The Global Justice Movement

Liz Highleyman

In: Encyclopedia of American Social Movements, edited by Immanuel Ness, Verso, forthcoming.


The global justice movement is the largest and most diverse social change movement in existence today, bringing tens of thousands of activists into the streets worldwide since the turn of the millennium. United in its opposition to economic neoliberalism and the increasing power and influence of corporate capitalism, its tagets include the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO), international governmental bodies, and major transnational corporations. Among the issues of concern are worker's rights, developing country debt, environmental degradation, food security, and privatization of services such as water, education, and health care.

The beginning of the global justice movement is often traced to the emergence of the Zapatistas (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional) in January 1994. The Zapatistas held two large global encounters, one of which gave rise to the People's Global Action Against Free Trade (PGA) network, which called for worldwide days of action. The first global justice protest to gain widespread publicity in the United States was against the WTO in Seattle in November 1999. The following two years saw major protests in cities including Washington, DC; Melbourne, Australia; Prague, Czechoslovakia; Quebec City, Canada; Barcelona, Spain; Gothenburg, Sweden; and Genoa, Italy.

The global justice movement is comprised of a wide variety of individuals and groups, including non-governmental organizations, environmental coalitions, religious groups, issue-specific groups, direct action coalitions, student groups, and organized labor. People of all ages, genders, sexualities, races, and nationalities are involved, although in the United States the movement remains largely white and young. The more militant element is represented by the "black bloc" and the white overalls, while pagans and artists add a spiritual and creative element.

Although street fighting and property destruction have often been highlighted by the media, more representative tactics include street festivals, lockdowns, blockades, and other forms of direct action. Although large marches often occur, many activists have come to prefer more decentralized protests that allow for more direct participation. Decentralization and direct decision-making, in fact, are key features of the movement, which does not recognize overall movement-wide leaders or adhere to a single political philosophy. To organize autonomous individuals and groups, activists often rely on small affinity groups, which come together to coordinate their actions in spokescouncils that operate on a consensus basis. The movement has developed an infrastructure to provide nonviolence training, food and housing, first aid, and legal support for activists. Another prominent feature of the movement is its use of technology to provide global networking and communications. Eschewing the biases of the corporate media, many activists have themselves learned to make and disseminate news, creating a network of Independent Media Centers in cities worldwide.

Today, the global justice movement is in a state of flux. While it succeeded in putting international institutions such as the IMF and the WTO on the front pages, terrorism and war have forced activists to retrench and reassess. Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, many pundits predicted the demise of the global justice movement, but their pronouncements have so far proven premature. From late 2001 through the middle of 2003, many global justice proponents shifted their focus to antiwar activism, using existing infrastructure and global networks to build a movement in opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the likes of which took years to coalesce in the Vietnam era.

Given its size and diversity, the global justice movement faces several areas of contention: the need for local, community-based activism versus large mass protests, the role of traditional nonviolence versus tactics such as property destruction, the role of the government and electoral politics, the prospects for a kinder and gentler capitalism, and the usefulness of reform versus more revolutionary change. As its visibility and influence has grown, the movement has faced increasing challenges including a rising level of state repression and police violence, more stringent laws justified by national security concerns, an influx of new activists with more diverse politics as the movement has focused on war, and a shift toward more conservative public opinion.

With major military action in Iraq completed, many global justice activists are eager to return to multi-issue local and global activism that sees military intervention as just one aspect of a larger system of social, economic, and environmental injustice that can only be overcome when people gain real control over their governments and their lives. Today, the movement's primary challenge is not only envisioning a more just and democratic world, but also articulating that vision and devising a credible strategy for attaining it.

What are the Issues?

What ties the various strands of the global justice movement together is opposition to economic neoliberalism and the increasing power and influence of corporate capitalism. Primary targets include global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO), as well as international trade agreements, governmental bodies, and major transnational corporations.

These global financial institutions provide an ideal impetus to bring together many different activists. In promoting free trade at all costs, they run roughshod over national and local laws regulating consumer safety, workers' rights, and environmental protection. In advocating for the free movement of capital and goods-but not of workers or consumers-they encourage corporations to shift production to poor countries, thus impoverishing workers in the developing world while undermining labor conditions in developed nations. With their structural adjustment programs (SAPs), they impose cutbacks in health care, education, and other social services. In addition, the institutions are undemocratic, with decisions made by an elite minority rather than those who are most directly affected.

Founded in 1944, the IMF and the World Bank were created to promote global development. Yet critics claim the institutions have not lived up to their promise and have in fact worsened poverty and increased economic inequality. Global justice advocates are concerned with the crushing debt owed by poor countries, claiming that local resources should be used to improve local conditions rather than sent out of the country to service debt; many countries pay more in interest on debt than they do on health or education. In addition, critics charge that the IMF and World Bank encourage environmentally destructive projects such as dams and mining.

