Global Exchange comments on Seattle "trashing"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Dec 15 07:46:05 MST 1999

[Global Exchange director Medea Benjamin, whom I assume wrote the article
below, was mentioned in a NY Times article as demanding the police arrest
rock throwers. Those remarks are placed in context below. Medea has also
come under attack from Jeff St. Clair and Alex Cockburn for being a shill
for Nike. I spoke to her a couple of months ago about this and she says
that they have grossly overstated her position. Global Exchange has
spearheaded campaigns against Nike and when a concession was made, Global
Exchange merely recognized it as a step forward and continued the pressure.
I have deep respect for Medea and Global Exchange. They organize "reality
tours" to countries under attack from US imperialism. Her group got started
around the same time my organization got started in Nicaragua and we rubbed
shoulders a lot. After mine folded, her's keep going. Over the past few
years Global Exchange has been in the forefront organizing tours to Cuba
and Chiapas. The Chiapas delegations have been extremely important in terms
of undermining attempts to repress the Zapatistas. From a 1/7/99 San Diego
Union-Tribune article: "The Mexican government has made it clear that it
considers many foreigners meddlesome activists, while human rights groups
insist that Mexico is targeting those seeking to be peaceful observers. The
U.S. nongovernmental organization Global Exchange said yesterday that one
of its members was expelled Monday from the southern state, the
battleground of a 5-year-old standoff between authorities and Zapatista
Indian rebels. Two other U.S. citizens were 'invited' to leave the country,
while an Italian and a Japanese tourist were 'interrogated' about their
activities in Chiapas, Global Exchange representative Ernesto Ledesma said." ]


The Battle of Seattle: The Debate Over Tactics of Resistance

by Global Exchange

The anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle represent a watershed
event not only for the struggle against "free trade," but also for all
progressive social movements in the United States. The labor, human rights,
and environmental movements brought some 50,000 demonstrators to Seattle
and succeeded through militant direct action in shutting down the first-day
of the WTO convention. Our movement succeeded in making democracy, human
rights, labor and environmental issues central themes of the discussion and
debate surrounding the talks. The protests turned the WTO from an obscure
acronym into a household name for millions. We won a victory for the people
of the United States and the world.   The Seattle protests have also led to
a debate over the question of violence, in particular the appropriateness
of breaking windows and other acts of property destruction. Since Global
Exchange was one of the key organizers of the planned civil disobedience
component of the protest, and since we have been both praised and
criticized for coming out against the property destruction that took place
in Seattle, we feel it is important to clarify our position on the tactics
some protesters employed

What do we think of the breaking of windows and other vandalism that took
place in downtown Seattle?

It is important to understand that at the center of the Seattle protest and
its success was mass, non-violent civil disobedience, the same tactic that
built the Civil Rights movement, the United Farm Workers Union, and that
has been developed by Greenpeace and many other organizations in the
environmental movement.  The mass, non-violent protests in Seattle
represented the culmination of a months-long process of coalition building
by organizations that did not initially all know,  understand or trust each
other. We got to know each other as we discussed the politics of trade and
investment, and discussed strategies for confronting the WTO. We won mutual
trust and respect as we debated tactics. We became one movement as we took
classes in civil disobedience tactics, and laid the foundation for legal
defense. That collective and democratic process made possible the unity
among environmentalists, labor unionists and many others‹groups who frankly
had not always worked so well together in the past.

After that long, collaborative and democratic process in the movement, a
small number of protesters who had ignored, boycotted, or repudiated this
movement's process took it upon themselves to break the sense of solidarity
and collective cohesion reached by scores of organizations and thousands of
individuals. In the most sectarian way, they put their small organizations
and number up against a mass movement. We are far less concerned about the
glass that they broke than about the sense of collective self-discipline
that they attempted‹but failed‹to shatter. They apparently believe that
they represent an elite that knows what is best for the people, and which
can ignore the decisions of coalitions and the collective spirit and ethos
of this renewed social movement. Whatever they call themselves, this is an
elitist, anti-democratic and anti-movement behavior.

We think it is totally unfair for a small, unrepresentative group to use a
massive, peaceful protest as a venue for destructive actions that go
against the wishes of the vast majority of protesters. Those who engaged in
the breaking of windows and other types of property damage were a small
fraction of the protesters. The vast majority of protesters came to Seattle
with the understanding that they were participating in a peaceful protest.
This is certainly true of the unions and the religious community, who
turned out the majority of the marchers, and vehemently opposed any type of

At the same time, we strongly disagree with the argument that it was
"young, alienated anarchist youth," who should be held responsible for the
violence in Seattle, as some in the media and politics have suggested. It
was the police who engaged in the majority of the acts of violence, and we
rigorously condemn the unjustified use of force against peaceful
protesters. Several groups of protesters, including our own staff, came to
Seattle prepared to carry out dignified acts of civil disobedience and were
prepared to risk arrest. We understood that blocking entrances to keep
delegates away from the WTO meeting could well lead to our arrest. We were
shocked and outraged, however, when instead of arresting us, the police
unleashed a torrent of tear gas, pepper spray, concussion grenades and
rubber bullets in what has rightly been called a police riot.

We are also extremely concerned about allegations of police brutality
against protesters in jail. We call on the city of Seattle to drop all
charges against the protesters, and to launch an investigation into the
brutal tactics used against peaceful protesters.

Are we condemning anarchists in general?

