Review of Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action after the WTO Protests in Seattle

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Wood, Leslie. 2012. Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action after the WTO Protests in Seattle. Cambridge University Press.

The 1999 World Trade Organization Meetings in Seattle was a pivotal turning point for activists around the globe. It was a turning point, not only because outsiders brought the meetings themselves to a grind, but also because activists made innovative use of dramatic new tactics of resistance. These new and highly visible tactics included the Black Bloc, the use of Giant Puppets, the creating of Lockbox blockades, and practicing jail solidarity.

The Black Bloc is not an organization. Nor is it a group. It is a tactic that “involves dressing in black and masking one’s fact (often with a black bandanna), moving in tightly packed groups, and protecting members of the group from police encroachment through evasive maneuvers” (Wood, 34). Lockbox blockades are blockades in which activists lock themselves to each other and objects and jail solidarity entails a refusal to “cooperate with authorities during arrest and processing” (Wood, 37).

Why, Wood asks in the question that forms the heart of this Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion, were activists in New York City more likely to adopt the use of the Seattle tactics than activists in Toronto? Both are the largest cities in their respective nations. Activists in each city had equal access to information about the tactics used in Seattle. Thus, that the tactical diffusion was so unequal, as Wood, shows, is by no means a given.

To understand why this difference in tactical adoption took place, Dr. Wood draws on a plethora of material ranging from media texts to ethnographic observations. At the core of the empirical foundation of the book are extensive interviews with 32 activists working in 6 organizations – a global justice coalition, a student organization and a group focused on local campaigns and issues. Table 1 provides an overview of these organizations and of the general set of comparisons made in the book:

Table 1. Diffusion of Seattle tactics to organizations in NY and Toronto:

City Global Justice Student Local
New York Direct Action Network-NYC Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM) More Gardens!Coalition
Toronto Mobilization for Global Justice-Toronto Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) Ontario Coalition against Poverty (OCAP)

Drawing on this material, Wood argues that what distinguishes the organizations in the two cities is the micro-level context of deliberation. This micro-level context and the conversations it entails serve to either block or facilitate tactical diffusion. Key here are what Wood calls processes surrounding “talking around talking”, “talking about summit hopping,” and “talking about smashing”. Wood carefully traces the key conversations that took place around these issues and shows how local networks and leadership worked to either block or diffuse these conversations.

Particularly interesting is Wood’s point that, in order for these conversations to be effective, activists needed to be able to “see themselves as similar to the demonstrators who were at those protests—who were characterized as militant and creative, as well as white, middle class, young students.” (113). Here again, while activists in both Toronto and New York were able to see themselves as militant and creative, those in Toronto were less able to make a connection either in terms of “class or organizing style” (122).

This book provides a fascinating look into the day-to-day logistics involved in activism. Dr. Wood is a scholar-activist with two decades of experience working on issues ranging from sustainability to anti-poverty. As such, she has unique insight and unique access to the groups that form the basis of Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion.

In choosing this book for their summer reading, readers can be assured that its author will provide them with a wonderful combination that is increasingly rare in today’s professionalized social movement arena. Finally, worth mentioning is that Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion also recently won the Canadian Sociological Association John Porter book Prize. Dr Wood’s lecture about the book will be forthcoming in the February 2015 issue of the Canadian Review of Sociology.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Great Books for Summer Reading 2014

One response to “Review of Direct Action, Deliberation, and Diffusion: Collective Action after the WTO Protests in Seattle

  1. Pingback: Great Books for Summer Reading, 2014 | Mobilizing Ideas

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