Leading up to Seattle, organizers both white and of color, across the country tried, with little success, to talk about racism, to plan anti-racist trainings, and to bring up issues of privilege, but those efforts were often felt to be in vain, given the negative reaction from the leadership and the general lack of support from the movement surrounding them. If we are truly interested in working in a genuine anti-globalization movement, we must challenge white supremacy in all of our organizing structures.

Combatting white supremacy in the anti-globalization movement

by Sonja Sivesind

The anti-globalization movement has been vibrant in communities and organizations of color in the US and around the world for hundreds of years, and yet white supremacy was rampant in the movement against the WTO ministerial meetings in Seattle. In other words, racism is alive and well in social justice organizing, and the WTO was no exception. For example, the disruption of the WTO Ministerial was seen by some as a gateway into a “new” movement. When in actuality, there is nothing new about people of color struggling against imperialism, environmental destruction and corporate control over their lives.

Much has been written about the successes of the WTO actions. As well, there has been a great deal written by activists of color about the problems of the WTO organizing, the exclusion and racism within the movement. The purpose of this article is to name racist actions that occurred during WTO organizing with the intention of stopping such supremacy and creating a stronger movement, to show that these are not isolated incidences, and to name the precedent that we have set, while learning from our mistakes.

White supremacy was evident in many ways during the pre and post WTO organizing, in arguments leading up to the mobilization on November 30th, in goals, strategies, and descriptions of accomplishments, and in how groups and organizations were and continue to be set up. Some examples follow: white organizers and activists believe that racism doesn’t concern them; white organizers are interested in working with environmental groups and unions because they most likely won’t have to deal with race; white people think racism doesn’t have anything to do with globalization; white people take responsibility for organizing that people of color initiated and carried out; and white people actively prevented conversations about race and racism from happening leading up to the WTO. And the list continues as there were no structures in organizations to deal with the racism in the groups or individuals; people of color who are not doing direct action are not considered part of the real movement; white organizations desperately need active anti-racist analysis and practice; and people of color organizations are finding little support from white people. Racism continually is a serious reason why coalitions do not go further: movements are not building, and people of color and anti-racist whites are leaving in droves, for good reason; and the organizing for Seattle was not multi-racial from the inception. As a result of all this, the 50,000 people who turned out in the streets during the week of November 30th were predominantly white, and white supremacist ways of organizing have been perpetuated across the country in the name of Seattle.

At the same time, leading up to Seattle, organizers both white and of color, across the country tried, with little success, to talk about racism, to plan anti-racist trainings, and to bring up issues of privilege, but those efforts were often felt to be in vain, given the negative reaction from the leadership and the general lack of support from the movement surrounding them. If we are truly interested in working in a genuine anti-globalization movement, we must challenge white supremacy in all of our organizing structures.

I was active in initiating the Direct Action Network the February before the WTO. When Bay Area organizer, David Solnit and I began the conference calls amongst West Coast activists we had worked with in the past, we were putting out a call for a mass action. Later, I worked in Seattle for a month before and after the ministerial meetings, mostly with a cluster of affinity groups planning for a few specific actions during the week of November 30th.

I am a white woman who spent last year traveling across the US and Canada, interviewing grassroots groups doing radical political work, specifically anti-oppressive work, on a wide range of issues including environmental justice, prisons, popular education, and art as social change. Throughout all the interviews I conducted in the Southwest, Midwest, Eastern Canada, and the East Coast, The WTO is always brought up. We – everyone who was involved in some level in organizing and participating in Seattle – changed things.

