Peacework
February 2000



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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.

Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.

How We Really Shut Down the WTO

Starhawk, a Native American woman, deep ecologist, visionary novelist, and political organizer, maintains a website at www.reclaiming.org/starhawk

It's been weeks now since the morning when I woke at 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. However, most of what has been reported in the media is so inaccurate that I can't decide if the reporters in question should be charged with conspiracy or simple incompetence. The reports have gone on endlessly about a few broken windows, and mostly ignored the Direct Action Network, the group that organized the nonviolent action that ultimately involved thousands of people

crowd with teargas
Crowds approaching police on 4th St. from the south as tear gas clears from police attack on protesters on their nothern side. Photo © Roni Krouzman <kouzman@hotmail.com>
 

The police 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. Authoritarian leadership centralizes power and reqires obedience.

The Direc Action Network's model was decentralized, with leadership invested in the group. 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 perform.

Here are some of the key aspects:

Training and Preparation

In the weeks and days before the blockade, thousands of people received nonviolence training--a three-hour course that combined history and philosophy with real life practice through role plays in staying calm in tense situations, nonviolent tactics, response to brutality, and corporate decision-making. Thousands went through a second-level training in jail preparation, solidarity strategies and tactics, and legal aspects. There were trainings in first aid, blockade tactics, street theater, and meeting facilitation.While many people took part in the blockade who hadn't had training, a nucleus were prepared to face police brutality and could provide a core of resistance. In jail, the solidarity tactics became a real block to the functioning of the system.

Common Agreements

Each participant in the action was asked to agree--for the purpose of the 11/30 action--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. The group acknowledged that there is much diversity of opinion around some of these guidelines.

Affinity Groups, Clusters and Spokescouncils

Participants were organized into Affinity Groups. Each small group was empowered to make its own decisions around how it would participate. Some did street theater, others locked themselves to structures, others simply linked arms and nonviolently blocked delegates. Within each group, there generally were some prepared to risk arrest and others who would be their support for first aid and jail.

Affinity groups were organized into clusters. The area around the Convention Center was broken down into 13 sections, with affinity groups and clusters committed to holding particular sections. Some were 'flying groups'--moving wherever they were most needed. This was coordinated at Spokescouncil meetings, where Affinity Group representatives were empowered to speak for the group.

This form of organization meant that groups could move and react with great flexibility. If a call went out for more people at a certain location, an affinity group could assess the situation where they were and choose whether or not to move. When faced with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and horses, people could assess their own ability to withstand the brutality. As a result, blockade lines held in the face of police violence. When one group of people was swept away, another would move in to take its place. There was room for those of us in the middle-aged, bad lungs/bad backs affinity groups to hold lines in areas that were relatively peaceful, to interact with the delegates we turned back, and to support the labor march. No centralized leader could have coordinated the scene in the midst of the chaos, and none was needed. 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 and meeting facilitation were part of the nonviolence and jail trainings. 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 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. But no one was pressured to stay in jail, or made to feel guilty for bailing out before the others. We recognized 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 felt resentful. Because we didn't, 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 a celebration 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 with rituals, healing, singing and dance, and stories of the struggle for religious freedom. We used our time together to continue teaching and organizing and envisioning the flourishing of this movement.

I'm writing this for two reasons. First, I want to give credit to the DAN organizers who did a brilliant and difficult job, applying the lessons of decades of nonviolent direct action, and creating a successful 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.

The Direct Action Network needs your help to cover expenses and legal fees which are still mounting up. Checks can be made to Cascadia Art and Revolution and sent to DAN, PO Box 95113, Seattle, WA 98145.

 


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