Beyond Gandhi

In planning the (mostly) nonviolent actions against the WTO, activists are blending old protest tactics with newer, less passive ones.

ON TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 30, the official opening day of World Trade Organization talks in Seattle, protests will also erupt. The widely anticipated chaos downtown, however, will be only peripherally due to the biggest and best-publicized event. That’s the labor-sponsored march that may draw upwards of 50,000 to Seattle Center for a 12:30 march to the Convention Center. Less well publicized, but perhaps equally important, will be an entirely separate campaign kicked off early that morning. Beginning at 7am with two separate legal processions from Victor Steinbrueck Park and Seattle Central Community College, an ad hoc alliance called the Direct Action Network (DAN) will descend on the Paramount Theatre with one immodest goal: to shut the WTO down.

Facing perhaps the greatest security apparatus Seattle has ever seen, the chances that DAN will succeed are not very high. But chances are excellent that in trying, DAN will spend much of the day generating photogenic actions in which hundreds—perhaps thousands—of people will risk arrest.

Media attention thus far has focused on the wilder aspects of planned civil disobedience and what two separate Seattle Times op-eds last week, in eerily similar dismissive language, referred to as Seattle’s “crazies” and “zanies.” But most of the preparations for the November 30 direct actions are quite sober, focusing on keeping events peaceful and participants safe. Planners also are striving to keep protesters from a wide variety of cultures and ideologies on the same page, with a consistent message of nonviolent opposition to the WTO.

For DAN, even creating a few simple tenets of nonviolence to ask protesters to abide by on November 30 was a delicate matter. Their four-point “nonviolence code” seems relatively commonsense: “1) We will use no violence, physical or verbal, toward any person; 2) We will not carry weapons; 3) We will not bring or use any alcohol or illegal drugs; 4) We will not destroy property.”

But a fifth plank commonly found in such guidelines—”We will not run”—is missing; and the fourth and even first guidelines are not entirely uncontroversial among protesters these days. Nationally and particularly in the Pacific Northwest, born largely of woods-based antilogging actions, a newer protest culture has in recent years criticized an older, more static way of doing protests dating to the antinuclear sitdowns of the late 1970s. The criticism, put simply, is that a Gandhian-style passive presentation, where people politely wait to be arrested, no longer works. Media are no longer impressed, and police have figured out that avoiding arrests works better. In the 21st-century protest, tactical flexibility is increasingly considered key.

The WTO protest will be one of the first large-scale direct actions on US soil not wed to the models of Gandhi and King in decades.

DAN’S ERICA KAY, a local veteran of protests with groups such as Earth First! and the Nonviolent Action Community of Cascadia, stresses safety while allowing for innovative tactics. DAN is asking protesters, particularly those that want to risk arrest, to take nonviolence trainings—not to indoctrinate people in pacifism, but to practice how to react in chaotic situations in a way that preserves the message that protesters want heard. These trainings, typically two to six hours, cover a wide array of topics and exercises: consensus, quick decisions, responding to provocations, de-escalating conflict, arrest and jail role plays, legal information, processing personal fears and hopes. They’ll be offered on a daily basis in the week leading up to November 30.

For the younger, anarchist groups that are particularly skeptical of what they view as “protest as usual,” that won’t be enough. They’ve also been offering truncated self-defense classes, to give activist more control during frenzied situations.

Another sort of preparation will also be under way, one that speaks to the desire for less static demonstrations. Working out of the same office as Erica Kay, Art and Revolution organizer David Solnit is pulling together an eight-day series of workshops and trainings leading up to the November 30 DAN protest: street theatre, puppet building, mask making, costume design, music, and much more.

“When looking around the world,” says Solnit, “to Chiapas or Europe, the most powerful movements are using culture to come up with new forms of resistance.”

Solnit reels off different groups from around the world that will be part of the November 30 morning processions: Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theater, a former Barnum & Bailey clown who will be doing clown seminars in the preceding week, a West African dance group, hip-hop and spoken word groups, half a dozen local Art & Revolution street theater groups from around the country, a Japanese butoh theater group. “Artists from Washington are coming out of the woodwork,” he adds.

The international flavor is no accident, and it will be a wild card in how the blockades and direct action will play out. Groups like the People’s Global Assembly will bring activists from around the world with their own sets of WTO issues; and these activists, notes Kay, tent to be much more direct about their direct action. The PGA has been noted in India, for example, for burning crops to protest genetically modified seeds. And just as the US has come late to the global movement protesting the WTO, US activists will have the opportunity to learn a lot from people from less privileged cultures who’ve seen these barricades before.

How has the collision of different protest cultures in planning the DAN protests changed Kay? She ponders the question. “I have a greater acceptance and understanding of the value of a wider range of tactics and techniques . . . I’m emerging with a less strong opinion of what is right and wrong, and using different tactics so long as they’re used well. That’s not where I was a year ago.”

Another question remains: How will such new tactics and fragile alliances play out under the glare of the WTO security apparatus?

For information on nonviolence trainings and the November 20-28 Art & Revolution workshops, call the Direct Action Network at 632-1656.