10 Lessons for Movment Building on the Anniversary of the WTO Shutdown

From Seattle to Detroit
10 Lessons for Movement Building
on the 10th Anniversary of the WTO Shutdown

By Stephanie Guilloud

For five days in 1999, 80,000 people from Seattle and from all over the country stopped the World Trade
Organization from meeting. Despite extreme police and state violence, students, organizers, workers,
and community members participated in a public uprising using direct actions, marches, rallies, and mass
convergences. Longshoremen shut down every port on the West Coast. Global actions of solidarity happened
from India to Italy. Trade ministers, heads of state, and corporate hosts were forced to abandon their agenda
and declare the Millenium Ministerial a complete failure. We said we would shut it down, and we did.
For five days in 1999, 80,000 people from Seattle and from all over the country stopped the World Trade
Organization from meeting. Despite extreme police and state violence, students, organizers, workers,
and community members participated in a public uprising using direct actions, marches, rallies, and mass
convergences. Longshoremen shut down every port on the West Coast. Global actions of solidarity happened
from India to Italy. Trade ministers, heads of state, and corporate hosts were forced to abandon their agenda
and declare the Millenium Ministerial a complete failure. We said we would shut it down, and we did.

“The fact is that the Social Forum and Peoples Movement Assembly process actually started in Seattle. The Social Forum took off from
the experience of the ‘Battle of Seattle’ when the Brazilian organizing committee formed in 2000 and held the first World Social Forum
in 2001. Ten years later, we come back to where this started. What has been accomplished in the last 10 years? How have our social
movements developed to build power towards real social systemic change in the US? How do we map the new forces, and what is the power
of the social movement assembly?” – Ruben Solis, Southwest Workers Union & participant in the WTO shutdown


As one of the founders and leaders of the Direct Action Network and a resident of Olympia, Washington, I offer
personal and political reflections on the WTO shutdown as a major turning point in my life as an organizer and in
our lives working to build movements in the US. As an organizer with the US Social Forum process and a co-lead to
develop the People’s Movement Assembly, I carry these lessons with me on a daily basis. I offer these stories with
humility and a sense of responsibility. When I refer to “we” in this brief article, I refer to my community of young
people in their early twenties, living in Seattle, Olympia, Portland, and the Bay Area, who, with many others, mobilized,
organized, and implemented the direct action strategies we had planned for months.


    1. Know your history: Seattle was a turning point.

Seattle was a historic turning point in our movements for racial, economic and gender justice for a few reasons. On
a global scale, the demonstrations and effective shutdown of the World Trade Organization’s ministerial was historic
because of our position and location in the US. Seattle did not mark the beginning of a movement, it marked the
beginning of a significant connection between the US and the rest of the world. Global movements had and have
been challenging and confronting financial institutions and their systemic effects for decades. The demonstrations
- the five days of direct action, the massive and violent state response, and the subsequent alliances - accomplished a
few major shifts in historic directions. The demonstrations exposed to the public the tangible affects of globalization
on regular people’s lives. The effectiveness of the actions and stalling of the meetings allowed for delegates from the
global South to challenge the policies and procedures of the WTO. And for the first time in history, the decisionmaking
rounds of a global financial institution collapsed.

Seattle also opened a door on a new era for movement in the US. The strengths and weaknesses of our organizing

efforts served as a spark for new work, new alliances, new conversations, and a new generational drive. It opened the
possibility for a generation of people to understand action, movement, and strategy as effective. It also offered an
opportunity to see the strengths of innovation and mass organizing, as well as the weaknesses of underdeveloped
leadership and lack of connection to long-term transformative practices.

    2. Claim your victories & evaluate your mistakes.

How we organize to win is still a critical question today. Winning is different in any moment given the political

context as well as the will and abilities of the people involved. We made a widespread call to Shut Down the WTO
without total confidence that we could or would achieve that goal. The call was a way to declare a politic beyond
reforming the WTO and towards complete transformation of the economic and social systems in motion. On the
first day, we succeeded at exactly what we had said we would do. Shutting down a major financial institution with tens
of thousands of people and well-coordinated non-violent action was a victory.

