By Billy Wharton
24 June, 2010
Day two of the US Social Forum was dominated by workshops put on by every political formation imaginable. There were so many possibilities that meetings stretched out from Cobo Hall across the city to Wayne State University. Social Forum organizers stated that around 18,000 people have already participated in the conference including some 4,000 who haven’t bothered to register officially, but have floated through the myriad of panels and ceremonies. This is a truly mass gathering of progressive forces run on anarchistic principles of openness and cooperation.
Forum organizers spoke to the media as a part of their two-a-day press briefings. In the afternoon session, USSF Communication Coordinator Adele Nieves stated that the Forum was less of a conference and more of a “free space” in which activists can “share stories and strategy.” Organizers were able to grab some national media attention prior to the event, but local news sources tended to be less interested. That is, Nieves stated, until Tuesday’s mass march through Downtown Detroit in which the Social Forum’s strategy “became more crystal clear” to local residents. About 17% of registered participants came from Detroit.
Organizers were also sure to explicitly state the mission and funding sources of the Forum. Organizer Karlos Gauna Schmieder saw the event as part of a larger process that unfolded out of the original World Social Forum meetings. The message from the Global South was that North American activists needed to, “hold your own government accountable.” “We took that seriously,” he stated, “Media is a part of this process.” Thus, despite the massive scale of the operation, the organizers insisted that no corporate money had been used and that the Social Forum itself had no desire to convert itself into an NGO or non-profit organization.
Media Space Models Democracy
The daily briefings are held in a massive media room on the second floor of Cobo Hall. Here, each day, the openness and grassroots democratic aspirations of the Social Forum are put into practice. There are no media passes at the Forum. Any media person is given complete access to all parts of the proceedings as well as technical support from the Forum’s volunteers.
Media and activist groups have the ability to hold press conferences in the media space, use computer facilities and even just take a short rest from the boisterous proceedings of the forum. Today, the center of attention was an hour long conference held by Al-Jazeera English that drew around two dozen reporters and interested observers. Shortly afterwards, Hollywood star Danny Glover turned up and conducted an hour-long impromptu press conference opened to all who could manage to scrape up a camera or audio recorder. And throughout the day an army of reporters, bloggers and the curious filtered into the room each treated in a welcoming and supportive way.
Such a democratic environment is made possible by bleary eyed techies that buzz around the room all day. Matt is one of the two dozen or so engaged in this project. He described living on two or three hours of sleep a night as the group attempted to create a computer infrastructure capable of meeting the needs of hundreds of media activists and the processing of thousands of registrations. The meltdown of a server late Tuesday night was just the latest bump in the road for this DIY crew who fashion themselves as the plumbers of the Social Forum – “nobody notices us unless something is broken.”
One floor below the Media Center is an entirely different world located deep in the cavernous recesses of Cobo Hall – the land of tables. Row after row of grey plastic folding tables are adorned with the literature and merchandise of the Forum’s activist groups. Here, one can find everything from a t-shirt adorned with the mosaic image of the newest revolutionary leader to literature informing you that you are already a global citizen. There are plenty pitches and gimmicks at the tables and even, from one organized by a group calling itself the Voice, a strange odor.
What is most charming about the table section of the Forum are the reunions. If you stand around the hall long enough you are bound to see a heartfelt coming together between two people. Old comrades linking up after years of separation. Young people recognizing each other from previous national mobilizations. And even the oft heard refrain “aren’t we friends on Facebook.” This is, perhaps, the greatest accomplishment of the Social Forum – the human connections it engenders. If nothing more happens this week, we can rest assured that for a few days thousands of people committed to making social change were able to gather in a spirit of free association and spontaneous affinity. Our society could do with more of both.
Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and editor of the Socialist WebZine whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be reached at email@example.com