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ESF-UK efforts -- breakthrough!

Laura Sullivan | 10.03.2004 17:34 | European Social Forum

there was a very significant breakthough in the esf-uk organising process over the weekend at the european assembly. as part of the 'horizontals' i was part of this negotiation and it was fascinating. here i want to give my account of what went down, recognising that this is just my perspective, and to start the more detailed discussion about where we go from here.

the horizontals met friday night before the tariq ali et al talks at the lse. there was excitement but also tension in the air already, as we sensed how big the task in front of us was as well as the little time we had together f-t-f to plan our strategy. it was only less than a few weeks earlier that the 'call for democracy at the esf' document had been drafted and circulated and signed by loads of folks, many of them members of a wide variety of groups and organisations (not necessarily signing as representing them, as we've specified). [reminder: the horizontals' original statement expressing dissatisfaction with the organising process, the 'evidence log', and this call for democracy that folks could sign up to are all on the website]

so while much work had gone on before online, friday night was the first time many of us had seen each other in person. & it was brilliant to have participation and support from people from outside the uk. it was tempting for folks to enumerate complaints still, when we needed to get down to the details of concrete proposals. i was one of the few horizontals who had been attending meetings regularly, and the only one of that group to have gone to the organising committee meeting the previous night. i tried to correct some misinformation, incorrect facts, etc so that we would be accurate in what we were arguing against. many others had very sharp ideas for concrete and to-the-point suggestions, and mariangela also usefully wrote these suggestions on the board and grouped them together. we managed to come up with a list of 10 short items that we were proposing as concrete changes.

these 'principles of democracy' are:
1. affiliation of individuals (max £5)
2. working groups freely organised
3. individuals working in the process must participate in the decision-making process
4. meetings around the UK and around the EU -- the timetable has to be accessible to the majority
5. transparency: sending meetings to all lists and web
6. rotation of facilitators
7. uk assembly/organising committee as the place where decisions are taken and individuals as organisations have equal voice in the process
8. no more meeting in GLA
9. prioritizing spaces for worskhops and seminars at the heart of the esf
10. fees are too high!

on saturday a.m. at the first day of the european assembly at city hall, the atmosphere was intense. at first we (horizontals) were concerned that we didn't have our act together -- where were our papers, when all of the 'official' ones were laid out for all to take? then, somehow they appeared -- someone had typed and printed copies of both the short list of 10 proposals and the 'call for democracy' with signatories (thank you so much!). the same went for speaking -- we did not agree on who would speak to what issue, but throughout the day, many of us spoke and addressed several issues well. having folks from europe support and speak to our proposals was also very important and helpful. so we learned a new level of trust, in that what we had done was enough, and even without super-detailed planning, we could come together and improvise well in a large meeting.

chairing of the saturday morning euro assembly meeting was again autocratic, aggressive, and about as far from 'consensus' as you could get. our plan had been to propose that 'democracy and process' be added to the agenda -- as the first item to be discussed. they took the first five speakers to speak to the agenda -- two were from europe (hungary and greece, i believe) and made our suggestion, 'process' discussed first. the chairs agreed to other recommendations for additions or changes to the agenda, but as for ours, they said 'this will all come up in the discussion of the specific proposal (to host the esf in the uk, the 'bid' in other words that the europeans were being asked to support -- their first item on the agenda)'. several voiced support (yelling) and some (fewer in numbers) voiced disagreement. the chairs declared this is how it would go down -- 'process' discussed with the proposal/bid -- and acted as if the issue was closed.& nbsp;

it was at this point that i decided i had to say something. i just could not let it go, not only that someone who had chaired a zillion meetings -- always dictatorially -- was one of the chairs (alex gordon), but that they were running things in this way. i went to the microphone to speak, thinking i was first in the queue and would be part of the next group to speak (they were taking folks in fives). while i was standing at the mic, the chair (alex) pretended i wasn't there and announced someone would give the welcome (a union guy). i waited behind him, assuming i could speak next. the chair announced someone else, who would formally present the proposal (hosting esf in uk). i was hesitant, and the guy came up (dave hillman from tobin tax network) and said to me personally, 'look, you can be the next one to speak'. i was about to say ok, but thought, no this is ridiculous, i want to object to the silencing of our proposal that t he process/issues of democracy be discussed first. so i said no. the chair (alex gordon) looked at me, furious, and angrily snarled, 'you are occupying the microphone, for 10 minutes now -- you are blocking the process'. it had only been a minute, maybe two, but of course his tactic did not involve accuracy -- it was an attempt to shame and silence me (and by extension, us).

