One More Thing Seattle's WTO Shutdown Taught the World
Among the many ripple effects of the successful shutdown of the WTO in Seattle in 1999 is one that few know about. The organizing that went into the direct action, marches, media center, and forums inspired the organizers of the World Social Forums, which have become some of the world's most important centers of people power.
Chico Whitaker Ferreira, one of the founders of the World Social Forum, believes that the Seattle experience laid the foundation for the forum's success.
In the weeks before the WTO arrived in Seattle, few outside the activist world had any idea what was in the works. The Seattle media and local government leaders were looking forward to the prestige of a global gathering of world leaders. There were black-tie dinners and plans for showing off Seattle in high style.
But in the activist world, something very different was happening. Activists were mobilizing thousands for mass street protests. Independent media outlets were organizing to do their own reporting of events. Direct action advocates were making banners, puppets, and devices that protesters could use to lock down intersections and prevent delegates from attending the meetings. YES! executive director, Fran Korten, invited readers to come to Seattle to "greet" the WTO, and YES! ran articles explaining why.
The protests were so effective in part because there were so many independent groups doing their own planning, with loose coordination with other groups. The Teamsters and the "turtles" (the Sierra Club), Korean farmers and local farmers, students and policy wonks, churches and, yes, anarchists.
Each day of the week had a theme of sorts. The first day, churches organized thousands to surround the stadium in the pouring rain to call for debt relief for the world's poorest countries. WTO delegates enjoyed a banquet in the warmth, while outside, drumming and poncho-clad protesters called for sharing.
Other days were devoted to women and development, food and agriculture, labor, and other topics. Each forum was organized by organizations from around the world and from the Seattle area who linked the issues they cared about most to the WTO and corporate globalization.
While many have discussed the direct action tactics used in Seattle, few have noted the "open source" quality of the events. The World Social Forum, which began in Brazil in 2001, adopted this powerful means of bringing divergent groups together.
One of the founders of the World Social Forum, Chico Whitaker Ferreira, told me in an interview at the European Social Forum in 2008 that the Seattle experience laid the foundation for the forum's success:
"In Seattle, we learned a very, very important thing: working by networks, not through pyramid structures, is much more efficient. The forums are always horizontal networking, because with networks, people take the responsibility.
Before 1999, nobody could imagine that so many people would go to Seattle from all over the world. It happened because of the power of horizontal networks."
The World Social Forum has a small number of principles, but within that scope, thousands of groups from the world's poorest to the world's wealthiest countries come together, hold their own conversations, make proposals and take power and responsibility for the outcomes. Coalitions are born, new understandings are reached, and millions have had the experience of being part of a global movement of civil society for a better "possible" world.
What happens when people around the world have these leaderless discussions? Can they get anything done? This has been a point of controversy in the World Social Forum movement, but one example shows what's possible. In late 2002, as the US was gearing up for war with Iraq, representatives of various peace movements gathered as part of the European Social Forum in Florence, and a discussion began about mass street demonstrations to be held around the world.
"It was not the World Social Forum that said, 'Let us go to the streets,'" Whitaker points out.
"The proposal appeared at a Social Forum in Florence. It reappeared at a forum in Brazil in 2003. Then networks, social movements, NGOs [nonprofits], and everybody worked together with one cause, one objective—and everybody was surprised. Fifty million people came out in the streets all over the world to protest the war."
No single organization or coalition could have made this happen. If such an organization existed, it would be subject to corruption and be vulnerable to counter attacks from outside and power struggles from within.
But many groupings of people—with access to structured ways to communicate and collaborate—can create a swarm that is unstoppable. That is one of the unheralded lessons of Seattle. It's a lesson we can build on as we work to stop the ravages of climate change and to build a more just and sustainable future.