We must acknowledge all the amazing work that occurred in Seattle while simultaneously critiquing ourselves, so that we can grow and learn from our mistakes. To do this we need to examine how we define success. Our actions at the WTO meetings in Seattle were successful in more ways than we can ever know. From showing people around the world who have been organizing against such global institutions for years that activists in the US can mobilize tens of thousands of people to take the streets, to actually shutting down the ministerial meetings, the demonstrations against the WTO were successful. These actions initiated over 40 Independent Media Centers across the world. These actions forced presidential candidate Al Gore to talk about “corporate domination,” language never used in his vocabulary prior to Seattle. Political prisoners in the US, locked up since the 70s and 80s for their actions in creating a new society for all of us, have gathered hope from seeing a resurgence in street actions, young people willing to take risks and demand radical change. Such powerful results from our work in Seattle must be recognized, and we must also be critical of what has been called success.

Through interviewing over 50 organizations in 20 states, I found that across the country racism is imbedded deeply in social justice organizations. We must learn from this recurring reality so that we can radically change it. This article is rooted in the premise that it is the responsibility of white people to undo racism. In not actively recognizing and confronting white supremacy in all levels of our lives, including organizing, we are perpetuating the very racism that keeps the WTO and systems of oppression in power.

We can’t waste time on this

Organizing that reflected an anti-racist analysis was never made a priority in pre-WTO organizing. In Seattle, throughout the month of September 1999, whenever anyone tried to start discussions about race at meetings, they were continually shot down. Racism was either deflected as “not an agenda item,” or put at the bottom of the agenda and always tabled for lack of time. In October, a Seattle organizer was facilitating a Direct Action Network meeting. He placed racism at the top of the agenda. His intent was to ask questions and start a dialogue. Does the group recognize that everyone at the table is white? Why don’t people of color come back to meetings? Before the meeting, he set up the agenda, and others at the meeting took the subject of ‘racism’ off altogether. Another organizer, a leader in DAN, told him that “unless you are going to do a workshop, you can’t talk about this.” A ten-minute confrontation followed surrounding issues of power, racism, and who had been making decisions for the entire group. Other people joined in the fight, supporting the person who had taken the agenda item off. Their arguments included:

“we can’t waste time on this;” “it is too close to the action date – if we talk about racism, we won’t talk about the other things we have to discuss;” “can we start the meeting?” and “let’s just use this agenda and talk about this later.”

It ended with the facilitator refusing to facilitate the altered agenda and the subject of racism not being addressed. This is just one example of the leadership of DAN being unwilling to recognize, address, and struggle with the issue of white privilege and racism. In other cities white folks were also trying to address issues of racism, and were confronted with resistant and even hostile organizers refusing to engage in these discussions.

In Olympia, racism was named repeatedly in DAN meetings. In September, 1999, several people of color brought up the fact that the group was predominantly white. The defensive response from white people included statements like: “we don’t have time to deal with this” and “let’s move on to the next agenda item.” That was the last meeting that any people of color attended in Olympia.

Racism was continually brought up in meetings by talking about outreach and the lack of community based involvement. According to local organizer Jennica Born, many activists in Olympia felt that “bringing up or dealing with racism was a divisive tool that was keeping us from getting the real work done,” and “it was a burden to deal with such a subject as racism when ‘direct concerns’ like outreach materials and budgets needed to be produced.”

Finally, a training was organized by white leadership in October. The goal was to encourage people in the group to consider their own internal white supremacy and to raise a consciousness amongst people in the group about racism and oppression as a whole. Thirty people participated in the training, which helped create a space where people were able to learn with less tension than previous settings.

The training wasn’t effective at instilling an anti-racist practice in white organizers. The training was seen as a momentary, band-aid solution, rather than as a step towards integrating anti-racism into a more holistic way of challenging globalization. Instances of racism continued. For example, in an affinity group setting, people of color brought up concerns about a plan to have white people dressed as slaves carrying a slave ship to be used as a stage for their action plan on November 30th. The people of color were later attacked for challenging issues of racism and received little support from the broader DAN activist community.

Racism exists in many parts of this example. Throughout the proposed skit, racism was minimized and made theatrical; white people didn’t acknowledge how they’d benefited from slavery anywhere in the skit; and the negative responses to the concerns raised, perpetuated racism as the challenges from folks of color were not dealt with.

