Federal office buildings if the US invaded Nicaragua to overthrow the Sandinista government, thousands of people signed the Pledge of Resistance. Though the US military used many illegal means to funnel arms and money to the insurgents fighting the Marxist-Leninist government of Nicaragua, they never deployed their forces. The vision of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of citizens nonviolently blocking doorways or occupying Federal buildings around the country may have saved Nicaragua from the fate of Serbia and Iraq.
When the US began bombing Iraq in the winter of 1991, I had my first inkling that something might change in the way white activists used nonviolence. One anti-war demonstration I attended broke up into a legal rally and an extra-legal march in the city streets during rush hour. We simply swarmed around cars, buses, and trucks and occupied intersections. As a way of releasing our anger at a military and government out of control, it was very satisfying. As a way of convincing our fellow citizens to oppose the war, it lacked sophistication. How could a driver stalled in traffic blocks away from us have any way of knowing that we were shouting and chanting about the bombing of Iraq? And would they be any more likely to call their congressperson even if they knew that the war delayed them getting home by half an hour?
Greenpeace and Earth First! led this demonstration. They also introduced me to the use of chaos theory in creating social change. (As a nonviolence trainer, I often learn just as much from the groups I train as they do from me.) The direct action arm of the environmental movement has been playing with ways to create chaos, on the assumption that established institutions don't know what to do with chaos. Like a physical structure, an institution like the WTO or the World Bank is made up of sub-particles, and those sub-particles are in flux even when we can't see them. Besieging an institution (even one which appears as solid and massive as a rock) with chaos increases the chaotic action within the institution as well.
Chaos and nonviolence go well together. In 1994, my local anti-nuclear power group took over the customer service office of our electric utility, singing and throwing around balls of yarn until a bright, tangled, impenetrable web completely covered the entire place! The police and security guards got hopping mad, and as people were arrested the iron fist in the velvet glove of the Minneapolis police showed itself clearly towards peaceful white demonstrators. (When some of the activists got out of custody later that day, for a prank they walked past the customer service office and tossed a ball of yarn into the lobby. The utilitys staff reacted as if theyd thrown a hand-grenade through the door -- so great was their fear of more chaos!)
The defiant, fluid, decentralized, theatrical, sustained demonstrations in Seattle marked a quantum leap for chaos and nonviolence. In terms of numbers, many demonstrations have been larger than the actions in Seattle. The difference between the WTO protests and the Million Man March on Washington, D.C., (for example) was that people did not all do the same thing at the same time in Seattle. Spontaneity ruled the day(s). As in the physics of chaos, seemingly random events emerged into a pattern, and almost as quickly dissolved into a less-identifiable pattern. Right there on the streets, affinity groups of demonstrators worked out their tactics and next steps more or less by consensus as they went, responding to the conditions they met and created. It was inspiring.
Chaotic demonstrations are here to stay -- thank goodness! They are just the breath of fresh air that the nonviolence movement needed. At the same time, and especially after the IMF/World Bank protests in D.C., I want to offer a critique, too. There is a element of dare devilishness in the tactics of the radical environmental movement: scaling trees and buildings, sailing small boats in front of large ships, locking body parts to immovable objects for days at a time. These actions take physical strength, endurance, and courage, and appeal to young men. Such actions are certainly more difficult, if not impossible, for activists with disabilities, activists with serious illnesses, and activists with greater body size. Many women dont get as excited about taking such physical risks. Sometimes we dont believe that we are strong enough (which may be the result of internalized sexism); sometimes we have children who would suffer even more than ourselves if something went wrong. The bravado exhibited in the streets of D.C. -- forcing the police back with countercharges of demonstrators, leaping in front of a mini-tractor which was about to remove a barricade -- reflects the extent to which the direct action arm of the environmentalist movement is dominated by young men. Several young women have complained to me quietly about this over the last decade, and it seems that this new wave of activism may have to relearn some of the lessons of radical feminism.
