Un altro mondo è possibile

Submitted by on 19 November, 2002 - 2:42

Lucy Clement, Mike Rowley and Martin Thomas report on the European Social Forum held in Florence from 6 to 10 November.

  • European Students' Appeal
  • Making working-class politics central
  • A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum
    By Mick Duncan, No Sweat organiser, whom Italian police banned from the ESF
  • No Sweat seminar
  • Frontline poetry: Bella Ciao
  • Discussing class

Up to 60,000 attended the ESF. Up to a million - more than twice the city's population - turned out to demonstrate against the war on Saturday 9th. These were five days of inspiration.

It's hard, even a few days after the event, to have an picture of everything that went on. At times it was frustrating, just too big, too confusing. But it was, truly, wonderful. The main centre of the Forum was a old military base, the Fortezza da Basso, now converted to host the huge trade fairs which sustain Florence's hotels outside the main tourist season. Not this week.

The Fortezza was swarming with people looking for meetings (a challenge in itself!), searching for food, holding impromptu extra meetings or demonstrations of one sort or another. (An anarchist demonstration reworked the Forum's official slogans - Stop the war, another world is possible - as Stop the world, another war is possible.) The walls were plastered with hundreds of posters and leaflets.

The Forum attracted lots of young people. The general political atmosphere, if such a thing can be judged, was of enthusiastic, generous identification with people's struggles everywhere against entrenched power. Outside the main building hung a dozen banners - calling for everything from a federal, reunified Cyprus, to a ban on food imports. Slogans against the war dominated. Beside the entrance there was a huge picture of Carlo Giuliani, killed by police at the Genoa protests.

The main building had two floors of political stalls, almost all from campaign groups rather than parties. The Workers' Liberty stall had Women in Black on one side, a Kurdish solidarity group on the other, Peace Brigades International opposite us, and a campaign against sanctions on Iraq next to them. At any given time there were half a dozen large "conferences", with up to 2,000 people in each, 20-odd middle-sized "seminars" (up to 200 strong), and dozens of smaller "workshops" running. Translation facilities ranged from excellent to nil. It seemed that most people at the Forum had not even attempted to follow any large number of sessions, and had settled for just soaking up the atmosphere.

European Students' Appeal

Several meetings were held at the ESF which brought together students from across the continent. A European Students' Appeal has been issued, of which this is an abridged version:

"We are students, and as students we take part in the Florence meeting because we think that a better world can be built, starting from a new kind of knowledge and education. Knowledge is today the real instrument for people's emancipation, for liberation, for the building of democracy, for active citizenship. Knowledge and instruction must be of everyone and for everyone, as resources for a dignified life. The social, economic and cultural barriers that deny access to knowledge must be destroyed, to guarantee to everybody the possibility of studying. We believe that international interventions, such as the GATS treaty between the WTO member countries, go in exactly the opposite direction of what we want, because they come from the dangerous principle that knowledge is a commodity on sale, that it can become a negotiable service, an expensive privilege in the hands of a few people, with the aim of someone's profit, ruled by the laws of the market. For this reason we want to build an alternative based on inclusion, rights, participation and multiculturality."

Making working-class politics central

Officially, political parties could not participate in the conferences and seminars. This was intended to be a forum of the new movements rather than the traditional left. But in fact it was very much Rifondazione Comunista's event.

The paper of Italy's Communist Refoundation Party claimed they had some 5,000 delegates at the event, that hundreds of its activists were helping with the organisation and that it had 20 members on the organising committee. Its stalls were prominent. Its flags and banners dominated the anti-war demonstration. Its leader, Fausto Bertinotti, got a rapturous reception at the big meeting which discussed the relationship between political parties and social movements.

Some of the iconography of the Forum was a little uncomfortable. On the Rifondazione stall red headscarves with a hammer and sickle print were for sale. Posters, t-shirts, flags of Che Guevara were ubiquitous.

But somehow that seemed more generous populism, an enthusiastic identification with struggle, than curdled chauvinism or - at least on the part of the young - any real partiality to Stalinism. People here were desperate to carry on the fight for workers, women and all the exploited against global capital - and to globalise our own movement. Many of them are not quite sure how to do it.

The final assembly - thousands strong - was not strong on detail. Speaker after speaker told of their struggles against privatisation, against racism, for women's rights, to stop environmental destruction, to bring together workers across Europe, for a new European charter of rights. What we should do next, and how we should do it, was always a little elusive.

But the beginnings of the detail will have been worked out across the stalls, in conversations... and now, of course, we know who's out there, who we can talk to.

We've found people who share at least some of our ideas who we might never otherwise have met. On the bus back to our accommodation on the last night of the Forum, someone shouted, in English, "The workers united will never be defeated!" The chant was taken up in Spanish, in Italian.. We ended up singing the Internationale in English and French. Los obreros unidos... Les travailleurs unis... Die Arbeiter vereinigt... The workers united.

Not just in Europe, but in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Mexico and throughout the world. We, the socialists and the workers' movement of the world, are the only ones who can make it happen. And at the European Social Forum we were inspired.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum
By Mick Duncan, No Sweat organiser, whom Italian police banned from the ESF
A coach load of us set off from London to attend the European Social Forum in Florence. Deep in conspiratorial mode we discussed who we wanted to look out for when we got there, who was going to be responsible for promoting our conference/comedy night/T-shirts and most importantly where the best bars and ice cream places were. Obviously the state couldn't be allowing this sort of carry on!

