WTO review "On Trashing and Movement Building" By Michael Albert

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Thu, 9 Dec 1999 19:42:20 -0800 (PST)

FWD   Wed, 08 Dec 1999 12:34:03 -0800
From: Norman Solomon <mediabeat@igc.org>
Subject: "On Trashing and Movement Building"

During the last few days, I've received some emails in praise of the
window-smashing that occurred in Seattle. So I was glad to read the
following new article by Michael Albert of Z Magazine, "On Trashing and
Movement Building."

I fully agree with this article, and I hope you'll pass it along to anyone
you think might be interested. (Related materials are also posted at

-- Norman Solomon

On Trashing and Movement Building

By Michael Albert

This is a response to a post-Seattle debate troubling many folks regarding
movement tactics. As a preface, it goes without saying, I hope, that we all
understand that as far as violence is concerned, the violent parties in
Seattle were first and foremost the President of the U.S., his entourage,
the other major heads of state, the leadership of the WTO, etc.
Poverty-inducing violence imposed with a pen trumps a brick breaking a
window every time--not to mention that the former is to defend and enlarge
injustice, while the latter is to fight it. For that matter, in the streets
of Seattle, mass media coverage aside, in a large public discussion for all
statistical or moral purposes the only physical violence was that
perpetrated by police and national guard at the behest of the state. Pepper
gas, rubber bullets, and truncheons all directed at citizens attempted to
dissent from vile economic agendas trump broken windows every time on any
violence meter, much less on one that accounts for motivations. Debate
about movement tactics arises publicly therefore overwhelmingly because of a
manipulative and distorting mass media. The issue of movement tactics as it
arises inside social movements, however, gains attention because of
potential implications on future attitudes of activists toward trashing,
property damage, civil disobedience, and other possible demonstration
tactics as well as participation in demonstrations. That said...

Any useful discussion of movement tactics must be about their efficacy for
movement building, winning short-term demands, and laying a basis for
winning longer term aims. Assessing tactics means evaluating how they cause
a movement to grow or decline and whether they enlarge or diminish
immediate chances to win some goal.

I have been involved in demonstrations in which trashing grew organically
from the event's logic and intentions--for example, clearly enunciated
assaults on particular draft boards or ROTC buildings. I have also been in
demonstrations where trashing was counter-productive and irresponsible--for
example endangering innocent folks and diluting the message and solidarity
of the event. Which was true in Seattle?

Seattle was a massive event and those who tirelessly organized it were
committed to legal marches and rallies and also to illegal but non-violent
civil disobedience. Upwards of 70,000 people attended. In the first days
success was overwhelming and mutually respectful ties developed between
usually fragmented constituencies, (turtles and Teamsters, Lesbian Avengers
and steel workers). The prospect that civil disobedience would grow was
extremely exciting and optimism was contagious. Movement participation was
climbing and, amazingly, the official WTO gathering was already thoroughly
disrupted. The police began to employ gas, clubs, and rubber bullets. At
this point, the highly organized trashers broke off and attacked windows.
Afterwards they celebrated that due to their mobility and organization none
was arrested or harmed.

I remember all too vividly some sixties demonstrations in which over-eager
dissenters would taunt and otherwise provoke police and then disappear,
leaving others, often utterly unprepared families, to bear the brunt of the
response. I was always far more impressed with the courage of knowing folks
who could easily see what was coming and escape if they wished to, but who
instead used their talents to help protect their less well prepared
co-demonstrators, then with the self preservation instincts of those who
brought down repression and then fled the scene. In the sixties, such
trashers' behavior was caught up in a set of mistaken expectations and
hopes. I suspect that the same holds nowadays.

Imagine that the various contingents in Seattle who had provided energy,
song, creativity, and militancy at the rallies and especially at the civil
disobedience, had then also, on top of that, not gone off breaking windows
but remained with others shielding them, assisting those who were hurt,
helping those suffering from the gas. This would have capped their
otherwise positive involvement with exemplary behavior on behalf of their
demonstrators, rather than tailing off into counter productive window
breaking. The meaning of anarchism conveyed by this would have been
creative militancy plus humanity and solidarity, in tune with the rest of the
anarchist involvement in the Seattle demonstrations.

