Protesters march through downtown Washington, demonstrating against the “war on terrorism,” corporate power, and globalization, among other things. April 20, 2002.

About 2,500 police officers had shown up in downtown Miami, hailing from more than forty local, state, and federal agencies. With their black helmets, chest armor, and body shields, they looked like twenty-first-century Roman legionnaires, staring down the barbarian hordes from beneath their polycarbonate visors. Their adversaries were some 15,000 strong: protesters, mostly labor union members, with smatterings of dreadlocked anarchists, backpack-toting students, and gray-haired retirees, who had come to Miami to demonstrate during the week’s negotiations over a hemisphere-wide trade pact known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). As activists ended their protest march on that sunny Thursday afternoon, police began their own. Slowly but relentlessly, they pushed the crowd back with wooden batons, firing rubber bullets and drenching the crowds in pepper spray as they advanced. A police spokesperson said the melee — what seemed more like a rout — started with a few protesters hurling rocks. By the end of the next day, 231 people had been arrested, and dozens injured, including a handful of police officers.

Two months earlier, at the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) summit in Cancún, Mexico, there were thousands of police as well, though they did not march, nor fire any bullets. They did not have to. Eight-foot-tall chain-link fences had been erected all along the road leading into the Mexican resort town’s “hotel zone,” where trade ministers from around the globe were meeting. The protesters, their placards, and their puppets stayed on one side; the riot cops stayed on the other. Activists ripped down the first security perimeter on two occasions that week, but for the most part the crowd of several thousand was kept where police wanted them — miles away from the trade negotiations.

Four years after the landmark protests in Seattle that shut down a WTO ministerial meeting and landed the “anti-globalization” movement on the map, activism against free trade and corporate power has not gotten any easier. Authorities have responded to the mass mobilizations at every international summit by moving their events to far-off locales, where social movements are weak and trucking in large numbers of activists is next to impossible. Police have learned from the failures of Seattle, cordoning off key city blocks in advance and using a combination of tall fences and non-lethal firepower to keep protesters in line. And though last year’s demonstrations against the Iraq War helped bring back the nation’s taste for popular protest, American activists in the past two years have had to deal with an unfavorable political climate ever since September 11, when pundits started likening anti-globalization to terrorism and anti-Americanism.

“There’s a lot of reasons we got lucky in Seattle,” says Gan Golan, a Boston-based activist who participated in the so-called “Battle in Seattle” and spent last summer helping organize the anti-WTO protests in Cancún. “We’re seeing incredible advances in [police] tactics. They’re learning their lessons, and we’re learning ours.”

While it’s likely Golan and his friends will never shut down another WTO ministerial again, there are signs that their movement is adapting to new realities. One difference is in the ways activists now identify themselves. Rejecting the “anti-globalization” label that critics foisted on them four years ago, many have settled on a more proactive name for their work: “global justice.” They have broadened both their ranks and issues to widen appeal. And they have made strides in addressing the question that has vexed them in newspaper editorial columns for years: What does their movement stand for? “I think what you see here,” says Walden Bello, director of the Focus on the Global South, “is what The New York Times said: There are only two global superpowers at this point — one is the United States, and the other is global civil society.”

Rather than offering a single solution, global justice activists have staked their movement’s future on the two things that critics have continually called its “weaknesses”: the “incoherent” diversity of its membership, and its “ineffective” style of democratic organizing. “I think now the politics is one of, ‘Diversity is healthy,’” says David Solnit, an activist from Oakland, California. Solnit quotes a saying of the Zapatistas, the Mexican indigenous rights movement: “One no, many yeses.” “We all have a similar enemy, but we all create an alternative ourselves in a thousand different ways,” he says. That means not just diverse agendas, but diverse tactics; not just demanding more accountability from political leaders, but achieving a radically democratic way of life. “The globalization from above is corporate capitalism and people who want to control the world,” Solnit says. “From below, it’s those of us who want to reorganize society and empower people and restructure the world.” At the World Social Forum, the annual gathering of activists and intellectuals dedicated to global justice, that spirit has its own slogan: “Another world is possible.”

Two boys join their families in denouncing the occupation of Palestine. April 20, 2002.

‘A world where many worlds fit’

If you want to understand the roots of the global justice movement, you have to look long before the 1999 Seattle protest — decades before. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank began imposing “austerity” measures on a wide range of countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Billions of dollars of loans were provided, but under stringent conditions: that governments cut social spending, loosen controls on foreign capital, privatize state-owned firms, and follow other tenets of the so-called “neoliberal” economic model. Intended to help revitalize national economies weighed down by colossal amounts of debt, these “structural adjustment” policies arguably worsened already desperate levels of unemployment and starvation in many countries. Over the next two decades, widespread popular protest erupted in country after country: Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Argentina, and Zambia, among others.

