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The WTO and the Myth of Activist Violence

From the Boston Tea Party perpetrators to Civil Rights activists, the people who have made our world through direct action have been treated as dangerous, even if they are revered when their radical acts are at a safe distance.
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Protesters drop banner over Space Needle

Activists dropped a banner in front of Seattle's iconic Space Needle.

(C) 1999 Dang Ngo/ZUMA Press. All rights reserved.

Official history is an accretion of acceptable versions. Before those arise there are great ruptures when the world actually changes and no one yet is in control of the meaning of what has happened or what kind of a future it will lead to—and perhaps these two things are the same thing.

In these great pauses, much is possible, including a change of mind on a broad scale. September 11 was one such occasion, and in the days before the Bush Administration framed the act by a little-known group as the opening overture of a war, a remarkable contemplative stillness blanketed much of the country. The meaning was up for grabs, and even after the war on Afghanistan began, people continued buying quantities of books on Islam and the Middle East, talking among themselves, and thinking for themselves about foreign policy, violence, and civil society.

November 30, 1999, a positive image to which 9/11 was the negative, was also one of those ruptures—the other half of the arrival of the millenium. No one, not even the organizers, anticipated that activists would so successfully disrupt the WTO ministerial or that the success would become a huge story around the world, magnifying its impact. The event brought consciousness of corporate globalization and the arguments against it to much of the previously clueless Global North. 

Before Seattle, the WTO had seemed indestructible, its agenda of taking over the world and creating the most powerful monolithic institution in history inevitable. Four years after, when the WTO talks collapsed at Cancún, the organization was crippled, and it is now—as no one anticipated, though many dreamed—essentially disabled with no signs of possible recovery. What happened in Seattle mattered. “On the tear gas-shrouded streets of Seattle,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “the unruly forces of democracy collided with the elite world of trade policy. And when the meeting ended in failure on Friday, the elitists had lost and the debate had changed forever.” So had the world. 

But to acknowledge us as a threat to the status quo is to acknowledge many dangerous things: that there is a status quo, rather than a natural order, that it is vulnerable, and that action in the streets can change it.

My belief is that those who characterize us as violent correctly perceive us as a threat. But to acknowledge us as a threat to the status quo is to acknowledge many dangerous things: that there is a status quo, rather than a natural order, that it is vulnerable, and that action in the streets can change it. Framed this way, activists are historical players who matter and whose danger may coexist with their legitimacy, even their heroism. To acknowledge this is also dangerous. Thus the threat has to be relocated from the legitimate arena of political and cultural change to the illegitimate realm of “lawlessness” and violence. Once this is done, activists are merely criminals, petty or otherwise, and their threat is part of the status quo.

More reflections on the 10th anniversary of Seattle WTO protests:
Walden Bello
Anuradha Mittal
Fran Korten
Sarah van Gelder
David Korten
David Solnit

Dispatches from the 1999 event:
YES! Magazine archive

From the Boston Tea Party perpetrators to Civil Rights activists, the people who have made our world through direct action have been treated as dangerous, foolish, unrealistic, malcontented, unreasonable, and criminal in their time, even if they are revered when their radical acts are at a safe distance. The myth of activist violence is a way of concealing and dismissing real power. And maybe it’s also a measure of that power, if a frustrating, damaging one.

We won the battle with the WTO, and though corporate globalization is a many-headed hydra, quite a few more of those heads have been chopped off, much of the world has been educated, and huge swaths of it have been radicalized—in 1999 no one, for example, foresaw Bolivia’s future or the death of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. And it turns out that ten thousand unarmed people in the streets can circumvent the juggernaut of the former most powerful institution in the world. Nonviolently. We have power. But we need to use that power to see that the truth is told and that history serves the truth, and justice.


Rebecca SolnitThis article was adapted for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions, from Rebecca Solnit's essay in The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle, from AK Press. Rebecca is an activist, historian and writer who lives in San Francisco. Her twelfth book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, came out this fall.

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