i was quite taken aback, for a second on the verge of tears, but as the next two speakers who presented the details of the proposal went on for quite a while, i had plenty of time to regain my composure. i was allowed to be the first person to speak after these two. i started by saying that i was representing a group interested in the intersection of spirituality and politics, and that i found it ironic to be from a group so much concerned with 'peace' and to be accused of 'occupying the microphone'. i made it clear that it was not my intention to disrupt or block the meeting. i spoke to the issue of facilitation of meetings (one that has plagued this organising process from the start), mentioned that several weeks ago some of us from my group had offered our skills as facilitators and mediators and had been told there was no structure to accept our offer, and that chairs would rotate. this did not happen over the course of the next several weeks. i then spoke to what had just occurred -- three of five speakers' proposals of changes to the agenda were agreed by chairs, the other two speakers' proposal (ours) of speaking first about 'process' had not been agreed upon. the chairs objected loudly -- 'there was consensus! -- everyone agreed!' -- but plenty of folks shouted, 'no, we didn't!' and 'no, there wasn't!' so i just said i found it completely unacceptable that chairs could railroad through their desire, and that what i saw was not consensus in any fashion, and i requested that they define 'consensus' as it would be applied at this gathering.

the rest of the morning folks continued to speak to issues both related to 'process' (which eventually morphed into 'inclusion') and those related to aspects of the actual proposal to host the esf here (venue, budget, accomodation, and the like). what was so wonderful was how many european folks said our list of suggestions was reasonable and voiced their support. & how many of them spoke against the proposed registration fees being so high (£20 unwaged, for ex) (one of our main points). lunch, then back to the discussion.

the afternoon had working groups (programme, enlarging the network, culture, & practicalities) on the agenda, and someone suggested adding 'process' to that. the chairs said no, it's in the mix with the proposal and all of workshop topics. they then said that folks' comments were almost all about fees and inclusion, could folks speak to those two issues? while this discussion was going on (folks at mic in front of audience), also on the other side of the front of the room, alex gordon, redmond o'neill, and several others of the 'verticals' (folks who have been largely running the show until now) were circled around one another talking intensely. it was like the huddle of an american football team, quite comic i thought. they came out of that and said yes, a 'process' working group added to the others probably made sense, and that we should adjourn to those groups soon, which was agreed.

there were around 150-200 people at this saturday meeting of the euro assembly (my guess). and around 50 of those folks came to the working group on 'process' and 'inclusion'! europeans volunteered to facilitate. but almost everyone there raised his or her hand to speak, and folks were occasionally yelling in opposition to what someone said, and chaos soon ensued. tempers were flaring. when, as time was winding down, hilary wainright suggested that because we clearly needed more time, that we hold a day workshop on 'process' sometime soon, alex gordon stood up and stomped out of the room. at the time when the working group meetings were to adjourn, no progress at all had been made, and we agreed to stay on. someone -- i haven't yet found out who -- had the brilliant suggestion that each of the two 'sides' (horizontals and verticals, though it's not that simple of course) choose three folks from their group to come to th e circle, a few of the europeans would facilitate and mediate, and we would stay until a resolution was reached.

we retired to our respective corners -- this was becoming quite dramatic! -- and hurriedly chose our three people: massimo d'angelis because he has the political theorisation/contextualisation -- is good at articulating the 'big picture', javier because of his association with indymedia and autonomous and other networks, and me because i had been at almost all meetings and had the knowledge of the nitty-gritty details. they chose hilary wainright (from _red pepper_), chris nineham (SWP/GR), and a guy named peter i haven't learned much about yet. europeans from france and italy in particular were facilitating. we used the 'fishbowl' technique, where the nine of us were in a circle and only we could speak, with any observers welcome and around us in another circle. we agreed to start with 'their' document and go through each point. (this document, sometimes known as the 'alex gordon' proposal of the esf-uk organising process, ma de on 24 jan amended a few weeks later by the organising committee, is called 'for a uk organising committee to host the european social forum in longon')

we were just through a few points, agreeing on changes and additions, when the gla rep came in and said they would be locking the building in 10 minutes -- we had to leave the room. we were determined to carry on and decided to find a pub or restaurant nearby to do so. the search for this venue itself was hilarious, and i thought would've been good for inclusion in a video of this whole crazy process. after much wandering, we did find an italian restaurant down the way from tower bridge and dug in again, us at a table and observers nearby and around us.

we managed to go through the whole document and agree to additions, deletions, rewordings. there were compromises on both sides, as well as discoveries of many places of mutual agreement. we were honest about our concerns and insist(ed) that they be kept on the table, at the time and beyond this initial set of negotiations. there was, for the first time, genuine dialogue between folks from the 'sides' who have been at each other for so long. there was acknowledgement from the people 'representing' the organising committee at this meeting, of all the problems, negative facilitation, lack of communication, etc. we both heard each other about many important issues. we spoke honestly and openly about our fears and concerns. it was pretty amazing.