Claiming victory is essential to tactical decisions on the ground as well as understanding the political significance after
the fact. After the success of the first day, we re-convened the Spokescouncil easily. We had planned for the possibility
of mass numbers being in jail, but I am proud that we saw and rose to the opportunity of victory and understood
it as an ongoing process. The next few days demanded different sets of tactics to incorporate the constant influx of
new people who had not necessarily gone through the preparation that led to the November 30th action.
That’s a taste of movement building - How do you move consistently through multiple reactions from the state and
opposing forces while constantly mobilizing and expanding your base? How do you shift and re-adjust when met
with the possibility of victory? And significantly (because it was lacking on a mass scale following the demonstrations)
how do you expand the momentum of victory with strategic, intentional plans to continue what you started?
And finally, how do you evaluate the mis-steps and mistakes after such a significant and widespread experience? How
do you receive and understand criticism as well as accolade without losing momentum or integrity?

    3. Make your enemy known: Mass demonstrations are not spontaneous.

Globalization and neoliberalism were not common terms or centers of public debate. The WTO was relatively unknown
at the time. Its meetings were secret, the levers of decision making and the connections between nation-states
and corporate leaders were blurry and deliberately non-transparent. We believed everyone had a stake in refusing to
let them meet quietly, especially in our town. We knew that any major action would not be spontaneous - it would
need massive buy-in and involvement from many sectors of the community.

There had been a successful campaign to pass an ordinance banning the MAI (Mulitlateral Agreement on Investment)
in Olympia, and we knew there was a hook into our community on the issues of corporate control and local power.
We studied the mechanisms of the WTO in order to describe it and educate about its relationship to our work, our
food, our health, our governance, and our economies. I facilitated countless popular education-style workshops in
classes, at unions, in prisons, and in the community. A team of us produced the broadsheet that went out that summer
to over 25,000 people engaged in environmental, labor, peace, and social justice work. The articles exposed the
WTO as an illegitimate and undemocratic institution, and we called for a Shut Down on November 30, 1999.
One of the most significant accomplishments of our organizing was that people knew the enemy – they knew the
details, the characteristics, the impact, and the context of the WTO. We worked to make that happen. We studied and
applied tactics and strategies from the Spanish Civil War and the anti-nuclear movement. We invented new tactics
and strategies based on our knowledge of the terrain. It was a planned, locally-led massive demonstration with global
consequence.

    4. They came out of the bars: Infrastructure and preparation allows for spontaneous action.

On the first day of the demonstrations, there were a few different kinds of folks on the street. There were the organized
labor marchers, prepared and routed. There were the Direct Action Network folks who had been preparing for
months, organized into affinity groups and clusters with clear, coordinated instructions to hold particular intersections
in various formations. And there were folks in Seattle who walked off their shifts and linked elbows in front of
glass doors and irate WTO delegates. On the third day of the demonstrations, after two days of cloudy tear gas on
Capitol Hill and rubber bullets flying, the confused media reports, and a lot of traumatized people who were either
arrested or hurt – the people living in Seattle were the irate ones. We had more people who wanted to get involved,
and they hadn’t gone through the trainings.

My affinity group was tasked on the second night of the protests with leading a march the next day on King County
Jail where about 600 of our folks were being held and doing jail solidarity. We moved thousands of people from Pike
Place Market with the plan to split the march and surround the jail. We were still successfully operating with tactics
of surprise. There had been no police or city negotiations for any days past the first. No routes, no advance warning.
(And remember that ten years ago there were no cell phones, no tweets and texts, and very little email.) We did it
again – Surrounded the jail with 2000 people, made our demands, and got the lawyers in. But the real victory was the
mass of people who was not prepared, was not experienced with actions, direct or otherwise, and who completely
trusted our leadership and moved collectively.

In order for that trust to emerge, we created a culture. We prepared as best we could, and a culture emerged spontaneously
in the moment as well. The way we used call and response was like poetry. We had to make the words
meaningful and precise. And it worked - at that time and in that place. The experience, sometimes frustrating and
frightening, still moves me to believe in people’s power and creativity.

    5. Surprise only works once: Evolve our tactics and strategies.


We cannot afford to dismiss the significance and influence of different tactics, strategies, and convergences in different
historical moments. We also cannot rely on old models of organizing, simply because they have worked in
the past. Mass demonstrations and protest rallies cannot be our default response to all injustice. Two major lessons
surface. Surprising the cops in Seattle put us at an advantage at every turn. By the nature of our movements being
extremely out-militarized, we are not in a position to repeat the same strategies with the same success. We will have
to be smarter, one (or more) steps ahead of the turn, and completely in command of whatever local terrain we
occupy.

