In 1999 the counter-globalisation movement burst onto the streets at the WTO conference in Seattle. Two years later, in Porto Alegre, the movement began to organize its own alternative summits.
Since then, every year, representatives of NGOs and social movements gather in a Third World location to discuss, to connect, to teach, to learn, to share.
The mainstream press generally ignores these summits, or makes only a brief mention of their existence. And admittedly, they don’t have a lot of news or entertainment value. Compared to the big economic conferences, where participants are empowered to take decisions which influence nations, regions and the world economy as a whole, a social forum has little to no impact. It’s more of a ‘process’, as participants like to say.
This year’s World Social Forum was held under the slogan ‘Dignity’ and started with a demonstration of about 30,000 people through the streets of Tunis. Afterwards, the delegates separated themselves from the populace and retreated behind the guarded fences of the convention grounds.
The Social Forum is for those activists who can afford the trip and the required registration: the alternative elite. There was no space for unaffiliated occupiers, indignados, immigrants, refugees or other people interested in building a better world without paying a fee.
So, local and international indignants organized a ‘Global Square’ counter summit to coincide with the WSF. Many Tunisians feel that their revolution has been betrayed, and they seized the occasion to experiment with a federated model of direct democracy. On the final day, they occupied the WSF. People sang the International in a dozen different languages. Some delegates of the Social Forum burned their accreditation in solidarity with the occupiers.
It was decided to march down the boulevards of Tunis to the place were a fruit vendor sparked the Tunisian revolution and the Arab Spring over two years ago.
At the spot, a General Assembly was held by about two thousand people. It was too big for everyone to participate, so the crowd split into smaller groups to discuss specific issues such as education, environment, debt, western economic interests etc.
There were no walls around it, there were no guards, and no fees. After three days of intense discussions, it was a brief demonstration of what democracy really looks like.