The World Trade Organization was formed in 1995 as an outgrowth of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Through its dispute resolution process, the WTO imposes sanctions on countries that limit free trade. WTO rules forbid trade preferences that discriminate on the basis of manner of production or protective regulations. For example, the WTO has ruled against a U.S. law mandating the use of sea turtle exclusion devices in shrimp nets, a Massachusetts law banning state transactions with the dictatorial regime of Myanmar (Burma), and European countries' refusal to import hormone-treated U.S. beef.

Global justice activists also oppose international trade agreements that favor corporate profits over the needs of people. A major target is the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), an impending agreement that will extend the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to all of Central and South America. Critics contend that such agreements encourage corporations to move production to countries with few protections for workers and the environment, thus engendering a global "race to the bottom."

Opponents have been particularly critical of intellectual property rules such as the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) provisions, which allow the patenting of indigenous plants and limit the availability of generic medications for people in poor countries. Activists also oppose the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS), which they contend will require the privatization of public services such as health care and education.

Global justice activists have also targeted international governmental bodies such as the European Union (EU) and the G8, made up of the world's wealthiest industrial countries plus Russia. Private institutions such as the World Economic Forum- (WEF)-a gathering of government leaders and corporate heads-have also come under fire. Transnational corporations have also been major movement targets, among them agricultural giants Cargill and Monsanto, oil companies [ADD: Chevron,] Exxon and Occidental Petroleum (for its attempts to drill on the lands of the indigenous U'wa people in Columbia), Nike (for producing shoes manufactured in sweatshops), the Gap (for connections to sweatshops and logging), McDonalds (for poor labor practices and more generally as a ubiquitous representative of American cultural imperialism), Starbucks (for pushing out local merchants and selling non-fair trade coffee), and Citibank (for involvement in numerous environmentally destructive projects).

Food security is an issue that unites many global justice activists. Activists are concerned about SAPs that pressure developing countries to grow crops for export instead of for local consumption, the "biopiracy" or patenting of plants and seed varieties, and trade agreements that require countries to accept genetically modified foods. The right to water is also becoming an increasingly important issue, as exemplified by construction giant Bechtel's 1999 attempt to privatize the water system in Cochabamba, Bolivia-a move thwarted by a popular uprising after water rates increased by as much as 200-300 percent.

Although the movement has often been characterized as being "antiglobalization," this is a misnomer. The global justice movement is built on international networking and cooperation. What it seeks is global democracy-"globalization from below"-rather than corporate globalization.

A Brief History

The global justice movement burst into public consciousness in the United States with the November 1999 protests against the WTO in Seattle. An estimated 50,000 protesters turned out for the "Battle of Seattle," which became known for its "Teamsters and turtles" labor/environmentalist alliance-and also for the massive use of tear gas by police and the property destruction carried out by a small number of black bloc activists.

But the movement did not start in 1999. Protests against transnational financial institutions, trade agreements, and corporations took place in the global south (Central and South America, Africa and Asia) and Europe for many years prior to Seattle. While most of the protests in developing countries never received much U.S. media attention, a protest against the IMF in Berlin in 1988 rallied tens of thousands of demonstrators, offering a sign of what was to come. The genesis of the current wave of global justice activism is often traced to the Zapatistas, a band of revolutionaries in Chiapas, Mexico, who announced their presence on January 1, 1994, the date of the implementation of NAFTA. The media-savvy Zapatistas successfully brought international public attention to the negative effects of neoliberal economic policies. In 1996 and 1997 the Zapatistas convened two large encuentros-"Encounters for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism"-that brought together activists from around the world to discuss how to resist detrimental global economic changes (Zapatistas 1998).

A network known as People's Global Action Against Free Trade and the WTO (PGA) was born in Geneva in 1998 as an outgrowth of the second encuentro. The group called for the first global day of action against the WTO in May 1998. While police and activists battled in the WTO's home city of Geneva and hundreds of thousands protested in developing countries, U.S. awareness and participation was minimal. But by the following year, the issue of corporate globalization had attracted increasing attention. PGA's second global day of action on June 18- J18 -coincided with a meeting of the G8. Protests took place in over 100 cities, including several in the United States. In August 1999 PGA met in Bangalore, India, to plan for the next global day of action: N30. In addition to actions against the WTO meeting in Seattle, protests were held throughout the world including India, the Philippines, and Argentina (Kaufman, in Shepard and Hayduk 2002).