Just in case they should be forgotten, I want to point to the womens peace encampments of the 1980s, and to the Womens Pentagon Actions, as examples of self-governing, militant, sometimes chaotic demonstrations. These actions, undertaken entirely by women, had a particularly female quality to them. When they camped outside military bases for months at a time, women attached pictures of children and beautiful objects to the fences to remind the soldiers inside what would be lost in a nuclear war. They keened and wailed outside the gates for hours. They repeatedly scaled fences and stopped convoys to talk to the soldiers. Their attitude towards the police was different, too. At the climactic march of the Seneca Womens Peace Encampment in the summer of 1985, demonstrators intent on occupying the Seneca Army Depot wouldnt allow themselves to be stopped by a very nervous county sheriff. They simply swarmed past the law enforcement barricades. They didnt taunt or confront police officers -- they ignored them. Women may relate to these authority figures not solely as authoritarian fathers, but also as brothers and sons. (Like any generalization, of course, this one is full of dangers.)
And then theres the difficult question of ethnic diversity within our movement. Events in Washington highlight this. The IMF/World Bank protests came at the end of a week full of demonstrations against global capitalism. A Jubilee00 rally on Sunday April 9th attracted about four thousand people to the national mall -- a bad disappointment for organizers, who talked confidently of ten thousand. In one respect, though, Jubilee00 succeeded where the IMF/World Bank protests failed: many more people of color attended. More people of color appeared to be among the organizers, and their voices were clearly heard from the speakers platform. Participants in the crowd -- of a range of ethnicities -- talked about how they wouldnt come near Washington next weekend, because the anarchists were set to destroy the city. To me, who came to work with the anarchists, the fears seemed all out of proportion. Still, how could the crowd at Jubilee00 know that? The Mobilization for Global Justice depended on college campuses and the Internet for recruitment, and obviously didnt make personal connections with a large audience of color. Yet, US people of color are not indifferent to the effects of globalization on the southern hemisphere -- Jubilee00 moved them to rally for debt relief because organizers made their case in churches and labor union halls.
Risky, confrontational, chaotic demonstrations dont necessarily appeal to people of color any more than did the tame nonviolent demonstrations of the 1980s. During the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in August, demonstrators marched to the Ramparts Division of the police department, calling attention to the corruption and brutality that has plagued this police force. People of color have been the main target of the LA police for decades, and many people of color participated in this march. However, when it came to blocking the doorway of the police station, and defying orders to move, people of color drew back. A group of young Ladino men explained, "We can get arrested any day. These white guys seem to want to get busted. They have to make this big march and come here specially to get arrested. Well, fine for them, if they want to -- weve seen all we care to see of the inside of that building." Of course, these men spoke for themselves, and not every person of color will feel the same way. At the same time, its easy to see why blockades and civil disobedience may appeal more to European-American activists than to activists of color.
The WTO protests in December contrasted rather oddly with those at the Army School of the Americas only a week or so before. At Fort Benning, Georgia, participants who joined the protests bought into the set-up of the whole protest as planned by a central committee. If they didnt like the plan, they didnt cross the line to risk arrest. Nonviolence trainings there focused largely on learning the script of the protest. In Seattle, the trainings prepared people to do their own thing in small, decentralized affinity groups, releasing the maximum amount of creativity and energy in the streets. In three hours we skimmed through the theory of nonviolence, the guidelines for the protests, consensus decision-making, possible responses to crisis situations, and what happens when youre arrested. Given the complexity and unpredictability of the task that everyone faced in the next few days, it seemed like much too little.
In retrospect, I am dissatisfied with the trainings in one important aspect. As far as revealing the underlying violence of the system, the Seattle protests (like Dr. Kings Birmingham campaign) were quite effective. Unlike King, though, we demonstrators were somewhat unprepared, and did not make as strong a connection as we might have between the violence we were experiencing in the streets of Seattle and the military power which underlies the global capitalism. By Thursday morning the focus of our demonstrations was slipping, because we'd been harassed, gassed, chased, and beaten by the police for two days. It was hard not to focus on police brutality as the issue. Furthermore, a good part of the downtown area had been proclaimed a "no protest" zone. We did a marginally better job of connecting the lack of democracy in Seattle to the lack of democracy inside the WTO meetings. However, in many ways we were not prepared to use the violence we had revealed in the system to make our very real political arguments.
