The Boston Social Forum—and Some Thoughts on the Current Stage of a New Radicalization

by Renee Tanner

The Boston Social Forum (BSF) was held in Boston July 23–25, 2004, and was modeled on the annual World Social Forums, the first three of which were held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001, 2002, and 2003, and the most recent, in Mumbai, India (formerly Bombay). (For Paul Le Blanc’s informative report on the World Social Forum of January 2004 in Mumbai, see the Labor Standard web site.)

Organizers of the Boston Social Forum estimated overall attendance at 3,000; in any case, it was the largest “Social Forum” gathering yet in the United States.

Organized around the theme “Another World Is Possible,” the BSF drew people not only from New England but from around the world, with many international speakers and guests. The event was held on the campus of the University of Massachusetts, Boston (UMass/Boston) three miles south of the downtown area. It was exceptionally well organized with a 43-page printed program—the size of a small newspaper. With nine special events, over 600 workshops organized into 30 subject areas, or “tracks,” and numerous art exhibits and performances, it was endorsed by over 60 organizations. The event represented an impressive organizational achievement of the global justice and antiwar movement.

I will first discuss the scope of the event in more detail, pointing out its positive and inspiring aspects; then I will take up a very disturbing feature—its apparent control by supporters of the Democratic Party.

Special Events

There were at least nine special events organized separately from the workshops in the major “tracks.” One was a film series, including showings of The Corporation, Fahrenheit 911, and a documentary about Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral On a Moving Train. Also there was “An Evening with John Sayles,” featuring clips from his new film Silver City. Other events included an Alternative Media Summit; an International Peace Conference, organized by the European Network for Peace and Human Rights and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC); and an event called Women’s Web/Feminist Agenda, including a women’s tribunal with testimony on violence against women. Also, a Benefit Party for the BSF; an event sponsored by The Fund the Dream Coalition, to take money away from the military budget to fund Martin Luther King’s dream; and an event marking the 20th anniversary of the Committee of Fannie Lou Hamer—a coalition of women and church and community groups, which led a 68-person delegation from the Deep South to Boston for the Democratic National Convention and presented a reenactment of Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech given 40 years ago, read by the actress Billie Jean Young. The AFSC presented a multimedia exhibit called Eyes Wide Open, with the words, images, and sounds of the Iraq war.


In addition to special events there were almost 600 programs in 30 “tracks” that covered the following major themes—Active Arts Youth Conference, Anti-Poverty, BSF Film Series, Climate Change, Corporate Accountability, Criminal Justice/Domestic Repression, Culture, Democracy, The Economy, Education, Environment, International Peace Council, Faith, Fund the Dream, Funding Our Movement, Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Issues, Global Justice, Health, Immigration, Israel-Palestine Conference, Lifestyles and Personal Choices, Jobs and the New England Economy, Localization, Media, Movement Building, Peace, Politics, Science and Technology, Strategic Nonviolence, Students and Youth, Water, Women’s Liberation and the Women’s Web/Feminist Agenda. A projected People of Color Organizers track had been unfortunately eliminated from the final program.

Art Exhibits and Performances

Art exhibits and performances included a Model of the Israeli Wall; a Guerrilla Photo Exhibit from the Global Justice Ecology Project; the Bread and Roses Heritage Committee Exhibit—a traveling exhibit, in multicultural format including music and dance, about the Lawrence, Massachusetts, strike led by the IWW in 1912; and an exhibit by the Beehive Collective, which creates collaborative anti-copyright images that can be used for public education. The Beehive Collective from Maine displayed many of its murals, including ones portraying three major projects for Latin America on the U.S. corporate power agenda—Plan Colombia, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and Plan Pueblo Panama.