Following the "Battle of Seattle," other protests came fast and furious. Some of the major actions included demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank in Washington, DC, in April 2000 (A16); protests coinciding with the Republican and Democratic conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles in the summer of 2000; demonstrations against the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Melbourne, Australia, in September 2000 (S11); protests against the IMF in Prague in September 2000 (S26); demonstrations against a new EU treaty in Nice, France, in December 2000; and actions protesting the FTAA in Quebec City in April 2001. The summer of 2001 saw a series of protests in Europe that included demonstrations coinciding with an EU meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden, in June; protests against a World Bank meeting (which was cancelled) in Barcelona, also in June; actions against the WEF in Salzburg, Austria, in July; and massive protests against the G8 in Genoa, Italy, in July.

The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon dealt a major blow to the burgeoning movement. The IMF cancelled its meeting scheduled for Washington, DC, in late September, and many activists in turn called off their planned protests. Nevertheless, actions have continued, with a protest against the WEF in New York City in February 2002, a large demonstration against the EU in Barcelona in March 2002, actions against the G8 in Canada in June 2002, and another round of IMF/World Bank demonstrations in Washington, DC, in September 2002.

Who's Involved?

The global justice movement has brought together a wide range of constituencies, loosely referred to as "civil society." The diversity of the 1999 Seattle protests led Ralph Nader to claim, "There's never been an event in American history that has brought together so many disparate groups."

Civil Society

Many of the earliest groups to organize against economic neoliberalism were non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially those active in the global south. Some of the major participating U.S. NGOs include the Global Trade Watch division of Public Citizen, which played a major role in planning the Seattle protests; 50 Years is Enough (the U.S. Network for Global Economic Justice); the Jubilee Network--possibly the first multinational effort in the developed world to focus on economic justice--which works for debt cancellation for poor countries; United for a Fair Economy; the antipoverty group Oxfam; CorpWatch; and Global Exchange, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting environmental, political, and social justice.

Groups associated with specific issues have also played a key role in the movement. A small sampling includes the environmental groups Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club; and Health Global Access Project (Health GAP) and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which work to make health care-in particular AIDS drugs-accessible in poor countries. International groups are legion, including the Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) in Brazil and the French group ATTAC, which advocates for a Tobin tax on capital gains from currency transactions.

For many activists, global justice work is grounded in their religious or spiritual beliefs. The Jubilee debt relief movement has strong religious associations. Numerous churches and synagogues have provided a base for teach-ins, activist housing, and other support.

While the global justice movement does not have an overall leader, several people have become well known as organizers, commentators, or spokespersons including Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South, Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, French farmer Jose Bovi, Global Trade Watch organizer Mike Dolan, Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange, Susan George of ATTAC, anarchist author and activist David Graeber, No Logo author Naomi Klein, Cindy Milstein of the Institute for Social Ecology, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, agitator Michael Moore (not to be confused with the WTO director-general of the same name), webmaster Chuck Munson, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, John Sellers of the Ruckus Society, David Solnit of Art and Revolution, Indian scientist and author Dr. Vandana Shiva, anticapitalist activist Jaggi Singh, pagan organizer and author Starhawk, Alli Starr of Art and Revolution, and Lori Wallach of Global Trade Watch.


Organized labor has played an interesting role in the global justice movement. Labor was very active in the 1999 Seattle protests, mobilizing an estimated 40,000 participants. Although union leaders diverted their march away from the downtown street actions, many workers ignored their orders and joined anyway. Seattle saw the birth of the widely heralded "Teamsters and turtles" alliance, bringing together labor and environmental activists who had previously been at odds because environmental regulations were believed to cost jobs. Organized labor recognized that international trade agreements such as NAFTA and FTAA pitted North American workers against workers in poor countries as jobs were exported to nations with low wages and few protective regulations.

Labor groups that have been active in the movement include Jobs with Justice; the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; the United Steelworkers of America; the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE); Service Employees International Union (SEIU); the United Auto Workers; the Canadian Auto Workers; and the International Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies). Some critics contend that labor largely supports national protectionist measures and is not truly supportive of a broader progressive agenda. During the Clinton administration, organized labor was hesitant to be too critical of Democratic trade policies. Particularly after September 11 and during the war in Iraq, with the resulting upsurge in patriotism, mainstream organized labor has played a less active role in the movement.


Various coalitions have developed as umbrella groups to coordinate large protests. The Direct Action Network (DAN) was formed to organize direct action in Seattle. The Mobilization for Global Justice (MGJ) coordinated several protests against the IMF and World Bank in their headquarter city of Washington, DC. Another World is Possible (AWIP) formed to plan the February 2002 protests against the WEF in New York City. At several protests beginning with Quebec City, many of the more militant factions of the movement have come together under the banner of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence (ACC).