Does this mean, however, that there cannot be a time and place for
confrontation and property damage? No, it doesn't mean that at all, at
least not in my view. Instead, the time and place for such behavior is when it
will meet widespread approval and increase the power of protest rather than
providing an excuse for folks to tune out or become hostile to protest. Up
to the trashing, anarchists in Seattle added energy, creativity, art,
music, and often greatly needed militancy, courage, and steadfastness to
many demonstration venues. They uplifted participants' spirits and
otherwise played a very positive role within the rubric of the
demonstration's guidelines. It was only when some went off breaking windows
against the demonstration's norms that a problem arose. And we should note
that it isn't just trashing that is sometimes warranted and sometimes not.
Sometimes civil disobedience is out of place too. It too can be at odds
with the mindsets of people's current orientation and planning for events
so that spontaneously undertaking civil disobedience would violate an
event's logic and promise, alienate people who are moving toward dissent,
and not spur new insight and solidarity but reduce it. Other times,
however, employing civil disobedience makes excellent sense and is even
pivotal to success, as in Seattle, for example. For that matter, sometimes
even a march can be adventurist; other times is can be the ideal tactic.

In other words, what tactics at an event are warranted and will help a
movement grow and strengthen, and what tactics at an event are unwarranted
and will hurt a movement and its cause, is very rarely a matter of
unyielding principles but depends almost always on how the event has been
portrayed and organized, who is at it, what their expectations and
consciousness are, what the event's prospects are for impacting social
outcomes, and how the event and the tactics are likely to be perceived by
and to impact non-involved constituencies. Regrettably, once activists
enter a trashing mindset, they most often don't care about such
calculations. To trash is good, they feel, exuberantly, because, after all,
the targets are criminal corporations and damaging them is a step toward
demystifying and destroying them. Anyone against that must be
pro-corporate, they announce. The mindset isn't about discriminating the
impact of possible tactics, but only about what target to hit. But it is
not the acme of wisdom to deduce that McDonalds and Nike are better targets
than random passersby or a family grocery store. As far as Seattle is
concerned, despite other fantastically valuable contributions to the event,
for a relatively minuscule number of participants to impose on a massive
demonstration tactics contrary to its
definition was undemocratic behavior that should be transcended in the future.

The events in Seattle had, before any trashing occurred, already entirely
hamstrung the WTO. They had already evidenced militant creativity and
creative organization and knowledge. They had already begun to generate new
allegiances and ties among diverse constituencies. They had already
combined many levels of creative and militant tactics in a mutually
supportive mix. Speeches at rallies already in many instances made the
obvious leaps from opposing free trade to opposing free markets, and from
opposing global profiteering to opposing capitalism per se. The ground was
laid for the work we all now need to do. The addition of trashing had no
positive effects. It did not win useful visibility that would otherwise
have been absent. It did not enlarge the number of folks participating or
empathizing with the demonstration. It did not cause more substantive
information to be conveyed either in the mainstream or on the left. It did
not respect much less enlarge democracy. What it did do, instead, was (a)
divert attention from the real issues, (b) provide a pretext for repression
which would otherwise have been unequivocally seen as crushing legitimate
dissent, and (c) and arguably most important, cause many to feel that
dissent is an unsympathetic
undertaking in which instead of actors respecting one another, some, at
least, feel that they have the right to undemocratically violate the
intentions and desires of most others.

Just so we are clear: again, the issue isn't is trashing per se good or
bad. Suppose that the trashers hadn't embarked on breaking windows but had
become a support group for those suffering police assaults, rallying spirit
and protecting bodies. Suppose that hundreds and then thousands more
students and workers had joined the civil disobedience efforts. Suppose
that the state had used gas and charging cops repeatedly to break up such
efforts. And suppose in this context a good part of the city's population
and of the "audience" around the country and a large majority of the
constituencies in
Seattle to demonstrate felt solidarity with the law-breaking demonstrators.
Now imagine, in this context, that the police charged and folks didn't run,
but instead suddenly stood their ground. More, suppose they then turned and
decided it was time to push the police back. Imagine that this led to
battles, and then to cars turned over, barricades built, and so on. The
property damage by protesters in such massive melees would dwarf anything
committed by the trashers in Seattle and it would no doubt extend beyond
corporate targets and damage even the property of innocents. Some would say
this couldn't possibly be to the good, but I would say, instead, that as
described this would have a completely different flavor and logic from the
trashing in Seattle -- and would expand rather than diminish the involved
movements and constituencies. There is therefore a judgment call in the use
of tactics.

Sometimes a tactic is wise, other times the same tactic is mistaken. What
was wrong about the political folks who self-consciously trashed in Seattle
was that (1) despite their other genuine and valuable contributions to the
events, regarding trashing their judgment was horribly faulty. And (2) they
egocentrically thought that their judgment alone was sufficient
justification for them to dramatically violate norms accepted by tens of
thousands of other demonstrators.