Another major lesson from post-Seattle demonstrations was that convergence at the expense of local organizing is
not effective. The local leadership and knowledge made the demonstrations in Seattle effective. We learn similar lessons
in the US Social Forum process. The Forum would be in danger of becoming a big conference if power building
in multiple locations (including local, regional, national, and global relationships) is not inherent to the organizing
and operational process. What has been powerful in my experience in working in the South and organizing the US
Social Forum, a convergence process led by people of color in community-based organizations from multiple sectors,
is that we understand that strategic convergence is still extremely necessary and valuable. That the model was
developed and refined in the global South through the World Social Forum is critical to its relevance and success.
The convergence in Seattle ten years ago was important, but we’re not always coming together always to target an oppressive
institution or body. We are also coming together to increase the breadth and width of community-led power
bases. New tactics and strategies will rise from that convergence.

    6. It’s not about a leader. It is about leadership.

There are two major things you learn about inside of an affinity group: 1) Play your position and 2) trust everyone
else to play theirs. There is no other option. If you’re locked down to 50 other people, you cannot also get water for
everyone or communicate your coordinates. There are distinct and necessary roles. The group process of building
trust and skills together over time allows for everyone to play their roles to the utmost efficiency. We were spokespeople,
facilitators, planners, logisticians, tacticians, jail support, communication points, and when the time came to
make hard decisions about how to move within and through the police violence, while still maintaining our effectiveness
in blocking our coordinates, we made them by consensus. With 200 people. You can’t ever tell me, consensus
doesn’t work or it takes too long – you’re just not doing it right.

We built that same model to scale for the Spokescouncil, and as with many of the lessons from this moment, there is

a lot to learn and expand from being able to convene hundreds of people that represent thousands and make tactical
decisions. These models are not about a single leader nor are the absence of leaders. Leadership is critical to the
functionality and direction of these spaces. The collective nature of leadership is not easy, we are not trained to work
like that, and we must be intentional and deliberate about our principles as we practice them at higher and higher
stakes. Leadership in this case looked like incredibly well-developed plans and structures by multiple people in different
positions, while at the same time allowing everyone on the streets to claim and feel true victory in their bodies.
What can we learn and share, about this model, and what needs to be further developed?

    7. Strategy, please: Action-hopping is not movement building.

Most of the demonstrations that followed the Seattle demonstrations over the next two years in the US (specifically

the actions around the IMF, World Bank, and political party conventions) did not have the intention, timeline, or local
mobilization and support that would allow for 10,000 people to do direct action while having the support and
solidarity of upwards of 60-70,000 people in the labor and progressive movements. Though there were different
levels of success and effectiveness in different convergences over the next few years, we played to many of our weaknesses
rather than move from our strengths and unique positions.

There were opportunities to build with broader, more grounded global movements who felt connected to what we
did in Seattle. Part of what’s necessary to do this work effectively is knowing the landscape - literally and politically.
In order to organize for global justice in our communities, we need to understand that the forms and functions of international
financial institutions and groups change and shift to meet new economic conditions. How are we shifting
and changing to meet new conditions? How are we building in our communities in ways that are rooted to the local
conditions and responding to broad systemic realities?

    8. Leadership development, thank you.


Where there were intergenerational relationships there was strength. Where we relied on only ourselves as isolated
young people, we stumbled. The impediments were age-old internal and external barriers to serious, strategic organizing.
Most of us were young (I was 22) and having participated at the helm of the protests, we held this depth of
experience but struggled with what all new leadership struggles with - clear political direction, strategy development,
and organizing skills. The generational turning point here cannot be dismissed. I was hired and trained by a seasoned
organizer and strategist, and he challenged me, supported me, and connected what was happening to a broader,
historical context. That daily training I received laid the foundations for me to develop my skills as an organizer for
long-term work. Others in my community also had relationships with key mentors and advisors, but there was not a
movement infrastructure for that leadership to enter, learn, and build on the momentum after the demonstrations. I
am still wildly cognizant of that immense and specific need on a large scale, and I strive to carve out space and time
to give and receive what I can to people who are battling on the frontlines of our communities.

