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Chiapas, Seattle, Hong Kong?

David Solnit
Date Published: 
June 01, 2006
    It has been over ten years after the imposition of NAFTA and the WTO, the Zapatistas’ uprising and the beginnings of global coordination of actions inspired by this new radicalism. It has been six years since the mass direct actions confronting the WTO in Seattle and the IMF and World Bank in DC. David Solnit explores important questions for these movements: What are the past lessons and future possibilities of summit mobilizations? What major challenges do we face? How do we define victory?

There is no global justice movement. At best, “global justice” is a common space of convergence—a framework where everyone who fights against the system of corporate globalization (or capitalism, empire, imperialism, neo-liberalism, etc.) and its impacts on our communities can recognize a common fight and make those efforts cumulative. The concept of a single “movement” focused on the “issue of corporate globalization” is used both by the corporate media, as well as left writers, often in an attempt to marginalize its ideas or declare “the movement dead” every few months. In describing this “Global Justice Movement” they paint a picture of primarily white, privileged, often naive kids, who come out to large protests and then promptly disappear afterwards.

A much more accurate picture would include the broad-based groups of people who fight the direct impacts of corporate globalization like prisons, farm workers’ conditions, gentrification, the social devastation post-Katrina, and forest destruction. This includes the people who organize local alternatives like community newspapers, health clinics, Community Supported Agriculture farms, and cultural centers. This is the movement of movements that fight for global justice.

The public face of summit mobilizations has changed since the 1999 Seattle protests. The biggest grouping of “summit hoppers” from the US at the December 2005 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Hong Kong was the WT-No delegation of 50 Asian and Pacific Islanders from across the US, including former garment workers, youth, immigrants, activists, organizers, artists, teachers, and students. The last conference on global justice I went to, called "Our World, Our Rights," was organized lat summer by the Hatian, Mexican, and Guatamalan immigrant farmworkers of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their allies. As the Bush Administration pushes Iraq to join the WTO and works towards a “Middle East Free Trade Area,” many parts of the antiwar movement understand themselves within the framework of global justice.

This past December, Korean farmers and trade unionists courageously fought their way through Hong Kong riot police lines, leading thousands from across Asia and around the world to put the WTO under siege. The night before the last day of the WTO Ministerial, the government ministers had still not come to any agreement. If the talks collapsed for the third time in six years, it could mean the eventual death of the WTO. The Korean-led international resistance confronted the panicked police lines until, as a last resort they fired volleys of tear gas. We heard reports from NGOs inside that the WTO conference center employees had fled and that ministers from around the world were panicking and had looted the snack bar. The WTO meeting was surrounded on three sides by water and the fourth by protesters; boats were the only way in or out. Yet, the rich countries, with India and Brazil on board with “the big boys club,” were able to impose a bare-bones agreement to continue negotiations, allowing the WTO to survive.


Mass mobilizations have been an essential part of every successful movement. Summit mobilizations serve two functions. The first is to send shockwaves demonstrating mass opposition with the capacity to threaten and disrupt capitalist globalization-from-above. The second is to strengthen and energize the networks and movements of our globalization-from-below. Strong summit mobilizations come out of ongoing campaigns and the culmination of movement building in our communities.

For example, the Korean Struggle Mission—an alliance of Korean farmers, trade unionists and others—came to the Hong Kong WTO protests from a series of powerful, militant mass mobilizations in their own country in the preceding weeks. Seattle’s WTO direct action mobilization drew on the strong networks of student anti-sweatshop campaigns, Earth First!, forest activism, and anarchist organizing that had been growing in the years before. Activists have persistently mythologized Seattle as a spontaneous uprising, missing some of the key lessons of what made the 1999 actions effective. Less successful mobilizations have resulted from this myth because organizers overlook the importance of a common strategic framework, massive grassroots education, network organizing, alliance building, and mobilizing.

New forms of globalization-from-above like the WTO have been met with the new forms of resistance and alternatives of globalization-from-below. Both types of globalization have learned and evolved in struggle against each other. The powerful and conservative think tank, the Rand Institute (which was founded by the US military) wrote in their book Networks and Netwars, “Seattle was a seminal win [for activists].” But they concluded, “Government authorities may have learned more from the Battle of Seattle than activists did.”