The global justice movement has been characterized as a movement of young people, and indeed students and youth are well represented. Student anti-sweatshop organizers such as United Students Against Sweatshops have conducted successful campaigns to mandate better wages and improved conditions for workers who produce university logo clothing. Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations (STARC) is another active group. Yet despite its media portrayal, the movement is quite diverse in terms of age. Many veterans of the Vietnam war protests of the 1960s and 1970s, and the antinuclear, Central America, antiapartheid, prochoice, and AIDS activist movements of the ensuing years remain active. The Raging Grannies, a group of women "of a certain age," have been popular participants at several actions.

Women across the world are heavily impacted by economic neoliberalism, and they play a major role in the global justice movement. Women are well represented among both the movement's well-known organizers and spokespeople and among the "rank-and-file"-especially on an international level.

People of color also bear the brunt of corporate globalization. People of color from the global south make up a majority of the international movement, but the global justice movement in the United States remains largely white. This likely stems from several factors, including the fact that people of color may have more pressing local concerns, a lack of resources to travel to national actions, a justified concern that they are more likely to be the targets of police repression (especially true of immigrants), and a "culture clash" between people of color and white punk and hippie activists. The dearth of participation by people of color was analyzed by Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez's in her widely circulated essay "Where was the Color in Seattle" (Martinez, in Danaher and Burbach 2000). Given that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists played a major role in the movements of the 1980s and 1990s-including ACT UP, Queer Nation, and the Lesbian Avengers-it is perhaps surprising that there is not a more visible queer presence in the global justice movement. While there are many queer participants-including several key organizers and spokespeople-self-identified queer groups are underrepresented (Highleyman, in Shepard and Hayduk 2002). On the whole, the global justice movement represents a major shift away from the "identity politics" of the 1980s and 1990s. The movement has provided an opportunity for people of diverse identities to come together on the basis of shared issues and concerns.

The Militants

The black bloc has been a major focus of the mainstream media and the police. The black bloc is a tactic, not a specific group of individuals. Made up mostly of anarchists and other antiauthoritarians, participants wear black clothing and masks and march in tight formation as an expression of anonymity and solidarity. In Seattle a group of black-clad protesters broke the windows of several banks and corporations, marked buildings with graffiti, and lit dumpsters on fire. In Quebec City the black bloc took the lead in tearing down the fence erected around the FTAA ministers' meeting and engaged in street fighting with the police. The actions of the black bloc have spurred considerable debate within the movement. However, at many North American protests the black bloc has carried out other forms of direct action with minimal or no property destruction.

The white overalls-also known as tute bianche in Italy, the WOMBLES in Britain, and Ya Basta!-are another segment of movement militants. These activists typically wear white jumpsuits, helmets, and body padding, and often carry shields. Their aim is not to fight with police, but rather to protect themselves as they attempt to push through police barricades to reach their target. The black bloc and white overalls both originated in Europe, and these tactics have been more widely adopted on the continent than in the United States. Protests against international financial institutions and government bodies in Europe during the summer of 2001 drew substantial black bloc and white overall participation. In Genoa considerable property destruction was carried out by black-clad rioters. Much of this activity (such as burning private cars) was uncharacteristic the black bloc, leading many to suspect that police infiltrators and neofascists were using black bloc garb as a cover. Anarchists have played a major role in the global justice movement. By no means are all anarchist activists associated with the black bloc. Anarchist influence is also apparent in the decentralized, leaderless organizing that has characterized all of the large national and international protests. After September 11, several of the more mainstream NGOs opted to forego large actions, leaving the planning and logistics increasingly in the hands of anarchist activists. Interestingly, the cadre socialist and communist groups that many people most associate with left-wing activism-such as the International Socialist Organization, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and the Workers World Party/International Action Center-played a minor role in Seattle and in other early global justice protests, although they have since become more active, especially the antiwar movement.

Pagans, Puppets, and Pink Blocs

Global justice activists have pioneered several new and creative tactics. Among the most notable is Reclaim the Streets (RTS), which grew out of the rave scene and campaigns against road construction in England in the early 1990s. RTS aims to reclaim public space, often filling it with music and dancing to create temporary autonomous zones. RTS played a key role in organizing the 1999 J18 actions and has since been active at most large protests in North America and Europe.

Pagan and Wiccan activists have also been key participants in the movement. Utilizing magical activism, ritual, and creative tactics such as large public spiral dances, pagans have introduced an element of calm resolve to many protests. With their reverence for nature, some pagan activists have taken a special interest in opposing water privatization.

