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How We Really Shut Down the WTO (process notes)



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 blockade, 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 alcohol, 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 guidelines.

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 strategy 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: . 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,