Before September 11th, 2001, most of the people I knew also had one of those before-and-after dates that defined our new reality: November 30th, 1999.
As we come upon the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I'm thinking about patterns. The pattern that is most troubling that preoccupies me is how often threateningly successful social movements throughout US history have a tendency of being derailed, through some combination of concession, repression, and distraction, on the part of the powers-that-be.
We could easily go back further, but if we take some prominent examples starting from a hundred years ago, what was it that broke the back of the very militant and growing, multiracial labor movement of the period, known as the Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World)? The US joined the First World War, launched a massive pro-war propaganda tour across the country, instituted a military draft, making anti-war organizing an imprisonable offense, accusing any internationalist-minded union organizers of being "German agents," deporting thousands of them back to Europe, imprisoning most of the leadership of the union, burning down union halls across the country, charging union organizers for all sorts of crimes they never committed in order to suck up all the resources of the IWW, and much more.
As the movement continued to grow in the face of all that, the government then passed laws specifically targeting immigration by southern and eastern Europeans, with an accompanying propaganda campaign, vilifying people from these regions of Europe as a bunch of communists and anarchists. These laws remained on the books for decades afterwards. In nearby Canada, anti-Italian sentiment was so thoroughly embedded that they not only interned people of Japanese descent during the Second World War, but those of Italian descent as well.
When I was a small child, by the late 1960's, another internationalist, anti-imperialist, multiracial left movement was in the ascendancy across the country. The response on the part of the powers-that-be was again multifold. As with the IWW half a century earlier, movement leaders were unjustly imprisoned, attacked by agents of the state and then imprisoned for decades if they dared defend themselves, groups were systematically undermined through the constant use of plants to spread rumors and sow confusion, many movement leaders were assassinated, and the media's efforts to misrepresent the orientation and composition of so many of the important groups and players involved was systematic, and by every appearance was done in order to create division.
I grew up to such a large extent in the shadow of the social movements of the 1960's, and the massive campaign of state repression and disinformation that followed. When I was nine, in 1976, the Vietnam War had only allegedly ended a year earlier, but to see the wild displays of red-white-and-blue patriotism on all the TV channels as they celebrated the bicentennial of the American Revolution for the entirety of 1976, you'd never know the US had not just fought off the redcoats, but had just spent years bombarding a small country from the air, killing millions, and then losing the war -- to whatever extent a permanently poisoned country like Vietnam can be said to have actually won anything.
A hundred years ago, the Wobblies were as much a concept as an organization. To be a Wobbly was a euphemism for being part of a movement of the working class. Everyone knew it was all about One Big Union, it had women and people of color at all levels of the union, and it was either led by immigrants and refugees, or welcoming to them, and that's why so many people identified with it, even if they weren't involved with a union campaign and didn't carry a red union card around in their pockets, like so many millions of Wobblies did.
Fifty years ago, the movement for racial and economic justice and against imperialism called itself The Movement. Of course there were different elements of it, and whenever possible, the media made sure to remind us of those differences, and downplay the commonalities. Martin Luther King was always a Civil Rights leader, a Black leader, not a leader of the working class, of the poor, which is who he really was and wanted to be.
The antiwar movement was, whenever possible, painted as a drug-addled movement of middle-class young people who wanted to avoid the draft because they were too well-fed. The fact that the movement was full of working-class war veterans was generally downplayed or ignored, along with the many overlapping connections between the movement against the war and all of the other interconnected social movements of the time.
Anything resembling a unified movement of a large cross-section of the population seems to be the most threatening crisis the US government can face, and it's at those historical moments that it tends to fly into high gear and do everything possible to smash, undermine, and distract such a movement out of existence. These historical moments also would seem to indicate that if the capitalists are sufficiently determined, and throw enough different kinds of resources at a growing social movement that they see as threatening their legitimacy, any social movement can eventually be dealt with, at least until the next big one comes along.
What particularly served to undermine these movements I've mentioned involved the US government taking determined action on a massive scale -- in the case of the Wobblies, the formation of the FBI, the first national police agency the US ever had, and all kinds of new, extremely repressive laws against people based on nationality and political persuasion. In the case of the movement we associate with the 1960's, the US ended the draft and lost the war, on the one hand, and on the other, mobilized the repressive forces of the state on a massive scale in order to break the back of extremely popular groups like the Black Panthers.
While the situations and movements differ quite a lot in so many ways, I've often been reminded of such historical moments lately, and the same was true for different reasons twenty years ago.