Swept aside

During the G-8 Summit last July, the British government and corporate capitalism spun themselves as champions of the poor. Professional nonprofit organizations and the mainstream sectors of the movement were co-opted into this dangerous spin while radicals and independent grassroots movements were criminalized. Furthermore, right-wing Islamists entered the fray with the bombing of London’s transportation systems, killing commuters. I felt like our movement of movements was operating on a simplistic framework that was not adequately ready to navigate the complex challenges we were facing.

Labour Party leader Gordon Brown cleverly led a PR campaign presenting Tony Blair and the G8 as fighting world poverty and global warming. This media campaign successfully took the attention away from the losing war and occupation in Iraq. The PR spin was helped by the Make Poverty History (MPH) campaign, which co-opted professional nonprofit social change groups, charity organizations, and mainstream grassroots movement folks. The celebrity spokespeople for MPH, millionaire pop stars Bob Geldorf and Bono, organized the Live 8 concert overshadowing the mass mobilizations in Scotland. With their army of celebrities, they broadcast across the planet via corporate media.

The PR plan put into action seemed to come directly from a manual for corporations called, Managing Activism: A Guide to Dealing with Activists and Pressure Groups written by Denise Deegan. In his PR Watch review of the book John Stauber describes Deegan’s preferred strategy: “First identify the ‘radicals’ who are unwilling to compromise, then, identify the ‘realists’—typically, organizations with significant budgets and staffs working in the same relative area of public concern as the radicals. Next, approach these realists through a friendly third party to start a dialogue and eventually cut a deal that looks like a ‘win win’ solution that marginalizes and excludes the radicals and their demands. Result: industry may have to make some small or temporary concessions but the fundamental concerns raised by the ‘radicals’ are swept aside.”

Despite some incredible organizing, creativity, actions, and popular education by the radical and independent sectors of the global justice movements, there was little success at battling the G8’s Make Poverty History story or at fighting the mainstream media campaign criminalizing the “radicals.” MPH advocates were portrayed as the good protesters and everyone else was criminalized in the corporate media for months as dangerous “anarchist rioters.” When activists predictably masked up and hit the streets, it was like we were posing for the required photo-op for the marginalizing stories that had already been written. It was not enough to counter the elite on specific points without a counter story.

Finally, the Islamists’ bombing of civilians in public busses in London on the last day of the G8 Summit swept the global justice movement’s issues off the table while support for both Bush and Blair in the US and UK increased. This turn of events is best analyzed in an essay by Walden Bello called Global Capitalism Versus Global Community. Bello writes: “The crisis of global capitalism does not guarantee ultimate ascendancy for the emergent global community. The right is also on the move, taking advantage of the crisis of the neoliberal establishment to concoct ideological mixtures of reaction and populism that stoke the deepest fears of the masses. One must be aware of the dynamics of religious fundamentalisms of the Al Qaeda type in the South and fascist populist movements in the North.”

The challenge of the rise of Islamist political movements is not easy to navigate, but it is important to keep focused on the roots of this dynamic. In reaction to the Hamas victory in the recent elections in Palestine, global justice activist Rayan El-Amine, who works for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s San Francisco Chapter, proposed one way for radicals to address the challenge of Islamist movements. He wrote, “As progressives and leftists in the US, we should emphasize that the growth of Islamists and the retreat of progressive politics in the Middle East is a direct result of US imperialism. If you want progressive movements to grow in the Middle East, fight Israeli occupation and US imperialism.”

On fire

The corporate globalizers’ dream of turning our world into their Wal-Marts, sweatshops, and speculative capital casinos has not quite succeeded. The third and fifth WTO meetings collapsed because of global social movements. In the sixth, in Hong Kong last December, they were fighting to merely survive. The US attempt to impose corporate capital rule on the Western Hemisphere with the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) has collapsed due to popular opposition. President Bush was humiliated when he went to Argentina last winter. Not only were the streets full of tens of thousands of Argentines opposing him and corporate capitalism, he could not even get the FTAA on the agenda.
In the wake of the December 2001 Argentine economic collapse, Argentines rose up and toppled four consecutive governments, and for the first time in history stopped IMF debt repayment by popular revolt. Perhaps more significantly, they developed positive economic and political alternatives—occupied worker-run factories, networks of neighborhood assemblies, and the unemployed Piquetero movement who combine direct action and direct democracy with building self managed alternative institutions.

