Twenty Years Beyond Seattle

Twenty Years Beyond Seattle

From C4SS by William Gillis

“They’re even gassing children!”

A small affinity group of teenagers raced past me, all in black bloc, one member slowing down only to look at me. I had put my red bandanna away, soaked as it was in tear gas and pepper spray. What remained was a skinny thirteen year old kid in a bright yellow rainjacket my mom had forced me to bring.

I grinned to myself because I was no innocent. I had spent the whole day disdainful of the other protesters, sneering at the liberal speeches and inane placards, rolling my eyes at the naivety of the bloc during the fighting. N30 was my first major protest and I wanted more than anything to be above it. I originally went to Seattle more to observe the end of the world, than to participate. I did not expect us to win this climactic final battle against a horde of neoliberal institutions, intermeshed in imperialism and increasingly detached from anything like democratic checks and balances. I expected us to lose that fight.

I think we did lose that fight, actually. In any frank accounting, it wasn’t street protests that broke the WTO. The Doha round of talks stalled out years later thanks to a combination of resurgent nationalism in the US as George W Bush shifted imperialist strategies after September 11th and coalition work done between national governments in the global south that gave them leverage. There is simply no substantive causal link between these developments and the street protests we organized. Indeed what has been completely lost in retellings of The Battle In Seattle, is that weekend there was a sense of failure on the ground. “They’re still meeting! They busted through the blockades! A politician pulled a gun on my friend! Pulled a gun!”

The chief success of Seattle was a media victory. Anarchists became suddenly visible to the world, political positions that had been entirely suppressed from the public arena were suddenly visible and accessible. Countless anarchists I’ve known describe looking at the news reports of N30 and watching the world open up, their first glimpse that anarchists existed, that something like anarchism was a position even speakable, that resistance was possible. The befuddled and horrified establishment only added fuel to the flames, as in this on air exchange Richard Day transcribed in Gramsci Is Dead:

Reporter: ‘There are some people here, roaming about … well not exactly roaming, they seem organized. I don’t know who they are, they’re all dressed in black, they have black hoods on, and black flags … a flag with nothing on it.’

Anchor: ‘A flag with nothing on it?’

Reporter: ‘That’s right, it’s totally black.’

It is often said that the anarchist movement is bad at capitalizing on success. We are so used to defeat that we become adrift and confused when something starts to go our way. But in the aftermath of Seattle we realized the global media outrage at broken Starbucks windows was a massive boon and exploited it to the fullest. Tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of anarchists were created by those images, the myths and narratives that were spun and reproduced across the world. The black bloc finally entered the public vernacular and a massive activist infrastructure unfurled itself globally. Seemingly every town had an infoshop and an indymedia, creating a sense of unity and immediate visceral interconnection between anyone vaguely anti-authoritarian and leftwing.

This commonality was reinforced by the sheer unassailability of the existing institutions. While anarchism was the leading light and center of mass, the conflict was simple. There were the people in power and there was everyone else. There’s been a grassroots project of historical revisionism to refer to this movement, this moment, as “counter-globalization.” But the name most overwhelmingly used at the time was “anti-globalization.” And this sort of Turtles & Teamsters coalition building encouraged a lot of garbage. Wingnuts, nationalists, and opportunists abounded. While specifically anarchist spaces or those that utilized clear and strong points of unity avoided some of the worst, the next two decades involved a lot of scenes slowly and painfully digging out the trash that had been let in. Anti-semite conspiracy heads, broish misogynists, nationalists, and other creeping fash. Folks of younger generations frequently demand to know why we let some behavior slide or considered some positions tolerable. The answer is that many of us never liked that shit, but the narrative was one of unity and mass. We were impressed with our numbers in spectacles like Seattle, we were enraptured by democratic notions of The People rising up. Everyone on the bottom versus the few on the top.

A decade later this potent elixir would be distributed again by Occupy. A slightly different coalition. A new crop of entryists and monsters to be slowly and painfully weeded out for years to come. A burst of recruitment, this time largely without as wide of a movement base, because in most cities Occupy arose in a partially antagonistic relationship with the remaining activist/anarchist infrastructure from the anti-globalization era. New miniature scenes developed with their own sense of exploding growth. Within a year I was overhearing new people bragging that they “date back to Occupy.”