Organizations Involved

The press packet listed over 60 organizations as “involved” in the BSF, although it did not indicated in what capacity. Most of them participated by organizing workshops in the different “tracks.” A number of socialist organizations were involved—including the Independent Socialist Organization (ISO), Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), Communist Party USA, and Solidarity—and they presented various workshops, but no socialist organizations were listed as sponsors in the media packet other than the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Other “involved” groups included Boston Fair Trade Action Network, the Ad Hoc Committee to Defend Health Care, ACLU-MA Chapter, AFSC, Asian American Resource Workshop, Centro Presente, Chinese Progressive Association, Greater Boston OWL, Health Care without Harm, Italian American Labor Council, Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, Redstockings, three different SEIU locals, the Tikkun Community, United Electrical Workers District 2, University of New Hampshire Animal Rights, Union of Minority Neighborhoods, Unitarian Universalists for Just Economic Community, United for Peace and Justice, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and Z Magazine.

There were others too numerous to list, but I will say that in addition to the traditional groups that one would expect to be included, there were numerous new groups that represent a broader layer of activism being drawn to the movement. It was very impressive.


The crowd was diverse in the sense of including different cultures and ages with activists from many generations; however, it was still predominantly white. This never seems to bother the organizers of such events and similar activities, including antiwar actions, since the problem is never mentioned or addressed. But it does raise the question, Why is the Black community not present in proportional numbers when the social justice movements are getting together? The UMass/Boston campus sits 20 minutes from the large Black community of Roxbury; yet the organizers failed to involve activists from this community in any sizable or meaningful way. Some representatives were there from the Black and Latino communities, but not in large numbers. There were not many union representatives either. This failing deserves serious discussion leading to proposals for changing this state of affairs if the movement is to progress.


Three convocations, or large assemblies, were held—one on each day of the gathering: one on Friday evening, one on Saturday morning, and the last one on Sunday afternoon. There was no final gathering or assembly Sunday afternoon and no reading of a declaration of principles, as is customary at the end of the World Social Forums.

This could be because a reading of the principles of the World Socialist Forum would have been too embarrassing to organizers who were pressing for support to the candidacy of Kerry for President, since he is not known to support any of the WSF principles.

Noticeably there was no call for demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention (DNC), which opened the day after the BSF ended. Yet literature about projected UFPJ actions at the upcoming Republican National Convention in New York City was plentiful. Late Sunday afternoon it was learned that the police were planning to shut down the highway from the campus early that evening, so that no one could easily get back into the downtown area (where protests against the DNC were going on).

It was not surprising that there were no plenary sessions and no votes taken on campaigns. The BSF explained its reasons for this in its “Answers to Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQ). It stated that the BSF is not an organization, and therefore does not make decisions, although the process that the BSF is involved in may lead to decision-making sometime in the future. Participating organizations, the statement said, were free to take votes and make decisions, although not in the name of the BSF. The BSF also stated that its goal is to show there is a large progressive movement, that it has visionary ideas, and that it allows activists from many social sectors to gather together to lay the basis for a larger and more powerful progressive movement over the next few years.

The forum was organized by volunteers, who built the coalition and coordinated the meetings. The BSF’s FAQ specifically states that the BSF excludes political parties, that candidates of parties may participate in the proceedings as individuals on the same basis as everyone else, and that candidates may not use the Forum to further their political campaigns.

The majority of speakers were leading experts in their fields, such as Rae Street from the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; Dennis Brutus, South African poet and antiapartheid crusader; Gyung Lan Jung, Korean peace activist; Guglielmo Epifani, a leader of the Italian Confederation of Labor; and other impressive international and national leaders, who addressed the need to build the movements for social justice. However, the speakers’ list at the three convocations was stacked with speakers who advocate lesser-evil politics and did so in the course of their talks. Many convocation speakers on all three days—from Angela Davis to Jim Hightower—spoke of how important it is to “defeat Bush at all costs.” While Dennis Kucinich, the darling of the liberals, did not address the convocations, he was active in the proceedings. It was clear that Kucinich was there to get people to unite behind the Democratic candidate for president, and he said so in some of the workshops. It was rumored that organizers had worked to prevent Nader from speaking.

I Smell a Rat

There were too many such coincidences pointing to the unavoidable conclusion that this gathering was a front for the Democratic Party presidential campaign, just like the giant March for Women’s Lives held in Washington earlier this year. (See Linda Theompson Lancz’s article about the March for Women’s Lives, also on the Labor Standard web site.)