What may be most important about what was going on twenty years ago, starting in the late 1990's (some would say starting on November 30th, 1999, and ending on September 11th, 2001), was how it seemed to differ from so much of what had been going on for the previous 25 years of social movement activity. Especially in the eyes of the media, but also to some extent in reality, movements were divided into what you might call "special interests." Increasingly, rather than a social movement intent on reshaping society and doing away with the whole capitalist model, we were being put into boxes, and in many ways, we were doing it to ourselves.
My distinct, personal recollection of the 1980's and the 1990's is that the term, "The Movement" continued to be used in some, increasingly small circles, in places like New York and San Francisco. Fewer and fewer people readily recognized the connections between the movements against US intervention in Latin America, and the environmental movement, the movement against nuclear power, for women's equality, for funding AIDS research, in solidarity with farmworkers, and so many others.
Popular education and organizing efforts that had been ongoing for a long time began to really come to fruition by the late 1990's, and a new, internationalist, global, extremely intersectional movement appeared on the world stage. For many people it seemed sudden, for others the movement was part of a process that had begun in earnest with the Zapatista uprising in Mexico on January 1st, 1994 -- launched at the very moment the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect.
There were several years in the US, and for much longer in Europe and elsewhere, that any time representatives of the global elite were having a big meeting -- whether the IMF and World Bank in Washington, DC, or a get-together of the G7, the G8, the G20, the World Trade Organization, or any number of other such gatherings, there would be tens of thousands of people present, holding counter-gatherings of all kinds, committing widespread acts of civil disobedience, blocking streets, getting arrested, having rallies with stages complete with speakers and performers, and so on.
I'm not here going to try to make the case that the global justice movement was more or less threatening to the capitalist order than other world-historic social movements that I've mentioned. But it seemed the main aspect of the movement that always seems to be particularly troublesome for the plutocrats was here, or at least threatening to be here -- a movement that brought together so many other movements that often seemed disconnected from each other, which turned out all to have in common an opposition to the anti-democratic practices of the WTO, the IMF, etc., since they tended to be just as problematic when it came to exploiting sweatshop workers as with logging the last of the oldgrowth forests.
Our movement was growing, it could be found in every college town or city in the US, and it was just as much of a presence in many other countries as well, from Italy to Sweden to Australia. And at the same time across Latin America, governments were coming to power, one after the other, whose leaders were very critical of the multinational institutions that had been keeping them in a perpetual state of "development" since the institutions were created.
Whether what was happening constituted a crisis for US or global capitalism or not, I don't know. What I do know is when using up all of your tear gas, attempting to run over protesters with vans, and clubbing people in the head for sitting in the road didn't stop the movement from continuing to grow and shut down or otherwise cause serious problems for one meeting of the global elite after another in city after city, country after country, something else happened. That something else that happened was 9/11.
If you ask any global justice movement organizer of the period who was organizing within the US what brought the movement down, it started on that morning. The difference with 9/11 as opposed to all the anti-immigrant laws passed in the 1920's targeting the IWW, or the FBI's Counterintelligence Program in the 1960's and 70's that went after the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, and others, is that 9/11 was presumably an external event, not one carried out by the state to accomplish the goal of derailing a global social movement.
If it had been designed to derail the movement -- and I'm not suggesting that it was -- but if it had been, then it was designed perfectly. The reporter I heard on NPR on the day of the attacks summed it up well. "Last week they were protesting the World Trade Organization, this week they're attacking the World Trade Center."
In fact, the last time I had seen the World Trade Center before 9/11 was on May Day, 2000, when it was being guarded by fully-loaded riot police, who were out in force, protecting every chain store and every icon of capitalism from Wall Street to Times Square.
These kinds of massive deployments of riot police were commonplace throughout the country during the course of the global justice movement. Accompanying them came a huge propaganda campaign in each city where protests were going to be happening, about how we were all bent on rioting and attacking police. Protests would be mostly ignored by the national and global press, while the local press would focus on any acts of violence committed by a protester, ignoring the violence of the police, which was much more than 99% of any violence that took place at any of these events.