South America is on fire against neoliberalism. The most far-reaching and hopeful revolutionary process is in Bolivia, both in terms of resistance and in constructing “counter power” or “dual power” from below. The Bolivian movement drove out water-privatizing multinationals Bechtel in 2000 and Suez in 2005 and even toppled their own presidents when they violated popular movement demands on two different occasions. Social movements there support the new president, indigenous activist Evo Morales, not out of a cult of personality or blind faith in a leader, but as someone who was elected under a commitment to carry out a clear set of demands known as the October Agenda. As Marisol Blacut of the Bolivian Trade Union COB put it, "Evo has said change. If there is change we will support him. And if there is not, we will throw him out just like we did the neoliberals.”

The October Agenda, which emerged from a consensus of Bolivian social movements, has among its principal tenets nationalization of gas without compensation, reversal of privatization of public services, and real agrarian reform. But perhaps the most important demand of the October Agenda is the creation of a directly democratic assembly of social movements and sectors to replace a parliament widely seen as corrupt and exclusive. This assembly would radically reorganize decision making of the country, rewriting the constitution and giving power to the different organized social bases that make up the movements.
Our own reality

As a movement of movements fighting the impacts of corporate globalization, we have won many significant victories. Two recent major global justice victories in North America in the last year are those of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ victory over Taco Bell and the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers: The same week that thousands took direct action to shut down the WTO in Seattle, the South-central Florida farm worker town of Immokalee held a general strike, and several organizers were rounded up by local sheriffs. In the years that followed, the farm workers would actively pursue alliances with student and anarchist anti-capitalists taking a lead in defining global justice organizing. On March 8, 2005 the immigrant low-wage farm workers and allies Coalition of Immokalee Workers won a four year campaign to force Taco Bell, owned by the biggest fast food corporation on the planet, Yum Brands, to agree to its demands to stop “sweatshops in the fields.”

Great Bear: On February 7, 2006 the far-reaching Great Bear Rainforest Agreement was made official. This massive, historic victory protects 5.2 million acres of temperate rainforest—an area the size of New Jersey. Grassroots forest activists, forest nonprofit groups like ForestEthics, Rainforest Action Group, Greenpeace Canada, First (Aboriginal Nations) and impacted local communities pressured and negotiated with timber companies and the British Columbia government for ten years. The movement that won protection of the Great Bear grew out of the incredible mass direct action blockades in 1993 opposing timber corporation plans to clear-cut the last intact valleys of Vancouver Island’s Clayaquot Sound, and leveraged a more recent Home Depot anti-corporate campaign that involved direct action and 600 protests.

Are we winning or is the empire? Both positions could explain what is happening in the world, but which answer we choose to believe could can determine the outcome. In 2002, Karl Rove snapped at Wall Street Journal writer Ron Suskind in 2002 and said, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” It’s clear that those in power “create reality” to manipulate and control us. But we can resist, and resistance includes creating our own reality.

John Michael Greer wrote a reflection on Globalize Liberation, an organizing and inspiration manual on the new radicalism I edited a year and a half ago. Greer challenges us to, “Make an effort to experience the world around you as though today’s global corporate system isn’t a triumphant monster, but a brittle, ungainly, jerry-rigged contraption whose managers are vainly scrambling to hold it together against a rising tide of crises. See the issues that engage your activism in that light, not as though you’re desperate, but as though the system is. Ask yourself, then, which of these stories fosters more hope, gives more encouragement to alternative visions of society, and more effectively cuts at the mental foundations of today’s economic and political systems.”


David Solnit is a participant and organizer in North American global justice movements over the last decade who recently traveled to Scotland and Hong Kong for summit mobilizations.