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The European Social Fora
from space to space to space
From the Newswire by Seedot: A report and pics from a weekend in London - covers the Camden Centre, Beyond the ESF and the Official ESF.
The ideals of the social forum process speak of the creation of a space for dialog and debate between the many social movements that present an opposition to capitalism. The Porto Allegre principles are designed to ensure as inclusive and broad a forum as possible, to encourage the cross-fertilization of all these strands that make up what is referred to as the 'movement'. While the London organising process has been heavily criticised for its departures from the charter of principles many people traveled to London because of the sheer scale of the event, the opportunity to see the differences between the groups and test the pulse of the European movements. The diversity was supposed to be the strength of the social forum, the size was supposed to overcome the problems in the organising with space for everyone in the various events.
Before I left Dublin I had read of the range of groups and spaces and thought that the weekend would be an opportunity to witness this marvelous coming together that many had spoken of in the social forum process. The weekend before I had sat in a circle at the Irish Social Forum and heard academics, trade unionists, social democrats and anarchists discussing their opposing and complimentary views of neo-liberalism and their strategies for dealing with it. The meeting had been positive, not least for the links that were made and the comparisons drawn with the mass movement that developed in Ireland a century before as Nationalism, Socialism and what came to be Irish Republicanism coalesced to defeat the imperialism of that time. London was supposed to be this on a much larger stage.
Flying home my feelings were more of frustration and opportunities missed than any real satisfaction or excitement. I attended events at the Indymedia Centre in Camden, at the Beyond the ESF in Tottenham and the 'Official' ESF at Alexander Palace. Each event was well organised and attended yet it felt like I had been to three conferences in the one weekend. The frustration was that the linkages and cross fertilizations seem to have been ruled out even before the event began as each of the movements retreated into its own space, establishing multiple fora which talked amongst themselves. While what happened was thoughtful, sincere and at times exciting it was what didn't happen that left the lasting impression.
The Media Space
After being involved in setting up the media centre in Dublin during the Mayday mobilisation I have huge respect for what was achieved by Indymedia UK (United Kollektives) in the Camden centre. The space was fantastic, the debates about infowar and propaganda (I was there on the Friday) were really important and the range of media available was brilliant. There were three rooms of public access machines, including 15 or so in the canteen/bar and a large screening / meeting space. As is usual at this type of thing, the management of the centre took away from the business of Indymedia but the Saturday morning meeting gave a chance for many different Indymedia groups to discuss the recent server seizures.
Both the UK and the overall network seems to be evolving in its attitude to dealing with corporate media, mainly as a result of the recent server seizures. The quick and wholehearted support of groups such as the International Federation of Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontiers on this attack on the network did much to help this evolution. The discussion on info war included a contributor from the NUJ who analysed the requirements to construct a story for mainstream media and the audience seemed focused on using rather than replacing other media.
Attendance wasn't great in the mornings but apparently the Friday night saw the big party of the alternative ESF taking place in the hall. The computers downstairs were in constant use both for checking mail etc. and, later in the weekend, for filing reports on the various actions that were taking place. Food was excellent and cheap, the whole atmosphere was positive and supportive and it was good to put faces to the many nicknames and email addresses I had dealt with over the last couple of years. As a place to find out what was happening where in London over the weekend the centre worked with many people calling in on their way to and from other events – aided by its proximity to Kings Cross station.
But in many ways the centre felt isolated as no non-media discussions took place within walking distance and it seemed somehow out of the loop. There has been criticism of the reporting of the ESF on the Indymedia UK newswire (mainly by people who attended the ESF, didn't write about their experiences and then visited to website looking for other peoples reports). While the UK wire has always been excellent at reporting actions, a function which it again filled admirably over the weekend, there was little on the politics of the ESF. I searched in vain for any news about the EU Constitution discussions or the outcome of Assembly of the Social Movement, both of which were absent from the newswire.
The main problem was the location – the open access computers should have been in Alexander Palace (ESF) where the concepts and practices of free media were most needed. The people who had least to gain from info war analysis were the people who were in the media centre – those already involved in the project. In some ways this isolation meant that the centre turned into a network type meeting for the wider European Indymedia network – which is a good thing in itself but could happen at any time.
The Womble Space
Leaving Camden we took the long train journey up to the Beyond the ESF space in Middlesex University in Tottenham. One of the more fascinating things about the UK anarchist movement is their abilities at graphic design. Their programme was the best looking piece of literature I saw all weekend, the entrance was hung with a great banner quoting Gerard Winstanley and the entrance hall had flyers and leaflets of a very high standard. Here the voluntary ethos that was evident in the media centre was reinforced as food was served free from Marquees in the grounds and the registration desk not only didn't take money, but didn't seem to take names or any details – handing out (well designed) invitations as entry tickets.
The canteen was full of sociology staff and students trying to get people to fill out huge questionnaires (the price for the use of the building?) and the workshops and plenaries were firmly focused on planning and organising. On Friday the theme was the G8 conference next year in Scotland and we tried but failed to get into the Clown Army workshop which was completely packed out. Then the crisis struck – the bar had been shut and it seemed there was no alcohol to be had on campus. Muttering about the need for a beyond the beyond the esf space which would be truly free and where you could get a beer we trekked past 3 boarded up pubs to one full of Spurs scarves and other refugees from the oppressive, rule laden space that was the Beyond the ESF.
That evening we returned for the Dissent plenary on the Visions for the G8 process. This was held in the form of a spokes council, which sort of worked for what it was – a brainstorming session on what people wanted to happen next year. While the format allows everybody to have their say a couple of big debates were missed out – not least on the use / non-use of violence in the protests. The most interesting thing was the focus on infrastructure (both for the protestors and of the G8) and the need to create links with workers and residents in the area. This move from the 'spectacular' made perfect sense, both because of the logistics of the location and the need to develop and escape the 'kettle' that people felt was being used too effectively against them.