Few people in Northern countries seemed to care. Then, on January 1, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. That same day, an army representing 1,111 indigenous communities occupied five cities and towns in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The insurgents demanded basic social services: schools, clinics, electricity, running water. They denounced Northern-imposed, corporate-controlled policies of free trade — in a word, neoliberalismo. Taking their name from Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) called upon the world to defy the neoliberal order. But they refused to advocate one alternative. In their Fourth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, the Zapatistas declared: “The world we want is one where many worlds fit.”

When the Zapatista uprising happened, Jeff Duritz was living on the Cayman Islands, teaching scuba diving and saving up his money. He had just graduated from college and was out to see the world. Between dips into the sea, Duritz would stop by the local library to catch up on The New York Times. “I remember reading about this Indian uprising in southeastern Mexico,” he says. “A lot of them had guns, but some of them only had sticks and they were riding around on the back of trucks. They were saying that they wanted to overthrow the government of Mexico … And it was just preposterous — ‘Like, who are these people, what the hell are they doing?’”

Seven years later, Duritz went to Mexico to witness the Zapatista struggle for himself. He arrived in Chiapas just in time to join the EZLN in the largest mobilization of its history: a caravan of thousands of Zapatistas and foreign allies, traveling from rural, impoverished Chiapas to downtown Mexico City, where the “Zapatour” was going to confront their national legislators and demand the passage of an indigenous Bill of Rights. Along the way, Duritz saw first-hand the democratic style of organizing that the Zapatistas preached and practiced. Many international journalists had focused on the charismatic spokesperson of the movement, Subcomandante Marcos — the masked man who quoted Lewis Carroll and Borges and wrote poetry. But Marcos insisted that he was not the leader, but merely a “subcomandante.” Decisions were made by the twenty-four-person council of Zapatista commanders, each chosen by their respective communities.

Theirs was a struggle that went far beyond the Lacandón Jungle. The subcomandante once told a reporter, “Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10 p.m., a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student, and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains.” Duritz was not sure what to make of the Zapatistas’ radical acceptance of diversity, springing as it did among indigenous people with limited education living in the poverty-stricken countryside of Mexico. “Here’s the Zapatistas, they get all this respect — what happens when they hit a provincial area?” Duritz says. “Everybody comes out, and then Marcos … says, ‘We want rights for the taxi drivers. And we want rights for the domestic servants and we need equal treatment for the street sweepers,’ and people are cheering, ‘and we need equal rights for gays and lesbians!’ And people just cheered.”

If one event could be called the beginning of the modern-day global justice movement, the Zapatista uprising is probably it, Solnit says. Many of the people who would go on to organize anti-WTO demonstration in Seattle attended the encuentros in the jungle of Chiapas, where members of the ragtag guerrilla army gathered to talk strategy. It was one of the earliest articulations of the vision that would motivate global justice activists in the years to come: radical democracy and radical diversity. “I think of a new politics of people not trying to take power but trying to exercise it themselves.” says Solnit. “The Zapatistas didn’t want to take over the government. They wanted to have autonomy within their own community, and then catalyze other communities to do the same.”

Five years after the Zapatista uprising, the diversity that Subcomandante Marcos had philosophized about suddenly became a reality — in the Pacific Northwest. The “Battle in Seattle” drew tens of thousands of demonstrators from around the country and across the globe. “Teamsters and Turtles, Together At Last!” read one of the signs, and sure enough, trade unionists from the AFL-CIO were out in full force, alongside the environmentalists they had once shunned. The Teamsters and turtles were joined by a hodgepodge of other activists loosely tied together by a common distrust of the WTO. They ranged from radical anarchists to liberal environmentalists to centrist union members — and even included a contingent of die-hard conservatives (right-wing political commentator and presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan was in Seattle, along with his “Buchanan Brigaders,” arguing that the WTO threatened the sovereignty of the United States). For Russell Howze, an artist and activist from San Francisco, the spectacle downtown was mesmerizing. “I remember just walking down the street at 6 or 7 in the morning … and all colors, all nationalities — and I just remember going, ‘Holy shit! There are people in the world that think like I do.’”

