Sea Turtles and Teamsters Together at last
Joe Berry, 12/19/99
The first thing to say about the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle is that before I had been in Seattle 24 hours I was making up lists of how it was the same as, and different from, Chicago in 1968 at the Democratic Convention. I did not expect to be making up such a list. Having gone to Seattle on little more than a whim and a serendipitous opportunity after a Thanksgiving visit to the SF Bay Area, I was shocked at the number of similarities I noticed. I was also surprisd at how interested young demonstrators were in my impressions and comparisons with '68. Here are my lists, in no particular order.
Similarities between Chicago 68 and Seattle 99
Tremendous feeling of a real movement on the streets, with people spontaneously talking to each other as comrades, big crowds flowing where they wanted to go and the huge feeling of power that goes with that
A shift in the political center of gravity for a time in some areas of the city, where people and ideas that had been marginalized before were all of a sudden the mainstream, if only temporarily, and even the temporarily marginalization of the forces of law and order. For a moment the "streets did belong to the people" and it was heady stuff
Instant respect on the street and in other demonstrators’ venues for anyone who had good information, analysis and strategic or tactical ideas. Credentials did not matter at all. What mattered was one's ability to combine theory and practice in the moment and communicate it effectively. I think this is the hallmark of a real movement beginning to grow and self confident enough to make tactical adjustments at the base and not be totally dependant upon overall leadership for direction and also, therefore, to pressure that leadership effectively in the moment.
There was a comradely care and nurturing for people one did not know and who were very different. Workers washing gassed student faces and other such acts, also by residents and other on the street. This sort of behavior is contagious as is the opposite.
A new and big interest in all noncommercial literature and news sources, a hunger for information that had not been sifted through the corporations
Police overreactions, including beatings and tear gas, but few arrests relatively- rather just brute force to move demonstrators around, with the national guard as backup. Not bothering to arrest people in many cases, just brutalize them
Those who were arrested treated very badly, with basic rights ignored and human needs unmet for hours and even days
Press distortion of demonstrations, with total focus on conflict in the streets and very little on the content of the issues being raised
Immediate TV live coverage giving all concerned the truly bizarre opportunity to be gassed and beaten one minute and duck into a bar and see the same people, cops and demonstrators, live on the tube inside, while surrounded by others just in from the streets
Worldwide interest and media coverage. "the whole world really was watching"
Acknowledgment by all concerned that the issue was huge and differences deep.
Presence of demonstrators from all over the nation
Seemingly lots of radicalization of concerned liberals and progressives, or at least shocked admission that maybe the system did not always seem to work for most folks
Nearly 100% of the violence against people done by the forces of the state
Transit drivers overwhelmingly sympathetic to demonstrators partly because of recent labor mobilizations in their own ranks (In Chgo, Black CTA strike)
Cops were very unpredictable and one could not always decide whether one wanted to risk arrest or not, not always an explicit choice
some trashing of property, but nearly all of it was clearly political in intent and with clear targets, and overall not very much all considered
Differences (In Seattle...)
Lots of workers and unions present and loudly supportive of the demonstration. Very important and progressive role of local labor council, state labor fed and ILWU, Teamsters, and USW. role of AFT much more mixed: local and state good but national not and national not mobilize at all. ND Fed of Labor leader and his desire for a socialist analysis openly expressed
Rhetoric of the city government was initially much more conciliatory
City much whiter, but also much more intrnational
Overall, culture of city much more open and friendly than C, then or now
Less explicitly "revolutionary" rhetoric among demonstrators, though radical anti-capitalist analysis was respected and discussed seriously by many
Many more of the demonstrators were older, not just youth
Street actions in residential areas created sympathy among residents, both because of the cause and because of negative reactions to police repression, as well as the fact that the main residentail area affected was one of the most politically left in Seattle to begin with. Unlike C where National Guard (also mobilized in S) kept demonstrations out of the Black, and very sympathetic , but politically powerless in C then, neighborhoods where the Convention itself was being held.
Action took place in a much more compact area, within which one could easily walk, unlike Chicago where actions varied over many square miles
There were many foreigners among the demonstrators (and in the city generally), who brought their own demands and sensibilities to the actions and greatly added to the impact, though their actions were undercovered by the media.Their educational importance to the Americans was immense and will be seen in future months and years. (tell about Cargill demo and talk with student afterwards)
There was more focus on the content of the contested, and complicated, issues, partly because the issues were still new to many people, unlike the War in VN in Chicago
Lots of rank and file contacts between workers/students and others (tell my bar story and steelworkers in church)
Demonstrators more mixed, but still mostly white
Better leadership and much better preparation, even though the coalitions were much broader. Great Direct Action Network prep for repeated mass CD
Great local reaction in defence of freedom to demonstrate and against local police and mayor, unlike in Chicago where demos were greatly isolated politically (talk with Garth Rader who lives there)
Anti-corporate aspect of demo much greater than the anti-government aspect
The target was an undemocratic international body and not the US electoral system as was partially the case in Chicago
Reaction of local officials was different. By the end of the week in S they were becoming conciliatory and compromising again due to negative reactions locally, unlike C where negative reactions just caused greater stonewalling by Mayor Daley.