But the weakness of the Beyond the ESF space was most clearly seen here. The very people that this should be discussed with, the more radical elements of the trade unions, were nowhere to be seen, all being up in Alexander Palace. While the Beyond the ESF was very international, it many ways it seemed sort of uniform – white, young and oriented towards action not theory. Loads of energy, creativity and a positive atmosphere – but it was difficult to find any debate or cross fertilization. The closest I came was a leaflet from the GMB on sweatshops – but no-one (not in Tottenham or later on the GMB stand in Ally Pally) knew how this trade union literature had found its way across the city.
The Official Space
While the Indymedia space could cater for maybe a thousand people and the Wombles possibly two thousand Alexander Palace was on a different scale altogether. Outside Wood Green tube station crowds of attendees (the Guardian called them delegates but i doubt that) filled rows of double decker buses for the climb up the hill. The palace was surrounded by Marquees and you had to run the standard gauntlet of paper sellers to get in the door. Once inside, after negotiating the heavy entrance fee (St£15 for one day??), avoidable via side doors, rushing through the entrance or a variety of other means you were faced with the noise of hundreds of stands and dozens of simultaneous meetings.
The programme, in the form of a tabloid newspaper, ran to 76 pages. More than anything else, this reminded me of the Internet World shows I had attended in New York at the height of the Internet boom. Same mass of stalls with eager people trying to catch your eye, same big meetings running side by side, same overpriced 'world' food. While there were glimpses here and there of art work and slogans and creativity most of it seemed to have been packaged and prepared for sale. The floor was strewn with leaflets on environmentalism, the larger stages had their sponsors banners and all the services were provided by the standard, uniformed, trained to be invisible minimum wage workers.
As far as I could figure there were three main groups involved: NGOs and campaigning groups; the large UK Trade Unions; and all of Europe's hard left parties. No visible social democratic ruling parties, no direct action / libertarian groups and no real sign of the vitality and diversity that is supposed to represent this movement. As is normal in a foreign country, every familiar Irish face is latched onto and drilled for their impressions, what they've been to and whats on next. I had missed the Iraqi trade unionist the evening before who was prevented from speaking and could only admire the preparation of the political parties as I was shown the assigned seminars that people had been given. A lot of the time I felt adrift and not really engaged with what was going on around me.
I did try though. A seminar on the constitution looked promising and when I arrived Susan George was just finishing a speech that i am sure was word for word from a recent article. More interesting was a French Socialist who stressed the need for a campaign on the constitution – that didn't get hijacked into a referendum on membership of the EU. Next up was a German Green, who spoke at length and with much passion. Unfortunately I didn't have a clue what he said since everybody spoke in their own language and you needed a headset to pick up the simultaneous translation. By Saturday lunchtime it was very difficult to get hold of a headset so I went looking for something in my limited range of languages.
A meeting on the Hijab provided the first bit of excitement as the platform, which were all from groups opposed to the French ban, had to deal with contributions, heckles and some rather spirited singing in French. The crowd seemed strongly with the platform although the statement that those opposing voices who demanded to be heard sat uncomfortably with me. I know that is the way the social forum works, with groups proposing their own workshops, but in the larger meetings with a top table and limited contributions from the floor it seems some balance should be an objective. Maybe I only felt that way because, on this issue, I was strongly with the noisy minority.
By now I decided to be a bit more structured in dealing with the forum and tried to find out about the EU constitution campaigns in different countries, about the debates that had been happening at the social forum on it and whether there would be a motion at the Assembly of Social Movements on it. At least it gave me an excuse to talk to people on stalls asking about each countries campaign. This seemed a good idea but after an hour I realised the best information I got was from an Irish guy I know well who I could have just rung. I also got fed up being told about the workshops i had missed and the Italian comrade who supposedly had spoken very well – but nobody was sure what he had said. I went looking for a computer to see if any reports had been uploaded, only to find that the media centre was only available to those who had some business being there. It was made plain to me that that did not include me.
I went outside to the Marquees to hear Mary Lou MacDonald from Sinn Fein and Dave Prentis from Unison in different tents avoiding talking about anything of interest. Whatever about Mary Lou who was in the coldest meeting I have ever attended, Prentis seemed to think that announcing a joint venture with the largest German public sector union and focusing on pensions was preferable to talking about public services which he had been billed to do. The funny thing was the trade union speeches in general ignored the left wing parties, talking about how great it was to link up with environmental groups and ngos. The Left wing parties ignored the NGO's focusing on the potential of the trade unions joining the movement. And the NGO's ignored everything except their own campaigns. Maybe it was just me, but even here, with a huge crowd the promised synergies and cross fertilization seemed missing.
I left the ESF before the storming of the palace, before the Assembly, before the march which may or may not have been an ESF march. I had a bag filled with newspapers and leaflets and a notebook with email addresses and contacts. I never really figured out what the whole thing was for.
Looking for information on the web just left me more confused. Two days after the event I have yet to find anything that resembles real information on what went on. The Guardian had a few puff pieces online, Indymedia UK had blow by blow accounts of the arrests and actions and a French site www.penelopes.org has some nice impressionistic writing. Maybe its too early for reports from the physical spaces to have reached the virtual space which are supposed to be where the new movements network and theorize and organize. But maybe these will be as splintered as the spaces in London last weekend with each group reporting on its own space through its own medium. Maybe I'm just crap at conferences.
When I read about Paris last year the main complaint was that the forum was spread out too much. This year it seems to have split up entirely creating a new beast – the European Social Fora.
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