Mass is intoxicating. There’s no way around this. Our poor monkey brains are not shaped by evolution to accurately evaluate either the social danger posed by someone being mean in a comments section or the strength represented by sixty thousand people marching in a sea as far around you as your eyes can see. We are many, they are few. Seeing tens of thousands of people march beside you against a few hundred cops protecting a few hundred politicians and businessmen gives most an extraordinary high. I call this “inevitability poisoning” — the cocksureness that you’ve joined the winning side.

But the truth is we are few. Anarchist values are not popular. We are a radical bunch, taking things to the root, being consistent. It’s easy to briefly sell a fuzzy afterimage of anarchism when you speak in loose applause lines, but when you get to the heart most folks peel away. ‘Everyone’s already an anarchist because they don’t need cops to tell them how to order pizza in a group!’ Okay, now that you’re here, anarchism is actually a philosophy of infinite personal responsibility, because embracing agency is hard, it means thinking out solutions rather than passively inheriting defaults. And oh yeah? We usually lose. We throw ourselves into the gears because it’s the right thing to do, not because we’re guaranteed a victory. We’re not the strongest team. We’re the smallest team. We’re the team that asks the most.

Our successes, when they come, don’t tend to look strong. Often our greatest successes, our biggest impacts come from operating at the margins, striking in anonymous unseen isolation, building unsexy things that become so unnoticeably normalized no one will ever create a documentary about them.

As a contestation of raw strength, Seattle was a failure. We didn’t storm the ministerial and put Bill Clinton’s head on a spike, we didn’t even stop them from meeting. As a media victory — as a resonant spectacle — it was the biggest success anarchists have had since the Spanish Revolution. It pierced through the old media landscape and told countless folks around the world that they weren’t alone in wanting to fight back. This was in part a success through the appearance of strength, and the price for such can be quite steep.

But the strength demonstrated that overcast November day in 1999 wasn’t just numbers, not just a high of perceived mass and inevitability.

I came to Seattle already quite cold, bitter, and traumatized. The sea of people marching never warmed me. The speeches and doomed blockades never invigorated me. I wasn’t surprised by the repression. It was that night, after the bloc had been dispersed, the darkened city core was locked down and cops were attacking whatever clusters of people they could find, that I found a spark of hope.

“You can’t get out this way. They’ve closed the bridge.” “That’s crazy, everyone was saying this was one of the last ways out… They keep saying disperse but they’ve walled us in, there’s no way out of downtown.” “Does she need help?” “They got pepperspray directly in her lungs, she’s okay, she’s up and walking now, we just need–” “Shit, incoming!!”

The city was a warzone. We had lost, the blockades had failed, politicians had still met. Our last desperate rally against untrammeled corporate power batted aside. The future seemed almost certainly a grim affair. Puppet police state governments ruled by gigantic multinational corporations, spreading draconian notions of intellectual property, borders used to create slave pens and extractivist mine slurries in the global south while the capital of the super rich flowed wherever they wanted. The darkest cyberpunk films were going to look completely doe-eyed compared to the hells before us.

I had been an “anarchist” for years before Seattle. But that “anarchism” was a selfish sort, in truth barely worthy of the name. A kind of sneering dismissal of the power structures around me. A “this too shall pass” confidence. Whatever edifices of tyranny you build, they will inevitably fall. I saw a civilization unaware it would be ruins soon enough. Fighting for power was a sucker’s game because power always falls. Control is unsustainable in a complex teeming world.

Hurrying down those cold dark Seattle streets with tear gas lingering in foggy air, I was confronted with a new possibility: That power could win. Maybe win it all. Maybe even last forever, or last long enough to choke out the remains of anything breathing free.

I had come to Seattle expecting us to lose. Cynical about the whole affair. But my cynicism was privileged, naive, comfortable. A slapdash dismissal, not a rigorous evaluation. What if things were even worse? What if there was no inevitable restoration of an order without power? What if power could truly win it all, permanently, forever?

