Why Can't We Do to DC What We Did to Seattle?

By David Swanson

I’ve been reading a brand new book called “The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle,” which is in large part an analysis of what worked in the protesting of the World Trade Organization 10 years ago. Why is it, I wonder, that activists were able to shut down the center of this major city in Washington state, but for years we have been unable to shut down the center of Washington, D.C., in opposition to wars.

Certainly, we’ve turned out more people to march around DC on a Saturday than took part in the Seattle action. But we’ve never shut the place down on a series of weekdays and prevented congressional, White House, and military staff from getting to work. And we’ve never tried to do so — not with the sort of broad-coalition, grass-roots, strategic organization that led up to Seattle. Handfuls of dedicated activists, sometimes including some of the same people who organized Seattle, have made feeble attempts. Here’s an effort that I coordinated, which failed: http://campdemocracy.org A couple of Iraq War Anniversaries ago, peace groups engaged in creative nonviolent action in DC, but with a different approach from Seattle, and with meager results. As side-shows to marches, or as independent actions, we’ve gotten arrested, including at the Capitol, but we haven’t closed the place down.

Now there are plans for major protests in Copenhagen, but there are also plans to shut down DC in March: http://peaceoftheaction.org Unless this effort grows dramatically very soon, it too will not match what was done 10 years ago. It may be worth our while to look at the lessons in this new book by David Solnit, Rebecca Solnit, and other contributors. One obvious point is that the WTO was scheduled to meet briefly, and a limited protest could actually prevent that meeting. Even if we know that Congress is scheduled to vote on war funding, we could shut Congress down for a week and then watch it pass the war funding on the 8th day. But the WTO, too, could have delayed or moved its meeting. If we were to shut things down for a week and convey the popularity of our cause, we might shut the wars down for good. The popularity of our cause depends on good communications strategies and strict adherence to nonviolence, and therefore also good strategies for countering false charges of violence.

We have to invest months of hard work in planning and coalition building. Seattle was built at the grass roots for months through educational efforts and the facilitation of creative planning by diverse groups. A coalition was built that included communities directly impacted by the WTO’s actions. And it was a diffuse, decentralized coalition of affinity groups and clusters using open democratic decision-making and collective leadership. People were trained, and trained well, in nonviolent resistance, including in the use of locks and other equipment for the creation of human barriers. The city was divided into pie slices with the WTO meeting place at the center, and different groups had the responsibility to shut down their slice of the pie.

There is a myth that Seattle had the advantage of surprise. On the contrary, it had the advantage of extensive publicity. Plans were heavily publicized and, therefore, mainstreamed. Labor unions participated. Taxi drivers and longshoremen and warehouse workers went on strike. And a great deal of energy went into art and street theater used to energize and communicate messages, as well as to block streets. People were presented with very clear and immediate reasons they should participate. A flyer that was used is reproduced on the last page of the book. It explains, very succinctly, the damage done by the WTO to anyone who eats, works, breathes, goes to school, or lives. That’s pretty inclusive.

We can easily create a powerful message for war opposition. Here’s a rough draft of one:

Wars kill innocent people.
Wars kill soldiers and mercenaries.
Wars wound, injure, traumatize, and brutalize.
Wars take our resources away from food, housing, healthcare, jobs, education, clean energy.
Wars take our civil rights away in the false name of national security.
Wars make us less safe, enraging people against our country.
Wars poison our environment.
Wars encourage racism and bigotry at home and abroad.

We can identify a time for action, such as the week of March 22, 2010, following the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. We can identify a demand: no more money for foreign wars and occupations. But do we have the institutional structure to organize a broad coalition? Can we reach the unemployed and homeless already on the streets of Washington? Can we persuade a single labor union to take part? Will the nonprofit industrial complex engage in resistance of our government’s actions when the president has a D, instead of an R, after his name? These are all major hurdles, but we are helped by the lessons gained in past struggles. We are helped by the hard-earned knowledge of what does NOT work. We are helped by the current public debate over the insanity of war in Afghanistan, which is certain to be followed by more war in Afghanistan. We are helped by the fact that the Iraqi people will be denied again in January an opportunity to vote on the occupation of their country. We are helped by the growing awareness in our own country that we cannot survive economically while paying for these wars.

If you think it’s time we shut down the empire at the heart of the WTO with tactics so effectively used to weaken the WTO, pick up a copy of “The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle” and get in touch — and get your organizations in touch — with this group of dedicated citizens in order to coordinate your own independent efforts to close off a pie-slice of Capitol Hill: http://peaceoftheaction.org

David Swanson is the author of the new book “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union” by Seven Stories Press. You can order it and find out when tour will be in your town: https://davidswanson.org/book.


Thanks for reading and reviewing the book in a way that makes it topical for the future! Interestingly one of the models I had hear and read about that was a reference point for creating the Pie slice strategy was DC ’71, where the anti-war movement said, “if the government won’t stop the war, we’ll stop the gov’t.” They identified key bridges and intersections, created a tactical manual handbook with photos of each one so out of town folks could prepare, and got different regions to take on blocking them. I think it was the biggest civil disobedience in history with like 1400 arrested and held in a stadium, though not all nonviolent. Below is a great essay on it written by leslie kaufman, formerly of UFPJ.

Ending a war: Inventing a movement: Mayday 1971

Check Dupont circle photo:

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