A highly visible feature of many recent protests is the huge puppets representing everything from corporate criminals to Mother Earth. Groups such as Art and Revolution and Bread and Puppet bring their artistic talents to large actions, often coordinating puppet-making workshops. Street theater is an important element, as exemplified by Billionaires for Bush (or Gore). At the Quebec City protest a "medieval bloc" created a large wheeled catapult used to loft stuffed animals over the fence erected by police. Puppets, pagans, samba bands, radical cheerleaders, and others have taken to forming pink blocs at large actions, beginning with Prague in September 2000.

What is it Like?

Creative Tactics

Beyond the street fighting and property destruction highlighted by the mainstream media, the global justice movement is perhaps best known for using blockades and lockdowns to disrupt meetings of financial institutions and government bodies. Actions are often characterized by a festive atmosphere-several have been billed as a "Carnival against Capitalism"-as activists try to create on a small scale the world they desire. As Starhawk (2002) described the Seattle protests, "The action included art, dance, celebration, song, ritual, and magic. It was more than a protest; it was an uprising of a vision of true abundance, a celebration of life and creativity and connection, that remained joyful in the face of brutality and brought alive the creative forces that can truly counter those of injustice and control." Humor, satire, and "culture jamming" are prominent features. In addition, major actions typically include a myriad of teach-ins, people's assemblies, concerts, and other gathering.

Activists have moved away from mass arrest scenarios in which protesters sit or lie down near a strategic target and are voluntarily arrested with the goal of clogging the prisons or the courts. Most urban police forces are now able to handle large groups of arrestees and the tactic has lost much of its effectiveness. Yet mass arrests do still occur, sometimes inadvertently. Activists have devised strategies of jail and court solidarity, using tactics such as hunger strikes or refusal to give their names in order to press demands such as access to lawyers, medical attention, or equal charges for everyone arrested.

As described by anarchist activist David Graeber (2002), "Where once it seemed that the only alternatives to marching along with signs were either Gandhian non-violent civil disobedience or outright insurrection, groups like the Direct Action Network, Reclaim the Streets, black blocs, and tute bianche have all, in their own ways, been trying to map out a completely new territory in between. They're attempting to invent what many call a 'new language' of civil disobedience, combining elements of street theatre, festival, and what can only be called non-violent warfare."


The global justice movement prides itself on its grassroots, decentralized structure. One of its distinguishing features is the lack of any overall leaders along the lines of a Martin Luther King. The movement derives its strength from the concerted efforts of multiple autonomous individuals and affinity groups. As Starhawk (2002) described the Seattle actions, "leadership was invested in the group as a whole. People were empowered to make their own decisions, and the centralized structures were for coordination, not control. As a result, we had great flexibility and resilience, and many people were inspired to acts of courage they could never have been ordered to do."

The key element in the coordination of mass actions is the affinity group, a small collection of about five to twenty individuals who typically know and trust each other and share common politics and goals. Affinity groups, in turn, may be organized into "clusters" that work together to carry out a particular action. For example, during the Seattle protest the area surrounding the convention center where the WTO meeting was to take place was divided into thirteen "pie wedges," with different affinity group clusters taking responsibility for blockading the various sectors.

When coordinating a large protest, affinity group representatives typically meet in a spokescouncil to devise a plan of action. These representatives (called "spokes") are empowered to speak on behalf of their affinity group. The spokescouncil process allows affinity groups to remain autonomous-and often anonymous. Once an action begins, affinity groups may decide collectively whether and when to alter their strategy or end their participation.

Spokescouncils typically operate using a consensus-based process, which borrows heavily from feminist and anarchist principles. Rather than relying on voting, the goal of consensus is to come up with a decision that is acceptable to everyone. Proposals are put forth by a facilitator and participants express their concerns, often putting forth "friendly amendments." Participants can choose to "stand aside" and let a proposal go forward even if they do not completely agree with it. However, if any participant has a major, principled objection, he or she can "block" the consensus.


The global justice movement has put considerable effort into developing a supportive infrastructure. Before large actions trainings are typically held to teach activists about non-violence, direct action techniques, first aid, legal issues, and jail solidarity. The Ruckus Society, formed in 1995, is devoted to training activists in skills ranging from how to scale a building for a banner-hang to how to design an effective web site. During large actions a "convergence center" is often set up where activists can gather to collect information about events and make puppets, signs, and other visuals. Groups such as Food Not Bombs and Seeds for Peace may provide food for all participants.

