Them Against the World

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Mon Nov 17 22:14:09 MST 2003

Not an unsympathetic portrayal of Lisa Fithian (RANT [Root Activist
Network of Trainers] & United for Peace and Justice) and other
"global justice" movement activists:

*****   November 16, 2003
Them Against the World, Part 2

. . . What Miami wants, Fithian says, is crisis. This week,
representatives from the 34 countries in the Americas (minus Cuba)
will meet at the Intercontinental Hotel to broker the world's
furthest-reaching free-trade agreement, known among critics as
''Nafta on steroids.'' The premise of the Free Trade Area of the
Americas is to expand 1993's Nafta agreement from the three original
countries (the United States, Canada and Mexico) all the way through
South America. To Fithian and others, the Free Trade Area of the
Americas is a corporate land grab created by a nondemocratic
institution that is stamping out indigenous culture and threatening
the environment as it goes. While delegates will hammer out details
inside, hundreds of different N.G.O.'s and social-justice groups and
thousands of union members will march and rally outside, on the other
side of what will assuredly be a heavily guarded metal fence, on Nov.

Fithian will join them, but she doesn't care too much about the
march. It doesn't need her. It needs numbers. Direct action -- to
physically ''shut it down'' -- is her calling. Blocking the Miami
airport, preventing delegates from getting inside the conference
center, ripping a hole in the protective fence -- these things need
her. Anticorporate globalization protests like this one will attract
everyone from agitprop puppeteers to Quakers to rowdy anarchists who
would love to see a Starbucks on fire. Fithian stands in a willful,
but not reckless, middle ground. She is peace-oriented but not
passive. Destruction of ''illegitimate'' barriers is fine with her as
long as it's nonviolent (a line that can be hazy) and not a senseless
publicity stunt (also hazy).

So you don't go to Fithian when you want to carry a placard. You go
to her when you want to make sure there are enough bolt cutters to go
around. The tradition of direct action is civil disobedience staged
at the ''point of power'': civil rights era sit-ins on segregated
Woolworth's stools or Act Up ''die-ins'' during speeches by Food and
Drug Administration officials. But since the enemies in the global
social-justice movement are transnational corporations (''like on the
14th floor of some office building,'' said one activist) and the
abstractions of liberalized trade policy, trade meetings like this
one provide the most tangible target. For a handful of days,
activists like Fithian work to create ''dilemmas'': situations that
might force the police, the delegates and the media into recognizing
their dissent. ''When people ask me, 'What do you do?' I say I create
crisis,'' she says, ''because crisis is that edge where change is

Miami offers real stakes. The city is bidding to become the
hemispheric headquarters for the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and
''if we create enough brouhaha,'' Fithian maintains, ''we might be
able to undermine that city's ability to host it, and that would be a
big win.'' Miami officials are taking no chances; they recently
received an $8.5 million federal boost from the massive Iraq war bill
to plan security for the trade meeting. . . .

On Nov. 30, 1999, thousands of street protesters, trained and
organized days in advance, divided and occupied 13 intersections
around the Seattle conference center, where delegates to the World
Trade Organization were trying to meet. When the police tried to
disperse them with tear gas and pepper spray, they were joined by
others from a much larger, separate march of 50,000 unionists, who
broke free and joined the civil disobedience.

A small number of ''black bloc'' anarchists -dressed in black and
kerchiefs to hide their faces -- notoriously smashed windows all over
downtown Seattle, obscuring the more peaceful efforts. About 500
people were arrested, including Fithian, and amid the chaos, the
W.T.O. talks collapsed.

That may very well have happened anyway; representatives from the
developing countries simply refused to participate in a negotiating
process they considered rigged against them in the first place. But
within the anti-corporate globalization community, Seattle was a
tremendous victory, a watershed, the metaphor for the movement. The
direct action ''took this institution out of the dark and put it on
the front burner,'' says David Solnit, a Bay Area organizer and
carpenter. ''All of a sudden, people knew there was a W.T.O. Who
could say that in 1998?''

In the eyes of many activists, the greater success of the battle of
Seattle was the validation of their decentralized, leaderless model.
Loosely inherited from the anarchists who fought in the Spanish Civil
War, ''affinity groups'' committed to holding specific sectors and
consensus-based ''spokescouncils'' directed the affinity groups. When
the police swept one group away, another took its place. ''No
centralized leader could have coordinated the scene in the midst of
the chaos,'' a Bay Area activist named Starhawk wrote in a widely
circulated essay titled ''How We Shut Down the W.T.O.'' ''Our model
of organization and decision-making was so foreign to their'' -- the
police's -- ''picture of what constitutes leadership that they
literally could not see what was going on in front of them.''

But each mobilization since Seattle -- from the marches against the
World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on April 16, 2000, to
the W.T.O. protest in Cancun this September -- has had to contend
with a critical lack of surprise. Fences, a heavy police presence and
pre-emptive arrests have all become standard procedures. Six hundred
activists were rounded up the day before the ''A16'' protest against
the I.M.F. and World Bank, and on July 20, 2001, in Genoa, Italy,
where 100,000 activists gathered to protest the G-8 summit, 200
officers raided a school that was serving as a dormitory and
alternative media center, arresting 92 people. The first morning of a
W.T.O. mini-ministerial protest in Montreal in July, 342 activists
were rounded up many blocks from the site of the march, in the
designated nonviolent ''green zone.''

