My friend Robert woke me up from my slumber at his cabin next to the Hoosier National Forest. “They’re saying we’re under attack.” I came inside and listened to NPR with him. At this point they weren’t sure whether it was military or commercial planes involved. My immediate thought was, there’s no country’s leadership in the world who’d do this, no leader wants to attack the US on US soil and risk having their own nation annihilated by US retaliation. Then the second plane hit, and they were confirming that these were, in fact, commercial planes that had been hijacked.
At that point, like so many others in the US and around the world who had not been living in a cave for the past century, my next thought was, why did it take them so long? For the past several decades the CIA had been overthrowing democracies in the Muslim world and installing and supporting vicious dictatorships. The US government had been supporting every Israeli aggression against it’s neighbors, and throughout the 1990’s had imposed – with the collaboration of the UN security council – genocidal sanctions on the people of Iraq which had been directly responsible for the deaths of half a million children, according to UNICEF. Under Clinton as well as Bush, the US Air Force had been bombing Iraq on a weekly basis since the invasion of 1990-91.
It seemed obvious that it was only a matter of time before someone decided that the indiscriminate slaughter of Arab civilians by the US should be avenged by another act of indiscriminate slaughter. And given that the targets appeared to be the symbolic centers of US political, military and economic might, this slaughter was actually far from indiscriminate! Every few months I find myself driving down I-95 in Connecticut, passing the sign on the highway marking the exit for a monument to the dead from 9/11 – in Fairfield, the town that was home to the largest number of the dead from the World Trade Center. Fairfield, one of the richest towns in the US, one of the richest towns in the world, in one of the richest counties in the US, Fairfield County, home also to the wealthy suburb of Wilton, where I grew up among the children of the business executives who took the train every morning to New York City to go to work in places like the World Trade Center.
I thought about these Republicans who I knew well, these businessmen with their messianic belief in neoliberal economics and the idea that the US is a force for good in the world, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary. I thought about their children, living in their blissfully ignorant suburban fantasy worlds, some of whom would suddenly discover that there was a world out there, and it had reached into New York and taken their fathers from them. I thought about the daycare center at the federal building in Oklahoma City, and wondered whether the World Trade Center had a daycare center in it, too. I thought about all the temp workers who could have been doing data entry for some nasty corporation in one of those buildings that day. It could easily have been me instead of them, had it been Boston in 1991 instead of New York City ten years later.
At the same moment I thought about my friends from the Muslim world, and their families in the US and abroad. I wondered whether crazed American mobs would burn down Dearborn, Michigan. I wondered how many mosques would be firebombed. I wondered whether Bush would decide to use nuclear weapons against the beautiful cities of West Asia, in some kind of unimaginable escalation of the slaughter. I was happy to note, over the days and months following, that some of the worst-case scenarios that played out in my imagination did not materialize. The lynch mobs did not take to the streets, and for the time being, the ICBM’s stayed in their silos.
I knew, of course, that my government would use these attacks to further their goals of world domination. I knew, as any leftwinger with their eyes open knew, that the US government would use this as an opportunity to jump-start Daddy Bush’s “New World Order” and the Monroe Doctrine from whence it sprang. I knew they would find a way to blame governments for the crimes of nongovernmental organizations. I was not surprised that our support for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan would not wane, while blame would be placed where it was most convenient for the neocons and neoliberals – against any regime that refuses to roll over on command from the State Department.
And my other thought in those first few minutes after the second plane hit the towers was, there goes the global justice movement.
I heard the confused, patriotic journalist on NPR trying to make sense of the situation. “Yesterday they were protesting the World Trade Organization, and today they’re attacking the World Trade Center.” That was it. This would be their line. Before Bush’s speechwriters could come up with the line, “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” someone on NPR had made the point in their own, slightly more subtle way. There is no clear distinction between those who want to undermine the US empire through killing thousands of people, and those who sought to change government policies through peaceful protest. Certainly there was now to be no distinction between those who would kill thousands of people, and those who would engage in protest actions involving property destruction or, God forbid, these terroristic college students who would dare throw the tear gas cannisters back at the police when they landed in their midst. While this behavior was never tolerated, it would now be considered as the moral equivalent of Osama bin Ladin.
