Giant puppets and pepper spray. Street blockades and tear gas. Conga drums and jail cells. In the words of a popular chant: "This is what democracy looks like!" From Seattle to D.C. to Quebec City, the end of the twentieth century and the dawn of the twenty-first marked the emergence of a broadbased popular movement against corporate globalization. Although connected to a long tradition of street politics dating to before the American Revolution and grounded in decades-long campaigns by labor, peace, and environmental groups, the movement that arose in the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999 centered on young activists, mostly students. From the beginning, students from Illinois participated in this wide-ranging effort to influence trade policy and the broad array of issues associated with it.
The new student activism of the late 1990s had connections to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, but it more directly resembled the anti-capitalist movement of a century ago. In the early years of the twentieth century as the economy changed rapidly, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist Party, and other organizations fought for economic rights and power. Similarly, the rapid pace of change in the global economy led people one hundred years later to challenge predominant assumptions about economic power. For students in Illinois and elsewhere, the first of these campaigns was the campus anti-sweatshop movement. Growing out of the Union of Needletrades and Industrial Textile Employees "Union Summer" in 1996,
students across the country began organizing to stop licensing of their school's products if those goods were produced under sweatshop conditions. Joan Axthelm, a student at the University of Chicago summed up the students' case. "Economic globalization has led many U.S. efforts to distinguish between peaceful protest and property destruction. "We saw people destroying property and brought a police officer to arrest the vandals," Enslin noted. "The officer said that they were not arresting people that day."
The protests in Seattle, remembered afterward as "N30" (for November 30) by people in the anti-corporate movement, sparked those watching from afar to further action. C.J. Grimes, a student at Northern Illinois University (NIU), focused on the anti-democratic nature of the WTO. The organization, she declared, "undermines social decision-making," placing the emphasis solely on products. "The WTO can't regulate the process," Grimes noted. "There are people living in squalor, working to make products... for enormous (American) corporations overseas, and the World Trade Organization doesn't regulate it."
Based on such sentiments, the Illinois presence grew at protests against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in Washington, D.C., on April 16 and 17, 2000. There, the protests centered on the "structural adjustment policies" adopted by the IMF and World Bank as a condition of funding debt in developing nations. Structural adjustment policies called on countries in the Global South to slash social programs such as education and health care, weaken environmental and labor regulations, open their nations to foreign investment, and reorient their economies for export to the developed world. Student protesters believed that such programs degraded the environment and harmed workers around the world and in the United States. Joe Golowka, a NIU physics major and student leader in NlU's Marxist-Humanist Forum, noted in the student newspaper that IMF/World Bank development programs had "forced thousands of people off their land" to work for low wages in cities. Such a situation, he noted, would eventually lead to "a situation where the majority gets just barely enough to get by, except the business owners who get huge fortunes." Jennifer Slifty, an NIU freshman from Lena who organized a local rally in support of the protests, voiced similar concerns. "People don't understand how much corporate power there is in the world and how much of a difference it makes to the poor," she declared. "We're making a movement to improve the welfare of the nation," NIU student Michael Klaas affirmed.
Northern Illinois University students and faculty join thousands of anti-IMF
Northern Illinois University students blockade an entrance to the International Monetary Fund meetings in
Students were "aware of perpetrators and victims of injustice in the U.S. and third-world countries. We fight for both causes, but as a whole, against the domination of large corporations over our democratic form of government and [against] human rights violations."
Student leaders who attended the Washington D.C., protests stressed the notion of solidarity both within their movement and with people around the world. Northwestern University's Peace Project co-president Peter Micek pointed out that such protests provided a learning experience in group cooperation, noting his satisfaction with "the solidarity of the group." Michelle Gerber, an NIU sophomore, characterized her participation as "add[ing] my voice to the voices around the world that are coming together to protest these heinous organizations." Of the protests themselves, Klaas added: "The solidarity was all-encompassing. You had labor unions working hand-in-hand with environmentalists, factory workers, and even anarchists. There was little bickering, which was fascinating to witness."
As in Seattle, protestors were met with arrests and violence by police. D.C. police arrested more than thirteen hundred protestors during the weekend on such charges as "incommoding a public thoroughfare." Grimes and Gerber were arrested as result of a negotiated act of civil disobedience on April 17 near the World Bank headquarters. They spent the night in the D.C. jail, deprived of contact with their legal counsel. Eventually, they along with many other protesters were simply released. Others were not so lucky. Police used tear gas, pepper spray, and nightsticks to stop the protestors.
Students in the anti-corporate movement considered their actions successful, even if they did not halt the meetings completely as intended. "It's no longer business as usual, and that's a huge success for the movement," declared Micek after the D.C. action. "Hopefully, you'll see the effects of this back home on campus." Indeed, student protestors found support from peers and community members. Whitney Carnahan, a columnist for The Northern Star at NIU, described the student protestors to her fellow students as "people who are brave enough to go despite the risks. Our peers are taking a stand for their beliefs about the welfare of others." In responding to WTO activists, Cele Meyer, a long-time community activist in DeKalb and coordinator of the DeKalb Interfaith Network for Peace and Justice, supported the protestors as well. "They are shaking up the establishments so decisions won't be made so quietly and without discussion," she noted.
