Dispatches from the Boston Social Forum
Boston, July 25, 2004
Social Forums from Brazil to India and now Boston are often accused of failing to generate anything more concrete than a brief up-tick in Fair Trade coffee sales, but that's not exactly fair.
Despite what critics of the movement say--that opponents of neoliberalism are more proficient in puppetry than in articulating solutions to global economic ills--those who do believe in the possibility of another world have been quite effective at summing up that vision. It's clear, for example, that the Forum crowd opposes the privatization of water; that they support economic models that put the globe's people above profit; and that, when given a choice, they'd pick peace over war any day.
But aside from these big-ticket items, much of the "another world is possible" view remains murky. For example, what will we do for amusement in this other world? Will there be a dress code? Will papers still be sold at our events? While a weekend at the Boston Social Forum wasn't able to provide answers to all of these questions, it did put some of them to rest.
We Are Party People
BSF attendees rocked into the wee hours Saturday night to the sounds of Billy Bragg, local rap-consciousness boys the Foundation and the Reagan Babies at the "Another World is Possible" benefit party in Cambridge. But the late-night affair was far from the only party at the BSF. Plenty of the political variety were on the scene as well, from the International Socialist Organization to the recently expanded Committees of Correspondence (now the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism). The heavy presence of sectarians lent a fevered air to even innocuous sounding workshops on topics like labor rights, or challenging corporate power. ("I don't have a question, I have an answer," said one such party member, taking the floor at Friday's opening convocation.) Said one attendee, who appeared visibly shaken after having run the left party gauntlet: "They all want me to buy their newspaper, but what am I supposed to do with all of them?" Then an idea came: "I could use them to line my bird cage."
If the Boston Social Forum introduced Beantown to a laid-back Forum vibe, more common in Brazil than in this uptight burg, it also marked something of a cultural coming of age on the left. Documentary films including Fahrenheit 9/11, The Corporation and Outfoxed are only the most visible of a flourishing, left-of-center, documentary film movement. The BSF screened more than forty largely well-done independent documentaries, ranging from professional jobs to low-budget, "guerilla" productions. One to watch: Julie Rosenberg, co-producer of the disturbing portrait of Colombian trade unionist Hector Giraldo.
I'll Trade You for a T-Shirt
It's a regular Social Forum conundrum: that on the one hand, most Forum-goers decry consumer capitalism as the root of all evil, yet there is so much cool stuff to buy. Boston was no exception. In addition to the marketplace of ideas, vendors here peddled tempting Fair Trade candy bars, the latest in anti-Bush garb and a library's worth of new left titles. Meanwhile, some panelists thought they'd settled on the solution: barter. It sounded appealing to me, but would it fly? My attempt to engage a member of the UMass concession staff in a nonmonetary transaction met with a distinctly dubious look, but I hit pay dirt (barter dirt?) at the Asses of Evil table. Jethro Heiko was selling buttons imprinted with the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded threat scale, and the words "Do you feel safer?" I had to have one, and Heiko pronounced himself ready to barter. "I'll trade you anything but a haircut," he said, pointing out that he cuts his own air. "I probably wouldn't accept underwear either." (Click www.assesofevil.org here to make your own deal with Heiko and the other members of the Asses of Evil collective.)
Hemp, Hemp, Hooray!
I must confess that I wasn't entirely convinced of the miracle properties of hemp before attending the Boston Social Forum. At least I didn't realize that hemp had quite so many miraculous qualities. But that was before I caught wind of "The Hemposium," a tribute to the ecological, cultural and medicinal benefits of the cannabis plant presented in three parts: "Let's Release the Miracle of Hemp: I, II and III." Don't laugh. In the new world, sustainable hemp will no longer be the province of a few wild-eyed crusaders. We'll wear hemp outfits and feast on hempseed snacks. And we won't be the only ones enjoying hemp treats. Mark Lathrop, owner/proprietor of the Monadnock Hemporium in New Hampshire, hopes that before too long, even livestock will be munching on hemp feed, which he argues is far more ecological than fattening cattle with feed.
Ushering in a New Period
While growers of hemp stand to score big in the new world, drugstores--especially those parts of them that cater to women--may not fare quite as well. The BSF hosted some half dozen workshops warning women of the consequences of using deodorant, face cream, even tampons. Eager to get to an 8:30 am Saturday workshop provocatively titled, "The Truth About Tampons: What Your Mother Never Told You," I skipped my usual date with the mirror and rushed to the BSF--only to find that everyone else seemed to have skipped the session. "Where are the tampon people?" someone had scrawled on the blackboard of the classroom. Good question. Perhaps they were collaborating with the hemp crowd on an idea for "hempons."
In the history of social change movements in the United States, media have always played a key role. The populists who organized in the 1880s and 1890s published scores of important daily and weekly newspapers. The Socialist Party of Eugene Debs, which ran strong presidential campaigns in 1912, 1916 and 1920, had its own paper, The Appeal to Reason, with a circulation 760,000-strong in its heyday.
And while every upsurge of activism from civil rights to gay liberation has spawned new organs, whether bundled or byte-size, the delicate balance of media and movement seems to have entered a new, less predictable phase. The battle of Seattle, the same event that would ultimately spawn the World Social Forums, also introduced us to Independent Media Centers, and the idea that anyone--in fact, everyone--can be a journalist.