This is unacceptable. As white people, we need to learn what it means to be an ally to people of color. We need to provide tangible support when issues of racism are raised in our meetings and work spaces, and we need to be calling one another on racist behavior.

Our meetings are open

In Tucson, Arizona, a small group of white environmental activists were preparing for the WTO meetings. They called themselves the Sonoran Justice Alliance and wrote a statement – a general resolution in opposition to rapid globalization. They circulated the statement around email lists, and people and organizations signed on. They took that statement to Seattle to show that many groups in Tucson opposed the WTO. This group of activists were seen as a clique by many community organizers around town. I talked with several organizers of color who were well connected in the activist scene in Tucson. They were interested in attending the SJA meetings, but either the meetings were held as part of Earth First! meetings, or people didn’t know when they were happening, or learned of them too late to be involved. If Earth First! is a predominantly white organization that you are not a part of, it is an alienating setting for a coalition meeting. When folks did find out about their meetings, many people of color didn’t feel comfortable with how they were run. Organizers of color who knew the folks in SJA tried to call them on it, naming the exclusionary way meetings were being organized. But they were met with defensive answers of “our meetings are open.” A white organizer with SJA said to an organizer of color bringing up the issue of inclusivity, “What do you want, a red carpet rolled out for you?” White people feel comfortable in white-led spaces, when white culture is the norm and outreach is done to our white friends and we see white faces all around us. Making an effort to change leadership structures, meeting processes or locations, to allow people of color to feel included and a valued part of the group, is hardly a red carpet. White people have been rolling out their own red carpets for each other for five centuries.

The problem of white people taking credit and taking over was common through all of my interviews across the country. In Seattle, the Tucson group did a lot of press work and were covered extensively in the Tucson media. The statement that they had brought became a “coalition” and those in Seattle named themselves as representatives of 40-50 groups. Tucson organizer Jen Allen explained, “People just signed on to a statement. They didn’t agree to be in a coalition and say you four or five people are our spokespeople.” Meanwhile in Tucson, strong actual coalitions were being struggled for between labor and social justice activists. The group Southern Alliance for Economic Justice had been doing a lot with the machinists to build a working coalition and a real alliance. When the SJA folks returned from Seattle, they took credit for this alliance and disregarded all the hard work that had gone into building these relationships. The ongoing work that organizations of color had been doing for years was not acknowledged or respected. This example is tied to a history of white-led progressive organizations claiming sole responsibility for success they were not involved in creating.

In Tucson, the conversations around race and racism had to be extremely basic, because most of the white activists had never worked on issues of white privilege, white supremacy, and our role as white people in perpetuating these institutions. Organizers of color who continually attempted to work with white people were forced to educate and hold the hands of white activists who refused to deal with their own privilege and racism. Jen Allen explained, “you can’t expect people of color to join your group because you say you want to be diverse.” That just doesn’t make it. The SJA “couldn’t own up to the reality that they’d created an environment that was not inviting to people of color.” Allen was left to feel like she was bursting the bubble of enthusiasm for those who were new to activism because of their participation in the actions in Seattle.

  • By asking questions about racism, “what does it mean to organize?” “what is a coalition?” and
  • By calling SJA out on their misrepresentation of the groups who’d signed the statement and for taking credit on the work done in Tucson,

Allen was taking risks and making every effort to strengthen the work of the group. But she said, “I felt a little bad, like I was holding back their momentum.” As white activists fighting against capitalist globalization, we must see momentum hinging on all of these questions. It is not the responsibility of people of color to continue educating us about what needs to happen, how we need to deal with our shit. We must be the ones initiating these conversations and actions on every level and at every stage of our organizing. Addressing all of these components and questions are crucial if we are to actually reach success.

These examples show that in some cities, racism was discussed within pre-WTO organizing. However, the majority of white people involved at all levels were resistant to these issues being raised. Anti-racist praxis could not occur when discussions around racism were stopped, when white people continued with racist actions, and when people of color were alienated because of white people’s racism.