Beginning in Seattle, street medics-who range from people with basic first aid training to emergency medical technicians to herbalists to medical doctors--have provided medical care for activists. Usually marked with red crosses, the medics have developed techniques for treating exposure to tear gas and pepper spray, and often set up clinics near protest sites to deal with more serious injuries. Large actions typically also have legal groups, such as the Just Cause Law Collective and the Midnight Special Law Collective, to provide support and advice for arrested and jailed activists. Volunteers lawyers and law students may provide pre-action trainings and representation in court. Volunteer legal observers-often under the auspices of the National Lawyers Guild-watch for police abuse of protesters.

Communications and Independent Media

Far from being "antiglobalization," the movement's strength lies in its global networking and mastery of the means of communication. Such networking has been greatly facilitated by the use of modern tools such as cell phones and the Internet. Despite their lack of military might, the pioneering Zapatistas were able to capture worldwide attention through their use of the Internet. In addition to using e-mail and the web to plan and coordinate every aspect of large actions, "hacktivists" sympathetic to the cause also use the Internet to conduct cyber-actions such as e-mail "zaps" and "cyber-sit-ins" of corporate web sites.

The movement has learned to "play to the media" with eye-catching visuals, sound bites, and well-staged photo opportunities-techniques pioneered by media-savvy activists such as ACT UP. This phenomenon is not without controversy. Some oppose the focus on the "spectacle," complaining that despite activists' best efforts the mainstream media will always simplify the issues and focus on the most dramatic aspects of a protest such as street fighting, tear gas, and property destruction.

In response, global justice activists have created their own media. The Independent Media Center (IndyMedia) was born out of the Seattle protests and local chapters have since cropped up throughout the United States and the world. Taking advantage of increasingly available and affordable technologies such as video and digital photography, media activists rapidly convey the protesters' message from the teach-ins and the streets to the Internet, print, radio, and public access television.

What are the Conflicts?

The global justice movement faces several conflicts. After Seattle some were concerned about right-wing activists who appeared to embrace their cause. Former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, for example, has spoken against international trade agreements and the usurpation of national power by global financial institutions. Most global justice activists are aware that the right does not share their values of inclusiveness and global democracy, and remain wary of alliances with conservatives. Other points of contention involve the role of NGO funding and its influence on the movement's agenda and the benefits and drawbacks of electoral politics-an issue that came to the fore when Nader ran for president as the Green Party candidate, which many believe contributed to the election of George W. Bush.


The most contentious issue facing global justice activists is often couched in terms of violence versus nonviolence, but this is not really an accurate characterization. No one in the movement advocates harming people. The real crux of the debate concerns property destruction, and to a lesser extent fighting with the police.

During the "Battle of Seattle" window-smashing by a small group of activists became a major focus of mainstream media coverage, unleashing a flood of criticism from both within and outside the movement. Before the actions, activists working with DAN had agreed to a code of conduct that included no violence, physical or verbal, toward any person and no property destruction. Movement critics of the vandalism claimed that the decision was made democratically and those who engaged in property destruction were therefore violating the common consensus. But not all participants had agreed to the guidelines, and some claimed that their efforts to critique the guidelines prior to the action had been rebuffed. On the streets some nonviolence advocates protected corporate storefronts and tried to physically restrain the window-breakers or have them arrested. Several, including Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, strongly denounced the vandalism in the press in the months to follow.

Some nonviolence advocates come out of a long tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience in the Ghandian model with strong religious or spiritual roots. They believe that engaging in violence of any sort causes activists to lose their moral integrity by resorting to the tactics of the authorities. Others look at nonviolence more from a strategic viewpoint. They claim that property destruction and battles with the police divert media attention from the issues at hand, and that the mayhem costs the movement popular support and discourages new people from taking part. According to Benjamin after Seattle, "It was the nonviolent protest that stopped the WTO meeting in its tracks, and that was the big newsuntil the window-smashing diverted the media's attention."

Proponents of property destruction hold that only harm to people, not property, should be considered "violence." Some believe that property destruction is necessary to "break the spell" of reverence for property over people: "When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights" (ACME Collective, in Yuen 2002). Most oppose vandalism against small shops, homes, and so on, instead directing their wrath at banks, oil companies, chain stores, fast food outlets, and other "corporate criminals." They contend that property destruction pales in comparison to the violence committed by corporations and governments every day. They further claim the right to defend themselves when attacked by the police. Here, too, others take a strategic perspective. They claim that militant action inspires people to join the movement, and point out that no matter how many tens of thousands of people attend a peaceful demonstration, the mainstream media pays little attention in the absence of property destruction and police battles. In the words of anarchist activist Warcry, "I don't think Seattle would be on the map if it weren't for the catalyzing level of rage that was made visible through property destruction" (Kaplan 2002).

