It was a scene to encourage the most ardent cynics. Under the trees in a plaza at Portland State University, locked-out Steelworkers were eating lunch with tree huggers from northern California. The lunch, served up in reused tofu containers by orange-haired and dreadlocked youth from Food Not Bombs, was vegan – and no one seemed to mind. Along with union jackets and Earth First tee shirts, many wore hemp hats with the insignia of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment emblazoned on the front.
The Steelworkers and forestry activists were doing much more than sharing a meal. They were formalizing an alliance designed to take on the Maxxam Corporation, which has locked out striking Steelworkers and clear-cut redwood old growth in northern California.
This alliance is just one of many that is growing out of the broad-based movement that found its voice in Seattle at the protests surrounding the World Trade Organization meeting. It's a convergence that goes well beyond the specifics of a particular corporate bad guy or a particular globalization policy.
“I'm hopeful that we will do more than move forward with this alliance,” said Don Kegley, a locked-out Steelworker and an organizer of the Alliance. “I'm hopeful that we will change the fabric of society.”
That seems much more possible now than it did prior to Seattle. In interviews with labor leaders, environmentalists, youth, leaders of NGOs and churches, all spoke of a spark of recognition they experienced in Seattle when they found themselves linking arms with people of all ages from diverse walks of life and movements. Even more striking, they expressed a sense that we are right on the brink of profound change – while there are plenty of challenges, there is a commitment to working through them together.
“The movements have reached a new maturity,” says Njoki Njehu of 50 Years is Enough. “It will be harder to divide us. We realize now that none of us can do it alone – the environmental movement, women, labor – we're seeing that our livelihood, our heritage and our environment is all at stake.”
The unity should not, perhaps, be such a surprise. Different movements have developed to address the widening gap between rich and poor, the threats to the Earth's living systems, the shallowness of the get-rich-quick values of Madison Avenue, and other symptoms of a world gone wrong. What's new is the sense that these problems all have common roots.
“A lot of the mainstream press commented on the almost bizarre diversity of the protesters in Seattle,” said Dan Seligman of the Sierra Club. “But what was even more compelling was the convergence of opinion among this tremendously diverse group of people – that the transnational corporation is the source of many of our biggest problems and that greater exercise of democratic rights is the solution.”
Unity below the surface
“We should think of these various movements as islands that are joined below the surface in an underwater ridge,” say authors Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson. “They all come out of the same precepts about the world.”
Ray and Anderson have been studying the social movements of the last 30 years, including those centered on feminism, civil rights, social justice, peace, and alternative medicine. Each movement contributes some of the values and precepts that are now part of a much more comprehensive worldview. The civil rights movement, for example, helped us understand the meaning of freedom and justice; the women's movement brought greater understanding of the integration of our personal lives with politics.
In Seattle and then at the World Bank/IMF protests in Washington, DC, this emerging worldview found expression, and the results were electric.
Different organizations and people with different styles of activism each contributed in different ways, but the sense of unity remained palpable. No one organization or leader called the shots. Each person could act as a spokesperson – each person was a leader.
Some, primarily the youth, took on the lockdowns and blockades. Others organized teach-ins and wrote critiques and proposals. Still others mobilized the thousands of people who turned out on the streets. Each operated from his or her own strengths – each was essential to the success of the whole.
All these cross-culture, cross-class, and cross- generation alliances create new opportunities, but they also create new challenges. Everything, from how to pull off a demonstration to what's on the menu at lunch are called into question. Both were at issue at the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and Environment meeting, and both were the subject of some good-natured ribbing.
“I'd never eaten vegan food, and I still have some reservations,” said the Steelworkers' Don Kegley. “On the other hand, I'm not too wild about BGH (bovine growth hormone) either.”
The Direct Action Network's
consensus-based decision-making style (see page 51) has been a
challenge for some, including some union members, who are more
accustomed to Roberts Rules of Orders and clear-cut leadership
difference was at least partly responsible for the last-minute decision to call off a planned series of protests in Tacoma targeting Maxxam Corporation.