My own nonviolence workshops before the actions contributed to this weakness. Often, before an action, fears run high and participants have an exaggerated sense of the danger they may face. Lulled by almost two decades of polite, practically scripted nonviolent direct actions and civil disobedience, I internally discounted the fears people expressed of a repeat of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. I missed the opportunity to stress that a violent response to nonviolent protest is actually a tactical advantage. If I'd gone over that in the trainings, demonstrators may have been better able to link police violence to the WTO itself (or to its servant, NATO,) later on.
Given the dramatic events in Seattle, neither I nor any other trainers felt complacent about the Washington police! In D.C. we tended to go in the opposite direction, focusing a lot on how to stand up to a police charge, how to hold the line, and how to counter crowd-control techniques with mobile tactics of our own. Every workshop on first aid for teargas and pepper spray was jammed. Gradually, I realized that many participants, and even some trainers, believed that nonviolence meant learning these defensive/offensive measures to deal with police brutality. Nonviolence equaled using ones body to create a blockade. Nonviolence equaled civil disobedience. Nonviolence equaled outwitting the polices repressive measures. One of my co-trainers (with thirteen years of experience in forest defense in British Columbia) remarked with surprise about my quick run-down of nonviolence theory. He said he seldom talked about the theory of nonviolence in a nonviolence workshop -- instead, he made sure that people knew how to maintain their solidarity against the police. In the future, I hope that we can come up with a blend for our trainings: militant, confrontational, creative tactics grounded in the broad sweep of nonviolent theory developed by people around the world.
Applying nonviolence in a chaotic political action is challenging! All of us -- demonstrators, city residents, police, and WTO/IMF/World Bank delegates -- were stressed by the chaos we created together. None of us could count on anything working in the ways we are accustomed to them working: restaurants and stores werent open at regular hours; peaceful protesters were arrested and looters went free; buses and trolleys didnt follow their routes; capitalists couldnt be insulated from the unhappiness their decisions cause. If we demonstrators are going to intentionally create a chaotic situation, we also have to have a strongly internalized code of nonviolence. Ideally in such a situation, nonviolence would be an almost-instinctual set of behaviors, and we would have an almost-unlimited access to our creativity. As a nonviolence trainer and activist, I go on the assumption that violence is actually a last resort -- and as such, it is an expression of resourcelessness. We resort to violence when we cant come up with anything else to do in a situation. If violence is resourcelessness, then nonviolence must be a state of boundless creativity, a state of inventiveness, of outrageousness and unconventionality and humor.
This has implications for training design. If we are helping to prepare people for a relatively predictable demonstration (even if it includes civil disobedience), we may be able to focus more on tactical questions. If we are helping to prepare people for a chaotic demonstration, we need to dig deeper into playfulness. I collect and tell stories of funny ways to deal with potentially dangerous situations, because humor is such an antidote to fear and anger. Sometimes I encourage people to come up with the most ridiculous behaviors they can imagine for a tense moment, then underline the point that our power lies in noncooperation with what is expected of us. I think this is a key concept in political nonviolence: that we always have the power to withdraw our cooperation, and refuse to do whats expected of us.
In one of our workshops in Seattle, though, no amount of humor would dispel the cloud of fear that seemed to hover over the room. In a last-ditch attempt to salvage the training, I addressed the fear directly with a parallel-line role-play in which demonstrator faced off with police officers. With a great deal of yelling and even some shoving, the group released some of its fear (even though the role-play yielded very few helpful ideas of what to do in that situation in real life!) After simply acting out their fears, participants were able to absorb information about arrest procedures. For that group, the information seemed quite reassuring.