How different would the actions of Seattle have looked if anti-racism had been incorporated from the beginning? What kinds of coalitions could have been created? The racism that existed during pre-WTO organizing did not end there. It lives on and manifestations appear in many ways across the country.

This isn’t radical

In most all cities I have traveled through, seasoned organizers, both white and of color, were enthusiastic about the surge of energy the WTO inspired. They were also wary of the “know it all” attitude that came with the boom in participation. Consider how powerful it could be if this energy from white activists could be channeled into learning from communities of color who have been organizing in this country for 509 years. By focusing on understanding how our liberation is linked, and how white people can effectively organize in their own communities in solidarity with the work of people of color, our movements have immense potential to grow and strengthen.

In Olympia, an affinity group with members active in the initial conference calls of DAN, and all of whom were involved in leadership throughout the entire week of N30, had serious concerns about the comments they heard Seattle leadership making about the future of DAN post-WTO. They felt that people were not interested in evaluating or reflecting what had occurred throughout the whole organizing process, and instead were simply pushing forward to make a bigger but not necessarily better organization. They felt responsibility for the direction thus far of DAN because of their leadership roles, and wanted to affect the future of DAN possibly becoming an organization. They had concerns about this idea, and felt a conversation would not be effective, so they wrote a public letter and delivered it to DAN leadership in Seattle in mid-December. They write:

We wrote this letter out of respect for the accomplishments and process of the Direct Action Network, but we must claim our concern that the group process is exclusive and not sustainable…. Some major problems:

  • The group is aimed towards a particular class background, ethnicity, and political philosophy.
  • People of color were actively alienated from the organizing process and from the Convergence space itself…It was the experience of those among us who had been active participants in DAN organizing that dialogues regarding exclusivity and process were placed as a low priority. If the Direct Action Network wishes to be a fundamentally anti-oppressive organization it must be willing to stop and examine practices within the organizing which are oppressive in nature.

The responses received from this letter clarify the priorities of DAN leadership. Carolyn Cooley, one of the writers of the letter explains what happened,


When two of us from the Sleazy Cowboys attempted to raise our affinity groups concerns about problems of unaddressed racism, hierarchy, etc. within DAN with several key organizers, we met total dismissal…People seemed to stop listening as soon as they heard the words “race” and “oppression.” They gave us a “yeah, yeah, yeah – we’ve heard it all before” response.

The response, or lack of response, showed a serious dis-interest in even discussing these issues. According to Jennica Born, of the Sleazy Cowboy affinity group, the reaction proved just how established the foundations of a racist mentality were. If these leaders were not going to listen to five fellow white organizers who they respected– who were friends and co-workers– then there was clearly a disinterest in addressing racism. The letter had meant to spark public discussion about the need for evaluation, but the initial disturbing responses the group received caused them to lose faith that such as evaluation would occur.

The letter was passed out at a meeting in Olympia. The feelings expressed to the group were that the Sleazy Cowboys were too antagonistic, hostile, and forceful. They were using methods that were too confrontational. This is ironic coming from a group that claims to strive for direct confrontation at every level. Everyone was focused on doing direct action at the forced relocation site of the Dineh people in Arizona on February 1st, and they didn’t want to be bothered with these issues of racism and evaluation.

In Seattle, post WTO, new people were enthusiastically joining DAN. A group of four local organizers got together to draft a proposal for an anti-racism training for DAN. They had seen the growing need for such a training through their work leading up to the WTO. The horrible response to the Sleazy Cowboy letter only added fuel to their fire for the necessity of this work. With so many new people, it seemed an especially crucial time for this to happen. It would give people a common language to use, an understanding of what racism is, and how to define it.

The proposal was framed in the idea that anti-racist work IS direct action. This was to speak to the prevailing attitude that people wanted to continue directly and physically challenging the system. There was still money in the DAN accounts, so their proposal included DAN paying experienced facilitators for the proposed workshop.