Changing society isn't a matter of breaking windows, it is a process of
developing consciousness and vehicles of organization and movement, and of
then applying these to win gains that benefit deserving constituencies and
create conditions for still further victories, leading to permanent
institutional change. Cultivating movement coherence, trust, and solidarity
-- not just in a small affinity group but far more widely -- is a big part
of this agenda. Coherence, trust, and solidarity are not furthered when
small groups undemocratically violate the agenda of massive demonstrations
to pursue their private inclinations, even when the small group has a
plausible case for its preferences, unlike in this instance.

The fact that corporations are so vile that attacking them is warranted if
it will do good, doesn't mean they are so vile that attacking them is
warranted if it will do harm. When I was a college student organizing
against the Vietnam War I used to appear in front of very large and
animated audiences, give long talks, and then field questions. It was a
tumultuous time and I was often asked, for example, "would you burn down
the school
library if it would end the war?" My reply always took more or less this
form -- "What moral midget wouldn't burn down a library to save a million
lives? Of course I would, in an instant. But there is no connection
whatsoever between burning a library and helping the victims of U.S.
imperialism in Indochina, nor is there any connection between burning a
library and altering the fabric of our own society so that the U.S. no
longer engages in such pursuits. Worse, such behavior would have exactly
the contrary impact, benefiting those committing the vile bombing. Can we
now please get on to something serious such as how to communicate
effectively to new constituencies about the ills of the war, and how to
build sustained and serious resistance to it, and leave the posturing and
baiting behind?"

Back then, it was often very brilliant, well-trained, and highly capable
minds that drifted into Weatherman and other such formations. What was
always quite notable was that these individuals could engage carefully,
critically, and caringly in many domains, but reverted to odd leaps of
faith and fancy regarding their out-of-touch lifestyle and "activism"
choices. I really hope we do not have to witness and suffer a replay.

The events in Seattle were stupendously successful in bringing the WTO into
the awareness of people in the U.S. and all over the world, in making clear
to tens of millions that there is great opposition and therefore that there
is something here to look into and have an opinion on, and in laying seeds
for further effective activism of many diverse and powerful constituencies
willing to respect and relate to one another, to multiple agendas, and to
diverse tactical options. This was all achieved, however, not via the
trashing, but in spite of it.

Some of the pronouncements of defenders of the trashing remind me of a very
brilliant and eloquent friend of mine, who came to my apartment one 1969
night, about 2 AM, and with three or four others snuck in and said "We are
the Vietcong, we need a place for the night...the revolution is imminent,
we are underground, don't mind us, go back to sleep. Wake to a new
society." They had as excuse for their delirium that they hadn't done just one
demonstration, but had been enmeshed in full-time activism for years. Their
environment was almost exclusively their friends in Weatherman and they had
all lathered themselves into a well motivated but utterly out of touch
turmoil of hope, rage, desire, paranoia, anticipation, and abstract
rationalization that was so divorced from reality as to render them, so long
as the mindsets persisted, virtually useless as positive agents of social
change. These were in many cases the best minds and best hearts of my
generation. So please note: those who read this essay or others about
Seattle or who were there and are angry at the political people who
trashed--do not make the callous and ignorant mistake of thinking the
trashers were by nature anti-political, uncommitted, insensitive, or
unsympathetic, much less police agents. Life is not so simple. It isn't the
case that those you disagree with are always in some way abhorrent. These
are overwhelmingly movement people, indeed some of our best movement
people. For those who were involved or supported the trashing to sharply
disparage those who didn't, or vice versa, isn't going to get anyone
anywhere useful. There is misunderstanding on both sides, but the distance
to unity and progress is much less than the distance was between "turtles" and
"teamsters" before Seattle. We all ought to be able to quickly bridge that
gap and agree on the broad logic of how to assess tactics -- if not to
agree on every judgment about every single specific tactic, of course --
and especially on how to abide collective norms at our demonstrations. This
accomplished we can move on to Philadelphia, NYC, SF, Chicago, Denver,
Miami, LA, Boston, Cleveland, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit, in unity and
without fear of one another.

I hope those who did trash won't take these words as disparagement of your
potentials and aspirations. I hope you will seriously consider, instead,
that perhaps with the best intentions you are mistakenly repeating one part
of sixties movement history--the saddest and least functional part--and
will in reaction rise above the temptations and confusions that bedeviled
many of the best of my generation.


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