If death, fascism, un-freedom, could win everything then the stakes were so much higher than I had ever allowed myself to realize.

The stray black bloc affinity group passed by, seeing me as an innocent, another injustice perpetrated by the cops. One more outrage they’d no doubt breathlessly relay days later. Teenagers are so inane. I hoped I would never grow that old and naive. So fucking embarrassingly earnest.

The inky fog poured through the city. Lone streetlights created small islands of clarity. I thought back to the people clustering up together throughout the abandoned streets, asking and relaying news of what streets were closed, rumors of how to get out, where the cops were staging.

They hadn’t gotten us all. Not even close.

And in those moments when they weren’t captured like marionettes by norms of How To Protest, or even the fledgling norms of How To Bloc, people were… people. Alive behind their eyes, engaged, complex, in motion. They could surprise you. A white collar worker stranded at a bus stop, racing out into the streets to kick back a tear gas canister at the cops. A fudsy liberal protester with sharp insight into police deployment strategy. A skinny child in a yellow rainjacket who was actually a well-read anarchist with not so innocent hands.

It takes a warzone, even a daylong temporary spectacle of one, to remember that death has not won. That there’s an incredible infinity between almost certain to win and won.

Fatalism is irrational. Because when the stakes are high even the tiniest residual chance can be worth a bet. Hope in a certain sense, is the most rational, most sane and untimid perspective one can have. To look at the world and not shrink away from the tasks before us.

I looked out over the downtown, briefly pausing on a hilly crest above the fog. I remembered those who had shared the streets with us. Empathy means you can’t just fight for yourself, there’s no being neutral, there’s no hiding, you’re in a fight with the whole world, over the whole world. The stakes are everything. Liberation or death. Embracing agency over your actions means never running away from the consequences, it means trying to consider them all.

We lost in Seattle. We lost in Prague. We lost in DC. We lost in Genoa. We lost in Miami. We lost in Cancun. We lost in Toronto. We lost in Hamburg. We kept on losing. Losing in interesting and new ways. Losing sometimes a little less and sometimes a little more.

But we haven’t lost. We are still here. Facing new and awkward challenges. With unforeseen wounds and ignored boons.

N30 casts a long shadow. So many of us and so many of our present fights are a direct result of that day in Seattle. Its mythos — in the international debut of the black bloc after years of relatively ignored actions — has mutated and multiplied. But our myths and narratives are not the same thing as our strengths. Our sharpest strengths lie beneath the grandiose images. The individual acts of resistance, the moments of solidarity, the flashes of genius. These have not been dissolved away in the belly of any beast, neoliberal or nationalist. Every time we embrace agency — recognize that however small the odds, we can and should take on the responsibility to act — we make ourselves just a little less digestible.

There are 20 Comments

wow willy...
you didn't have to humiliate yourself in front of us like that to show us that you're such a big wiener nerd.
we already knew.
i'll see you around, i guess.

lol Whatever. This is good writing and you know it!

My anarcho-transhumanist Jedi order appreciates you truth speaking, old young one. If you ever find yourself near my dojo, feeling the moral responsibility of altering your meat body into cybernetic sharpened iron, you may enter. We will win together. Everybody knows this.

"Our poor monkey brains are not shaped by evolution to accurately evaluate either the social danger posed by someone being mean in a comments section"
Speak for yourself. AND YOU want to fly to Mars and start a colony. MORON!

To determine who won or lost at Seattle, look at the fate of the WTO talks-and the trade deal that was supposed to come from them. The opening ceremonies were shut down at the beginning, and what became the Doha Round of trade talks failed in the end. The objective of the WTO was not just to meet, but to get a brutal trade deal out of those talks. They failed. The objective of the protesters was ultimately to prevent a new WTO treaty from ever going into effect, and it never did.

The enemy did not achieve their stated objective, and ours was simply to stop them so we win and they lose. All that took place in between: the mass arrests, the Doha "reshoot" summit from which the trade round got its name, the Cancun WTO meeting from which 20 African nations walked out after that S Korean farmer committed suicide atop the police barricades are simply how the battle was fought. The outcome of the overall, years-long battle was the death of the WTO trade round, no new WTO treaty, as per our objective.

