post-WTO musings

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Mon Jan 3 13:26:56 PST 2000

[bounced bec of a taboo word; reformatted by list management]

Date: Mon, 03 Jan 2000 13:14:35 -0800 From: Michael Pugliese <debsian at>

----- Original Message ----- From: jeff <jeff at> To: <a-infos at> Sent: Monday, January 03, 2000 12:09 PM Subject: (en) post-WTO musings


A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

<> ________________________________________________

i personally don't agree with everything said here, but it's an interesting analysis none-the-less. J.

Friends, These are my latest and final (for now) reflections on mass actions and the WTO. Thank-you all for the incredible feedback, excitement, and encouragement. Let's keep it going. Med-O

Mass Actions and Multiple Tactics

This began as a response to a couple of opinion pieces about the street protests against the WTO in Seattle Nov. 30 - Dec. 3. After feedback from many others, I realized the need for protesters, from a multitude of orientations, to discuss the relative merits of different strategies and tactics used in Seattle. This, I believe, is crucial in developing our most intelligent thinking for planning and participating in future mass actions.

To that end, I'll begin with my primary biases regarding mass actions. I believe that the most potent way to create lasting social change is when mass movements raise the social costs of dominant institutions to the point they realize it is cheaper to change than to fight the movement. Bias # 2 is that there is no existing, effective U.S. mass movement that is explicitly class conscious, anti-capitalist, and globally oriented. But there was a seed of that possibility expressed on the streets in Seattle, a rare moment in the last 25 years of American activism. Bias #3 is that for this seed to germinate and grow both greater numbers of people need to participate in continuing mass actions and the edge of confrontation in these actions will have to sharpen. Bias # 4 (or perhaps dilemma #1) is that there is an inherent friction between these two needs of involving more people and amplifying the edge of protest. The latter, of course, increases risks for protesters especially those on the receiving end of police repression. I don't think either of these needs for successful mass action is ultimately effective without the other. Unfortunately, neither usually has much affinity for embracing the other.

As a way to initiate a more thorough, collective exploration of this general problem, I would like to reflect upon one very specific situation: the use of property damage as a strategy and tactic in Seattle. There has been a lively post-WTO debate about this. It needs to continue. Below is my initial response to an article entitled, "Window smashing hurt our cause."

As one of the non-violent demonstrators protesting in Seattle, I disagree with Medea Benjamins's opinion ( SF Bay Guardian, Dec. 15) that window smashing hurt our cause. It was one of many autonomous actions protesting the everyday violence inflicted upon workers, citizens, and the environment by the WTO and similar corporate institutions. What this tactic did was hurt many an innocent protester by increasing overall police repression, the universal reaction to tactical property damage. This is why I found it inappropriate in Seattle where thousands from diverse organizations and perspectives worked together in coalition. This is not to imply there wasn't already brutal police reaction prior to any corporate property damage but that such protest activity escalates further repression. It is completely naive to expect otherwise. The political job of police is to protect corporate property.

That said, whether you agree or not with property destruction as an effective strategy, anyone with even the tiniest political savvy knew it would be one part of OUR multiple, simultaneous actions to thwart the WTO. From teamsters to punks to sea turtle advocates to lesbians to French farmers to anarchists to indigenous rights activists to nuns to Earth First activists there was a huge diversity of people demonstrating who naturally had different ideas about the best way to protest. This is called freedom of choice. It is a precious freedom.

Organizers who articulated rules of conduct for demonstrators should have known better than to expect total allegiance to ban on property destruction. It would have been far wiser to have simply distanced themselves from such activity and articulated why knowing full well it would likely happen anyway. Mass movements and mass actions are not owned by organizers. The base informs the leadership as much as leadership tries to facilitate the most intelligent strategies and tactics on the ground. In Seattle we didn't need peace police protecting Niketown from youth who wanted to shatter the WTO myth that the unfettered trade of commodities is more important than human rights and lives. I use the term 'youth' to describe what I saw as the most unifying characteristic of those who did the window smashing. There were exceptions, not every smasher was young. Nor would everyone have identified themselves as members of the "black bloc" anarchists like the corporate media would like you to believe. Indeed, there was another generally unrecognized "black bloc" quite independent of anarchist identity that was the second biggest group damaging stores and looting. They were local, Seattle-based African-American youth who, like the mostly white, black bloc anarchists, saw opportunity and had the street savvy to know they could fuck shit up and get away with it. Whatever way you choose to frame it, those breaking windows were overwhelmingly young. This makes total sense. The social job of youth is to be impatient with the appalling slowness of progressive change and to ACT OUT NOW!