Lots of the workers (and some other demonstrators) were actually sent and funded by their union locals after debate and vote by the members in open local meetings, therefore they really represented lots of people.
S not really ready for a big national, or international demo. Never had one for decades, and officials did not really believe, despite being told by demo leaders, that this many people would come prepared to march and to do repeated acts of CD with the intent of shutting down the WTO meeting.
------------- Some other thoughts and observations
Press was mixed at the start and took a few days to get a "frame" that was consistent. Consequently, some good stuff got through in the first days, even on the front pages of the commercial dailies.
Labor Party event Wed.(small party with T Mazz) was very interesting and was visited by IBT leaders to get help in organizing local demo in support of arrestees, which occurred successfully with over 5,000 locals participating on Friday.
Speeches and speakers at the big rally represented a big shift left from what would have been possible 5 years ago - internationals included 3rd world unionists, little buy-American rhetoric, lots of international worker solidarity talk, and people like Brian McWilliams, Pres of ILWU and most left national union pres. in AFL-CIO, featured, as well as allies like Sierra Club, though there was right wing paper present at IAM and Buchanan was visible in Seattle, not at the rally(tell steelworkers story)
Farmers and ag rally w/over 5,000 on Thurs. w/Nader, French farmer leader, Indian (Asian) woman leader, Al Krebs, Jim Hightower, etc -- then at Cargill and other target
We teachers were asked repeatedly what was our stake in this and few could really articulate it effectively to other demos, in spite of substntian educational efforts by the WFT demo coordinator, Lynne Dodson the president of the Seattle CC local
Tactical victory by stopping session and keeping them from successfully compleing work.
The real 2nd Battle of Seattle is taking place right now (including in this room) to determine how this event will be viewed and acted upon in the future. There is a unified propaganda and action counterattack taking place by the WTO and its supporters and we, as always, are behind because mass peoples democratic movements are just that (mass, popular and democratic) and can’t respond overall as fast and remain democratic and unified, but we can still do it. Namely, build a broader and stronger movement, using as our next target the fight for non-corporate criteria on MFN and keeping China from getting MFN trade status next year. The challenge will be to broaden the issue from it narrowest anti-Chinese and anti-foreign (and racist) lowest common denominator to support for worker in China and other nations with trade policy in this largest market in the world as a legitimate weapon. We have the precedents of the South Africa and Central America solidarity struggles to show it is possible. The Steelworkers rank and file and local officers are clearly ready to do it, are we? I would suggest as a useful slogan to consider: Thatcher, Reagan, and all of their political descendants in defense of pro-corporate globalization have said, TINA (There is no alternative.) we must also say TINA (That is never acceptable.)
Books to look at, not directly related to WTO, but the sort of broader analysis we should be examining and considering:
What Comes Next: proposals for a different society, by Thad Williamson of the National Center for Economic and Security Alternatives, which is a wonderful critically annotated bibliography of recent proposals for left alternative society
Buy American, the untold story of economic nationalism, by Dana Frank from Beacon Press. A great history of the ideological monster, or at least one of its appendages, that we must slay among the peoiple if we are to win this struggle.
Notes added after presentation and made in comment period:
1. I now feel 20 years younger after being in Seattle, especially since I was able to see and participate without being beaten, gassed or shot, though I saw other have this happen very close..
2. The image stays with me of the marshals at the labor march having to hold people back outside the stadium to keep them from starting the march and then having to flying-wedge a split in the huge crowdso that AFL-CIO Pres. Sweeney could literally sun, along with the lead banner, to catch up with his own rank and file and then “lead” the march. This was after Sweeney actually tried to downplay the march and was not even planning to come, according to some reports, and then found that the momentum was to strong and was forced to reverse his decision.
3. The idea of the local labor folks (especially IBT) to make a demo inside the “protest-free zone” and declare our own “free protest zone” in support of especially of those who had been arrested or attacked in previous days.
4. Finally, we need to focus upon the tremendous strengths of this action and build upon it, not focu primarily upon the weaknesses or perceived negatives. The main thing now to do is to build the movement and then those with more advanced ideas will have a bigger forum in which to discuss them. There is a tremendous amount we all have to learn from the Direct Action Network organizers, who were the key element, alsone with the local labor folks in Seattle.
-- Joe T. Berry
1444 W Taylor St. #3B
Chicago, IL 60607
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