I knew when I heard those words on NPR that this mostly young movement, these activists that the pundits had incorrectly dubbed “anti-globalization,” would be unprepared to deal with this new challenge. The movement was under constant, coordinated attack by the powers-that-be with surveillance, infiltration, and massive police brutality as a matter of course in dealing with peaceful civil disobedience. The movement was involved with a big internal dispute over tactics and how to relate to the Black Block. But the movement was growing, had plenty of vision and analysis, and was promoting ideas that were gaining increasing popularity.
Along with so many others around the world with their eyes open, I was living within an historical moment that could have gone in many different directions. A window had opened that was dramatically changing the composition of the air in the room, but now this window would begin to close, as quickly as it had been blown open only two short years before.
We on the left are always waiting, organizing, arguing, or some combination thereof, trying to determine what will be the next spark that will set off the next powder keg. We exist in the knowledge that the class divide, the race divide, the impending environmental holocaust, the growing disparity of wealth in the world are untenable, unsustainable. We exist in the knowledge that these things cause stresses in society that can go in many different directions, but that generally, oppression will breed resistance of one kind or another.
We are always hoping that this resistance will be a sensible sort of resistance that can lead to a better world – not white power but people’s power, not survivalism but cooperatives, not nationalism but internationalism, not religious war but class war, not authoritarianism and fascism but real democracy and socialism. But we know that these stresses in society are volatile, and can lead to many different kinds of developments. We’re all trying, in one way or another, to figure out how to bring things forward. Organizations come into existence, rise and fall based on whether they seem to know how to bring things forward or not.
The efforts of the many different groups around the US struggling for real democracy – economic democracy – bore fruit and managed to bring to birth a vital, youthful social movement in the streets of Seattle in November, 1999, that used mass nonviolent civil disobedience in a way it had not been used in the US in several decades. The WTO meetings were shut down. Around the US and around the world, people took notice, people were inspired, and the ripple effects rapidly spread across the globe.
Billions of people around the world who had been fighting the dictates of the US elite and the institutions doing it’s bidding – the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the free trade deals, NAFTA, GATT, these arrangements that were so destructive to the working people of both the Third World and the US itself, so destructive to real democracy, to the environment, to the idea that the people of a country, not a country’s billionaires, should be controlling their collective destiny – these billions of people had been wondering, where are the Americans in this equation? Do they not realize that they’re also being screwed? Do they not have a conscience, do they not care about the rest of the world at all? And then, after so long, they received an answer. There was a stirring in the belly of the beast.
Union leaders, their unions shrinking down to the point where they only represented 5% of the private sector, had finally begun to realize that nationalism was not the answer, that internationalism was. And people, young and old, who cared about the state of the environment, the welfare of the poor and homeless, the prosperity of the people of Mexico or Peru, the ability of the women of the world to have control over their own lives, people who cared about the very idea of to whom does this green earth rightfully belong, people who didn’t want to see their schools, hospitals and infrastructure privatized -- people came together, in large numbers, realizing that what we needed more than anything was economic democracy. People began to realize that the vital argument was between the idea of the commons and rights of living things and the idea of the sanctity of greed obscene profits.
There in the streets of Seattle, and later in the streets of many other cities in the US and around the world, was a crystalization of the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of the world.
On one side was the government and it’s servile corporate (and “public”) media, spreading disinformation, focusing on the few involved with trashing, ignoring or distorting the actions of the many involved with civil disobedience, giving the likes of Milton Friedman complete access to the newspapers and TV stations to make their case for these trade deals while almost completely censoring the voices of the global justice movement.
On one side was all the power of the state and the repressive arm of the executive branch – the police chiefs like Patrick Timoney and their lackeys, their brutality, arbitrary arrests, raids and detention, their increased border security, turning away activists in trying to cross borders in any direction, their infiltration of groups, their many provocateurs, their armored vehicles, their threats of deadly force, their fleets of helicopters, their unlimited supplies of tear gas, their unlimited budgets.
On the other side were grassroots organizations like Indymedia, the Direct Action Network, Food Not Bombs, nonprofit groups like Global Exchange and 50 Years Is Enough, unions like the Longshoremen, lots of college students and other concerned citizens from all over the place.
And the ranks were growing. Of course there were (and are) the luminaries like Subcommandante Marcos, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, connecting the historical dots, making the links between US economic, military, foreign and domestic policies. But largely it was a young, inexperienced movement, well-informed about US economic policies but often relatively uninformed about the history of other social movements, past repression against them, or of the history of US military adventures around the world -- faced with a massive, well-coordinated campaign of disinformation and repression. But still it was growing, and the air was filled with optimism and possibility.