Unfortunately, some of the more mainstream protesters and organizers took it upon themselves to try to stop the window smashers. In the worst cases, they actively opposed and/or called for the police to arrest (in their minds) the renegade protesters. This is categorically unacceptable behavior especially from those in leadership. Could any competent protest leader have been surprised that corporate chains like Nike, Gap, Starbucks, Bank of America, and McDonalds were targeted for rage-against-the-machine activities? Wake up! Could there be a more appropriate context than a protest of the WTO for youth to scream in their normal, awkward, eruptive way, "Our lives, not these windows, not these objects, not these corporate symbols but a passionate human life is what truly matters!" I find it utterly strange that anti-WTO organizers didn't incorporate this totally predictable component of protest into their understanding of mass action. It is equally bizarre that a so called non-violent strategy of violating the civil rights of WTO delegates by restricting their freedom of movement and assembly was endorsed as "peaceful". Yet the mere breaking of windows which actually harmed no person or living creature is deemed violent. Go figure! Violating the civil rights of the delegates as a way to highlight the barbarism of the WTO was smart and politically appropriate. But let's not be hypocrites. Freedom of movement and assembly are the very rights that we demanded for ourselves as demonstrators in the streets of Seattle. We restricted the rights of delegates, especially from Africa and poorer countries who often had the identical desire as protesters to shut down the WTO. Did this matter to us? How is this more peaceful than someone breaking an inanimate object?

Life is full of contradictions. One big contradiction in mass street actions is that to create lasting progressive change we must raise social costs to the point that the dominant institutions find it cheaper to change than fight. This always initially sparks repression that often falls upon the most innocent. The social costs in Seattle were very high and the police repression while brutal could easily have been far worse. One of our greatest strengths as protesters was the multiplicity of people and simultaneous activities which continually kept authorities off balance. Not everything non-violent protesters did was wholesome or peaceful nor should it have been. Not everything window smashers did was a rage based riot nor should it have been. What did happen was a very important mass street protest that could be part of a new generalized upsurge to raise the social costs of business-as-usual. To be effective we need to continue mass actions which attract even larger numbers of people AND an even greater volatility of protest activities. Power to the People. The Street is what Leads.

Michael "Med-O" Whitson Committee for Full Enjoyment


After constructive feedback from many sources, it became clear some of these issues needed to be further developed.

My sense is that most people, including many of the protesters in Seattle, lack a basic understanding of the political reasons why some choose to attack corporate property. Among many in the debate following Seattle's mass action, the ACME anarchist collective articulates this particularly well when they state, "private (corporate) property is intrinsically violent and repressive . . . In a society based on private property rights, those who are able to accrue what others need or want have greater power. By extension, they wield greater control over what others perceive as needs and desires, usually in the interest of increasing profit for themselves." This long standing anarchist analysis is careful to make a sharp distinction between private and personal property, a clarification most people fail to make. "Personal property is based upon use while private property is based upon trade. The premise of the former is that each of us has what s/he needs. The premise of the latter is that each of us has something that someone else needs or wants." Given the inherently oppressive set of relations that private, especially private corporate, property imposes upon all but the ruling elite the ACME collective declares, "When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights. At the same time, we exorcise that set of violent and destructive social relationships which has been imbued in almost everything around us." Then with a little help from Marx they conclude, "By 'destroying' private property, we convert its limited exchange value into an expanded use value. A storefront window becomes a vent to let some fresh air into the oppressive atmosphere of a retail outlet . . . a dumpster becomes an obstruction to phalanx of rioting cops and (if set on fire) a source of heat and light. A building facade becomes a message board to brainstorm ideas for a better world . . . The potential uses of an entire cityscape have now increased a thousand-fold."