1.      Political candidates and campaigns were officially banned by the organizers from building their campaigns. However, only certain representatives of campaigns who were not Democrats actually got excluded from the speakers’ lists. The same kind of thing happened in Washington, D.C., at the March for Women’s Lives organized by the National Organization of Women (NOW) and other components of the liberal Establishment that cosponsored it. There, too, speaker after speaker spoke to the need to defeat Bush (and they were not calling for a vote for the Greens or Nader).

2.      The timing of the Boston Social Forum on the weekend before the Democratic Party Convention clearly had the aim of demonstrating that there was a large and progressive movement. Who was this designed to impress? The Democratic Party of course. That this was the intent of the organizers was indicated by the fact that instead of a final gathering and a declaration of principles the end of the BSF conveniently concluded just before an off-campus event organized by many of the same BSF leaders. This event was called A Roundtable Discussion Honoring the Memory of Senator Paul Wellstone. This event took up the question “What Must the Democratic Party Do To Live Up to the Progressive Vision of Paul Wellstone?” Give me a break.

This august event was to include Al Franken, Jim Hightower, Arianna Huffington, Barbara Ehrenreich, Frances Fox-Piven, Hon. Barbara Lee, Hon. Major Owens, Hon. Chuck Turner, and others. I missed this one because, quite frankly, listening to grown, ostensibly intelligent people still trying to change the agenda of the Democratic Party was something that I personally could not take on an empty stomach. I went to dinner as the military and riot police were preparing for the Democratic National Convention with random searches being conducted on trains in the city and with fighter jets flying overhead.

Boston Under Democratic Party Rule

While the “Roundtable” was going on, the Democratic Party leadership was busy at that very moment putting the finishing touches on the cage they had built in their minute “Free Speech Zone” for demonstrators. The purpose of this Zone, of course, was to keep demonstrators away from the DNC, to humiliate and control them. The attempt was to deny protesters the right to demonstrate at other locations of their choosing. The “Democrat” leadership wanted to keep dissent away from the delegates, who were also denied the right to vote, speak, or participate in any meaningful way in the formation of their own platform. Throughout the DNC the party leadership was busy keeping delegates with antiwar messages and banners out of the convention hall and removing delegates with Kucinich T-shirts on.

While the city of Boston was beginning to resemble a police state with the blessing of the Democratic Party, the “Roundtable” leaders were gathering to get the Democratic Party to do what? Become its opposite?

To their credit, the ANSWER antiwar coalition had called for demonstrations at the convention. The demonstrators, several thousand strong, refused to enter the cage constructed for them and demonstrated elsewhere—except for one symbolic demonstration in which 200 protesters entered the cage wearing masks reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib prisoners and lay down in the pen. However, this writer cannot remember any speech given at the BSF calling for support to the demonstrations at the DNC. That was not the agenda.

The Meaning of the Boston Social Forum

It appears to me that we are in a stage similar in certain respects to one that the movement was in at the end of the 1950s before the upsurge of the 1960s. Back then most of the major social justice movements were dominated and controlled by the reformists. At that time most radicals had been driven out of the unions, and the peace movement was dominated by Social Democrats, pacifists, and remnants of the Communist Party who supported them and their line of lesser-evil politics. However, things are on a much higher level and broader scale this time. There is a large anti-imperialist consciousness among wide layers of activists that did not exist even in the late 1970s. There is a much deeper distrust and revulsion at the policies of the Democrats, although thousands of young activists are still led astray by the advocates of Anybody But Bush (ABB ).

A large segment of the movement is not buying ABB. They are breaking with the Democrats to support the Greens or the Nader-Camejo ticket. During the 1960s and ’70s there were attempts to form third parties, such as the La Raza Unida Party and the Freedom Now Party, but those attempts came later and not before a general upsurge. Those parties were based in the working class in the communities of color, but these new attempts at independent political action, in my opinion, could lead to such developments in the future and in the working class as a whole.

