When organizers were planning the Boston Social Forum, they envisioned a gathering that would counter the Democratic National Convention in every way. Whereas the DNC would be a tightly scripted and essentially private affair (locals refer to the convention’s site, the FleetCenter, as the Fleece Center), the BSF would be open and democratic, a three-day festival of ideas held on the campus of UMass Boston, the city’s only truly public university.
And indeed, for the estimated 5,000 activists from across New England who took over the campus (including hundreds of young people, who were participating in a concurrent Active Arts Youth Conference), the event was a valuable chance to congregate and “put forward their best ideas and analysis in a convivial environment,” as coordinator Jason Pramas put it.
But if the BSF bore little resemblance to the official Democratic gathering just five miles away, neither did it look much like Boston–a majority nonwhite city–or even UMass Boston, often the first step for working-class and immigrant students in search of a toehold in the middle class. There was little sign of the exciting new alliance between African-Americans and Latinos that is beginning to reshape local politics, and save for SEIU, which brought leaders as well as members, the only union presence belonged to the police, hundreds of whom were using the campus as a staging ground for the DNC.
“It reminds me of a Grateful Dead show, but without the music or the drugs,” was how one attendee put it. He meant that in the best possible way: “This is a place for people who don’t fit in,” said the man, who works in the health insurance industry in Connecticut and would prefer that his activism remain a secret from his co-workers. “People who have been left out, who aren’t part of the 9-to-5 world, who don’t have pensions or 401(k)s, they can come here and be part of something.” That’s a worthy sentiment–but a far cry from the vision behind the first such gathering in Brazil, in 2001, which sought to create not a political lonely-hearts club but a summit of powerful and emerging social movements that could serve as a counterweight to the World Economic Forum in Davos and begin to outline the parameters of the oft-touted “another world.” Any such event in the United States faces a monumental challenge in that our social movements, by contrast, are small and struggling.
Before the last flip chart had been folded and put away, the debate about organizing the next gathering–a US social forum–was under way. Proponents are eager to stage an event that will draw activists from around the country. But cautionary voices maintain that to be effective, a national forum must have serious participation by institutions, including trade unions and other membership organizations. “We see the forums as places for our members to grow in their consciousness,” says Jojo Geronimo, SEIU’s education director for the eastern region. “But we need an action plan as well. What are we going to do after the forum?” he asks. “Let’s institutionalize the process, say that each of us will talk to our membership or our leadership about our goals. A lot of analysis was done here, but from analysis we need to go to action.”