We know that people who call themselves by various names and
labels‹conservative, liberals, radicals, socialists, Christians, pacifists,
anarchists‹protested in Seattle against corporate power. We believe that
whatever those labels, those of us who stand opposed to the WTO and to
corporate rule‹and stand for human rights, labor rights, and environmental
justice‹form part of a single rising movement. We should work together to
build that movement, not use labels to discredit opponents. Many young
activists have now been called "violent anarchists." We reject this
approach as a kind of ³red-baiting² of young activists in the movement.
People who call themselves anarchists can be found on all sides of this
debate. We reject argument by epithet, and believe we should argue out the
principles and tactics of our common movement in the process of building on
the success and momentum of Seattle.

While there are occasions in which the destruction of property furthers the
cause of social justice and helps garner public support, this was not one
of them.  The Boston Tea Party was an example of property destruction‹a
shipment of tea‹but it was done by a group that came together precisely for
this purpose. When the Zapatistas rose up in 1994 and destroyed army posts
and other symbols of a repressive state, it was after 10 years of
organizing support within their indigenous communities. They also explained
to the outside world that their armed uprising was a last resort and an act
of self-defense. Members of the religious community in the US have
destroyed weapons of mass destruction to express their profound moral
opposition to war. Indian farmers have destroyed Monsanto seeds to counter
the multinational¹s attempts to control their food supply. And forest
activists have destroyed the engines of bulldozers to prevent the clear
cutting of old growth forests. The list of tactifully thoughtful and
politically principled property destruction goes on and on.

It is not property destruction, per se, that we object to. We believe
strongly, however, that such acts have to be grounded in strong community
support, a requirement clearly not met in Seattle.

In one-on-one discussions with those who were engaged in breaking windows,
Global Exchange activists found that we share many of the same views and
objectives. But the tactical and strategic differences become questions of
political principle. Will we build a mass movement through democratic and
collective processes? Or will a small group attempt to foist its
tactics‹and the resulting repression‹on the movement?

Did Global Exchange take the position, as Founding Director Medea Benjamin
was quoted in The New York Times, that those engaged in property
destruction should be arrested?

Many of us who went to Seattle to engage in non-violent, civil disobedience
expected to be arrested for our actions. On November 30th we found that the
police, rather than arresting those who had violated local laws, chose
instead to unleash tear gas, rubber bullets, and clubs on those who
peacefully resisted. When some individuals who were not part of our
movement chose to break windows or in other ways destroy property, the
police ignored them, while at the same time terrorizing and in subsequent
days arresting non-violent activists. When asked by a reporter what she
thought the police should do with those who were destroying property, Medea
responded rather matter-of-factly, "arrest them." After all, we all went to
Seattle expecting to be arrested but not to be terrorized by the police.
Medea¹s remark was not intended to bring police persecution on the
protestors who destroyed property, but rather to point out the irony that
while peaceful protestors were gassed, beaten, and jailed, those destroying
property were ignored. Perhaps the authorities and the police preferred to
see property destroyed in order to discredit the movement.

The impact of people breaking windows, overturning trash bins and looting;
roughing up WTO delegates, store employees and customers; and blanketing
downtown Seattle with graffiti was negative in the eyes of the general

Many of the key organizers of the protest had interviews set up with
national media that were cancelled at the last minute because the media
preferred to cover "the anarchists." Those stories tended to give the
impression that the "violence of the protesters in the streets was met with
violence on the part of the police." This was not what really happened on
the streets‹since the attacks on peaceful protesters started before
downtown stores were targeted‹but this perception of "violent protesters,
violent cops" remained. We do not gain any credibility with "middle
America" when we are portrayed as running amok in the streets.

Our most experienced and militant activists against corporate power were
aware of this. French farmer José Bové, who led a demonstration against
McDonalds on Monday and is famous for his militant anti-corporate actions
in France, was furious when a window at McDonalds was smashed and got up on
a van to plead with protesters to stay non-violent. A garment worker from
Mexico who was outside the Gap when some people made attempts to break the
windows not only felt the attempted destruction would send a bad message,
but feared that in a police crackdown she could be swept up and deported.

Furthermore, while most of the targets in Seattle were the outlets of
multinational corporations, there were also small stores and public
spaces‹such as a children¹s carousel in a public square‹that were vandalized.

The employees and customers of retail stores are not our enemies and we
should not put them at risk. We at Global Exchange have led or been part of
aggressive, citizen-based campaigns against some of the very targets of the
window breaking. We were one of the spearheads of the Nike campagin; we are
presently leading the Gap/Old Navy campaign; we are pressuring Starbucks to
buy Fair Trade coffee; and we recently settled a lawsuit against Nordstroms
for labor abuse in Saipan. We are, however, very respectful of the retail
employees of those companies. Breaking windows and other acts of violence
put their safety in jeopardy and makes them afraid of us. On Monday, there
were terrified employees inside the McDonalds, for instance, and they
certainly are not our enemies. On Tuesday, employees of NikeTown were in
the store as its windows were destroyed and smoke bombs were hurled inside.
The customers of these businesses are not our enemies either.

We are careful in our actions to tell the employees and customers that our
problem is not with them but with corporate policies. We try not to
alienate or frighten them, but to educate them and make them our allies.
This is how we have built successful, mass campaigns that are forcing
corporations to change some of their most abusive policies.

Let¹s keep our eyes on the prize: we want to change the structure and rules
of the global economy. That will require a mass movement; acts that are
perceived by the public as violent do not move us in that direction.

Our movement has to be based on messages of compassion, respect for the
environment, justice and equality. It also has to be based on collaborative
and democratic processes. If we stay positive, inclusive, and democratic,
we have a truly historic opportunity to build a global movement for social

While Global Exchange feels strongly about the issues discussed in this
paper, we also feel that this issue should be a topic of conversation, not
a source of divisiveness. The violence of the World Trade Organization and
it corporate beneficiaries are our true opponents. The struggles against
these foes‹not our internal disputes‹demand the most of our attention, our
committment, and our passion.

Louis Proyect

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