Ten years ago tonight, I was sitting in a spokescouncil in a warehouse in downtown Seattle, surrounded by a sea of dreadlocked youth, preparing to rise at dawn and hit the streets the next morning. Was it that night or the next I went with my friends Margo Adair and Bill Aall with whom I was staying, to the late-night grocery store for some emergency vinegar to soak our bandannas in case of tear gas? Some of the memories have faded after ten years—although I won’t soon forget the caustic bite of some sort of intense Japanese wine vinegar that was all we ended up with—and as bad as the tear gas itself, in my opinion. But I recall that I wasn’t too worried. I hadn’t seen the police use tear gas on a political demonstration since the Sixties, and I didn’t really comprehend that they would.
Now I mostly remember snatches of images from the day: setting off in the morning with one of the marches, banners flying, giant puppets hovering above the crowd, drums thundering and feeling a sense of joy and liberation that never deserted me even in the worst times of the next few days. Our Pagan cluster dancing by the Union sound stage most of the day in one corner that stayed fairly quiet and peaceful. Rounding the corner to find smashed windows, burning dumpsters, casualties weeping on the curb from the tear gas—a new kind of war zone. Hearing that we had indeed shut the meeting down! Trying to facilitate a meeting that night with a thousand people at once pumped, traumatized, triumphant and fearlul, with someone running in at intervals to yell, “The cops—they’re coming this way! They’re tear gassing everyone, and they’re five blocks away!” “The cops—they’re coming this way! They’re tear gassing everyone, and they’re five blocks away!” “The cops—they’re coming this way! They’re tear gassing everyone, and they’re thee blocks away!” “The cops—they’re coming this way! They’re tear gassing everyone, and they’re right outside the door!”
The next morning, after the Mayor declared downtown Seattle a closed, protest-free zone, most of us headed down there to defy the order we considered unconstitutional and a violation of our rights. We sat down in the road, got arrested, and went to jail for the next five days. During that time, the talks we had set out to protest fell apart, as delegates from the global South, emboldened by our presence on the streets, walked out.
The blockade in Seattle was probably the single most successful political action I’ve been involved in over more than four decades of activism. It had a catalytic affect on the movement for global justice and it galvanized me into doing more street actions and mobilizations than any sensible middle-aged gardener really ought to do.
But Seattles—like those blinding moments in a love affair when the whole world stops, like those perfect poems that write themselves, like the song so catchy and beautiful it becomes a world wide hit, like the glowing day in the forest when you find the giant chantrelle, like any amazing, ecstatic, lucky peak experience, happen rarely. They’re the Black Swans, the unusual occurrence, the outlier. The daily grind of political activism is showing up, over and over again, with the same hundred people you’ve seen before. Getting yourself up off the couch where you’d much rather be, to march around feeling slightly foolish and chanting the same things you’ve been chanting since 1966. “Peace Now!” “Stop the Bombing!” “End the Occupation!” The effects, if any, of your actions are so far away and far removed that any sense of accomplishment or achievement is rare and abstract, and the chances of getting whacked, clubbed, trodden upon, hoarse from screaming, tear gassed, pepper sprayed, stun gunned, tasered, arrested, interrogated, deported, or facing other unpleasantness rise daily. The personal motto that carries me through these things is Garrison Keilor’s observation, that “things that are horrible for most people are good for writers.” And the sure knowledge that every freedom we cherish, every great change, every liberation of a slave or shift in conciousness or small increase in justice was won in just this way—in the streets by people who mostly felt at the time that they were losing.
We’ve got to do it. All those email petitions on the internet, all those phone calls are fine—but there’s no substitute for human beings putting our bodies in the way the operations of injustice and pounding on the gates of the exploiters and raising our living voices in outrage at stupidity and greed.
So tomorrow, on November 30, I’ll be joining my friends in the streets again, participating in another Global Day of Action around Climate Change, this one called by the Climate Pledge of Resistance folks at beyondtalk.net. I urge you to check them out, sign the pledge, and look for an action near you.
Why? Because climate change is galloping along faster than even grim scientists feared, and idiots and profiteers are preventing us from doing what we know we need to do to rein it in. And if we expect our politicians to do anything meaningful about it, at home or in Copenhagen next week, they need to be buoyed up on a rising tide of public clamor. That’s us, folks.
So I’m getting offline now and getting a good night’s sleep. I’m ten years older now—I’m not shopping for vinegar at two AM. For one thing, I’ve learned that lemon juice works just as well—which is to say, not very well at all—and smells better. But I’m not anticipating tear gas in the streets tomorrow—just a few hundreds or thousands of good friends who care enough about the world to keep on marching. And we will keep on marching—as long as it takes. Come join us!
Climate Pledge of Resistance