In D.C. I heard about (though did not witness) a workshop in which the trainers ran one half of a parallel-line role-play to practice deescalating conflict, then led the group through a grounding exercise. The second half of the parallel-line role-play went differently: the group playing demonstrators got less carried away with "winning" an argument, and expressed the strength of their convictions. I would like to experiment some more with grounding exercises to help people stay centered in the overall purpose of the demonstration, especially when they are feeling frightened, angry, and/or cynical about their effectiveness. In a closed-eye process, I might suggest that participants connect the force of their purpose at a demonstration with the force of gravity. I might even guide them into some fearful thoughts, and then help them to remember the strength of gravity is like their own strength of purpose. (After our experience in Seattle, I wouldnt suggest deep breathing as a way of centering, because when the air is filled with tear gas and pepper spray, deep breathing can be downright dangerous.)
In a fluid, constantly-evolving set of demonstrations, the role of peacekeepers became particularly unclear. A few stories illustrate the difficulties:
When Matt Guynn and I showed up to be peacekeepers for the Jubilee00 march in Seattle, we immediately got into a debate with our team leader about civil disobedience. The Jubilee00 march had been organized by the Washington Council of Churches, for the purpose of pressuring WTO delegates to forgive the debt of the world's poorest nations. The churches had worked very hard on this march, and seemed to want it to be a dignified, unified, respectful action. While the WTO delegates had a wine and cheese reception at an exhibition hall near the Kingdome, demonstrators would encircle the Kingdome holding candles and flashlights. Weighing against this legal, carefully-planned vigil was the excitement, determination, and wild energy already building in the streets.
The leader of our team of peacekeepers told us that our assignment was to prevent demonstrators from committing acts of civil disobedience when the march arrived at the Kingdome. This would be a nonviolent march, she said. Having come almost directly from a nonviolence training for affinity groups who were preparing themselves to risk arrest, we objected. Civil disobedience is a form of nonviolent action, we argued, not lawlessness that would ruin the demonstration. Furthermore, we really didn't want our role as peacekeepers to include preventing someone from acting on their conscience. We and the team leader argued ourselves to a stand-off, and the issue of what we would do if someone risked arrest remained unresolved. The incident showed the temptation of making peacekeepers into "peace pigs" in order to head off chaos.
The International Association of Machinists provided peacekeepers for the large labor march the following day, November 30th. They were clearly identifiable, wearing neon orange baseball caps with the word "marshal" stenciled on the front in black print. (I do think that it's more than a semantic difference: "marshal" reflects a different philosophy from "peacekeeper.") The marshals played a crucial role in one of the more second-guessed moments of the labor march.
The marchers planned to go within a block of the convention center where the WTO ministers were supposed to be meeting, and then turn around and return to Seattle Center, where the march had started. As the column of protesters reached the turning point, they could see down a hill to throngs of environmentalists, students, human rights activists, and others in the streets and intersections. Contrary to anyone's expectations, at 2:00 or 2:30 in the afternoon very few arrests had been made, and the people who had set out at 7:00 that morning to prevent the WTO delegates from reaching the convention center still held the streets! The labor march had been envisioned as the second wave, coming through after the first wave of demonstrators had been bused off to jail. Instead, the first wave was still there, still successfully (although they may not have known it at the time) delaying the start of the WTO meetings.
None of this was clear in the moment; all the average labor marcher could tell was that a mass of people was disrupting life downtown. Naturally, many of them wanted to join the action, although the route of the march led to the left, not to the right. At this critical intersection, a team of marshals attempted to direct the labor marchers away from the mass of environmentalists downtown. Some marchers argued with the marshals, some simply broke through their line and headed down the hill anyway. The majority accepted the marshals' authority and turned left.
This incident has been rehashed within the labor movement since then. Solidarity was a major theme of the week-long protests: solidarity between workers in the northern and southern hemispheres, solidarity between farmers and laborers, solidarity between environmentalists and organized labor. And yet here labor literally turned its back on what environmentalists were doing! It should come as no surprise that John Sweeney would be reluctant to lead 25,000 unionists into a mob of 10,000 sea turtles and butterflies! It was enough of an accomplishment that the president of the AFL-CIO was at the head of the march in his quilted jacket, rather than being inside the convention center in his suit and tie! Still, both rank-and-file labor activists and some environmentalists regard it as a tactical mistake, especially after everyone figured out what had actually happened in those confusing moments.