After Seattle proponents of nonviolence and advocates of property destruction seemed to be hopelessly at odds, but in the ensuing years many activists have sought a "middle ground." Both sides agree that the worst violence comes from the police, not the protesters. Many activists who generally support nonviolence feel that destruction of barriers used to control protesters and prevent them from communicating their message is justified. In Quebec City the high fence erected around a large part of the city where FTAA ministers were meeting became the focus of outrage and protesters of all stripes helped or supported those who tried to tear it down. "I thought people would only come to a mass action if it had clear nonviolence guidelines, but people came to Quebec City anyway," writes Starhawk (2002). "I thought high levels of confrontation would lose us popular support, but we had the strongest support ever from the local people. I thought people new to direct action would be terrified by the level of conflict we experienced. But by the second day, more people were ready to go to the wall. By the third day, they were demanding better gas masks."

The Quebec City actions were the first at which the principle of "diversity of tactics" was embraced-the understanding that all protesters can carry out the type of actions they feel are most appropriate, as long as they do not impinge on other activists. Quebec City also saw the introduction of the idea of protest "zones": red for front-line actions likely to result in police confrontation and arrest; yellow for traditional civil disobedience; green for peaceful, permitted actions away from the front lines.

In Europe in the summer of 2001, a dramatically escalated level of police violence led many to reevaluate movement tactics. At the EU summit in Gothenburg a protester was non-fatally shot by police, allegedly for throwing a rock. At the G8 actions in Genoa on July 20, a 23-year-old protester named Carlo Giuliani was shot and killed by an even younger policeman in a jeep, allegedly for attempting to throw a fire extinguisher at the police vehicle. The next night nearly 100 sleeping activists were brutally beaten by Italian police at a school used for housing by the Genoa Social Forum, leaving the walls covered in blood and the floor littered with teeth. Police claimed the assaulted activist were associated with the black bloc, which had carried out vandalism during the day. Clearly, the stakes had risen for all protesters, whether or not they personally engaged in property destruction. Genoa also made clear the risk of infiltration, especially of the black bloc, by agents provacateur.

While diversity of tactics has been adopted at several protests since Quebec City, many activists-including black bloc'ers-pulled back from confrontational actions after September 11, and some NGOs have declined to participate in protests unless complete nonviolence can be assured.

Reform versus Revolution

Some activists aim to reform corporations and global financial institutions such as the IMF and WTO, making them more open and more responsive to concerns such as workers' rights and the environment. For example, reform-minded activists may call for the World Bank to cancel poor countries' debt or demand voluntary codes of conduct for overseas manufacturers to ameliorate sweatshop conditions. A prominent slogan of the Seattle protests was "Fix it or nix it," implying that changing the WTO was possible and desirable. Labor and large NGOs tend to embrace the pro-reform viewpoint.

Other activists believe that corporations and global financial institutions cannot be reformed and must instead be abolished. Anarchists, socialists, and other political radicals tend to favor abolition. In fact, segments of the global justice movement have taken to calling it the anti-capitalist movement (although by no means does everyone involved in the movement wish to abolish capitalism). According to the radical viewpoint, certain aspects of corporate capitalism-such as the never-ending quest for growth and profit-cannot be changed without putting an end to the system as a whole.

A related issue concerns the role of national governments. Some on both the left and the right have criticized global financial institutions for undermining national sovereignty, for example by overruling democratically established national regulations concerning workers' rights, purchasing preferences, or measures that protect national industries. Activists with a more anarchist bent, however, are not concerned with erosion of state power, believing that government control is as pernicious as the rule of unbridled corporate capitalism.

The two sides of the "reform versus revolution" debate tend to favor different strategies. According to the radicals, transnational corporations and financial institutions will never put themselves out of business. Disillusioned by "protest as usual" that achieves results slowly and painstakingly, if at all, they argue for disruptive direct action that may include corporate property destruction and confrontation with the forces of law-and-order that defend state and corporate interests.

What Next?

The 2001 Genoa protests marked both a high and a low point for the growing movement. Never before had so many people-by some accounts, over 200,000-come together in a developed country to demand global justice. But likewise, never before had the modern movement in the west faced such harsh repression. The death of Carlo Guiliani and the police beatings that followed provided a rude wake-up call. Although violent repression of political dissidents is common in the global south-in fact, three student IMF protesters had been killed by police in Papua New Guinea the preceding month-it had not previously been experienced to such an extent by most activists in Europe or North America.

The terrorist events of September 11 and the wars that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq marked yet another turning point, especially for U.S. activists. Commentators both within and outside the movement predicted the demise of the global justice movement, but despite increased pro-government sentiment an estimated 20,000 demonstrators turned out for the WEF meeting in New York City in February 2002, proving that protest is still possible. In March 2002 an estimated 250,000 activists confronted the EU summit in Barcelona in the largest global justice protest in the west to date, surpassing even Genoa. And in the latter half of 2002 and the beginning of 2003, many global justice activists turned toward antiwar organizing, and were among the hundreds of thousands in the United States and millions worldwide who protested against the war in Iraq.