I still remember where I was: with Seattle out of range for me, I was at two DC solidarity actions: first was an old-growth logging protest at (I think) Farragut Square, then came a GMO protest near HHS featuring a 30 foot long "ear of corn" with bamboo handles on both sides that we maneuvered through the streets like rowing an ancient galley on land.

As for the IMF and World Bank, their meeting on A16 was badly hampered, anyone that didn't spend the night of April 15-16 inside did not get in, and the Federal government was shut down on the whole western side of DC on April 17, 2000. That summer, the World Bank cancelled a proposed loan to China to "resettle" Chinese farmers on stolen land in Tibet. You can bet A16 played a role in that. Years later, Hugo Chavez used oil money made from all those US SUV drivers to pay off the debts of many Central and South American countries, freeing them from debt bondage to those institutions. By the Great Recession they were actively looking for new missions.

There was also the World Economic Forum (either Australia or New Zealand, I forget which) on Sep 11, 2000. An estimate 2/3ds of the delegates failed to gain entry to the summit due to powerful street blockades. Nobody disputed who won that round.

By 2016, both Hillery Clinton and Donald Trump had to at least claim to oppose the TPP or Trans-Pacific Partnership, though both were expected to go back on their word in some way if elected. Trump pulled the US out of the TPP, the remaining nations were not free to remove USTR-imposed drug patent/GMO/etc terms from the "rump" TPP. Trump is now pushing TPP style provisions in his nasty NAFTA 2.0 proposal, but Corporate AmeriKKKa did NOT get the TPP itself. This isn't over, we have to stop NAFTA 2.0, which is pushed by both Trump and Pelosi but opposed by much of what remains of organized labor in the AFL/CIO style.

Luke from DC... now I know you're for real, but just don't waste your energies with the trolls here. This site has become contaminated and I still ain't sure to what degree Thecollective know/care about this.

On a side note, the realms I experience in my dreams are way better than this shit life I've been having, but they're related, at least geographically.

Geography is a factor that's so overlooked by everyone. How can we be so stupid as to avoid it as if other things matter more in the equation?

The direct causal link may be this: At the later Cancun WTO protests that grew out of Seattle, a South Korean farmer climbed stop the barricades and commited suicide, running a knife into his chest. There had been many farmer suicides in S Korea over total economic desperation created by trade deals, but this one was in the face of the WTO.
The next day, 20 African nations empowered by this act and the protests walked out of the talks, and the Doha Round never recovered.

Without the protests, that farmer might never have thought he had the appropriate venue for his sacrifice. Without him, the 20 African nations might have thought they could not get away with walking out. Had they stayed, the Doha Round would probably have become the Doha Trade Treaty(or some other name).

Yes, Seattle, A16 (DC), Prague, Philadelphia (RNC 2000),Quebec, Cancun, and Miami were vicious and nasty, but battles always are. Speaking of Miami, everyone I knew who went there considered it a defeat at the time, rather like the US in Vietnam. Now however these same folks consider it a victory because the FTAA was defeated, whatever the cost.

you know so much, a lot of people will never internalize this. just reading it doesn’t do it. what a loss.

Ah...those were the days, back when anarchists had nothing better to protest about than trade deals. I'm still not even sure what anarchy has to do with trade deals.

Nobody won in Seattle, not the trade officials, not the union leaders, not Madeleine Albright, not Jose Bove, and certainly not the black bloc anarchists. Talks broke down despite the protests, not because of them. As Richard Bernal wrote in Social and Economic Studies in 1999:

"First, in many respects the Seattle meeting was politically premature, as a broad consensus had not emanated from the preparatory process in Geneva. [....] The Seattle meeting began without consensus or agreement or even coordination between the European Union, the US and Japan, a fact which was clearly reflected in the deliberations.

