A Flash of the Possible
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, January 2000
In the year 1919, when the city of Seattle was brought to
a halt by a general strike-beginning with 35,000 shipyard workers
demanding a wage increase-the mayor reflected on its significance:
"True there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings.
Revolution . . . doesn't need violence. The general strike, as
practiced in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all
the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend
everything, stop the entire life stream of a community....That
is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is
all there is to revolt-no matter how achieved."
What happened in Seattle recently was not as large an event
as the general strike of 1919. But it showed how apparently powerless
people-if they unite in large numbers-can stop the machinery of
government and commerce. In an era when the power of government,
and of multinational corporations, is overwhelming, it is instructive
to get even a hint of how fragile that power is when confronted
by organized, determined citizens.
When the civil rights activists of the South in the early
sixties put into practice the principle they called "Nonviolent
Direct Action," they were able to make heretofore invincible
power yield. What happened recently in Seattle was another working
out of that principle.
Let's face it: Many of us-even old veterans of social movements-had
begun to feel helpless as we observed the frightening consolidation
of control by the interests of capital, the giant corporations
merging, the American military machine grown to monstrous proportions.
But we were forgetting certain fundamental facts about power:
that the most formidable military machine depends ultimately on
the obedience of its soldiers, that the most powerful corporation
becomes helpless when its workers stop working, when its customers
refuse to buy its products.
The strike, the boycott, the refusal to serve, the ability
to paralyze the functioning of a complex social structure-these
remain potent weapons against the most fearsome state or corporate
Note how General Motors and Ford had to surrender to the strikers
of the thirties, how black children marching in Birmingham in
1963 pushed Congress into passing a Civil Rights Act, how the
U.S. government, carrying on a war in Vietnam, had to reconsider
in the face of draft resistance and desertions en masse, how a
garbage workers' strike in New York immobilized a great city,
how the threat of a boycott against Texaco for racist policies
brought immediate concessions.
The Seattle protests, even if only a gleam of possibility
in the disheartening dark of our time, should cause us to recall
basic principles of power and powerlessness, so easily forgotten
as the flood of media nonsense washes over the history of social
It has been discouraging to watch the control of information
in this country get tighter and tighter as megacorporations have
taken over television and radio stations, newspapers, even book
publishing. And yet, we saw in Seattle that when tens of thousands
of men and women fill the streets and halt the normal flow of
business and march with colorful banners and giant puppets and
an infectious enthusiasm, they can break through the barriers
of the corporate media and excite the attention of people all
over the country and around the world.
Of course, the television cameras rushed to cover the fires
(many actually produced by the police with their exploding tear
gas bombs) and the broken windows. The term "anarchist"
was used to describe the perpetrators, by journalists ignorant-as
were the window-smashers themselves-of the philosophy of anarchism.
But it was not lost on viewers that the vast majority of people
marching through the streets were angry, even obstructive, but
peaceful-yes, nonviolent direct action.
In Seattle, the demonstrators were grappling with impossibly
complex economic issues-globalization, protectionism, export trade,
intellectual properties-issues the most sophisticated experts
have had a hard time explaining. But through all of that complexity,
a certain diamond-hard idea shone through: that the schemes of
well-dressed men of finance and government gathering in ornate
halls were dangerous to the health and lives of working people
all over the world. Thousands in the streets, representing millions,
showed their determination to resist these schemes.
In one crucial way, it was a turning point in the history
of the movements of recent decades-a departure from the single-issue
focus of the Seabrook occupation of 1977, the nuclear freeze rally
in Central Park in 1982, and the gatherings in Washington for
the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978, for lesbian and gay rights
in 1993, for the Million Man March in 1995, and for the Stand
for Children in 1996. This time, the union movement was at the
center. The issue of class-rich and poor, here and all over the
globe-bound everyone together.
It was, at the least, a flash of the possible. It recalled
the prophecy of A. Philip Randolph in November of 1963, speaking
to an AFL-CIO convention shortly after the civil rights march
brought 200,000 people, black and white, to the nation's capital.
Randolph told the delegates: "The Negro's protest today is
but the first rumbling of the underclass. As the Negro has taken
to the streets, so will the unemployed of all races take to the
There will be more rumblings to come.
Howard Zinn, author of "A People's History of the United
States" (re-released in hardcover this year by HarperCollins)
is a columnist for The Progressive.
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