The marshals were right in the middle of this dilemma. A routine left-hand turn became a major tactical choice because of the unexpected success of the 7:00 a.m. marchers. Once again, chaos and order conflicted inside the coalition of protesters, and the marshals were supposed to uphold the side of order. Is this what peacekeeping really should be about? Should peacekeepers limit the spontaneity of a nonviolent direct action, particularly when fate offers us a chance to capitalize on a success? On the other hand, what would have happened if 25,000 people suddenly veered off-course and added their bodies to the chaotic scene in the streets? Perhaps the surprised and irritated police would have resorted to lead bullets instead of the rubber they were already using. Perhaps the marshals simply fulfilled their primary function of keeping the crowd safe and facilitating a clear political message.
Leading up to the IMF/World Bank protests, activists carried on a spirited debate over the Internet about peacekeeping. The anarchist Black Bloc strongly resented the idea that other demonstrators might patrol the demonstrations, limiting anyones options for action. They felt that demonstrators in Seattle who had protected Niketown and coached and pressured each other to stick to a nonviolent discipline had undermined the effectiveness of the demonstrations. On the other hand, many D.C. activists and residents objected to the idea that their city might be trashed. Rumors flew on the Internet, fueling the debate. Peacekeepers in Boston had ripped the masks off the faces of anarchists at a demonstration. The Black Bloc was calling for widespread smashing and running in D.C. It seemed quite possible to me that the FBI and/or Secret Service had noticed a rift in our coalition, and was exploiting the opportunity by planting these rumors.
A temporary solution to the peacekeeping question emerged as we arrived in Washington. The legal, permitted rally and march starting from the Elipse in front of the White House would have traditional peacekeepers. The non-permitted direct actions would not. However, affinity groups might choose a couple of people to play peacekeeper-like roles for themselves. "Action elves" would look out for the welfare of the group, start chants or songs when morale flagged, and generally facilitate for their own group. "Ushers" would scout out the street closings, suggest routes for the affinity group to use, and make sure no one got lost. "Police liaisons" might interact with the police force on behalf of an affinity group, usually stalling the police but perhaps negotiating if the affinity group gave them permission to do so. In the actual events, Im not sure how many affinity groups empowered their members to take these roles. Yet, in one of the more dramatic (and puzzling) events on Monday, a demonstrator dressed as a tree negotiated with the assistant chief of police for the orchestrated arrest of people blocking Pennsylvania Avenue. After two days of reclaiming the streets as their own, four hundred people sedately "crossed the line" in groups of fifteen and went off to jail. It was a surprising switch to a different style of demonstration altogether. Did Tree Ladys negotiating role have anything to do with the sudden de-escalation of conflict? Were demonstrators and police simply drenched with the rain and exhausted? Two hours before the arrests took place, it looked as if something really nasty might happen at this face-off.
One disadvantage of civil disobedience is that activists can be tied up in the legal system for months or even years after an action. Occasionally a trial can make the news, and occasionally a judge will allow some evidence to be presented at the trial about the injustices that caused a person to break a law. For the most part, though, a courtroom is not an ideal spot to do political education. Penalties can be unexpectedly harsh -- like the eight-year prison sentence handed out to a group of Plowshares protesters who destroyed some MX missiles in their silos -- and legal proceedings can get expensive. On the whole, after the dramatic action of an arrest, the court system can be a confusing, inconvenient let-down, and it is hard to make the experience serve a clear political end.
Demonstrators in Seattle and D.C. took a practical approach to the legal system. Rather than hoping to put global capitalism on trial in the courtroom, they hoped to clog the system up so badly that they would all be released quickly and cheaply, with no return court dates. In this, they largely succeeded. I am describing the tactics in some detail because they were new to me, in spite of my years of experience with civil disobedience.
"Jail solidarity" is the overall name for a number of techniques they used. Because prisoners are supposed to be arraigned within twenty-four hours of their arrest (except over a weekend or legal holiday), one idea was to delay the booking procedure as long as possible. That in turn would delay the arraignment and increase the chances that the police would have to let the demonstrators go without prosecution. Another part of jail solidarity was refusing to post bail, of course. No one would carry identification, so that everyones names could be secret. Basically, demonstrators intended to stay in jail once they'd gotten there, in large enough numbers to make the system stop working.