Camejo Blasts the Democratic Party

A highlight following closely at the end of the BSF was a talk given by Peter Camejo, who was chosen in June by Ralph Nader to be his vice-presidential running mate in 2004. Camejo was brought to the BSF by the International Socialist Organization for a talk following the last convocation on Sunday afternoon.

About 150 predominantly young people attended this event, where Camejo blasted the Democrats as only he can and received a standing ovation from the crowd. I was curious to see how he was conducting his campaign and was personally glad to see him after 25 years. (We were both in the Socialist Workers Party in 1976, when Camejo ran for president on the SWP ticket.) I was gratified to see that he has not lost his fire, and as a gifted speaker he still stands out as one of the best propagandists on the left for the politics of independent political action (that is, a break from the two-party system dominated by the Republican and Democrats, the twin parties of corporate capitalism in the United States).

Camejo’s talk attacked international imperialism and corporate control of the U.S. government and the two major parties in the U.S. He called for an end to the occupation of Iraq and for “Bring the Troops Home Now!” He acknowledged in his speech and in the discussion that he and Nader do not agree on everything, implying that Camejo is more clearly to the left of Nader on many issues.

During the question and answer period, one person in the audience pointed out that Camejo had failed to speak about building the independent protest movements and focused too much on electoral politics. Camejo is not calling for a Labor Party, but is advocating building the Green Party, even though the Green Party convention in June denied its endorsement to the Nader-Camejo campaign. (See Mike McCallister’s articles about the Green convention on the Labor Standard web site.) Camejo said that there needs to be a fight in the Green Party to democratize it, as they have a system of elections similar to the antidemocratic Electoral College structure established by the U.S. constitution. He said that was the reason the Nader-Camejo ticket failed to win the nomination at the Green Party convention, even though it won a majority among delegates.

In the question period I asked Camejo if he saw the Green Party as an end in itself or as a vehicle for building a broader mass party down the road. He answered that I had asked an excellent question and that if the Green candidates continue to be successful in local elections and social justice campaigns, it could spur the organization of Latino and Black parties and many different kinds of independent political action. I tend to agree with him on this and feel that the Democratic Party is far more attuned to the potential of these campaigns to break the two-party lock on elections than some on the left. (The Democrats are currently engaging in numerous legal challenges to Nader’s ballot status and engaging in dirty tactics and smear campaigns against his right to run for office.)

The fact that the Greens have successfully elected over 200 people to office should not be lost on the fledgling Labor Party. In my opinion, the Labor Party should take note of the Greens’ electoral successes, which seem impressive to many who are looking for an alternative to the Democrats.

The Promise of the Social Forum

The BSF showed that there is a broad new layer of young activists who now stand on the shoulders of four generations of activists that have come before them, who will not buy the lies of the twin parties of war and repression. Among their ranks are experienced organizers and creative, talented young people who sincerely believe that “another world is possible” and who are dedicating their lives to this goal. The halls of the buildings where the sessions were held were filled with hundreds of literature tables dealing with every conceivable social dilemma facing humanity and proposing creative and dynamic solutions to problems ranging from corporate control of the globe to personal lifestyle freedoms.

When I walked out of the classrooms into the giant open plaza on the campus I felt I was walking into a scene just like the Free Speech Movement at Sproul Plaza at the Berkeley campus of the University of California years ago, with tables and banners, posters and young people discussing and debating everywhere. It felt like I was time-traveling back to the 1960s and early ’70s—only the messages were more sophisticated, the literature was professional and polished, and everyone has a web site and e-mail this time around.

The goal before revolutionaries is clear. We cannot leave this burgeoning mass movement to the reformist misleaders, who cannot bring themselves to face facts and break with the party that is killing the social justice movements. As Peter Camejo said, referring to the Democrats, “We have a political party that is one of the most effective instruments for the rule of money over people.”

It is effective because it continues to send its organizers into the social justice movements to mislead and derail them from their stated goals. The task before us is to break the grip of the Democratic Party on the social and labor movements and unleash the nascent power exhibited at the Social Forum in Boston. Socialists should not abstain from the Social Forum movement, but should help to organize and build such events in the future.