Journalist and activist Naomi Klein has called the 1999 Seattle protest the global justice movement’s “coming out party” — that decisive moment when a “movement of many smaller movements” that had labored for decades in relative isolation and obscurity suddenly reached hands across oceans and marshaled an army in the very heart of the capitalist world, the United States. Activists who were there almost universally describe Seattle as a personally transforming experience — as one activist puts it, that moment when she swallowed the “red pill” that sucked her out of the corporate Matrix. But in recent years, it has also become increasingly clear that, in spite of Seattle’s unprecedented coalition, the U.S. global justice movement has failed to mobilize key segments of the population.

The Wonder Bread “whiteness” of the global justice movement is one of its most widely acknowledged handicaps. Shutting down the WTO was a “great victory,” points out one African American activist, but where were the people of color? “You talk about anti-globalization and the effects of globalization, and it’s on people of color, so where was that voice?” says Seth Markle, a youth activist from New York. There were some foreign protesters on hand, but for the most part, if political diversity went on parade in Seattle, racial and socioeconomic diversity stayed at home.

Stephen Dietrich, a white punk/anarchist from Santa Rosa, California, says that racism, sexism, and other kinds of prejudice continue to be a problem in the movement. “These are all the things that we’re fighting against, but they’re all socialized into us,” he says. Other activists point out that flying people across the globe to protest at these summits costs money — money that communities of color tend not to have. People of color are also loath to get arrested, concerned about how the criminal justice system will treat them. Finally, many communities just aren’t aware of the importance of trade issues. “Nobody knows what the FTAA means. White, black, yellow — nobody knows,” says Barbara Salvaterra, a Brazilian activist who helped organize protests against the FTAA for the group Jobs with Justice. “Most [global justice] activists are people who are well-informed in politics, in international politics.”

The movement has made some progress in recent years in bridging these divides. Organizations like Jobs with Justice and Global Exchange provide grants to help activists with low incomes afford the costs of travel and lodging to global justice-related events. At the movement’s organizing sessions — known as “spokescouncil” meetings — speakers of foreign languages get running translations of what’s being said. And when activists return from protests, they often give “report backs” to let people back home know what happened.

The Cancún WTO ministerial in September became an occasion for activists from Latin America to take a more visible role in an international protest. While there were hundreds of foreigners on hand — Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Australians, South Koreans, and South Africans, among others — the bulk of the week’s turnout was comprised of Mexican students and farmworkers, with sizeable delegations from Central and South America. “I think the real story here [in Cancún] is the interpersonal connections that are happening, that totally transcend national borders,” says Dave Meddle, a twenty-eight-year-old activist from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Activists are also getting better at talking about issues of diversity. “I think the global justice movement has had a lot of internal dialogue about race, where you actually saw the movement change,” says Carwil James, a twenty-seven-year-old activist from Oakland, California. “It’s hard to say at a national level, but definitely at the local level that’s taking place.” In October, James, who is African American, went to a conference sponsored by Anarchist People of Color, a group founded two years ago to help people of color find their place in the white-dominated anarchist community. James feels that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered issues have also gained greater prominence within the movement in recent years. “There’s a strong sense of community across that whole space, and a sense of not atomizing ourselves,” James says. “One of the things that capitalism has us do is divide ourselves up into little nuclear families, little consumption units.”

Even as the movement has made progress in working across lines of identity, however, stark ideological differences have remained between its two major constituencies — that is, labor and everyone else. Whereas some global justice activists argue that poor countries need greater access to the U.S. market, for example, labor leaders often favor tariffs to keep foreign competitors out (the recent debate over the Bush administration’s tariffs on imported steel, which benefited American steelworkers at the expense of their foreign counterparts, is a case in point). Union activists are optimistic that they can eventually bridge these divides. More rank-and-file members — especially younger ones — are coming to the conclusion that they can’t ignore the plight of workers overseas, says John W. Murphy, assistant business manager for the Tampa, Florida, local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “There’s a groundswell of realization that we can no longer succeed with that mindset,” he says. “It’s about every person sticking up for other people, regardless of race or sexual orientation, and not [for] the fat cat politicians who are running our nations and the globe.”

For their part, top officials at the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest federation of labor unions, point to their current support of immigrant rights, a dramatic reversal for an organization that from its earliest years built its strength by channeling workers’ anger against African Americans and immigrant coolie labor. “We’ve really moved much further on immigration policy than we have in the past, and this is only in the past five years,” said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said at a teach-in earlier this month in the Boston area. “There will be differences, but we have to find common interests and common ground.”