One clear omen was the failure of last minute attempt by the White House to get some 30 Heads of Governments to join President Clinton in Seattle. Their non-attendance was an acknowledgment that they had come to the conclusion that the Seattle meeting was likely to be a fiasco. This sense of foreboding even pervaded senior officials in Washington, D.C. who realized that the chances of failure were much higher than anyone was willing to admit publicly.

Their reservations also stemmed from the conviction that the Uruguay Round did not yield the tangible benefits which developing countries had anticipated. Consequently, developing countries felt that it was premature to begin negotiations on complex issues with far-reaching implications."

So, the WTO meeting in Seattle was not conducive to being a success anyway. The protests didn't hurt the talks (they didn't help either) but they didn't shut down the talks or prevent them from being carrying on.

I found this article by William Gillis to be well written.

It had nothing to do with trade deals, it was cos Seattle's grunge music which was blasting down every lane and street made young teenagers rage and hate on any father figure type dressed in a suit.

"I'm still not even sure what anarchy has to do with trade deals."

Correlates strongly to widespread extreme poverty and misery?

It's old school class war shit, not unlike the gilet jaunes: if you allow for some vestigial idea of an interconnected society where the standard of living for poor and working people is still relevant to the anarchist position, then trade deals have a lot to do with that.

Also the neoliberal globalist boogyman of 99 isn't what's driving things like poverty and misery. The real driver clear on back to the early 70s was fossil fuel resource contraction. The upper class simply consolidated their wealth in lieu of this contraction and the monopolizing state being the monster that it is defaults to those who have reified legacy wealth ownership of things. Neoliberalism and globalization was always a silly term with an umbrella unifying effect. It's not to say that global financialization is not a BRANCHING problem, but that's not equal to the more deeply rooted problems of modernity and civilization.

Anarchy remains about deconcentrating power and wiping out monopoly state fiat force. Some of the elective positions and proposed solutions of the summit hoppers was simply more of the same. It's time for anarchists to speak on things that only they can speak on.

love how you're trying to strawman here but there is absolutely no way we're going to discuss economics, so don't waste your time.

your writing is getting better. And not just the parts I more or less agree with, like anarchism being popular is not necessarily a boon to anarchy.

My strong disagreement with you is in a topic that is a bit broader, death. You say

"If death, fascism, un-freedom, could win everything then the stakes were so much higher than I had ever allowed myself to realize."

I have to wonder at how you ever came to the conclusion that death is allied with power. In my reading, Fascists are the ones who want to live forever, that thousand year reich and all. Death is not a defeat, one isn't losing when one dies. More like one is giving back to the earth the energy and molecules one had been using while alive.
I'll say it again, wanting to live forever is a fascist position. Now, to be clear, I'm not calling wg a fascist. I'm merely trying to get at a conundrum of technocratic ideology, that human life is the apex of something and as such each individual human should be able to live forever. THIS is the "good" stuck in many people's heads, an assumption that is in reality doing the opposite, killing the biosphere with which we are interdependent. The transformation of Earth into an exclusively human world is a fascist project. Death is not allied with that project.

wanting-to-live-forever is more complicated than just the wanting the body to live forever, right? there's an argument that civilization, making one's "mark", being a martyr, etc etc are also about wanting to live forever. raises the question of some line between wanting to be remembered and wanting to live forever. sounds obvious when i put it that way, but in practice it's not always so clear.

Ooh, good point. Wanting to be remembered sounds so homey in a way, but if that involves building huge monuments that is akin to trying to live forever, I think.

agreed about living forever as a fascist position, and of course death is a natural part of the cycle of life, but i think there is something to the idea of death being aligned with power over. this culture/civilization has always seemed to me to be a culture of death, systematically murdering all life when it opposes or is inconvenient to the project of power over. whether wild nature, indigenous cultures, radical ideas or freedom seeking peoples, this cultures response seems to be death and murder.

Yes, this is part of the conundrum. "Wanting to live forever" is about humans wanting to live forever, and really, only particular humans, not other humans or other life, as you point out.
I would say rather than fascists/civ being a culture of death it is a culture of the fear of death. And, being so afraid of death, then being willing to destroy the entire planet in service to not dying.

You make a good point though in that to anyone outside their small, but powerful, group it is the end of the world.

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