Still, some students back home opposed the protestor's actions. Chapin Rose, a law student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, bluntly declared after Seattle: "Frankly, I'd like to tell these extremists, in no uncertain terms, to just grow up." Rose acknowledged that the WTO had problems but maintained that there were "reasonable solutionsóreasonable solutions that these militants are ignoring." Taking an opposite view of corporate power, Rose averred that U.S. and European companies "compete on an uneven playing field. Our industries must adhere to stringent environmental regulations, minimum wage, child labor laws, and maximum work week laws. The developing nations do not." Third World nations, Rose maintained, "do not want to give up this competitive advantage." Neill Mohammed, an NIU freshman echoed Rose's belief in the miracles of unrestricted capitalism. Calling the protests an "embarrassment" located in a '"protest of the week' mentality," Mohammed decried the actions for their "appalling lack of good political and economic sense." Echoing a common belief of free-trade advocates, Mohammed proclaimed that as capital moved to developing nations, the competition for jobs would raise wage levels and improve working conditions. Even if this scenario did not pan out, he believed, "it still remains that people are better off working in a sweatshop than not working at all."
One of the most common criticism leveled at protestors was that they ignored local concerns. Max Grinnell voiced these sentiments directly in an article for the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper at the University of Chicago. Grinnell charged that such movements and "philosophies [that] consist of little more than moral turpitude," drawing attention away from the local level. "Instead of carefully scrutinizing and drawing attention to local conditions of iniquity [sic] or discrimination, they frequently turn their attention to places far removed from their own local context." Employing a personal "self-defeatism" about conditions in localities such as Chicago, Grinnell complained, "college students are unwilling (or unable) to commiserate with those locally disfranchised from the economic prosperity that the United States currently enjoys.
By focusing on certain problems around the globe, they can conveniently neglect the problems we face in this country." Grinnell suggested that in place of large-scale protest students become tutors or join organizations such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
Northern Illinois University students drop an anti-IMF banner from the NIU parking garage on September 26, 2000, to coincide with an international day of protests against the International Monetary Fund.
In response to Grinnell's criticism, Clifton Poole of Young Democratic Socialists at the University of Chicago, outlined the value of global action. First of all, Poole pointed out, student activists were involved in local actions. From fighting for immigrant workers' rights to organizing service employees, students in Chicago had taken a key role in local actions. The activities often formed the basis for a lifetime of activism. Still, Poole noted, students did play a significant part in international struggles and their concerns were genuine. "The passion student activists have for global issues like sweatshops, and the numerous economic and environmental issues that were raised in Seattle and Washington, D.C., is indicative of a sophisticated analysis of the interrelatedness of the issues, and of genuine solidarity with the Global South, not just fear of our neighbors." When looking to local action, Poole observed, students believed such campaigns should be organized at the grass-roots level by people who would remain in communities long after students had departed. The most important distinction, however, was between "community service and political activism." While such actions as tutoring students might help in the short run, political action sought fundamental change. "Political organizing and activism is about redistributing power and changing institutions and structures in society which perpetuate the problems we see," Poole declared.
Poole struck a key note in the anti-corporate movementóthe redistribution of power. This theme suggests a way to answer a central question: Why did the anti-corporate movement arise at the end of the twentieth century when transnational corporations existed since at least World War II? As with any inquiry into the origins of social movements, several answers present themselves. First, while transnationals were certainly around since the mid-twentieth century, their scale and rate of growth increased dramatically in the century's last two decades. By the turn of the twenty-first century, more than half of the world's largest economies were corporations instead of countries. Second, as many student leaders stressed, international financial institutions, most notably the WTO, IMF, and World Bank, also grew in power and shrouded their dealings in secrecy. The WTO in particular, which originated in 1995 as the culmination of the Uruguay round negotiations of the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade, represented a threat to both national sovereignty and more broadly based democratic processes. Clearly, then, changes in the broader political and economic context ignited a reaction.
Probably more important, however, were social and cultural causes. Part of the explanation may lie in connections across generations. Many of the students in the movement were the children of activists from the 1960s and 1970s, but ties go beyond family. Older activists began to train younger ones in ideals such as non-violence and participatory democracy and in tactics such as civil disobedience. Groups such as Ruckus Society sought to build a movement through such focused training. John Sellers, the society's director, made this clear in an interview with the Boston Globe:
"We make an implicit political statement in deciding who we train. Our goal is to build a unified, sustainable democratic future, and that means pulling the power out of the hands of corporations."
Finally, the student movement against corporate power can be seen as an ironic response to the growth of corporate culture itself. As corporations and their logos increasingly became the markers of personal identity for young people, some began to resist. This notion was most forcefully expressed by Naomi Klein, whose book No Logo became required reading for students in the movement. Klein explained the dynamic in an interview with the Guardian of London newspaper: "Multinationals such as Nike, Microsoft and Starbucks have sought to become the chief communicators of all that is good and cherished in our culture: art, sport, community, connection, equality. But the more successful this project is, the more vulnerable these companies become. When they do wrong, their crimes are not dismissed as the misdemeanors of another corporation trying to make a buck." When combined with the precarious nature of the labor market in the global economy, the gap between corporate image and economic reality provided a strong impetus for political action.
As 2001 and the new millennium dawned, the movement against corporate power remained strong. In April, more than fifty thousand protestors gathered in Quebec City, Canada to challenge the Summit of the Americas, a meeting of heads of state designed to produce a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Again, students from Illinois were at the heart of the action. A group of students from NIU traveled to Quebec, witnessed the destruction of a ten-foot high "security" fence around the meetings, and repeatedly incurred tear gas attacks while peacefully assembled to protest the summit. As in Seattle and D.C., but this time chanted in French, the spirit of the protestors rang out the same - solidahte.
Kirn Conrad, a history major from Northern Illinois University, recovers after being attacked with tear gas by police during protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Quebec City, Canada, on April 22, 2001