after a few hours we had finished going through the esf-uk organising document. there was not enough time then to address our document of short points, but we agreed that someone from our 'team' would stand up the next day at the euro assembly with 'their' document, present the changes to the audience, and voice support for them. then someone from their 'team' would stand up and say that they supported the spirit, if not the letter, of our (other, longer) document, 'a call for democracy in the esf process'. the two people chosen were chris and javier.

we had such a sense of relief and excitement. and only then and in later discussions that night did it get revealed to us: they had actually thought that our whole intention was to make sure that the esf did not happen in the uk, that we came to block the whole process. this was their fear, and it just shows how much fear distorts -- they were not hearing us accurately for a long while. they chaired meetings etc from the place of this fear. so they actually seemed shocked when they realised we did *not* want to sabotage the process, only make it democratic and inclusive as it should have been all along.

the energy after this smaller process group meeting was incredible, people walking along the riverfront hugging each other who had been yelling at each other or furious with one another only hours before. (when jonathan neale approached, massimo said, 'we are friends again' and they hugged, it was really funny, kind of touching, too). 'mixed' groups of us retired to another pub and another restaurant, sharing with others the 'good news' of this breakthrough. then, across 'sides' and various affilitations or political investments, we were able to have some real exchanges about details of how we will proceed. i left feeling astonished at this turn of events, quite positive but not in a naive sense. hopeful, for the first time since i became involved. i also felt proud to have been a part of this collective effort by the horizontals -- we pooled our knowledges, resources, thinking, suggestions, and energies, and it worked. than ks to all who have been doing so much work behind-the-scenes, too, creating web sites; posting messages; attending meetings; thinking about language, proposals, and strategies; booking rooms; arranging accommodation; and everything else. it was and is truly a collective and collaborative effort.

i wasn't able to attend the european assembly on sunday, but from what i understand, javier and chris expressed their support for each group's document (as described above), the amendments to the proposal for the uk organising committee to host the esf in london were read out to the assembly (the changes we had laboured over the previous evening), and were accepted. also, amazingly, javier was asked to be one of the facilitators of the meeting.

we were and are clear that it is just a start, a first step in what will have to be an ongoing process. but it was significant. most of what we achieved does address the meta-level of process, for example, language about a 'spirit of trust' and 'an atmosphere of mutual respect', or the meta-level of inclusion, for example, language of 'networks' and 'local social forums' being added to organisations as participants in this esf organising process and the event itself. there are many specific items and issues that remain to be addressed, and the 'spirit of trust' and real consensus have to be created and implemented. but enough progress and real dialogue has occurred that i think we can recommend wholeheartily that folks from all backgrounds, including those who were previously excluded from the non-democratic nature of this process, jump on board and become involved with this esf-uk organising process. join working groups, attend the meetings of the co-ordinating committee and organising committee when you can, post ideas on the web, reach out to other groups and bring them into the what will hopefully now be an ever-widening circle of groups, networks, forums, and individuals coming together to plan, create and experience the esf in london in october 2004.

initial suggestions for involvement:
-- attend meetings:
*thursdays at (noon?), the co-ordinating committee meets at the GLA (city hall)
*next programme group meeting, thurs 18 march, 6 p.m., nafthe (i will post details to this list after i receive them)
*next esf-uk organising committee meeting is on sat, 17 march, in birmingham

(& in relation to the second of these: might i suggest that anyone who is new to this programme group who wants to attend this meeting, i will offer to meet an hour before with any interested folks to answer questions, show you previous documents & handouts, and give you background of this group's work to date)

--announce meetings to lists, so everyone knows
--go back to other groups/networks/friends/interested folks and tell them about what is happening, try to get as many 'horizontally minded' folks on board and as involved as possible
--use and indymedia websites as important avenues of communication, read and contribute to these as well as to our e-list.
--report back from meetings on lists and on the web sites above

in terms of very general suggestions, i think we might want to think seriously about what others have suggested on this list recently -- i support us being respectful of *each other*. disagree, criticise views and offer alternatives, share problems with politics, strategies, etc, but resist the urge to attack folks personally. in this way, we won't be imposing some fake 'unity' or discouraging real dialogue and critique, but we will build even more a sense of trust and collectivity amongst ourselves, and my sense is that these are going to be even more important in the days ahead, where we work to ensure that the spirit of the agreements made with the 'verticals' is carried out materially, in all sorts of ways.

in solidarity,
laura sullivan

Laura Sullivan


Display the following 2 comments

  1. Cheers! — esfer
  2. wow — pleasantly surprised
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