Opposing the World Trade Organization

the battle in Chicago

Originally published in New Ground 68, January — February, 2000. The “Battle in Seattle” around the meeting of the World Trade Organization is legendary on the left, but it was also echoed around the United States and the world. This is what happened in Chicago.

WTO Action in Chicago

by Bob Roman

The Chicago WTO action took place on November 30 at the Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago at 4:30 in the evening. It was a smashing success and an abject failure.

A Smashing Success

It was beyond a doubt a wildly successful event simply because it received significant news coverage. In the context of Seattle, editors and news directors felt they simply had to have some mention of the event in their coverage. Some of the reports were reasonably fair, given the constraints of reportage limited to 30 to 60 seconds. Though it may seem cynical, such participation by the “media” is crucial if anti-globalization issues are to be regarded by the political professions as something other than nationalist outgassing by fringe groups.

It was a major success because the event was organized almost at the last minute by a small number of activists, with minimal resources. That it happened at all, let alone that it was a distinct and significant political event, deserves our applause and appreciation. Further, it was one of the largest WTO demonstrations outside of Seattle itself.


It was an abject failure. At any one time, the crowd never exceeded much more than about 200, though it was a fast moving event and maybe half again as many people ultimately participated.

The participants were a real mulligan stew of activists from various lefty groups, some of which one only rarely encounters. Adopting the spirit of a bird-watcher, it was fun. My, what exotic and endangered species could be observed!

Leaflets and papers flowed like joints at a Jimi Hendrix concert, but many of them had little to do with the WTO or with the issues around globalization. And, don’t you know, it was strange but not too many of these items were being directed at passers by. Michael Moore is often obnoxious and half-assed in his criticisms of the left but he’s not entirely wrong. Isn’t it wonderful how 200 lefties from diverse ideologies can get together to trade leaflets?

To be fair, this behavior was most evident at the rally. After about twenty minutes of speeches, the rally formed up to march over to State Street and up State to the Old Navy store. I admit to having been skeptical about the political reasoning behind choosing Old Navy, but in fact the location made it ideal. If there had been an isolated, ingrown feel to the rally, the march up State Street brought it squarely in contact with the public and provided some choice photo opportunities.

What time is it, boys and girls? It’s Hubert Humphrey Time!?

Certainly nothing recent has quite so mobilized the left as the victory over the WTO in Seattle. You have to go back to the Nuclear Freeze campaign in the mid 1980s to find something comparably energizing. Yet it should be clear that the left, despite the participation of the labor movement in Seattle, is nowhere near as healthy as it was during the mid 1980s, and I wouldn’t have called the left robust then either. With an issue like the WTO, even a last minute ad hoc demonstration should have brought out ten times the turn out in Chicago, and the fact that Chicago was one of the largest local demonstrations just makes it that much more poignant.

Furthermore, the WTO and international trade is not an exclusively “left” issue. Consider that the only mainstream presidential candidate present in Seattle was Pat Buchanan. If the “Battle of Seattle” ended in a victory for the left, the main beneficiaries could ultimately be the right, just as they ultimately were the main beneficiaries of the Sixties. This is a prospect that ought to be in mind as we contemplate future strategies.

Marx, never a patient man to begin with, was particularly unkind to those who insisted upon drawing historical parallels without regard to political economy. Seattle 1999 is not Chicago 1968 nor is it Rosa Parks freshly at the front of the bus. The situation is complex, and a proper understanding of it will not come from reading ideological speculations but from focusing on hard data. The left is too weak to neglect these tools.

Because regardless of the strength of the left, planning has already begun for a series of actions next spring. The tentative plans include a national march in Washington, DC, in mid-April. This will be followed by a number of regional marches on May 1st, including one in Chicago.

Save that date: May 1st! On that day, Seattle will come to LaSalle Street in downtown Chicago. If you are interested in helping plan this action (by golly if there were a time to be involved, it is now!), call Joan Axthelm at (773) 262-6502 or (773) 871-3942 or call Dennis Dixon at (773) 384-8544.

Author: rmichaelroman

... whatever ...

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