There were small and large protests happening everywhere, even a full-time protest-hopper like myself couldn’t get to half of them. Grassroots organizations were constantly being formed. Bands of hardworking activists were burning the candle at both ends everywhere, working hard, taking advantage of what was clearly a historical opportunity to win the confidence of the majority of the people. Through words and actions to spread the idea that real, economic democracy belonged to the people, that 90% of us had common interests, that the elite were screwing all of us, that we could change this situation.
I remember talking with a friend who was tirelessly working throughout the summer of 2001 to organize the next round of protests against the IMF and World Bank’s upcoming meetings in Washington, DC. After much debate and wrangling over the Black Block and other issues, the unions were coming down on the side of civil disobedience to a degree not seen in half a century. Tens of thousands of union workers and tens of thousands of other people from throughout society were preparing to shut down Washington, DC, to shut down the meetings of these elitist, anti-democratic institutions that had led to such misery around the world, that were so intent on causing so much more. My friend and other organizers were convinced that this protest was going to be much bigger than Seattle. There were rumors that the IMF and World Bank were thinking of cancelling this round of meetings, and coming up with an excuse that would attempt to hide the fact that they were cancelling them out of fear of the power of this growing movement.
In the end, they didn’t need to fabricate an excuse. The World Trade Center was destroyed, the IMF and World Bank cancelled their meetings, the unions cancelled their role in the upcoming protests, and we had a small conference instead of a large action. Even at that conference, the seeds of what would become the antiwar movement were being formed, while at the same time the feeling that this historic window that had been opened in the struggle for economic democracy was being slammed shut.
Over the next few months thousands of Afghan civilians would be killed by our Air Force, the country occupied, Osama nowhere to be found. Within two years, Iraq would be occupied, with the most sweeping agenda of economic privatization ever imposed on a country being put into place, causing unbelievable suffering to the people of the region, on top of the constant massacres being carried out by our military and by the civil war the occupation has provoked.
The movement for economic democracy that was, in part, emboldened by the protests in Seattle has continued to grow around the world. The forces of economic democracy have risen up and taken power in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere, and have, predictably, been denounced thoroughly by the forces of plutocracy in Washington. The size and scope of the global justice movement in Europe, Korea and elsewhere has continued to grow. And just as they did before, US citizens are actively supporting these movements around the world, actively organizing protests, writing press releases, building latrines, singing songs and doing the work of movement-building alongside their global comrades.
But in the US, for now, the movement is “submerged,” that’s one word I’ve heard used. Of course there are always good people organizing all sorts of things as always. Large antiwar protests are being planned for this month and next month all over the country. Many people are getting more active around climate change and the lack of any positive initiative being taken by the powers that be. People in Colorado and Minnesota are organizing civil society’s response to the conventions of our two elite parties in this electoral cycle. Activists do the work they do as always, organizing, writing, teaching, running local Peace & Justice Centers, having weekly vigils, feeding the homeless, and so many other things.
But the IMF, World Bank and other such institutions have their meetings largely unopposed in the US these days.
A score for the forces of world domination, the forces of the rich and powerful, for whom 9/11 was a wet dream, a gift, a way out of the ideological battle they were losing, a way to avoid losing the consent of the governed in their neoliberal policies, a way to divert attention from the massive scandals at Enron, Worldcom, Xerox, a way to make someone like Bush look “presidential,” a sacrifice well worth making to allow them to further their sick agenda of “full spectrum dominance.”
But once again, their facade is crumbling. Support for Bush and the Democrat-controlled Congress are at all-time lows, CNN and Newsweek have to admit it, grudgingly, sporadically. The movement is submerged, but the bulk of the people of the US are more cynical than ever. It seems to me that something else is going to happen. Every self-respecting leftist would like to know exactly what form it will take, but nobody seems to know for sure. What’s sure is that as long as there is inequity there will be resistance. As long as people keep their humanity, they will want to show their solidarity with their brethren around the world.
The only thing that can temporarily muzzle this spirit is the maintenance of the idea that “the other” is not like us, he is bearded, angry, evil. The powers-that-be can maintain this idea through propaganda, and they can maintain this idea by killing enough innocents so that the next Mohammed Atta is a matter of inevitability.