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A Million Against the War: The European Social Forum

Virginia Rodino
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

In spite of irrational fear-mongering by the Berlusconi-run press that the people of Florence should expect violence and mayhem, and in the face of the UN Security Council’s unanimous vote of support for Bush’s war, 60,000 people were welcomed into Florence, Italy, in early November to discuss global solutions to war, neo-liberalism, and racism. Numbers far exceeded expectations, as the 40,000 registration badges ran out the second day of the forum. Food lines were long and sessions were packed, but the organization of the mostly volunteer-run Forum was extraordinary.

In preparation for the largest anti-war march to date, registrants of the Social Forum participated in conference sessions, workshops, seminars, and campaign meetings. 1,500 translators for 5 different languages were organized for the 1,000 speakers who presented in 30 conference sessions, 200 workshops, 150 seminars, and 25 campaign meetings. Topics included ending Third World debt, commodification of education, sexuality, immigration and migrant workers, privatization, Islamophobia, health care, women’s liberation, homelessness, hunger, and even children’s issues.

The European Social Forum followed the model of the 2001 World Social Forum (WSF), which has been held in Porto Allegre, Brazil, for the past two years. The charter for the WSF, determined in January 2001, describes the Forum as an open space for democratic debate and exchange of ideas by groups, movements, and individuals in order to propose international collective action opposing imperialism and neo-liberalism. The WSF began the search for economic and political alternatives in the firm belief that “another world is possible.”

Two crucial practical outcomes of the ESF have been: 1) the Call of the European Social Movements, where movements and organizations have pledged their commitment to discuss alternatives and extend their networks in the coming year; and 2) the endorsement of hosting a European-wide day of demonstrations against the war in every capital city in Europe on February 15, 2003. The US in particular was strongly urged to conduct its own massive demonstration against the Bush-led war on that date.

The high point of the European Social Forum was, however, the planned rally against the war, which occurred at the end of the Forum and amassed a million people. Welcoming hundreds of thousands who did not make it to the ESF, Forum delegates joined protesters from all over Italy as well as other European countries to participate in the largest anti-war demonstration to date.

Festival of protest

The march against the war began two hours early because of the enormity of the crowd. As the first protesters reached the stadium at sunset, where a celebratory concert and slate of speakers ended the demonstration, thousands of activists were just beginning the march, arriving by the trainload at the other side of Florence. Throughout the night thousands of protesters walked the beautiful route of the demonstration.

The support of the citizens of Florence was unreal. Rather than heckling or ignoring us, Italians of all ages, especially senior citizens sang, clapped, chanted, and cheered in support of our calls for socialism, revolution, and anti-fascism. Banners, flags, and white sheets of peace could be seen from hundreds of balconies and windows of apartments and housing complexes.

The peaceful and thoughtful determination of the massive crowd and the support of the Italian people posed such a dangerous precedent for the global elite that Berlusconi swooped in and the state made dozens of arrests of ESF organizers and Italian activists after the internationals left Florence. The European activist community is certainly aware and active against this further breach of justice and civil liberties of political dissenters. Italian embassies have been the site of numerous solidarity protests in support of those arrested. The reaction of the state demonstrates clearly the supreme success of the European Social Forum.

Social Forums have been held worldwide, including Uruguay, Colombia, Quebec, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Argentina, and Palestine. Cities in the US have also held social forums, including Washington, DC; New York City; San Francisco; and Ithaca, NY. The Asian Forum will be held in Hyderabad, India, on January 2-7, 2003; the third World Social Forum will be held in Porto Allegre from January 23-28; and the Social Forum of the Americas is scheduled for October 2003.

However, despite the already strong role that Social Forums play in this global movement, US activists and movement organizations have been slow to participate. As Naomi Klein wrote after gushing over the grandness of the first WSF, “One thing that wasn’t so big at the World Social Forum was the United States.” Klein reported on the high profile the US received in discussions of imperialism, adding that “actual US citizens, though, were notably scarce.” Klein concluded that US parochialism is to blame: “If it doesn’t happen in the United States, if it isn’t in English, if it’s not organized by American groups, it can’t be all that important….”

It is not too late to take an active part in this truly global movement of participatory democracy. US activists should be at the planning meetings of the World Social Forums as well as the American-based forums, such as the Panamerican Forum and the Social Forum of the Americas. By joining forces internationally, we will both learn and share, inspire and be inspired by struggles beyond our borders. US anti-capitalist groups should participate in the writing of an American Social Forum charter. We can begin this work by organizing for the mass mobilizations planned for February 15 against war and capitalism. Another World Is Possible.