Destructive Behavior in Seattle's WTO Protests

By Anne Walsh, Cori Zagarell, and Joe Chifari

The most notorius group of protesters that emerged from the many who gathered at the WTO demonstration in Seattle were those who engaged in direct violent action. This violent actions included the smashing of shop windows, spray-painting, and general property damage. A group of 20-75 (taken from various estimates) anarchists primarily from the Eugene area were the primary members of the "black block" that initiated and caused most of the damage to specific Seattle merchants. While these anarchists have caused the most sensation in the press, anarchist internet sources are quick to point out that over 4,000 anarchists from all over the country and intenationally participated in the WTO protest. The majority of them did not engage in violent action.

Overview of Anarchism:

According to the anarchist-based website, "Frequently Asked Questions:A1," anarchism is a "political theory whcih aims to create a society within which individuals freely co-operate together as equals." Anarchists reject state or capitalist controls through their philiosophy that places a high priority on liberty, equality, individualism, and solidarity. They do not have a stake in the system. The anarchist community (locally, nationally, and internationally) is very close knit and supportive, which helps to lower the costs of participation in violent actions for individuals.

Rational Choice Theory applied to Destructive Groups:

According to Rational Choice Theory, a strong leader or a "revolutionary entrepreneur" can help lessen the costs of collective activity. These leaders, while risking much, may stand to gain much from their activities. Similarly, entrepreneurs can organize groups, make actors feel more efficacious, and manipulate incomplete information. In the case of those Anarchists involved in destructive activities during the protests, there certainly was a large level of revolutionary entrepreneurship. Anarchists may be anti-governmental organization but they are by no means anti organization. The anarchists involved in destructive activity were well organized. Their plans were precisely planned and executed. As police were busy watching the mass of WTO protestors, Anarchists took to the Black Bloc virtually unnoticed. Such organization diminished costs to almost nil, as those who participated in the destruction were able to act and integrate themselves back into the mass of other WTO protestors.

Rational Choice Theory also predicts that actors will only participate in collective action if they not only feel their benefits will outweigh their costs but that their participation will somehow increase the group's chances of success. Such conditions were created after the relative success of the June 18th riots in Eugene. There, Anarchists hijacked an anti-sweatshop demonstration and began to engage in destructive behavior similar to that which took place at the WTO protests. Of the 200 actors who participated in vandalizing, breaking windows, and jumping on cars, only 20 were arrested. One upscale place of business, the Blair Island Cafe, shut down shortly after, leading Anarchists to declare the event a victory. Shortly after, an article appeared in the Anarchist zine, The Black Clad Messenger, stating:

[Protesters] took it upon themselves to engage in an offensive attack against capitalist domination of humans and nature...The unity and cohesion of the marchers, and their feral embrace made them unstoppable by local authorities. source: Seattle Weekly.

In this way, revolutionary entrepreneurs (in this case, the zine) helped propagate the sentiment that not only would actors participating in destructive acts not be caught but that their actions would lead to the success of the Anarchist cause. Such beliefs lower the costs of this type of action.

Destructive Anarchists also lowered their costs of acting by piggybacking the WTO protests. Essentially, the WTO protests provided an already organized venue with high visibility. Anarchists advocating property damage were able to inject themselves into an internationally recognized protest where news of their actions would be recorded and disseminated around the nation, if not the world. All they had to do was show up and commence action as they saw fit.

Anarchist leaders also promoted mobilization by providing instructive information. Items, such as the Anarchists' Survival Kit, which show destructive actors how confront tear-gas and when to run from police, helped lower the costs of actors because it diminished their risks not only of getting caught but of injury.

 

(General sources and links: www.infoshop.org, www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/1931/secA2.html, www.lbbs.org/anarchynv.htm)