The success of jail solidarity depended to a great degree on the number of people arrested, so in Seattle when the police used tear gas and concussion grenades to disperse crowds instead of arresting people, protesters became uneasy about the fate of the relatively few who were detained. Overall, Seattle police made about four hundred sixty arrests, as opposed to the nine hundred to twelve hundred expected by organizers. In Washington, the police arrested about thirteen hundred people, including the six hundred they scooped up the day before the actions were to start.
In Seattle, demonstrators taken into custody were packed onto city buses and driven to a temporary booking facility at a former naval station. They refused to get off the buses. Some stayed there, without food or water, for as long as fourteen hours. They danced, sang, discussed issues, made decisions by consensus, and gave interviews to fascinated TV reporters through the bus windows. When finally dragged off the buses, demonstrators gave obviously false names, like "Jane WTO". That delayed booking even longer. They insisted on their right to speak to an attorney before they would enter a plea.
The preventative arrests in D.C. undercut some of the most effective things about jail solidarity. To begin with, even demonstrators who intended to risk arrest did not intend to risk arrest on that day, in that location. Secondly, many people who did not intend to risk arrest were arrested anyway. Thirdly, they all had a motivation for being released -- they wanted to be on the streets the next day. Fourthly, they had not been arrested in affinity groups, and they didnt necessarily have support people on the outside. Under those circumstances, jail solidarity did not work particularly well. On the other hand, for people arrested as anticipated on Sunday and Monday, jail solidarity did have some effect. The authorities released them on Friday with $5 fines for jaywalking. The protesters did, however, spend those days in sometimes-appalling conditions.
Another aspect of jail solidarity was training to protect one another from abuse inside the jail or holding facilities. Before the actions, affinity groups practiced "puppy piling": piling themselves on top of someone who was being singled out for abuse by the jailers. They also devised ways of calling attention to brutality when puppy piling wouldn't be possible. In both Seattle and D.C., demonstrators reported widespread intimidation and mistreatment by the police inside the jails. (Stories from Washington were actually worse than those from Seattle, and those from Philadelphia during the Republican National Convention were worse still.) Under the circumstances, jail solidarity also took the form of protesters helping to keep one another's spirits up, listening to one another's feelings, and insisting on fair treatment. One group of male prisoners in DC composed a statement, similar to Dr. Kings letter from a Birmingham jail, affirming their solidarity with prisoners arrested for routine offenses and detailing the abuses of the system.
Outside, solidarity was practiced as well. In Seattle, demonstrators who had not been arrested marched to the jail on Thursday afternoon and blocked the doors, demanding that the prisoners be allowed to see their lawyers. As of Thursday at 3:00, many people had been in detention for more than twenty-four hours with no arraignment and no legal advice. By nightfall, a team of eight lawyers got in to see the prisoners. Demonstrators singing and chanting on the street below were rewarded and encouraged by seeing shadows of raised fists through the windows of the jail. The detainees could hear them outside and knew why they were there!
Support demonstrations took place in D.C. as well. A team of incredibly-dedicated legal volunteers visited regularly and worked the system on behalf of the prisoners. Demonstrators who went home made hundreds of telephone calls and send hundreds of e-mails to city council members in Washington demanding that their comrades be released. The same happened in Philadelphia, where some detainees faced outrageous bails and felony charges for trivial "offenses".
The escalating stories of police brutality inside jails, the efforts of police forces around the country to avoid arresting large numbers of demonstrators, and the frightening bails imposed on identified protest leaders all suggest to me that jail solidarity is a very effective technique. Police forces appear to be working hard to figure out how to neutralize it. I am quite curious about how we will evolve the tactic to increase its power, while evaluating whether activists should put themselves into situations out of the public eye (jails) where they get beaten, threatened, and intimidated.
