By Medea Benjamin

THERE HAS BEEN SOME controversy about a quote from me that appeared in the New York Times Dec. 2. The quotation implied that I was calling for the arrest of those people who destroyed property in downtown Seattle during the WTO protest. I want to make it clear that the quote was distorted, taken out of context, and not reflective my true feelings. I did not call for the arrest of anyone, though I did point out the irony that the police were attacking nonviolent protesters while ignoring those destroying property. Do I wish the people causing the damage had been arrested? No. Would I have helped to get them out of jail if they had been? Yes. And I certainly apologize if the statement attributed to me has caused any harm to the anarchist community in general.

Do I approve of the tactics that this particular group of self-described anarchists used in Seattle Nov. 30? Definitely not. That, not the distorted quote, is the real issue here. There are certainly occasions in which the destruction of property furthers the cause of social justice and helps garner public support, but this was not one of them. The Boston Tea Party is an example of the destruction of property a shipment of tea. When the Zapatistas rose up in 1994, they destroyed army posts and other symbols of a repressive state. Members of the religious community in the United States have destroyed weapons of mass destruction to express their profound moral opposition to war. And forest activists have destroyed the engines of bulldozers to prevent the clear-cutting of old-growth forests.

The list of tactically thoughtful and politically principled property destruction goes on and on. What these acts have in common is that they were the result of a long process of working with and gaining the support of the affected community. This was not the case in Seattle.

The nonviolent part of the WTO protest was the culmination of a complex process of coalition building by organizations that did not initially know or trust each other. As we debated strategies for confronting the WTO, we began to win mutual trust and respect. We finally agreed, through a collective and democratic process, that the banner that united the scores of organizations and thousands of individuals was a strict commitment to nonviolence, defined to include no property destruction.

After that collaborative and democratic process, a small number of protesters who had boycotted those meetings took it upon themselves to break that solidarity. In the most sectarian way, they put their small numbers up against a mass movement. We think it was totally unfair for a small, unrepresentative group to use a massive, peaceful protest as a venue for destructive actions that went against the wishes of the vast majority of protesters. We are far less concerned about the glass that they broke than about the sense of collective unity that they attempted but failed to shatter.

Some people say it was the window-smashing that made the protest a hot media story. I completely disagree. It was the nonviolent protest that stopped the WTO meeting in its tracks, and that was the big news. Many of the protest organizers were on national news shows talking about the real issue the undemocratic, dangerous nature of the WTO until the window-smashing diverted the media's attention. Subsequent stories about the "anarchists" diluted our message and, worse, tended to justify the police riot by giving the impression that the police were reacting to the property destruction.

This was not what really happened on the streets since the attacks on peaceful protesters started before stores were targeted but the perception of "violent protesters, violent cops" remains.

Changing the structure and rules of the global economy will require a mass movement based on messages of compassion, justice, and equality, as well as collaborative and democratic processes. And while it is crucial to debate tactics, it is the struggle against the WTO and its corporate beneficiaries not internal struggles that should command our greatest attention, commitment, and passion. If we stay positive, inclusive, and democratic, we have a truly historic opportunity to build a global movement for social justice.


Medea Benjamin is executive director of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that fights for fair trade.