While the Boston Social Forum has largely escaped the glare of the mainstream media, save for mentions in the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Globe, the alternative press is here in abundance. Correspondents from Free Speech Radio, area IndyMedia outlets and alternative newsweeklies are working the crowd, while no fewer than five independent filmmakers are recording the proceedings.
The prospect of a movement caught on film fills organizer Catherine Benedict with excitement. "We're living in a moment when technology has really democratized the media," says Benedict, who helped to coordinate the Boston Social Forum Film Series. "People are able to get their message out much more easily today, especially young people because they understand the technology," she says. Case in point: The film series is showcasing not just the work of established filmmakers, such as John Sayles, but that of 'kids with cameras,' like Lev Grossman-Spivack, a teenager who made the trek to Mumbai, India, in January for the World Social Forum, digital camera in hand. "This was the first video project he'd ever done," says Benedict.
But the fact that the alternative media movement seems to be expanding so much more rapidly than the social movements its partisans chronicle raises an interesting question: What happens when there is more media than movement? And is there such a thing as too much media, even of the alternative variety?
It is not a question upon which the progressive community agrees, even at the Boston Social Forum. At a gathering titled the "New Media Summit" on Saturday afternoon, filmmaker Richard Hoefer made the case that the alternative media movement should devote its resources to establishing a new, noncorporate television network designed to appeal to both moderates and progressives. "There's not going to be any taking back of the mainstream media," said Hoefer. As for alternative outlets, he doesn't see much hope there either: "If I don't know you exist, I have no way to access your information." Others were skeptical of the idea, feeling it more worthwhile to devote themselves to less costly projects like low-power radio, Internet webcasting and documentary film-making.
The distance between Hoefer's vision of a branded TV network that will appeal to millions and the specter of a single activist armed with a hand-held camera seems impossibly huge. "Isn't there something in between?" I wondered aloud to James Haslam, director of the Vermont Workers' Center, who made the trip down from Montpelier for the BSF. A frequent guest on a Vermont radio program known as Equal Time, Haslam turned out to be a good person with whom to share my musing.
"What you have to understand about the show is that it is and it isn't alternative media. It's alternative media in that social movements have access to it, but it also very much relates to the lives of ordinary Vermonters," says Haslam. "We go on to talk about an issue confronting Vermont workers and we get calls from people all over the state," says Haslam. "This is really new." It also differs from much alternative programming in that it has a sizeable audience, at least by Vermont standards. WDEV, the station on which it airs, also broadcasts a right-wing opinion show called True North, and live auto-racing, proving that di\ \versity in programming isn't always bad for business.
Back at the New Media Summit, as a presentation of excerpts from new films had the crowd roaring with approval, organizers hoped to have a blueprint for a new progressive TV network in place by the close of the BSF.
The Boston Social Forum is not a conference. While the official program may list panel discussions--some 500 of them, in fact--on topics from water privatization to the Wal-Mart economy to defeating George W. Bush in swing states this November, do not, insist BSF organizers, confuse the event with a typical left convocation.
Neither is the BSF a coalition, an alliance, a congress or an organization. The BSF does not make decisions, issue statements, call for actions or sponsor campaigns. So while the delegates to the Democratic National Convention will adopt their party's official platform in a few days, we here at UMass Boston, just five miles away, are platformless.
All of which raises the question: What exactly is a Social Forum anyway? Organizers of the event describe it as an "open space"--part of the World Social Forum process begun in Brazil in 2001, continued in India, and carried on in Europe--that enables people who believe in something other than the neoliberal economic model to get together and think, talk and dream about what that alternative might look like. Forumistas are dead serious about keeping that space open, too. While the organizing committee established priority "tracks"--loose topics like global justice, movement building or immigration--the vast majority of workshops are "self-submitted," the brainchild of one group or even a single person.
It's unclear what the thousands of participants who are expected to attend the BSF this weekend might be hoping to get for their $30 registration fee, but the event has proven wildly popular. Two thousand attendees are already registered for the forum and organizers are expecting twice that many for a weekend of lectures, star-studded convocations, performances and documentary film viewings from John Sayles, among others.
Not bad, considering that the "open space" model wasn't exactly what a cluster of Boston-area social change organizations had in mind when they came together last springto plan for the BSF. "We wanted to keep the focus very much on Boston, to gather our grassroots organizations together and figure out how to deepen our social movements," says Tim Costello, the director of the National Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE), one of the groups hosting the forum.
But what they got couldn't be more different. And they're not the least bit unhappy about it."This is a real Social Forum,"says Costello. "Here you've got the entire range of issues that constitute the left in America," he insists, pointing to a rainbow flag, a flag having something to do with water, and another whose reference is unclear. "The magic of this is that it enables people to connect up with something bigger than themselves. You can do the workshop, you can do the performance and imagine that you're part of something bigger--that you're part of the world."
"This is a place where you can dream," agrees Ana Amaral, an immigrant rights organizer with Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. "It's important for us to have a space like this," she says. "I just hope that people will come tomorrow," she says, referring to the event she's coordinating for members of Boston's huge Brazilian community. "I'm afraid everyone will be working."