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Boston Social Forum:
What kind of fight can win another world?

August 6, 2004 | Page 10

THE BOSTON Social Forum (BSF) drew an audience of more than 2,000 people to the University of Massachusetts in Boston on July 23-25. Modeled on the much larger annual World Social Forum meetings, held most recently in Mumbai, the Boston conference was the biggest social forum to take place in the U.S. so far. But the issue underlying many discussions during the weekend--Election 2004 and the case that progressives should hold their nose and vote for the pro-war campaign of Democrat John Kerry--wasn't in keeping with the non-party tradition of the social forum movement.

ANNIE LEVIN reports on the discussions and debates at the Boston Social Forum.

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THE REST of Boston was being locked down by military and riot police in preparation for the Democratic National Convention, with random searches conducted on trains and fighter jets flying overhead. In contrast, the Boston Social Forum was a bubble of resistance and commitment to social justice--expressed across a wide spectrum of political and cultural events.

The BSF was the culmination of more than a year of organizing by dozens of Boston-based groups. The goal, as BSF coordinator Jason Pramas put it, of helping "our popular movements to push forward to a new stage where we can challenge the masters of capital and the military that hold our country and the whole world hostage to their unending greed and insane desire for power."

More than 500 meetings throughout the weekend featured leading figures of the global justice and antiwar movements--as well as many lesser-known voices, from people organizing resistance to corporate domination and the U.S. government's war on the world.

The topics of the meetings showed the range of concerns--the dual occupations of Iraq and Palestine; Bush's "war on terror"; attacks on the civil liberties of Arabs and Muslims; segregation and the end of busing in the historically racist Boston Public Schools; the barbarism of the U.S. prison system; the corporate destruction of the environment; the need for the labor movement to organize for immigrant rights; and much more.

At the same time, one question was felt at many meetings throughout the weekend--the 2004 presidential election. Specifically, many BSF organizers and speakers are committed to the idea that activists should vote for John Kerry as a "lesser evil" in November--and this sentiment worked its way into many discussions.

For example, Filipino activist and leader of the global justice movement Walden Bello presented a strong case for why antiwar activists should support the resistance in Iraq against U.S. occupation forces--but ended his speech by calling for a vote for Kerry, who is committed to extending the U.S. occupation. Global Exchange cofounder Medea Benjamin argued that Kerry himself isn't the issue, but that the reelection of George W. Bush would be viewed by Iraqis as sanctioning the war.

Speaking at one of the larger meetings, Eric Mann, a veteran activist and director of the Los Angeles-based Strategy Center, called for a "united front with Kerry against imperialism"--then devoted much of his speech to attacking the independent presidential campaign of Ralph Nader. No doubt the prevailing desire to help Kerry get elected was a main reason why organizers of the BSF chose not to conclude with any declaration of shared principles--as the World Social Forums all have--or with a demonstration to raise opposition to militarism and neoliberalism.

This pro-Kerry sentiment goes against the spirit of the social forum movement of promoting grassroots organizing and the development of social movements, rather than election campaigns. The World Social Forum, for example, maintains its independence by specifically rejecting any association with political parties. But what is even more of a contradiction is the fact that Kerry is opposed to everything the social forum movement stands for.

The BSF brought together many activists who helped to lead the movement against George Bush's war on Iraq. Kerry voted for the war and wants to extend and expand the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Several powerful sessions at the BSF focused on the attacks on the civil liberties of Arabs and Muslims--with the director of the Massachusetts ACLU, Nancy Murray, warning that "the last time the U.S. government profiled the 'enemy within' the way it is profiling Muslims and Middle Easterners today, it ended up forcing more than 110,000 Japanese Americans and non-citizens of Japanese descent into internment camps."

Yet John Kerry voted for the USA PATRIOT Act, and his running mate John Edwards regularly repeats that Democrats in the White House will strengthen "homeland security." Despite this record, the BSF gave a platform to the Democrats to promote Kerry's candidacy, while preventing other voices from being heard.

Reportedly, various figures who support Kerry worked behind the scenes to prevent Ralph Nader from speaking at the forum. Meanwhile, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) spoke several times. Kucinich was among the most liberal of the Democrats who sought the party's presidential nomination, and he made his proposal for the creation of a "Department of Peace" a centerpiece of his campaign.

But in the run-up to the convention, he abandoned his effort to get the Democrats to adopt an antiwar platform. His mission at the BSF was obvious--push John Kerry.