Training for jail solidarity is a relatively new thing, obviously. In the couple of workshops I have witnessed and attended, trainers relied on extended role-plays, and took the roles of police, prosecutors, and other "bad guys" themselves. There is much concrete information to relay, although trainers attempted to build skills through debriefing the role-plays and repeating them if necessary to practice the skills. The main weakness of this training, which was particularly noticeable because of the experience in D.C., was the lack of attention to emotional support. Many people emerged from jail in Washington feeling angry, depressed, dispirited, and generally miserable. To prepare for the brutalizing experience of jail, some practice in empathic listening and some grounding in receiving support might be as important as information.
Property destruction is usually the hottest topic at any nonviolence training, and it is especially hot after Seattle.
My personal opinion is that property destruction/enhancement is not in itself violent. Other nonviolence trainers might disagree with me. Keeping a genuinely open mind about the appropriateness of property destruction helps me to encourage debate about it in trainings, though. In one of our workshops in Seattle, a young woman argued passionately for property destruction. The damage we might do to a Starbucks or a McDonald's is insignificant, she pointed out, compared to the damage done by these same corporations to the lives of people in the southern hemisphere. I agreed that property destruction does indeed have a place in a nonviolent campaign. However, I maintained, public opinion must be fairly supportive of the campaign already, or property destruction will not gain much sympathy for the cause. My opponent pointed out that corporations are doing real damage to the world right now, and that they must be stopped in their tracks as soon as possible. That meant, in her view, pulling out all the stops while we had the corporate big-wigs right there in Seattle, and vulnerable. Seldom are the decision-makers so accessible! Her urgency certainly moved me.
In preparation for the IMF/World Bank protests, we addressed property destruction by using spectrums of opinion. I personally believe this is most effective if the trainers avoid an absolute dichotomy, such as "property destruction is always violent" and "property itself is violent, and destroying something violent is not violent." In my experience, it is rare to find activists who genuinely argue these absolutist positions. Setting up and doing battle with such straw figures is not nearly as productive, I believe, as exploring all the many varieties of opinion we really do have.
In my trainings, I used examples of different types and circumstances of property destruction. For instance, in the first spectrum we discussed changing an objectionable message on a billboard. I asked people who believed that nonviolence can include enhancing a billboard to stand towards one end of the spectrum. I asked people who believe that defacing property is violent to stand towards the other end of the spectrum. Those who werent sure, and/or thought it depended on the circumstances, and/or questioned the effectiveness of the tactic could stand someplace in the middle.
I allowed time for discussion, especially from those who placed themselves close to either end, and then went on to more controversial situations. What about destroying a piece of property that is in itself destructive, like a missile or a bulldozer or a log picker? What about destroying property because corporations only understand the language of profit and loss, and we have to speak to them in their language in order to get their attention? What about destroying a piece of property during a demonstration and running away from the scene? Again, the object of each spectrum was to promote discussion and frank exchanges of viewpoints. When it appeared to me that an opinion might not be coming out with enough force or clarity, I played the devils advocate by taking a spot on the spectrum myself. Overall, these discussions took some of the divisiveness out of the question, and established more mutual respect among activists.
Property destruction can be a real "wedge" issue. During the Persian Gulf War, the peace movement in the Twin Cities polarized over the action of a group called the Revolutionary Anarchist Bowling League, or RABL. RABL members threw a bowling ball into the plate glass window of a Marine recruiting office during an anti-war demonstration. Accusations, defenses, and polemics flew on both sides until finally people with strong opinions sat down to talk and listen to one another. As usual, once they started seeing each other as thoughtful, caring human beings, the most extreme accusations died down, and an uneasy truce was restored. I think nonviolence trainers have a responsibility to open the dialogue before such an explosion takes place, so as to minimize the damage done by this wedge issue.
In discussing property destruction/enhancement, as with every other aspect of nonviolence training, I try to stress to activists that nonviolence is our tool, and that we all together are in the process of working out our ideas and our practices. Each person, no less than King, Gandhi, Chavez, and the other giants of nonviolence, is moving this powerful political practice forward. As I think the Seattle and D.C. actions illustrate, what worked a decade ago can always be improved upon and freshened and made more inspiring. This already promises to be an exciting century!
Copyright ©00 Betsy Raasch-Gilman