40,000 Gather for a People's Europe (European Social Forum)

by Nick Dearden

Z magazine, January 2003

Well over 40,000 delegates with an average age of no more than 25, gathered to participate in the European movement's coming of age: moving from destruction, opposition, and confrontation to sowing the seeds of a new society.

The European Social Forum (ESF) represents a cross-section of European society with a range of ideologies and political practices that would traditionally have been unable to share the same conference center. From large environmental and development NGOs, reformist economists, and mainstream trade unions to the anarchistic "Hub," assorted far left parties, and liberation movements.

It is the very extremity and exclusivity of the "new world order"-in the words of activist and writer Susan George that "the bastards have gone too far"-that has created this diversity. One morning you could sit with formerly conservative and mainstream economics students attending lectures in which they called for the world's business leaders to be locked up for channeling revenues through tax havens or destroying developing economies in their quest for speculative profit. Later in the day you could attend a workshop looking at alternatives to "late neo-liberal capitalism," the eradication of sweatshops, the fight against privatization, and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

But beyond the ideological wonder was the scale and competence of the organization, almost all volunteer. Simultaneous translations into 5 languages was provided for 1,000 speakers at 30 conference sessions, 200 workshops, 150 seminars, 25 campaign meetings, and a huge range of cultural events and fringe meetings with subjects ranging from oppression and resistance in Africa and Asia to the creation of alternative economies.

But the best was still to come. Until you see what one million people looks like on the streets-and very few non-ltalian delegates would be old enough to remember such demonstrations-it is impossible to imagine the scale, color, and sound. Those who thought the days of genuinely popular mass struggle faded with the ascendancy of neo-liberalism would have looked in disbelief as demonstrators marched through tower blocks with older men and women hanging off their balconies waving thousands of rainbow peace flags or just white tablecloths. Thousands of bystanders lining the streets showed their solidarity by singing the moving anti-fascist anthem "bella ciao. "

After starting the march two hours early because of the numbers of people, the first protesters reached the closing concert at sunset as trainloads of people still flooded the Florence train station. As night drew in, thousands poured through the streets chanting, dancing, waving banners of trade unions, political parties, anti-war and anti-capitalist slogans, and everywhere the Palestinian kefiyers.

Never before have so many enjoyed the pain of sleep deprivation than sitting in the closing "assembly of social movements" on Sunday morning with thunderous voices coming through their translation headphones and the belief engraved in their souls that "another world is possible."


Nick Dearden is a campaign officer with War on Want.

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