After travelling for about 18 hours or so, we reached the Swiss/Italian border at about 4am. The Italian police stopped the coach and searched it and everyone on board. After an hour or so of hanging around they came back and called for "Mr Duncan". About this point I started to panic, for good reason it turned out.

I was informed that I had been "electronically identified as undesirable". This coming from an out-of-shape, Mussolini-loving, gun-toting Italian copper! Frankly, by comparison I consider myself pretty bloody desirable. Never mind. No one could or would tell me how I had been identified or for what reason I was being taken from the coach.

I was not charged with anything. I was taken into an office, searched again and given a piece of paper, in Italian, informing me that I was being banned from entering Italian territory, in order to maintain public security for the duration of the ESF.

Eventually I was escorted to the Swiss side where I was searched again and had my passport checked over one last time for good measure. After an hour or so I was given a lift to a small train station by a Swiss policeman who told me I was "welcome to stay in Switzerland but it is better that you go home". Not the warmest welcome ever, but it was at least getting better.

How did this come about? The Italian state had suspended its EU agreement on the freedom of movement. The British police, it would appear had used legislation designed against "football hooligans" - without charge, trial or committed offence - to provide their Italian counterparts with lists of people suspected of being organisers in the "anti-capitalist movement" or people arrested on anything like a May Day protest. I can only assume that it is my record for a caution resulting from a No Sweat demo at Nike Town on May Day a year and a half ago that resulted in me being refused entry.

Apparently hundreds were prevented from attending the anarchist fringe event that ran alongside the ESF. This is a very worrying attack on our right to organise, meet and discuss. It is an attempt to criminalise a still-emerging movement. It requires our opposition.

Mick was not the only person to be stopped at the frontier by the Italian police. Two Swiss delegates were illegally arrested at the Domodossola border, accused of resisting a state officer. They were later freed when a court ruled the police's action illegal. A German woman was also banned from Italy and turned back at the border. Her crime? To have been arbitrarily arrested at the Scuola Diaz in Genoa last summer when police raided the building and beat up dozens of anti-G8 protesters. The ESF organising committee has formally protested to the authorities about the bans, arguing that they breach the Italian constitution.

No Sweat forum

On Friday afternoon, the seminar organised by No Sweat and the Clean Clothes Campaign took place. In the absence of Mick Duncan, Mark Sandell and Vicki Morris spoke for No Sweat alongside trade unionists and anti-sweatshop campaigners from Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. A lively multi-national debate followed, so much so that one of the people doing the simultaneous translations had to ask everyone to speak more slowly! Nearly a hundred people from all over Europe signed up to No Sweat, and it was an excellent opportunity to exchange ideas about how to campaign and where our priorities should lie. A day of action to mark International Women's Day is likely to follow in March next year.

Frontline poetry
Bella Ciao

Marching against the war in Florence last week, we heard the song Bella Ciao numerous times on the demonstration. This was a song of the Italian resistance of World War Two, the partisans who fought Mussolini's fascist troops and the Nazi occupiers.

Its resonance is perhaps sharper today than for years, given the presence in the Berlusconi government of the neofascist Alleanza Nazionale. Last year, after police murdered Carlo Giuliani at the Genoa protests, Bella Ciao was played at demonstrations and marks the determination of those fighting for freedom never to give up, even in the face of death.

The title literally means "hello beauty" or "hello beautiful".

Una mattina mi sono alzata,
O bella ciao, bella ciao,
Bella ciao, ciao, ciao.
Una mattina mi sono alzata
E ho trovato l'invasor.
O partigiano portami via
Ché mi sento di morir.
E se io muoio da partigiano
Tu mi devi seppellir.
E seppellire lassĂą in montagna
Sotto l'ombra di un bel fior.
Tutte le genti che passeranno
Gli diranno: 'O che bel fior!'
E questo Ă© il fiore del partigiano
Morto per la libertĂ !

One morning I awoke
Oh bella ciao, bella ciao,
Bella ciao, ciao, ciao.
One morning I awoke
And I came upon the invader.
Oh partisan, take me away,
I feel I am dying.
And if I die with the partisan
You must bury me
And bury me up there on the
Under the shade of a beautiful flower.
All the people who will pass by
They will say: "Oh what a lovely flower!"
And this is the flower of the partisan
Who died for freedom!

Discussing class

Workers' Liberty held a workshop on the Friday morning about "Capitalism, nation, classes, Empire" - one of only two from the many hundreds of events at the Forum which mentioned "class" in their title. Akis Gavriilidis, a Greek socialist based in Belgium, argued that too much of the left's thinking about world economy is shaped by a skewed reading of Lenin's Imperialism, one which makes conflict between poorer and richer nations central rather than class. In Greece, and in other countries, the left has become nationalist, seeing its main cause as that of Greece against the USA rather than of workers against capitalists. Martin Thomas from the AWL presented a view of the world today as one of the imperialism of free trade, not neo-colonialism. Peter Waterman, a well-known writer in international labour studies, was the final speaker, focusing on the struggle to reclaim the "commons" from the capitalist drive for privatisation and marketisation.

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