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News :: DNC
Questions re the Boston Social Forum
25 Jul 2004
Modified: 04:24:13 PM
Sodexco defeats New England Activists!
Sodexco bars local, healthy, socially responsible food from activist forum
I just returned to my home in Willow, New York, from the Boston Social Forum. The long drive gave me space to think about the event, and I thought I would post some thoughts, especially as I am afraid discussion of the forum will soon be overwhelmed by events at the DNC. But I think it is important to contemplate the purposes and outcomes of events such as the BSF as plans go forward for a west coast version.

Just what are these events, these 'social forums"? Initially, I understand, the idea was to take the initiative after Seattle and to hold events that were more forward looking, less reactive, which posed solutions and models, and didn't rely on just railing against the system.

I didn't attend any of the Porto Alegre Forums, but was able last January to go to Mumbai. At that event there were well over 100,000 people, the vast majority from India. Although there was a "counter event" across the street called the Mumbai Resistance, the Forum itself was a wild affair with a vast range of discussions and cultural events. Most impressive was the coming together from all over the sub-continent of peoples from the two most deprived social classes in India, the Dalits (the 'untouchables") and the Adivasi, the indiginous peoples. For them, this gathering was an historic coming together, a resounding battle cry in their struggles for justice. The internationalistas present were important endorsers of their human rights and that itself gave the event legitimacy.
Post-Mumbai discussions about Social Forums have proposed that the most important "next step" is to have regional and more localized forums. Well, the Boston event was fulfilling that mandate, and here are my thoughts about this Atlantic coast whale.

In contrast to the Mumbai Forum, there was scant evidence of representation by disenfranchised peoples at the Boston Social Forum. Although there were people of color scattered here and here, the crowd was pretty white, even though my daily route to the forum location at the UMass campus passed through one of the largest black urban communities in the United States. I am sure there was "good will" and the "best of intentions" on the part of the organizing committee for this event, but I hope that in retrospect, and in preparation for similar events to come there is some serious rethinking of how to "do the right thing" in the future.

The most often heard comment was a question, "Where is the food?" I was positioned at a table near the door of one of the display lobbies and literally everyone who entered the door would grasp for my attention, not to discuss the videos we were screening or the flyers we were handing out, but to entreat me more information, "Where can we get something to eat?" The answer, sadly, was only one place. The contract with the university mandated that the only food providers would be that vile corporation of prison fame, Sodexho. This company, the largest food service company in the world, has a strangle hold not only on most prisons and universities, but also on our would-be liberated events such as the Social Forum. The university had said that there would be five food "cafes" open. For most of the time there was only ONE, which had a bit of candy and soft drinks and one or two choices of grossly overpriced white bread processed food sandwiches. It is hard to believe that with the rich ethnic diversity of the Boston area there couldn't have been twenty or thirty food stalls at which local people could have served homemade nutritious food. But NO! the Sodexco corporation would not allow it! Here is an issue for the Forum to truly address. A local issue, an issue with vital substance, an issue on which our lives depend. Could there not have been some enterprizing group of Food Not Bombers to bring some actual real food to the thousands of attendees? Were the organizers too cowed to resist? What hope for any sort of social revolution exists if people cannot even ensure their daily sustenance? Could this not have been an issue to organize around? The resulting deprivation lead to many a cranky response to panels and lectures. How can one listen if one is only fed coke and candy? I salivated remembering all the delicious samosas that local people provided in Mumbai. The mood in Boston was verging on hypoglycemia. The next forum had better ensure that there be healthy, local, non corporate food or there will be a Potemkin style revolt.

After losing another dollar in the non-functioning ice cream machine, I spent about twenty minutes trying to find the "Media Summit" in the library. This event was well publicized on multi-colored brochures (where do they get their money?). Finally I traversed the maze of hallways and stairwells and found a reception table where I was asked to fill out a long questionnaire to enter. Beyond lay something much more desirable than rhetoric about media: FOOD. This Social Forum event actually provided nuts, popcorn, chips and water to those willing to fill out the form. (Who is paying for this?)
Once inside with my plate of goodies, I was surrounded by all sorts of high tech media, projectors, shotgun microphones and various recorders and laptops. (Who is paying for this?)
Some of my white male colleagues who had been invited to be 'on the panel" whispered to me that they had been told they only had 60 seconds to speak, but that the person talking had been going on for over 15 minutes. Who was the person talking? A guy who works for Harry Thomasson and who has helped to make a film about Bill Clinton and how he has been slandered by the media. He shows an elaborate trailer which extolls Clinton and disses Jennifer Flowers. It is full of violin crescendos and very fancy video wipes. The lights come on and the discussion veers into the virtue or venality of Clinton. Wait a minute, I scream, I thought this was supposed to be a summit about alternative media?
A slick professional facilitator quickly grabs the mike. She introduces herself as someone who began as a teacher and learned that education is not just pouring information into the heads of young people. (Oh great, I think, is she going to talk about Freire, and education as social activism, as action, as process?) No, she says, education is a science and needs specialists who are trained in the techniques of modern (sic) communication skills. Which is why (and now I understand where the money for this "summit is coming from) we need Al Gore and his network, which will hire the skilled technicians who can make media for our causes. It's not enough to tell the truth, she says, we need to know HOW to convince people it is true.