Changes in Tactics

Some global justice activists feel that mass protests have outlived their usefulness. They argue for a shift to local activism--focusing on issues such an environmental racism, the prison industrial complex, local strikes, and poverty at home-to replace "summit hopping," the cultural of serial protesting that Naomi Klein has likened to "a movement of meeting-stalkers following the trade bureaucrats as if they were the Grateful Dead" (Klein, in Yuen 2002).

The "Battle of Seattle" succeeded based on its element of surprise, an advantage activists no longer possess. As Alexander Cockburn has noted, "Once in a generation you can catch the ruling class off guard. Then you spend twenty years paying for it" (Cockburn 2000). Since the April 2000 protests in Washington, DC, police have barricaded the IMF headquarters to keep protesters away and ferried delegates in police-escorted buses. In Quebec City and Genoa authorities erected a fence around a portion of the city. The November 2001 WTO meeting was held in Doha, Qatar-a country inaccessible to most activists and one that does not tolerate political dissent-and the June 2002 G8 summit was took place in Kananaskis, a remote ski resort in the Canadian wilderness. It has become all but impossible to effectively shut down or even disrupt or delay a major summit as was done in Seattle.

Increased Repression

In addition to the decreased accessibility of financial and government meetings, activists are facing increased repression. Government officials have declared "no protest zones" and police have carried out pre-emptive arrests before major actions. Protesters face the threat of tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, batons, and dogs-although the repercussions of the "Battle of Seattle" led many police forces to rely on more targeted and less widespread control measures. During the 2000 Republican convention a few perceived organizers were arrested and held on bails of up to $1 million. And known activists increasingly face travel restrictions when they attempt to cross international borders. The USA PATRIOT Act, hastily passed in the wake of September 11, allows for greater surveillance and threatens to define activists as terrorists, leading many to predict the impending resurgence of COINTELPRO-type operations. And with the war on Iraq, mainstream public sentiment in the United States increasingly turned against any type of dissent against the government.

Notable Successes

While the global justice movement faces many challenges, its successes cannot be denied. Obscure financial institutions unknown to most Americans a few short years ago have become a focus of media attention and public debate. Large actions have alerted the developed world to widespread economic inequity and the detrimental effects of unbridled free trade. Financial institutions and government bodies have been forced to acknowledge the protesters' grievances, although it remains to be seen whether their actions will follow their rhetoric. In the words of Jubilee activist Bronwyn Mauldin, international debt cancellation has gone "from radical impossibility to mainstream certainty" (Mauldin, in Shepard and Hayduk 2002). In his 2002 book Globalization and its Discontents, Nobel laureate and former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz concedes that IMF/World Bank austerity policies have caused more suffering than they have alleviated, and acknowledges that it was global justice protesters who made the developing world aware of the need for reform.

Since the 1999 Seattle actions several major corporate scandals have erupted, contributing to a major stock market decline and implicating a number of government officials and their campaign contributors. In December 2001 massive protests erupted following the near-collapse of the economy of Argentina, once heralded as a model of successful IMF policy implementation. The middle class and working class alike revolted, leading to the police shootings of at least two protesters and the ouster of four presidents in a span of less than month. Indeed, Argentina has become something of a bell-weather for what could evolve out of the collapse of corporate capitalism, with widespread participatory community assemblies and factories taken over by workers.

Writing in the wake of the September 2000 IMF actions in Washington, DC, New York Times columnist Alan Murray said of the protesters, "[T]o a degree many of them still don't recognize, they have won the argument. Capitalism now has the black eye they tried so hard to give it" (Berkshire 2002).

A Vision for the Future

The events of September 11 led to a shift in focus for many global justice activists, who have increasingly devoted their efforts to opposition to U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and to solidarity with the people of Palestine. Yet interest in global justice issues-and their local manifestations-remains strong. The tasks now facing activists include expanding the movement to include a greater diversity of participants and better defining what the movement is for-not just what it's against. Global justice activists have often been criticized for lacking a coherent ideology and failing to articulate achievable alternatives to corporate capitalism. Most activists rightly argue that a unified ideology such as the Marxism of the last century is not a requirement for a postmodern movement. But the development of a vision of a more just, equitable, and democratic world-and a credible path to attain it-remains the global justice movement's most crucial challenge.


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The Zapatistas. 1998. Zapatista Encuentro: Documents from the 1996 Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism. New York: Seven Stories Press.

© 2002
Liz Highleyman --