But the commitment to working in
crosscutting alliance also draws people to try new ways: “I never had
to sit in a room in a big circle and raise my hand to speak,” Kegley
says. “I am used to standing up and shouting.” But these new
consensus-based processes also have some advantages, he believes. “I've
learned to listen as much as talk. It's very powerful. You learn so
much and move so much closer.”
While the diversity of ages, movements, nationalities, and interests was celebrated in Seattle, many noted the relative lack of racial diversity.
“What those youngsters did in Seattle is the best thing that has happened in this country in the last decade,” said Don Alexander, a leader in Seattle's black community. “But we were not quite sure how to join. We looked up and saw a lot of white leadership – no one looking like us.”
Elaine Gross, executive director of Sustainable America, says the key is to build movements that are multi-cultural from the ground up. “It's tough to pull off a high-profile event without first building trust at the grass roots level,” she noted.
In Washington, DC, that lesson seems to have sunk in. A group of protesters collaborated with neighborhood organizers in the racially mixed Columbia Heights neighborhood to protest evictions and gentrification. Neighborhood activists and IMF/World Bank protesters noted the common source of poverty and disenfranchisement pervasive both in the capital of the world's most powerful country and among the poor of the Third World.
A democracy movement
Despite its fits and starts, a movement is growing; Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva calls it an international democracy movement. It has already succeeded in calling into question the legitimacy of some of the most powerful institutions of corporate globalization. The WTO, IMF, and World Bank have become household terms, and are now subject to debate in the mainstream press. The New Yorker, Business Week, The New Republic and others have published articles or columns asking whether these global institutions are doing more harm than good.
Nonviolent protesters demonstrated organizational prowess, a willingness to withstand physical punishment, and staying power – and they are making plans for more civil disobedience in the months to come (see pages 52,53).
This international democracy movement is becoming a
serious challenge to the status quo, and the defensive responses are
beginning. Police are investigating those
involved and those who simply offer out-of-town protesters a place to stay. Demonstrators are beaten and arrested, and protesters are scoffed at in the media.
However, tried and true techniques for disrupting popular movements will be far less effective with movements such as this one. Because its leadership is so widely dispersed, the movement will not be stopped if leaders are jailed, co-opted, or intimidated into silence; there are many others to take their place. Communications channels, particularly the internet, allow rapid information sharing and planning across thousands of miles. And the movement has its own means of getting out its message, through web sites, video and audio production, print media, and teach-ins. The stories of this movement circumvent the spin control of corporate-owned media.
And the movement is moving quickly into the mainstream associations that weave society together – the churches, unions, colleges, and community groups. Religious groups are rethinking their mission, says Don McKenzie, minister of Seattle's University Congregational Church. “Churches are finding themselves waking up after a sort of numbness in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
“Seattle has propelled us into the international arena,” says Elaine Gross. Her organization's grassroots membership remains focused on their communities' problems, she said, “but Seattle focused us on the broader context.”
“Young people are recognizing the seriousness of the global crises and drawing a line in the sand,” says Juliette Beck of Global Exchange.
“Our challenge,” says Ron Judd of the AFL-CIO, “is to ensure that Seattle is not just a point in history, but the beginning of a movement to correct a system that has gone badly wrong.”
This movement will not be
sidetracked by compromises and small victories. It draws on a far
deeper and more pervasive shift. The yearning for an end to violence
against the life of the planet; the desire for a life of greater sanity
and purpose, and the hope that a reignited democracy will reorient
society toward meeting human needs rather than greed – these are
yearnings that will not easily be bought off or
“I'm very very inspired and in deep admiration of my colleagues,” said Njoki Njehu shortly after the protests in DC. “I think things will happen now fast and more radically than we had thought.”
Sarah Ruth van Gelder is the executive editor of YES!