"I ran for president as a Democrat to bring these principles into the party," Kucinich said at one session. "John Kerry represents a chance for a new direction...We can't predict what John Kerry will bring us. I'm in this with my eyes wide open but John Kerry did tell me, 'I want to make the White House a Department of Peace.'"

Dedrick Muhammad, an activist with United for a Fair Economy, was one among a minority of speakers who challenged the predominance of "lesser evilism" at the BSF. "Kerry is Clinton, and under Bill Clinton, there were 500,000 dead children in Iraq," Muhammad said. "The two parties both have all-white, all-male, all-millionaire tickets," he said. "There's nothing to vote for."

Though Nader didn't speak at the BSF, Peter Camejo, his running mate and a leading member of the Green Party in California, addressed a meeting of 125 people during the last session of the BSF. He argued that activists should reject the logic of voting for the "lesser evil"--and that social movements won't move forward until they break with the Democratic Party.

"We do not have a party of the people," Camejo said. "We have a political party that is one of the most effective instruments for the rule of money over people. The Democrats...guarantee that there will be no opposition to the Republicans in the U.S. That is the role they play. They will co-opt, absorb, derail and demobilize every protest movement that comes along--and they have succeeded so far."

The kind of struggles that can represent an alternative to the Washington status quo were on display at other meetings of the BSF. One discussion sponsored by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty drew 100 people to hear a panel of speakers that included activist Shujaa Graham, a former California death row prisoner.

"When the pictures of the torture from Abu Ghraib came out, I knew it was true because they did the same kind of things to us when I was in prison," Graham said. "As long as people continue their suffering in the prisons and on death row, I will always be a condemned man."

At a meeting called "Why We Can't Wait: The Fight for Gay Marriage," speakers argued against putting the fight for gay marriage on hold in order to elect Kerry. Rebecca Rotzler, the deputy mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., described how she and New Paltz Mayor Jason West--both Green Party members--defied state law in an act of civil disobedience to perform more than 230 "illegal" marriages of gay couples in the past several months--including a mass wedding of 1,000 people. Rotzler pointed out that if the Democrats had beaten the Greens in New Paltz, these marriages would not be taking place.

Meanwhile, the BSF featured dozens of cultural events--from a film series of political documentaries, to a summit on alternative media, to a political hip-hop festival. "Music reflects our daily lives--part of my daily life is organizing," said Boston-based hip-hop artist Optimist. "Hip-hop is a political tool I've used to network and politicize people, so there's a place for me at this conference"

The BSF was an important step along the road toward future social forums in the U.S. It also highlighted many of the political questions that activists will have to debate in our fight to show that another world is possible--above all, the question of whether supporting Democrats should take precedence over independent organizing.

Actor Danny Glover spoke for many when he stressed the importance of struggle. "Neither party represents the needs of the people--for economic development, for job development, for education, for health care," Glover told a crowd of 400 at one meeting. "Demand that both parties bring our troops home and stop this war of aggression."

Meredith Kolodner and Tom Arabia also contributed to this article.

"We found bodies everywhere"

WHILE THE Democrats were preparing to celebrate John Kerry's promise to be a more effective war leader, the BSF brought together people who opposed the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq. At a meeting called "The World Says No to War," former Marine Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey gave a powerful speech about what he witnessed as a soldier in Iraq.

"I am here to tell you about the atrocities that I and my men committed in Iraq, in your name, with your tax dollars," he said. "When we entered Baghdad, we entered through a passageway that had high concrete walls on either side. If they had wanted to kill us, it was a perfect ambush situation. They didn't even try.

"We were told to aim our guns on some young men down the road who seemed to be holding pictures of Saddam Hussein and a Muslim cleric. All of sudden, we heard a bullet whiz overhead. My men began to discharge their weapons. I turned around and aimed my weapon at the crowd and began to shoot.

"When we stopped, we sent a recon team to go and check out the scene--to make sure it was a clean kill. I did not look at the faces, I only looked for weapons. There were none. We didn't find one weapon, but we found bodies everywhere.

"I told myself that this is what happens in war. But over the next 48 hours, it happened again and again and again. I can attest that myself and my unit killed at least 30 civilians in this manner. It began to get to me, and when my captain asked me what was wrong, I told him, 'Sir, this was a bad day.' And he turned and looked at me and said, 'No, today was a good day.'...

"I'll tell you where the insurgency came from. They came from the family members of the civilians that we killed, innocent civilians. If someone came from another country and killed my son, I would take care of business...

"I told the Marines: I don't want your paycheck, I don't want your benefits, your pension. I didn't sign up to with Marine Corps to kill innocent civilians. I am not a mercenary."

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