A Flash of the Possible
In the year 1919, when the city of Seattle was brought to a halt by a general strike-beginning with 35,000 shipyard workers demanding a wage increase-the mayor reflected on its significance:
“True there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution . . . doesn’t need violence. The general strike, as practiced in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend everything, stop the entire life stream of a community….That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt-no matter how achieved.”
What happened in Seattle recently was not as large an event as the general strike of 1919. But it showed how apparently powerless people-if they unite in large numbers-can stop the machinery of government and commerce. In an era when the power of government, and of multinational corporations, is overwhelming, it is instructive to get even a hint of how fragile that power is when confronted by organized, determined citizens.
When the civil rights activists of the South in the early sixties put into practice the principle they called “Nonviolent Direct Action,” they were able to make heretofore invincible power yield. What happened recently in Seattle was another working out of that principle.
Let’s face it: Many of us-even old veterans of social movements-had begun to feel helpless as we observed the frightening consolidation of control by the interests of capital, the giant corporations merging, the American military machine grown to monstrous proportions. But we were forgetting certain fundamental facts about power: that the most formidable military machine depends ultimately on the obedience of its soldiers, that the most powerful corporation becomes helpless when its workers stop working, when its customers refuse to buy its products.
The strike, the boycott, the refusal to serve, the ability to paralyze the functioning of a complex social structure-these remain potent weapons against the most fearsome state or corporate power.
Note how General Motors and Ford had to surrender to the strikers of the thirties, how black children marching in Birmingham in 1963 pushed Congress into passing a Civil Rights Act, how the U.S. government, carrying on a war in Vietnam, had to reconsider in the face of draft resistance and desertions en masse, how a garbage workers’ strike in New York immobilized a great city, how the threat of a boycott against Texaco for racist policies brought immediate concessions.
The Seattle protests, even if only a gleam of possibility in the disheartening dark of our time, should cause us to recall basic principles of power and powerlessness, so easily forgotten as the flood of media nonsense washes over the history of social movements.
It has been discouraging to watch the control of information in this country get tighter and tighter as megacorporations have taken over television and radio stations, newspapers, even book publishing. And yet, we saw in Seattle that when tens of thousands of men and women fill the streets and halt the normal flow of business and march with colorful banners and giant puppets and an infectious enthusiasm, they can break through the barriers of the corporate media and excite the attention of people all over the country and around the world.
Of course, the television cameras rushed to cover the fires (many actually produced by the police with their exploding tear gas bombs) and the broken windows. The term “anarchist” was used to describe the perpetrators, by journalists ignorant-as were the window-smashers themselves-of the philosophy of anarchism. But it was not lost on viewers that the vast majority of people marching through the streets were angry, even obstructive, but peaceful-yes, nonviolent direct action.
In Seattle, the demonstrators were grappling with impossibly complex economic issues-globalization, protectionism, export trade, intellectual properties-issues the most sophisticated experts have had a hard time explaining. But through all of that complexity, a certain diamond-hard idea shone through: that the schemes of well-dressed men of finance and government gathering in ornate halls were dangerous to the health and lives of working people all over the world. Thousands in the streets, representing millions, showed their determination to resist these schemes.
In one crucial way, it was a turning point in the history of the movements of recent decades-a departure from the single-issue focus of the Seabrook occupation of 1977, the nuclear freeze rally in Central Park in 1982, and the gatherings in Washington for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978, for lesbian and gay rights in 1993, for the Million Man March in 1995, and for the Stand for Children in 1996. This time, the union movement was at the center. The issue of class-rich and poor, here and all over the globe-bound everyone together.
It was, at the least, a flash of the possible. It recalled the prophecy of A. Philip Randolph in November of 1963, speaking to an AFL-CIO convention shortly after the civil rights march brought 200,000 people, black and white, to the nation’s capital. Randolph told the delegates: “The Negro’s protest today is but the first rumbling of the underclass. As the Negro has taken to the streets, so will the unemployed of all races take to the streets.”
There will be more rumblings to come.
Published in The Progressive • January 1, 2000