Just as the global social-justice movement entered the conversation,
the terms of the conversation changed irrevocably. The post-Sept. 11
Patriot Act has given government agencies wide latitude in preventing
terrorism, such that the notion of pre-emptive arrests gets promoted
as a prudent safeguard. Rallies and marches, even huge ones, can be
ignored. In February, when somewhere between 6 and 10 million people
worldwide marched against the invasion of Iraq -- the largest
synchronized global dissent in history -- President Bush casually
dismissed it, saying, ''You know, size of protest, it's like
deciding, Well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group.''

The possibility of shutting down a summit meeting, as it was shut
down in Seattle, seems to be increasingly remote. Still, Fithian
says, direct action ''has the most possibility for change in the
quickest amount of time.'' Given the new reality of heavily prepared
security forces, how do activists do something that doesn't end up
merely highlighting their own powerlessness? . . .

The W.T.O. protests in Cancun were, in a way, a real test for Fithian
and the global social-justice organizing model. Cancun offered no
local taproot of activists, an unpredictable crowd size and an
unfamiliar police force. As the last warm-up before Miami, Cancun
needed to look like escalation. But with so many unknowns, it was at
risk of disintegrating into noise. . . .

The paradox is that, in Cancun, it was the union of Korean farmers --
the most traditional, patriarchal and hierarchical group there --
that ended up impressing almost everybody. Nearly all men, they
dressed in red-and-white outfits, marched to a drumbeat and carried a
giant dragon that they used to ram the fence at Kilometer Zero.
''They are totally hard core,'' a ''black bloc'' anarchist named
Randy told me with awe. (And this guy actually ''rode the rails'' to
Cancun, hoboing it all the way from Pittsburgh.) Even anarchists
could appreciate the Koreans' crisp lines and top-down precision.

The horror of actual crisis, the suicide of a 55-year-old South
Korean farmer named Lee Kyung Hae at the fence, took everyone by
surprise. But the total numbers in Cancun were low, around 8,000
protesters total -- more than 6,000 Mexican farmers, 1,000 Mexican
students and the rest internationals -- not enough to take much of a
political charge from Lee's death. As we milled around at the
barricade for a second day in the crushing heat, an activist from
Montana turned to me and said, ''Sometimes the march is the most
demoralizing thing.'' . . .

For the Americans I spoke to, there was a genuine sense of
disappointment in the crowd size. ''Before I came, I wanted to see
100,000 people here from 60 countries and the airport shut down,''
said Nick Wright, a 30-year-old Bay Area construction worker and
activist who had flown in. ''The worst-case scenario was just 5,000
people showing up. Essentially, that's what happened.''

Before I went to Cancun, I had been warned that it would be
''different'' and not representative of the anticorporate
globalization movement -- that many protesters were staying home for
fear of being detained at the border or that they simply planned on
making Miami in November and not Cancun. At the same time, the global
social-justice movement has two strains: the ''global north,'' which
is largely white and fighting on the level of policies and argument,
and the ''global south,'' which is anything but white and fighting on
the level of livelihood. Cancun was a chance to see the mixing that
is the inevitable future of the movement.

But hardly anyone in the mobilization actually lived in Cancun: the
students came from Mexico City, 48 hours away by bus; the farmers,
from farther; and the American and Korean activists, beyond that. So
the integration could only be provisional. If part of the premise of
the global movement is that it allows activists to ''radicalize'' a
new community no matter where the institutions go, it makes a
terrible kind of logic that the institutions would choose places
where there is no community, places like Cancun's hotel zone. Beyond
that, there is a fundamental trickiness to bringing together a farmer
who lives on a few dollars a day and an activist who can afford the
$400 flight to join him. . . .

In the end, for the activists, this is what winning looked like:
about midway through the week of protests in Cancun, word spread for
people to converge in front of the W.T.O. conference center as the
delegates were leaving for the day. Getting that far into the hotel
zone required passing as tourists, so activists sneaked in wearing
trashy Cancun T-shirts and carrying plastic, yardlong margarita
glasses like college students on spring break. On a whistle call, a
group of about 75 activists -- internationals like Fithian and
Mexican students -- rushed into the middle of the road outside the
conference center. Some sat down, others danced while the news
photographers took pictures, tourists looked on confusedly and the
traffic stopped dead. After days stuck haplessly under the
surveillance of the police, the action was vindication, a quick,
nonviolent redistribution of control.

The next day, the South Koreans fashioned a massive rope, and the
crowd used it to rupture a section of the barricade. But nobody went
through, which, it turned out, was the strategy. ''This is what I
call the art of action -- you need a beginning, middle and an end,''
says Fithian, who helped plan the fence maneuver. ''If we had
attempted to march to the conference center, that would have been a
losing strategy. The cops were there, with guns. People would have
been hurt, and the 'story' in the press would have been a melee. So
how do you end it? The police thought their job was to close the road
down. Our job was to open it.''

But was this anything more than symbolic fodder for the countless
photographers, journalists, filmmakers and documentarians vulturing
around the hole in the fence? The next day, when it became clear the
W.T.O. meeting would collapse, jubilation erupted among the
activists. A block of 21 countries, including Brazil and China, had
refused to negotiate until the United States and Europe agreed to
drop their ''trade distorting'' agricultural subsidies (neither did;
the talks fell apart), and one rebel delegate told one N.G.O. that
''it was because of the protests that they could stand strong,''
Fithian says. But the diplomatic standoff had been announced before
the W.T.O. meeting even began, just as another one looms this week
for the Free Trade Area of the Americas. In Cancun, it wasn't that
the protesters had created the predicament; it seemed more as if they
had merely entered one, assembled there and made some resounding
noise. . . .

Austin Bunn is a frequent contributor to the magazine. He last wrote
about vigilante border patrols.

<>   *****

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