This is classical anarchist theory that has evolved through a long history of thought and practice.

The truth of this analysis, however, begs the question of what is the best way, in general, to change such an exploitative system. Nor does it analyze what might be the best strategy in a specific situation. It merely implies that the impulse to attack corporate property is rooted in its inherently coercive and unjust nature. To dogmatic, hard core window smashers I say you are hopelessly naÔve if you think a small, marginal group taking militant actions can create the large, systemic changes you want. Much greater numbers of people need to be militantly demonstrating. This means using strategies and tactics that embrace civil society and its counter-institutions like the non-violent direct action movement. Indeed, on the street in Seattle the necessary social space for window smashers, looters, and others to act militantly and get away with it was created by the tens of thousands of 'civil' demonstrators. It is in everyone's interest to respect this vast majority of fellow demonstrators. Treat them as important allies instead of simply using them and writing them off as passive sheep, privileged liberals, or whatever projection fits your ideological filter.

You are also deluded if you don't realize tactical property destruction invariably provokes more police repression. This doesn't mean it should never be used. It does mean assessing is this the right situation? What are the likely costs and who are likely victims of police retaliation within this situation? Is there a way to protect innocent, and often naÔve fellow demonstrators, who in Seattle were the most common victims of police brutality. 'Civil' protesters strength of numbers and social legitimacy act as a brake against the worst excesses of repressive reaction. This helps everyone who wants to openly contest the ruling institutions. For those that doubt this, I encourage you to trade places with someone that was a gulag prisoner, 'disappeared', put six feet under, or otherwise victimized by unrestrained fascism.

To the dogmatic, hard core non-violent demonstrators I say you are blind if you don't see that half of the peace sign is the middle finger. Know how to also use it alone and to flip it with pride. Solely relying upon utterly peaceful protest within the acceptable terms of civil society will never make the big changes we want. Self-policing or even sticking to pre-arranged agreements with the police stunts our collective capacity to resist fully and freely. Truly worthwhile protests should supersede pre-planning or rules of conduct by catalyzing the collective experience of expanded possibility. When we are empowered we are more spontaneous and unpredictable. This is a source of strength both for protest and the life we want to live. Mass actions are about disruption and eruption: disruption of business-as-usual and eruption of suppressed desires to passionately fight oppression.

While we may choose to use non-violent codes of conduct, mass actions are not about keeping the peace. There is no peace to keep. Corporate media has captured popular consciousness regarding property damage as an act of violence while police brutality is more often viewed as 'keeping the peace.' Does the non-violent movement play into this media doublespeak by defining property destruction as an act of violence? How can we expand popular vocabulary so that the real violence inflicted upon a flesh and blood person (whether it is a worker in an Indonesian Nike factory or a demonstrator brutalized by police) is named differently than the act of breaking a window? Unless we expand our vocabulary and popularize a distinction between damage to an inanimate object and a living creature, corporate media will happily maintain the confusion by labeling both as "violence." This goes to the bigger question of how do we force dominant systems of power to change without playing into the hands of the more fascistic forces contesting for power. I believe the smartest way is to raise social costs so high that the best option is to accept our demands. As we debate how best to go about changing society, we should not lose sight of what a victory our actions were in Seattle.

--- We were a great coalition of diverse groups, particularly the oft divided labor and environmental movements collaborating in both complementary and unified actions.

--- Our actions weren't simply symbolic. We DID shut down the WTO on Tuesday morning.

--- Our mass action totally controlled media coverage of the WTO. The discourse was about our protests, the internal problems and injustices of the WTO, rather than a discussion of trade agreements. This was a huge victory in terms of raising social costs.

--- We were large numbers demonstrators and we weren't wimpy. We were consistently militant.

--- The tens of thousands of people doing simultaneous, multiple protest actions kept the authorities in complete disarray.

The multiplicity of who were and what we did was perhaps our greatest strength.

This is a living discussion. I'm exploring and open to other opinions and ideas. I just keep adding, refining, and circulating this writing with the goal of furthering our collective intelligence. Please contribute. Revolutionarily Yours, Med-O

source: <med-o at>

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