Hope And Fears At World Forum
For the third year, tens of thousands of people from all over the world gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January, under the slogan, “Another world is possible,” united in a dream of a sustainable world of peace and justice.
But they also shared the fear that time is running out, that our window of opportunity to save the planet is rapidly closing. Delegates and observers worried about global corporations stripping vital resources from poor nations for the benefit of the rich. They feared the rise of fundamentalism and violence, and worried about the rapid deterioration of the environment.
The fear most often stated was of the Bush administration's growth of power and the onset of an era of imperial America. Speakers from six continents worried out loud that the war with Iraq would be only the first in a series of moves designed to increase the hegemony of the United States and fill the coffers of multinational corporations. They spoke of the United States as a predator, creeping across the planet, seizing resources: oil, minerals, timber, water, and unique biological species. Presenters predicted that the Palestinians would be expelled from their native land, crushing all hopes for an independent state. They foresaw a U.S. invasion of Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, and the establishment of a vast American colony that controls Middle Eastern oil resources.
They envisioned imperial America restricting civil liberties at home and expelling immigrants and “undesirables,” implementing a garrison state where only the light-skinned and well-to-do would find security. George W. Bush was lampooned as a power-crazed cowboy, a home-grown Hitler, “America's own Pinochet.” The American public was characterized as insular, fearful, ignorant, and indifferent, held captive by an addictive consumerism.
Despite these strong sentiments, American delegates were warmly welcomed at the World Social Forum, (WSF). We were assured that the widespread dislike for our government was not personal and that forum participants see Americans in the peace and justice movement as friends and co-workers.
When I spoke at one session, identifying myself as an American member of the anti-war movement, many delegates greeted me afterwards, remarking that it was very important to have Americans at the conference. Nonetheless, there was a persistent underlying fear of the United States.
I was reminded of my experience with diversity training some years ago. During that process I discovered that as a blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon, able-bodied, straight Protestant, as well as a former surfer and corporation executive, I was usually the “whitest” person in the room. When a workshop participant wanted to work on issues concerning their relationships with a white boss, a father, or other authority figures, I would often be selected to play one of those roles in a role play. During the psychodrama, the participant would invariably tell me how awfully they had been treated and how I had, in my role, ruined their lives. This was often a cathartic moment for them, but not for me. Although I recognized that I was performing a useful function, and although other participants always assured me afterwards that it was not personal, I still found it disturbing. I felt a deep sadness about how participants had been abused, sad for them and for a society in which such things happen. And I often sensed a subtle rage and threat of retaliation. I knew that it was not about me, personally, but it was about me, generally, as a white middle-class American man.
At Porto Alegre I felt some of the same undercurrent of fear. And yet I had a wonderful time at the WSF. In this, my first visit to Brazil, I found the people unusually welcoming. This was a particularly good time to be in the country, as citizens were celebrating the rise to power of their new president, working-class leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “Lula” spoke to the WSF on Friday evening and received a rock-star reception—lulaphoria they called it. (Every major gathering I attended was interrupted at least once while everyone sang the “Lula song,” which consists of repeated chants of “Olé! Olé! Ola! Lu-la Lu-la.”)
Americans huddled around bilingual Brazilians for simultaneous translations of Lula's speech. When he spoke of his conviction that no people can be free until the poor receive just treatment, that he might fail in his programs but he would never abandon his principles, many Brazilians cried. And we cried, too, and hugged each other, held hands, and sang “Imagine.” In that moment, and throughout much of the proceedings, another world did seem possible.
Yet I still felt that background fear and an implicit threat of violence that became more explicit twice. Once at a discussion on Palestinian rights, a Brazilian woman bravely came forward to suggest that the Palestinians would have more success if they committed themselves to nonviolent action. Her comments were greeted with boos. After a shocked silence, those of us who believe in nonviolence lustily cheered her. The tension in the hall was palpable.
My sense was that those who booed were expressing a sentiment that nonviolence—in this case, the nonviolence of the first Intifada—will not work, that those of us who continue to believe that nonviolence will stop imperialism are mistaken.
The next day saw the seminal event of this year's forum: a panel, “Peace and Values,” bookended by Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano and Brazilian activist-theologian Leonardo Boff. This forum was conducted in a rock concert atmosphere. The hall normally holds 20,000, and it had another 30,000 jammed in. It was hot and sticky, and we couldn't move and we didn't care. Before the forum, Brazilian pop stars sang protest songs; we sang along even though we didn't know the words and danced even though we didn't know the steps.
Galeano and Boff were superb: enlightened, articulate, illuminating, and empowering.
Between the two of them was Jean Ziegler, a socialist professor from the Sorbonne. Zeigler proceeded with a doctrinaire socialist analysis of globalization and the imperial designs of the Bush administration. Although I strongly disagreed with Ziegler's implication that spontaneous violence is justifiable within the process of change, he did touch on a weakness of the WSF process: the scarcity of serious discussion of nonviolent alternatives. In an article in The Nation regarding last year's forum, Marc Cooper noted that this issue has split the U.S. “blue-green coalition,” as labor leaders oppose the use of violence whereas some others in the movement condone or at least tolerate it.
At the core of this is a major issue: How does the global justice community hope to accomplish an equitable redistribution of power, capital, and income without resorting to violence? Without a revolution of the oppressed?
“When we care for one another ...”
The one discussion that went to the depths of the question of nonviolence involved Boff and Galeano. “We do not believe peace comes from war,” Boff said. All human beings are our allies; we must respect the lives of everyone on the planet and maintain a deep concern for their well-being, he said. “When we care for each other, we are no longer afraid.”
This belief leads naturally to the advocacy of nonviolence and to a reaffirmation of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Indeed, universal human rights are a cornerstone principle of the WSF, and many participants see a commitment to human rights as leading directly to opposition to capitalist globalization, which privileges the rights of the few at the expense of the many, the rights of corporations, rather than those of everyday people.
Galeano asserted that the most basic human instinct is solidarity, “to defend ourselves together and to share the food.” He observed that today most people speak in the first person singular, whereas in the ancient Mayan language the first-person form was virtually nonexistent; everyone spoke from the perspective of “we.” The Uruguayan poet remarked that the primacy of “we” is a vital component of participatory democracy.
Boff, the theologian, argued that to combat feelings of despair, we must look deep inside ourselves and find the “peace of God to strengthen our quest of true peace.” From my Quaker perspective this affirms the importance of a contemplative practice and the belief in a higher law apart from the law of the state. This is the law we reference when, for example, we commit civil disobedience to stop military preparations.
At the end of the Galeano/Boff panel, Boff asked us to join him in the famous peace prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
Thirty thousand of us joined hands and said this prayer together. After a moment of silence, the session ended in embraces.
As I reflect upon this experience, the words that most often come back to me are Boff's: “When we care for each other we are no longer afraid.” I am reminded of the song, “We Shall Overcome,” and the phrases “We'll walk hand in hand” and “We are not afraid.” For a few precious days at the WSF, we did walk hand in hand. We did care for each other, and we were not afraid.
I came away from the World Social Forum with a stronger sense that I am not alone in grappling with the cancer of globalization, that I'm part of a worldwide community of activists wrestling with these desperate issues. If I didn't find answers at least I found compatriots who are struggling with the same questions that I am. This, in itself, was hopeful.
Bob Burnett is a writer and activist living in Berkeley, California. In his former lives he was a Silicon Valley technologist and then publisher of In These Times.
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