Kevin Danaher agrees. “I’m in meetings sometimes with anarchists who say, ‘Fuck the trade unions!’” says Danaher, co-founder of Global Exchange, an international human rights organization that has played a prominent role in the global justice movement. But without the trade unions, he adds, there won’t be a mass movement: “You aren’t talking revolution, you’re talking parlor games. You’re talking café debate.” The movement needs to build a “unity of diversity,” Danaher says. “If you can build unity, my team can be smaller and less well-funded than yours and less talented, but if we’re more united and your team is divided against itself, we’re going to kick your ass because you’re wasting energy fighting amongst yourselves.”

A protester brings new meaning to the slogan “Death to capitalism.” April 20, 2002.

Smart mobs

If “anti-globalization” brings to mind black-hooded protestors throwing rocks through storefront windows, David Solnit doesn’t fit the TV image. A carpenter by profession, a puppetmaker by avocation, the thirty-nine-year-old activist is stick-thin and boyish-looking, with only a light stubble of red hair on his jowls and a voice that tends, in personal conversation, toward the inaudible. His everyday demeanor may not exactly rouse the rabble, but other activists in the movement are seemingly uniform on one point: Solnit is one of the movement’s best organizers, a mover and shaker in a resistance movement that, by principle, has no leaders.

Solnit also happens to be one of the movement’s most ardent proponents of unconventional, creative forms of protest. In his view, the movement’s broad repertoire of tactics and its constant innovations have allowed it to keep an edge over authorities, even as it has faced greater repression. “I think resistance is like an ecosystem and you need a diversity of ways for different communities and different people to struggle and try and change things,” Solnit says. “In a monoculture, just like in agriculture, if everyone does the same thing it’s unhealthy. When everybody does different stuff it really complements [things] and makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.”

In the mid-1990s, Solnit and his fellow activist-minded artists founded a radical protest group known as Art and Revolution. Inspired by groups like Bread & Puppet and Wise Fool Puppet Intervention, activists at Art and Revolution were trying to get beyond the tactics of traditional demonstrations: placard-waving, shouted slogans, occupied buildings, endless petitions. Instead, they used puppetry, music, and street theater to make their point — and make it lively. (In Britain, a similar movement called Reclaim the Streets drew attention by staging “festivals of resistance” — huge parties that blockaded the streets with masses of dancing and singing people.)

The idea was that art could break out of the linear communication of traditional forms of protest. Signs could be overlooked, slogans could be ignored, but art was irresistible, directing its messages straight to the heart and gut. Art and Revolution’s objective wasn’t to decorate the old sign-and-shout protests, but to restructure them: Dreary marches were to be exchanged for “festivals of resistance”; sheep-following-the-shepherd for “participatory street theater.” In Seattle, using these creative tactics helped activists to bring together diverse groups, assert their presence on the streets, and befuddle authorities (“partly they didn’t quite know how to respond and partly they looked ridiculous when they responded rudely to puppets and dance,” Solnit says).

Especially since Seattle, the artful protest that Solnit and others pioneered has “spread like a virus” throughout the movement. Artist-activists swear by its effectiveness. For the protests surrounding the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Jonathan Youtt worked with two other artists to create a two-headed “corporate monster” puppet: one head was George W. Bush, who wielded a “lethal injection” syringe in his hand, and the other head was Al Gore, who was depicted tossing democracy into the toilet. On the pinstripes of the suit that the Gore-Bush monster wore were written the hundred corporations that gave $10,000 donations to both parties. “One picture, one image, could basically show corporations controlling the political system,” Youtt says.

Music, too, has become an important part of the global justice protest scene. Pod, a thirty-five-year-old San Francisco artist and activist, carried a drum when he marched in the 1999 Seattle demonstration. He and other drummers would head to the “hot spots” — the places where cops were about to clash with protestors — and start a lively rhythm to try to deescalate the tension. “I remember being in this alley and there was a stand-off with cops and protesters and there was a real nervous tension in the air, as to whether or not people were going to start getting pepper-sprayed,” Pod says. “And we started a certain rhythm … to create a festive atmosphere.” It worked, Pod says; the people on the street became visibly calmer as the drummers drummed away.

At global justice protests these days, you will bump into groups like the Radical Cheerleaders, who dance at the frontlines shouting cheers like, “Free people, not free trade!,” and the Infernal Noise Brigade, a marching band dressed in black coolie hats and fluorescent orange stripes that generates a truly infernal, if heart-thumping, racket. In Miami, the cheerleaders were on hand, dressed in flashy purples and pinks and fishnet stocking, with their hair in pigtails and wrapped up in bandannas. “You get to be loud, you get to run around and do all this — and you also get people to listen to ideas that they might not listen to otherwise,” says Carwil James, the only cheerleader sporting curly chin stubble along with his pompoms. “It’s a lot easier to shout down capitalism and the state with a pompom, for some reason, and have people on your side.”

