Confronting the Democracy Gap at the DNC

BOSTON — Anyone looking for discussions on the direction the Democratic Party is taking, and exactly what kind of platform should replace the George W. Bush administration next year, should not waste their time listening to the canned and scripted speeches that are lulling the Fleet Center to sleep all week. The real brain action kicked off last weekend at the Boston Social Forum on the University of Massachusetts at Boston campus, where thousands of activists, intellectuals, anarchists — anyone who wants change and is willing to engage in dialogue about how to reach it — gathered for three days of convocations, panels, workshops, and powerful open-air exhibits.

The Boston Social Forum (BSF) is the first such forum in North America and builds on the model of the World Social Forum, first held in Porto Allegre, Brazil, in February, 2001. ‘This is a reaction to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, wealthier governments like the United States and their large corporations proposing economic policies that forced cuts to social spending and privatization of social services in an effort to reduce debt and encourage investment which results in humanitarian disasters and economic collapse,’ said Sean Donahue, one of the BSF organizers. ‘We felt it was important to bring people from various social movements to Boston in an open-ended process. We wanted to encourage conversation between people from different social movements and different ways of life to try and share their ideas, experiences and strategies to build new coalitions, develop new ideas, and hopefully move forward with more comprehensive responses to the problems we’re facing,’ continued Donahue.

‘What we want to do is find a common ground where someone who spent the winter working for Howard Dean in Iowa or New Hampshire can get together with someone who locked out a Lockheed Martin plant or someone who traveled to Iraq to document the bombing. And when you find that common ground, you begin to find ways to move forward together,’ Donahue concluded.

At UMass-Boston there were no delegates waiting on the edges of their seats for four cumbersome days to nominate the man we’ve known for months will run for President. Nor was there the menacing security in and around the Fleet Center that naturally curtails free speech. The Boston Social Forum featured no video monitors, no elevator music, no balloons waiting to fall from the ceiling at the climax of an anti-climactic week.

But it did feature spontaneous, original dialogue and conflicting opinions, and lots of them.

There was Peter Miguel Camejo — Ralph Nader’s running mate in 2004 — questioning John Kerry’s soul and the Democratic Party’s ability to survive if American voters began supporting third parties en masse. Camejo was both applauded and lambasted by the packed audience afterwards.

There was Winona LaDuke, Nader’s running mate four years ago who is focusing more on educating people about wind energy this time around. LaDuke called herself a critic of John Kerry and had words of praise for Nader, who ‘still sends little letters to me on his portable, manual typewriter.’ But when asked who she would encourage people to vote for this November, LaDuke joked, ‘I’m a big Ralph supporter but I’m buying a lot of ketchup (presumably in reference to Teresa Heinz Kerry’s cash cow food product).’

There was former Marine Sergeant Jimmy Massey testifying to a stunned audience about how his platoon mowed down innocent Iraqi civilians amidst very little actual enemy resistance on the march toward Baghdad last year, followed immediately by the always cool and collected Congressman Dennis Kucinich — the only superstar Democrat to attend the Forum. The speaking styles of Massey and Kucinich differed like night and day.

There was the Frida Bus, an old Greenpeace school bus that runs on grease or straight vegetable oil. A contingent of activists from Maine drove her down to Boston where her couches served as an inviting space for ‘open dialogue and community connections,’ as Alec Aman put it. The Frida Bus featured a zine and literature distribution area and a lending library. Aman and his friends will help feed the Convention protestors in Boston this week. ‘We’re totally inclusive,’ Aman said. ‘We believe everyone has something worthwhile to offer when they visit us here. We think this space appeals to people from all backgrounds.’

Aman added that just voting is not enough. ‘I think a lot of people become disempowered by voting because they feel that they’ve done their job every 2-4 years. They feel that they are affecting real change, yet we see the same rifts in society, the same fundamental problems, over and over again. Where you need to start addressing our social problems is at the local level, which is why the Boston Social Forum is so empowering.’

Shandra, a volunteer with the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, which is teaming up with the Frida Bus activists this week, took advantage of a blossoming discussion on the state of politics in the United States today and told how many Americans — especially minorities, the poor and those with criminal records — are excluded from this country’s political discussion. ‘It’s unfair. My friend Tanisha won’t vote in an election because three of her cousins have felonies and they are not allowed to vote.’

The Boston Social Forum wasn’t immune to criticism. Shandra noted that admission to the alternative convention cost $20 for those not part of the media or speaking at the panels — a burden to many African-Americans like herself and anyone struggling to pay the bills and a clear contradiction, given that the Forum was intended as a venue of open dialogue for all.

Still, the Boston Social Forum provided a breath of fresh air before the masses marched into the Fleet Center to the tune of ‘John Kerry, John Edwards, no questions asked.’

Update July 27, 2004 8:00PM CDT: Jason Pramas, Boston Social Forum coordinator, emails, ‘Everybody (media, presenters, etc.) had to register for the event, but nobody had to pay if they couldn’t afford it. And we did not check anyone at anytime to see if they had registered or not. The suggested donation onsite was $40 for working adults, and $20 low-income/student/seniors. No one was turned away, and key low-income constituencies were made aware of this fact in advance in their community media.’ — ed.

Comments? Story tips? Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne magazine

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.