The paper put out for this event listed thirteen media makers and activists who were supposed to speak-- I guess for 60 seconds when the Clinton and Gore people finished.

One of the problems with these events is that they are there for the coopting. What the hell is are shills for Bill Clinton and Al Gore doing at an event like this?

At this point I walked out.

See you in Seattle.
DeeDee Halleck
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Re: Questions re the Boston Social Forum
25 Jul 2004
the answer to about 80% of the issues you just raised is that it was almost exclusively leftist/marxist/reformist/liberal/progressive/whatever they want to call themselves professional academics and yuppies. i don't think there's even a need for an extended critique right now. fuck a bunch of that shit.

p.s. a handful of bona fide radicals brought a bag of dumpstered donuts. score one for the good guys.
Re: Questions re the Boston Social Forum
25 Jul 2004
yay, eating food out of trash just like poor people! that's so spiritual.
Re: Questions re the Boston Social Forum
26 Jul 2004
It is not a surprise that UMass would give sodhexo a stranglehold on food "service" at the Forum. Remember that UMass was one of three sites for the bogus, scripted, fascist non-debates between gore & bush in 2000. Some self-styled, self-serving "universities" care nothing about Truth & everything about power & money. UMass sucks.
Re: Questions re the Boston Social Forum
26 Jul 2004
if by spiritual you mean "free and not enriching to horrible wealthy racist corporations" then yeah i guess it was prtty spiritual. dickhead.
Re: Questions re the Boston Social Forum
26 Jul 2004
I agree that there were lots of things wrong with the BSF. The miserable food, the frustrating challenge of finding rooms in the idiotically numbered UMass buildings (for example, room 207 was on the *third* floor), the overwhelmingly white crowd (as a Boston-area organizer, however, I can tell you how understandably very difficult it can be to involve people in communities who are engaged in a daily struggle for survival), the bad acoustics in large rooms, etc. etc.

BUT . . .

This was the first time, the organizers surmounted extraordinary hurdles and did an incredible job! Despite all the problems I had a wonderful time (and so did many people I know), was able to make the experience into one that worked, and wouldn't trade it in for anything.

Do better next time? Of course, and it's up to all of us. But it's a great start, and let's keep it going!
Re: Questions re the Boston Social Forum
26 Jul 2004
It's true, the food situation sucked and there were some other problems too. But overall I thought it was a really good event.

One comment about the perceived whiteness of the BSF - I would say for sure that the participants at the event did not reflect the diversity of the city of Boston, which is less than half white. But we can say that we would have liked the event to be more diverse without refusing to see the people of color who were participants, panelists, and behind-the-scenes motivators for the social forum. There actually were very many people of color from very diverse backgrounds - I won't hazard a guess at a percentage. If you didn't see or hear from these people at the forum, you might have just had your blinders on. Or maybe you weren't going to the workshops and events that drew large numbers of people of color because they addressed issues more central to their experience, and you were still stuck in yours. If that's the case, then you missed a pretty great opportunity.
Re: Questions re the Boston Social Forum
26 Jul 2004
Frankly, the Sodexho shit is a red herring. Yes, it sucks to give them business. There were also Coke machines all over the campus. But the organizers had a choice either to go with Sodexho or not go with UMass. And if they didn't go with UMass, the main other choice that was available from the research folks were doing would have been MIT, a private institution with major ties to the military.

So DeeDee, which would you have rather supported? MIT or UMass? It's easy to criticize from afar over the internet, but given shitty choices in the real world, I thinkt hat the organizers were right to go with UMass.
Re: Questions re the Boston Social Forum
26 Jul 2004
Oh, and Den Mark, thanks for the cross-country dis of one of the few working class schools in Boston. Yeah, it's run by the state and was the site of a bullshit debate. It's also where a lot of wonderful people go to school and teach. To just say that it sucks is really useful critique.