They were given three minutes to make their proposal to a group of 50 people. The entire meeting resonated with a push, push, push, sentiment. Future actions were the focal point, as they planned for shutting down Microsoft in February 2000. Therefore they claimed to have little time for any other agenda items. No consensus on the proposal was ever reached. The reactions were not supportive. “Do whatever.” “What’s anti-racism?” “We’re not racist.” “Let’s get on to the real work.” “This is a waste of time and money.” “Why won’t anyone do this training for free?” “We don’t want to pay for your therapy.” “This isn’t radical.” Clearly a crowd not responsive to the idea of prioritizing anti-racist praxis.

Needless to say, the training didn’t happen. Only one of the four people who made the proposal continued to work with DAN. In February, the person who had presented the proposal was confronted by other white DAN activists at a public space. He was told that racism was not the issue, and that he didn’t understand what was going on. He was called an infiltrator and a nazi, told he needed therapy, and threatened with physical violence. They said they would take care of him if he didn’t drop the racism issue. Some of the folks active in this confrontation continued to hold leadership positions in what used to be Seattle DAN.

In Tucson, local activists have been dealing with the post-WTO phenomenon of an influx of people, jazzed by their role in shutting down the WTO and now wanting to be involved in politics. While this sentiment is encouraging, as it is great to have more people involved, it unfortunately is playing itself out in negative ways. Mostly young, white, new activists are returning to cities like Tucson and Minneapolis (and most every city across the country) and entering into the organizing community in a detrimental fashion. They come in with the attitude that they know it all, they are the most radical, and they are at the forefront of this new movement (little do they realize that it is new only for them).

A respectful way to enter that space would be to attend meetings and listen. That would allow newer white activists to begin to understand what local community organizers have been working on for decades (and in some cases centuries); to learn what strategies are being employed and why; and how communities are working with their own constituencies. Instead, these spaces are being entered with a ‘holier than thou’ mentality. Because direct action was used with success on N30, it has become the supreme definition of radical, and many white people are all of a sudden claiming direct action to be a Seattle phenomenon. The assumption is that these local communities -for example- groups doing cross border work with Chicano and Mexican families since colonization, don’ t employ multi-layered strategies, are not radical, and do not have lessons to share. At a demonstration in Tucson at the National Law Center for InterAmerican Trade, where a wide section of the community was represented at the planned protest, a local DAN leader attempted to rile people up and escalate the demo by storming the building. Paying no mind to the organizers strategies of creating a safe place for the children, union members, religious folks, and the overall coalition of people they had organized the event for, this DAN activist exclaimed to the group, “are you guys activists or slacktivists?” He carried with him the ever familiar attitude that if you are not doing direct action, you are not pushing the envelope and are not engaging in valid tactics.

We know what we are doing

Because the white leadership of the growing movement of direct action and anti-globalization is not prioritizing anti-racist praxis, and is in fact actively working against it, recent organizing efforts inspired by the WTO are perpetuating racism. There is renewed interest in direct action as a tactic and general enthusiasm for organizing, birthed out of the energy and success of Seattle. Unfortunately, with the lack of anti-racist praxis, many potential coalitions are being overlooked or destroyed; ongoing organizing efforts in communities of color are being disrespected and devalued; white supremacy continues to hold up the systems we fight against; and we are continuing to measure the success of our actions in limited ways.

An interview with gabriel sayegh, a member of the security team at the convergence space in LA at the Democratic National Convention in August, pointed out that racism was dealt with much more intentionally in LA than in Seattle. Sayegh explained that those involved in organizing for LA were predominantly people of color. From the beginning of the planning, anti-racism was a constant focal point of local organizing. Demonstrations were planned by community organizers in communities affected by the policies they were protesting. The events of LA would have happened regardless if white people from out of town joined them or not. Therefore when white organizers descended upon LA starting in June, with the attitude that “these people don’t know how to organize a big action,” and “we know what we are doing,” the damage was massive. People of color who were once involved, refused to come to the convergence space or the spokes council meetings. Existing coalitions were delegitimized. Local leadership was alienated and devalued. An outsider/insider dynamic was created and exacerbated.

