Thursday, June 20, 2024

Q&A with DW Gibson




DW Gibson is the author of the new book One Week to Change the World: An Oral History of the 1999 WTO Protests. His other books include 14 Miles: Building the Border Wall. He is director of Art Omni: Writers in Ghent, New York.


Q: What inspired you to create One Week to Change the World, and how did you choose the oral history participants?


A: Many of my interests that I’ve written about in the past—labor, the health of democracy, the challenges presented by capitalism—are all knotted up in the protests at the center of this book.


The fingerprints of what happened in Seattle in 1999 [at the World Trade Organization conference protests] are all over the last 25 years. It’s where we first see the internet as an organizing tool; it’s where we first see modern occupy tactics and a militarized police force; it’s where we first see the call-and-response of the “people’s microphone.”


These are the hallmarks of protesting today, yet what happened in 1999 has been all but forgotten. Part of the drive to do this book was a sense that we were losing an important origin story.


There are many reasons for this loss but here’s an important one: for most people, talking about trade or an international, bureaucratic organization like the WTO seems cumbersome at first.


But the protests in Seattle, at their core, were about saving democracy. It was the first time that people in the U.S.— on a grand scale of 50,000—decided to push back on corporate governance and start defending the dignity and liberty of individual citizens in the face of globalization. These are issues that still resonate today.


And there’s this: What happened over the course of that rainy week in Seattle is just a damn good story, on its own terms. The action starts on the first page and never lets up.


I picked interviewees who could help me fully develop the dynamism of story and tell it from every relevant perspective – not just the protesters but city officials, law enforcement, WTO delegates, politicians, cultural critics, everyone who could bring the action to life and help us try to process what it all means decades later.  


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Titles are always difficult for me. I usually don’t come up with them until the last minute. I find it difficult to summarize a work accurately—and in a way that can simultaneously satisfy a marketing team.


In this case I have to give all the credit to my editor, Sean Manning, for coming up with the title. He’s one of the best collaborators I’ve ever worked with and he was the one who realized how perfectly this phrase—“one week to change the world”— encapsulates the energy and stakes of the WTO protests.


Q: In the book’s Author’s Note, you write, “In the end, it’s a story about saving democracy--how it’s been done in the past and how it might be done again.” Can you say more about that?

A: The media often framed (and frames) the protests in Seattle as a story about “anti-globalization,” which is not how most of the protesters I interviewed described their organizing.


They emphasized again and again that, more centrally, it was a pro-democracy movement. They were pushing back on corporations playing an outsized role in making and enforcing the rules of globalization—with civil society and individual citizens getting squeezed out of the process.


Corporate governance was the threat to democracy then and today the threat is more squarely Donald Trump. He has openly stated that he would like to govern as a dictator, floated the idea of a third term, and asked the U.S. justice system for absolute immunity.


These are two distinct threats to democracy—Donald Trump and corporate governance—but they share a strong connection.


There’s a reason why so many CEOs, hedge fund managers, and Silicon Valley all-stars have rallied around Trump’s candidacy. They are willing to embrace his authoritarian approach in exchange for normalizing and furthering corporate governance.


It creates the perfect framework for a totalitarian state that runs entirely on capitalism. Once a country arrives at that point, who needs democracy?


While every protest movement exists in its own context, Seattle does offer something of a playbook for how to envision and execute a successful protest today. In 1999, the protesters set a goal (shut down the WTO meetings) and they met that goal. How often does that happen? The story of Seattle provides a road map for activists today, a clear model of effective, nonviolent civil disobedience.  


Q: What impact did it have on you to write this book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: I came to realize just how much work and community is required for a successful protest. I think everyone can recognize the importance of those two elements: working hard for something that gets you fired up, and connecting with others with whom you can relate, with whom you can work side-by-side—what could be more meaningful than that?


The place in Seattle where so many months of organizing and planning took place was a giant warehouse that some of the protesters had rented out. They called it the “Convergence Center.”


It was the perfect name to describe how the space was used. It was a place to find tools and training, comradery and ideas, food and rest.  It was a place for people to come together.


As one organizer pointed out to me, the protesters were trying to establish a culture of care. They cared about democracy and they cared about each other. I think we can do that today. I hope readers come away with that perception—maybe even a willingness to roll up their sleeves.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: There are so many stories related to these protests that I hope to tell:  the radical farmer activists from the 1970s and ‘80s who contributed to the action in Seattle; the role of culture—music, theater, poetry—in protesting; the ways in which we’ve accelerated the militarization of our police departments; the role of the internet in organizing.


These are all stories that I want to explore as I keep dissecting the outcomes from Seattle and how they reverberate today.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: One of the most important things I learned while working on this book is that a protest movement cannot have any meaningful effect without nonviolent, tactically-minded civil disobedience. It’s a must.


Equally important is the ability of a movement to build the biggest possible coalition. This is one of the most significant challenges of our current circumstances where so many interest groups are siloed, inclined toward administering purity tests before embracing any collaborators.


In Seattle, people like Tom Hayden and Sherrod Brown were there but so was Pat Buchanan. Did Sherrod Brown and Pat Buchanan agree on many policies? No! Probably few, if any.


But they both realized that if democracy was not preserved there would be no opportunity to have the policy fights they wanted to have. And so they came together in a Left-Right coalition that is nearly unthinkable today.


We have to allow our imaginations to make it thinkable. If we’re going to stop corporate governance and authoritarian rule, if we’re going to demand that government check the abuses of capitalism, it will require the kind of inclusivity we saw in Seattle. Only that kind of big tent coalition will have the muscle to overcome the current threats to our democracy.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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