In recent years, global justice artists have taken their agitprop to another level. In Cancún, for instance, puppetistas fashioned an ensemble of Mayan deities to bring home a political point: The “gods were angry” that WTO’s policies were hurting indigenous communities. A towering, faux-stone rendition of Chac, the Mayan god of rain, was meant to highlight the dangers of privatizing water utilities — a WTO-supported intervention protested by poor people throughout the global South, who believe they shouldn’t have to pay multinational corporations for their tap water. In newspaper photographs and TV clips that appeared afterward, Chac and the other Mayan gods figured prominently. “No matter how much control the authorities have over the press … still a beautiful image of a puppet is going to get documented because they got to run something with the story,” says Youtt.

At the 1999 anti-WTO protest, activists showed off another tactical innovation: “direct democracy.” This organizing approach borrowed heavily from previous movements, including the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s and American feminist and anti-nuclear activists from the 1980s. In Seattle, non-hierarchical “affinity groups” of five to twenty people packed the downtown streets, working as teams within loose coalitions known as “clusters.” The clusters, in turn, sent their representatives (known as “spokes”) to “spokescouncil” meetings where the protesters collectively decided important issues for action — though leaving the ultimate decision about whether and how to act to the affinity groups themselves.

Activists insist that their commitment to direct democracy amounts to more than a moral fetish. After participating in decision-making, they say, people are more willing to take ownership over their actions. “It’s almost a way of ritualizing your own commitment — saying, ‘I’m committed to this course of action,’” says Golan, who adds that the “wisdom” of the decisions often improve with more people making them. Direct democracy also encourages people to stay on top of the relevant issues. “You’re going to have more people care and be involved,” says Youtt. “They’re going to say, ‘Oh, wow, I came to that meeting and I affected the direction of that meeting by my comment. And I’ll continue to be informed.’” (Youtt works at a San Francisco arts collective that runs itself on a “hybrid” consensus-based model — that is, the group strives for consensus, but as a last resort it will allow a three-quarters majority vote to move things forward.)

In Cancún, the activists held their meetings in a hot and stuffy room on the third floor of the convergence center. A sign tacked to the wall listed more than a dozen “principles and practices” to abide by (“don’t interrupt,” “become a good, non-defensive listener,” and so on). “Meetings are often long and difficult,” the sign concluded. “Let’s all work to create a safe, open, and loving space for all to be able to share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns.” At some meetings, activists will appoint a person to be a “vibes-watcher” — someone pays attention to the group’s interactions to make sure feelings aren’t hurt and speakers are sensitive to gender and other issues.

Cesár Ariza, a Mexican global justice activist with the group Juventud Global, pointed out that the Cancún convergence center was a place with no leaders. “There is no group controlling this space. We operate in a democratic manner,” he said. That sentiment is shared by many global justice activists, who insist that they will not allow any one person or clique to define their agenda. For one thing, having a small group of leaders allows the police to decapitate the movement by arresting them. Beyond the pragmatic reasons, however, there is also a matter of principle: Direct democracy is about transforming relationships, and transforming the larger society. “We don’t want a few people to be in charge,” Solnit says. “That’s part of our critique of society — that there are a few people at the top making decisions for everyone else.”

The Cancún protests showed how versatile such a decentralized approach to organizing could be. When protesters couldn’t march past the fences, they slipped by the security in taxis and buses posing as small groups of tourists. Three activists climbed up a construction crane and hoisted a banner that read “¡Qué se vayan todos!” (the slogan of protesters last year in Argentina, loosely translated as “Throw the bums out!”) within sight of the convention center. Later that night, affinity groups converged on the street alongside the center, staging a sit-down strike that tied up the police for hours. Roving media activists with camcorders documented the demonstration, watching over police and gathering evidence for possible legal battles. “What this protest shows is where there is a will there is a way,” Golan told me during the sit-in. “People have found those holes in the fences and found ways to get inside the convention center and stage a protest here.” Their strategy worked, Golan says, because of the decentralized, autonomous structure of the movement, which allows individual affinity groups to make quick decisions and adapt to changing circumstances — what some call the “smart mobs” approach to organizing.

Go to part two

Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. Site: | Facebook | Twitter: @victortanchen

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