These white people from out of town left soon after the actions without evaluating or receiving feedback that would inform their next decisions. They were on their way to serve as “experts” for the next mass action, while local LA groups were left to rebuild trust within their damaged coalitions.

Similar negative results occurred in Boston as outside white people, such as the Freedom Rising affinity group, came in to “organize” the actions against the presidential debates in early October. Once again, ongoing local work by people of color was disregarded. Relationships were severed between organizers and trust was destroyed.

The stranglehold of white supremacy on “our movement” can be seen by the articles in the newspaper wrap that was distributed guerrilla style to thousands of Boston newspapers on the day of the debates. The Busted Globe (a play on the Boston Globe) included a front page article with the heading ‘Black Liberationists, NGOs, Anarchist Groups Unite.’ It included the statement that White Antelope, Judi Bari, Fred Hampton, Geronimo ji jaga Pratt, the American Indian Movement, and the Black Panther Party, had come together to join “more radical forces in calling for complete overhaul of political and economic structures.” Up until now, it stated, these organizations and people have been focusing on reform work, outdated policies, and strife amongst leadership. Geronimo Di Dagga (sic) was allegedly quoted saying, “And you know, what these anarchist brothers and sisters have been saying about decentralized, directly democratic organizing on community scale makes a lot of sense.”

This article was offensive in more ways than I can begin to say. It mocked, devalued, and disrespected movements, martyrs, and people who have lived their entire lives and died for radical social transformation. But perhaps we should be thanking the editors of the Busted Globe who have provided us with the understanding that these revolutionaries have finally realized that a bunch of white punks had all the answers all along. My god, what took them so long to get their shit together? They’ve been wasting their time for years, doing nothing radical or democratic, but they have now seen the light. Thank goodness.

The headline reads ‘unite.’ The quotes talk of unity: “United like this we have more than enough people to stop the police state’s oppression…” supposedly says AIM warrior White Antelope. This is not about unity. Just like unity is not about “we are all the same,” and “all our blood is red.” Real unity would be people actively recognizing their privilege and using it in the face of oppression and working together from a conscious place. Not this superficial and harmful kind of unity that the Busted Globe article represents.

Articles like this come about because of the relentless disregard to the race-based power structures in this country. If anti-racist praxis was valued, prioritized and practiced, we would not let articles like this get written and published. Examples of racism being perpetuated like this are endless. They will continue if white people do not take responsibility to confront racism at its roots. This post-WTO style of hopping from mass action to mass action, across the globe, cannot continue to be our only marker for success.

All across the country racism is tearing apart social justice work. We could look at this in different ways. One, as an overwhelming problem, too massive to tackle and too divisive to overcome. Or, because racism is pervasive, and these stories from across the country are so similar, we could view it as a very concrete and viable force that is in our power to destroy. Dealing head on with our whiteness, our privilege, and the supremacy we uphold, in an active and consistent way, could lead us to creating true change. And that is inspiring.

This mass action style of organizing is limiting our potential for success. We must begin to value the daily actions of interrupting racism; to look within ourselves and confront our own racism; to organize and participate in trainings and workshops to begin the process of attacking these systems of oppression; to use our access to information to support the ongoing work of organizations of color, and to organize our own communities to fight globalization and white supremacy.

The actions in Seattle offer great potential. How can we make this an authentic, diverse, truly radical movement or coalition of movements? There are white anti-racist organizers who are listening to what organizers of color have been saying for years. People are going against the grain and challenging racism. We need more white people supporting and participating in this necessary work. Until there is a commitment to anti-racist praxis in our organizing, true coalition, liberation, and victory will remain unattainable. We must take inspiration from those who struggle against racism and white supremacy, and join them in the fight.
Sonja Sivesind is an activist from Seattle, now living in Brooklyn.

Great thanks to Jennica Born, Chris Dixon, Stephanie Guilloud, and gabriel sayegh for their extensive help with this article.