Sent: Tuesday, December 21, 1999
Participant witness report at the Seattle WTO bash

How We Really Shut Down the WTO

 by Starhawk

 It's been two weeks now since the morning when I awoke before dawn to
join 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. 

 For once in a political protest, when we chanted "The whole world is
watching!" we were telling the truth. I've never seen so much media
attention on a political action. However, 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 reports have
pontificated endlessly about a few broken windows, and mostly ignored the
Direct Action Network, the group that successfully organized the
nonviolent direct action that ultimately involved thousands of people. The
true story of what made the action a success is not being told.

 The police, in defending their brutal and stupid 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 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 co-ordination, 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 bockade, 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 were first aid trainings,
trainings in blockade tactics, street theater, meeting facilitation, and
other skills. While many more thousands of people 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. And 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 the trainings. The solidarity tactics we had prepared 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 11/30
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

 Affinity Groups, Clusters and Spokescouncils: 

 The participants in the action were organized into small groups called
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 simply 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 thirteen sections, and affinity
groups and clusters committed to hold particular sections. As well, some
groups were 'flying groups'-- free to move to wherever they were most
needed. All of this was co- ordinated at Spokescouncil meetings, where
Affinity Groups each sent a representative who was empowered to speak for
the group.

 In practice, 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 finally 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 co-ordinated the scene in the midst of the
chaos, and none was needed-- the organic, autonomous organization we had
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 did choose to do that.

 Consensus decision making: 

 The affinity groups, clusters, spokescouncils 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 a small 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
co-ordination rather than pressure to conform. So, for example, our jail
solidarity stategy 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 the 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 each
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 for themselves to
remain in, and many people pushed themselves far 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, that remained joyful
in the face of brutality and brought alive the creative forces that can
truly counter those of injustice and control. Many people brought the
strength of their personal spiritual practice to the action. I saw
Buddhists turn away angry delegates with loving kindness. We Witches led
rituals before the action and in jail, and called on the elements of
nature to sustain us. I was given Reiki when sick and we celebrated
Hanukah with no candles, but only the blessings and the story of the
struggle for religious freedom. We found the spirit to sing in our cells,
to dance a spiral dance in the holding cell, to laugh at the hundred petty
humiliations the jail inflicts, to comfort each other and listen to each
other in tense moments, to use our time together to continue teaching and
organizing and envisioning the flourishing of this movement. For me, it
was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life.

 I'm writing this for two reasons. First, I want to give credit to the DAN
organizers who did a brilliant and difficult job, who learned and applied
the lessons of the last twenty 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. And secondly, because the true story of
how this action was organized provides a powerful model that activists can
learn from. Seattle was only a beginning. We have before us the task of
building a global movement to overthrow corporate control and create a new
economy based on fairness and justice, on a sound ecology and a healthy
environment, one that protects human rights and serves freedom. We have
many campaigns ahead of us, and we deserve to learn the true lessons of
our successes. 

  This letter available online at: (Please feel free to forward
this and post it or reprint it. You don't need to ask my permission
although I'd be happy to know where it ends up. I'd appreciate it if you'd
include a link to the Reclaiming website, where my personal website can
also be found: http:// . Please also include
also the following note.)

 The Direct Action Network needs your help to cover expenses and legal
fees which are still mounting up. Any donations will be appreciated.
Please show your support! Checks can be made to Cascadia Art and
Revolution and sent to DAN at Direct Action Network, PO Box 95113,
Seattle, WA 98145.

 Thanks and blessings, 


Seattle Reports | PGA