I've been in heaven! The manifestation in Seattle was the beautiful child of the labor and ecology movements, and yes, I wish I were there. I was there in every other sense, as were my fellow prisoners here, whose hearts cried out in support. On the second day of the WTO meeting, I was so excited I took a moment break from my work (sweeping outside) and half seriously asked the authorities for a furlough. Why? they asked. My comrades in Seattle need me. I think we need you right here, they replied with a smile.
You may want to hear my reaction to the rioting. But not yet, as that was the least interesting part of it all. I'd rather take a moment to see the mass demonstration, and glow in smiles for the thousands who spoke their concerns with devastating creativity and clarity. I think it was a masterpiece of coordinated, decentralized action, and while I can only know from television and the papers, in such nonviolence I saw focus and self-discipline. I saw openness and alliance between groups whose concerns fit together like a great puzzle; and a puzzle whose ultimate picture is the popular movement with all its potential to transform.
The rioting to me was. . . Disappointing. Not that the windows of Starbucks are more precious than life, but rage is a loose canon, and hysteria is never safe for our ideals. Of course, the police violence (the use of pepper spray and tear gas, and even, I heard, rubber bullets) was terrible and uncalled for, as it always is; government as violence at its worst. Perhaps I am a biased Gandhian, but I would count the quiet clarity of nonviolence as among its virtues. It is so much the opposite of hatred, and it can help to safeguard our beliefs from degeneration. I remember in NYC during the Gulf War demonstrations, I went to cry out against the injustice, but as a few demonstrators became destructive, I did everything I could to convince them to stay in peace. Not that I could be so effective, as a single voice and a very small protester, but one person yelled out a slogan and tripped over a garbage can. I yelled another slogan back and picked it up. He looked back at me and I smiled. He yelled something again and tipped over a police barricade. I repeated it and two people helped me put it back up. The young man looked back, a little embarrassed, and disappeared in the crowd.
Similarly, on the news coverage of Seattle, I saw a woman who reminded me of my mother, yelling at a masked rioter who was breaking windows. What are you doing? she cried, You're ruining our protest! We're defending ourselves, he yelled back. Against a window? she responded. I thought that was really funny, but sadly the dynamic was lost on the corporate media. Both the woman and the youth know the looming danger was corporate power, with more freedom to dominate, but the television took this charming scene and rendered corporate power invisible. What the scene showed me was the dynamic we have to work out among ourselves: peace or rage? Compassion or the stone? It was like a little allegory of the work before us. Property damage, historically, has been a factor in nonviolence, and it's a powerful tool in a system where property is sacred, and life and earth are disposable. I think that it's reasonable to distinguish between acts of focused, symbolic damage, as in the Catonsville Nine or Ploughshares, and the hysteria of riots. Even if I were not a pacifist, I believe I would say the same thing, that hysteria is not safe for our ideals. As it happened, much of the rioting came out of the anarchist camp. And in Newsweek, Time and 60 Minutes, I was amazed to see for the first time in my life anarchism discussed in the mainstream news. So, here is a paradox. Every mass nonviolent movement, whether of satyagrahis or civil rights marchers, will have its violence at the fringes. And the media will focus in on that, taking attention from the serenity and power of the peace. In this case, it's no different. At the same time, the rioters have my sympathy, in having what I consider a very sophisticated critique of capitalism and the state. . . And just five minutes ago, a group of Eugene anarchists were on 60 Minutes and gave a fairly articulate outline of their ideas. So far as action is concerned (and maybe action is more important), I saw the manifestation of peaceful anarchy, not in the riots, but in the far greater and creative civil disobedience and marches, which brought together so many concerns into a single voice.
There is a profound influence of modern anarchism on the ecology movement, which was a major factor in the demonstrations. Of course, anarchists who stayed creative and peaceful were voiceless in the media, as was inevitable in this situation. I have to confess, thrilled as I was to see anarchism on 60 Minutes, I would rather our ideas of no hierarchy and the sharing society remain a more subtle influence on a wider demonstration than be covered by way of rage and hatred. I look forward to a day when anarchists are interviewed, not only for their beliefs, but for the way they manifest their beliefs in the methods of peaceful struggle.
The most important part of all this is not that the media focused on the riots at the expense of mass satyagraha, but what was NOT focused on at all: the objections to free trade, or free trade itself. Yes, we've heard that protesters say it's hurtful to the earth and human rights, but there are clear and distinguished reasons for these opinions. Meaningful discussion of the issues were, in effect, brushed aside, leaving behind it a trail of entertainment for the week, which in this case was us!
Here's a question:
If 60 Minutes has the time to watch an anarchist chop broccoli (for the communal meal), why does it never have the time to discuss free trade with Noam Chomsky?
This is not ending on a pessimistic note. Corporate media has its twists, mass nonviolence has its rioters, but between the handful of nihilists and the capitalist news was a glorious thing. The face of a popular movement, putting aside complacency and leaving stones in the garden, with civil disobedience and compassion, united and organized. And the WTO did not slip away, unnoticed. Back to Archive