How to Shut Down the WTO with One Eye Open

Working as the point man for the East Bay wingnut affinity cluster, I arrived in Seattle 10 days early to scope out troublemaking opportunities. I got off the plane, headed downtown, and made my way to 420 E Denny Way, home of the direct action network, home to thousands of dedicated activists, home to sprawling tactical maps and lockbox manufacturing stations, the base of what was surely a massively pre-planned action. Theoretically, at least. The scene that greeted me was distinctly different. There was a big room. And, perhaps, a map or two. A few people standing around looking like they knew how to make lockboxes. But signs of a massively pre-planned action? Nope, none of that was to be found.

There were big obstacles to planning the N30 action. Lots of affinity groups were working together. Most had never met before. A good chunk of us were secretive and didn\’t want to share our plans with anyone else. Hardly anyone knew their way around Seattle. Hell, most of us barely knew where the targeted area was. Yet, somehow, come November 30th, we controlled downtown Seattle.

This happened because of a few distinct reasons. First off, locals had been setting up infrastructures for the event months in advance. We didn\’t know what was going to happen, but the structure was fairly evident. The city would be divided into thirteen pieces, each one the responsibility of a different affinity cluster. High powered UHF radios would link the different clusters, and low powered walkie talkies would allow the affinity groups to communicate across shorter distances.

The morning started out well. Flags and banners were distributed, contingents were formed, people started marching out. At this point the high tech, super organized radio traffic consisted mostly of updates on how big the crowd was.

The East Bay wingnuts, organized as our own flying squad, split off from the march to assist an emerging blockade fairly early in the procession. That was when the organization began to fall apart. No one was using the correct radio channels.

Soon, however, all issues over channel usage became moot, as all our radios were jammed. One channel featured a loop tape of a cursing man. Another channel had somebody reading full names of the organizers out over it. We turned our radios off and took to wandering the streets, which at this point, worked as well as any other tactic would have. The streets were packed with people, it was easy enough to find hot spots. By around three o\’clock communications somehow resumed, just in time for us to deal with what was becoming an increasingly brutal police situation.

Police had begun pepper and tear gassing people, and the crowds had thinned to the point that some sort of coordination was needed. \”More lockboxes needed on 4th and Union,\” went one call, \”puppets to University,\” went another. One intersection was asking for lockdown volunteers, while another was calling for media.

Every now and then I would run into the other two tactical folks in my immediate area and we would try to develop a plan. Of course, a coherent plan never emerged. We were all very tired, chunks of our affinity groups had disappeared, and we were scared of being tagged as organizers and going to jail on conspiracy charges.

In the end our preparations helped. We shut down the city, scared the police, impressed the media. And we learned something about planning for these events. The main lesson, detailed tactical plans don\’t really work for large crowds in unpredictable situations. Tightly organized affinity groups do work. Radios are fun to use, but they don\’t really help too much. The most important lesson I learned? If you\’re going to take over a city, provide security for two thousand activists and attempt to have some role in the guidance of crowds while keeping your ass out of jail, sleeping the night before may help.