Borders had also become a big issue, with getting turned away from the US or Canadian borders becoming commonplace. In Europe, borders that had been unguarded since the formation of the Schengen Zone were suddenly being staffed by riot police on the lookout for elements of the global justice movement, planning on disrupting more meetings of the elite. Security was intense, and it was becoming unpredictable whether you might be able to make it to a protest at all, if it meant crossing a border. Many people were detained in Seattle before the WTO meetings began, and held until they were over. I witnessed most people getting turned away from the Canadian border during the hours I was detained, on my way to eventually successfully cross the border to go get drenched in tear gas by the police at the Free Trade Area of the Americas meetings in Quebec City.
Concurrent with the global justice movement was also a global movement in solidarity with Palestinians, in the wake of Ariel Sharon's Al-Aqsa mosque massacre that gave rise to the Second Intifada, and a new degree of criticism of Israeli policies evolving on the streets of western cities, including in the US.
Starting immediately after 9/11, the media began shaping a false narrative that said that all of the security measures that were actually a response to the global justice movement's protests were consequences of the terrorist attacks. And they began shaping a false narrative that the invasions of other countries since 9/11 were a consequence of 9/11, rather than 9/11 being a consequence of US foreign policy in the first place, which it quite obviously was.
All of the nationalistic protect-the-homeland-and-civilize-the-savage-Muslims propaganda had the divisive impact that was presumably intended. The chilling effect among Arabs or anyone who might be considered one was obvious, and of course within the US they and many others were targeted by the state in all kinds of ways in the coming years. I appeared to be personally on some very interesting watch lists, in multiple countries, for whatever reason.
I don't think there's always necessarily a clear way to know exactly which events that took place on or after 9/11 had the derailing effect on the global justice movement that was had, but it was probably a big combination of factors that led to the sense of optimism that had been present no longer being present. And then in any case, the focus for many people with any compassion for their fellow human beings quickly shifted from matters of global economic justice to questions of war and peace. Matters very intimately related, as demonstrated poetically by the former World Bank director becoming the man in charge of privatizing the economy of US-occupied Iraq (subject of my song, "Paul Wolfowitz"). Nonetheless, distraction was achieved. An antiwar movement of great significance was growing, but the anticapitalist coalition that had been growing prior to 9/11 was pretty much dead, within the US.
I feel distinctly like I'm watching a complex propaganda campaign unfold in such a way that it seems to be designed to derail the kind of multiracial uprising that characterized the atmosphere in the summer of 2020, and return society to a more easily controlled, atomized bunch of special interest groups, as was done before.
But among the many things that keep me up at night, as I listen to relatives of those killed in the Twin Towers talk about the possibility that Biden may be about to declassify information about the hijackers and who paid for their flight training, helped coordinate their actions, or was otherwise involved with the plan. They're hoping and assuming that if the information is declassified, this will lead us to members of the Saudi royal family, to the Saudi monarchy generally. This would make sense.
What might also make sense would be if we were to find out what Saudi hijackers such as Mohammed Atta were doing fraternizing with so many Israelis in Hollywood, Florida, in the months prior to 9/11.
But more than that, I want to know what Mohammed's Israeli friends were doing there. I know what my friend was doing there. He was working in a building nearby. Ever since then, he's wondered how long he might have to live. He's not going public with what he saw under his name, he's understandably afraid. But he smoked cigarettes with Mohammed Atta, and with the Israelis who populated much of a building there in Florida which shared an outdoor smoking section with the one Atta was in.
My friend asked the Israelis what they were doing there, and sometimes they couldn't remember. They worked for a moving company, their manager would say, when one of the alleged workers couldn't remember. A moving company with a lot of very expensive computers, my friend had observed one day. A moving company where no one was allowed to go to the tenth floor of the building. Where the janitor did, and was found dead.
The day after 9/11, everyone left this building in Hollywood, Florida, never to be seen again. They took all the equipment, too. I wonder who they were, where they went, and what was going on on the tenth floor.
I don't know. But whether or not the Saudis, the Israelis, or any other state actor was involved with organizing the 9/11 attacks in order to accomplish a multiplicity of goals, if those goals happened to be the derailing of the global justice movement, derailing the Palestine solidarity movement, and giving Bush Jr all the excuse he needed to finish the job his daddy started in Iraq, then those goals were accomplished.
That's a bit of my take on some of the patterns that have been on repeat for quite a while, the more recent examples being ones I've been familiar with fairly up close and in detail. What's happened before doesn't necessarily indicate what's coming, though. If I were to guess, I'd say there's no need for another big terrorist attack in the US, since between Facebook and Twitter it seems fairly well ensured that we'll spend most of our time shouting at each other instead of doing any real organizing anyway.