    9. Guilt slowed us down: Solidarity is action.

Elizabeth Martinez’s article “Where was the Color in Seattle?” sparked debate following the demonstrations about
race, leadership, and global justice. Though there were great points to discuss, the debate it sparked is not as relevant
as the larger context of how white supremacy and racism manifests in our social movements. The Seattle demonstrations
did not represent “white movements” but it did reflect many dynamics - old and painful dynamics around
leadership, race, culture, and styles, as well as some new dynamics about the nature of massive convergences from a
local base with national reach. The debate and challenge around the roles of white people in leadership was happening
within the organizing bodies. We challenged racism where we saw it, we attempted to advance our communities’
understanding and skill through trainings and workshops, and ultimately the affinity group I was working with in
Olympia made a decision not to resign from the Direct Action Network if we did not examine our broader positions
as a leadership body and our roles within that context.

One outcome of the dialogue at that time was a culture embedded in identity rather than experience. This culture

had already begun plaguing this new generation but has since ballooned. The critique for critique’s sake nature of
anti-oppression work showed a lack of development as well as real misunderstandings of history and race in the US.
Instead of emerging from this historical moment to build deeper connections to local and global struggles, young
white activists questioned their right to act. Confronting white supremacy is not an existential activity. The lesson
here for our US movements is about understanding how to challenge the dynamics of privilege and oppression while
also building large, wide, and deep movements that are led by and rooted in the experiences of people who know
injustice and exploitation - currently and historically.

    10. Know your vision: Learn lessons in order to move forward.

The lessons of that time are with me in my everyday organizing work. I moved back South (I’m from Houston and

live in Atlanta now) in 2003 to work with Project South and practice movement building in Southern grassroots
communities. After Seattle, I knew I needed more development around strategy, history, and developing long-term
organized formations to build instead of react. Project South was one of the primary anchors for the first-ever US
Social Forum in 2007, and for me the Forum was a continuation of the momentum we built in Seattle. In an exciting
shift and in less than ten years after the demonstrations, the Forum represented more vision, more leadership from
frontline communities, and more strategic connection to global struggles.

From that process and within the context of global dialogues about coordinated actions, we are building the People’s

Movement Assembly as an organizing process to prepare for the Forum, to make decisions at the Forum, and to
advance new directions after the Forum. We are pulling on all these lessons from 10 years ago to facilitate Movement
Assemblies – mass convergence, collective decision-making, political clarity, shared leadership, and trust that we
will move forward together. What will we build over the next ten years in order to shift, evolve, and grow our
movements to win?


Stephanie Guilloud graduated from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington in 1999. She was hired that week by history
professor and organizer Dan Leahy to organize a conference called Trade, Labor, and the Environment: Analyzing the World Trade
Organization. She co-founded the Direct Action Network with other organizers from California, Oregon, and Washington. Her affinity
group was made up of queer and trans folks from Olympia and called itself the Small Town Sleazy Cowboys (and Lady) Puppet Rodeo
Association. They built a cluster of over 200 people to shut down multiple intersections on the first day and led the action to shut down
King County Jail on the third day. Stephanie edited and produced ‘Voices from the WTO,’ an anthology of first-hand accounts from the
demonstrations, released in April 2000.


With all my gratitude . . . 10 years later: We are Fathers. Mothers. Teachers. Writers. We are in Lebanon and Palestine.

We are healers. We are electricians. We are gender warriors. We are youth workers. We are organizers in the Bronx,
Seattle, New York, Atlanta, Portland, Philadelphia. We are people. Finding our ways, contributing what we can and
what we have.

Resources and Documentation:

Some of the content from the article above was generated through a roundtable interview process
with Upping the Anti - a journal of theory & action <uppingtheanti.org>


New Book!
AK Press is pleased to announce the
release of a new book in honor of the tenth anniversary of the Seattle WTO protests: November 30, 2009
THE BATTLE OF THE STORY OF THE BATTLE OF SEATTLE
By David Solnit & Rebecca Solnit
with Anuradha Mittal, Chris Dixon, Stephanie Guilloud, and Chris Borte

Also check out: www.realbattleinseattle.org

Edited & produced in 2000, Voices from the WTO: an Anthology of writings
by the people who shut down the World Trade Organization in Seattle
1999 is still available and one of the few collections of over 40 first-hand
narratives of the demonstrations. Contact stephanie@projectsouth.org
Ċ
Chris B,
Nov 30, 2009, 8:34 PM
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