Why We Occupied The World Social Forum

At the eastern end of the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, in the center of Tunis, there is a giant clock tower that looms over all who pass. There I stood, on my first day in the city, with media activist Vlad Teichburg. He turned to me and said, “The revolution has come full circle.”

On Dec. 17, 2010, the Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the streets of Sidi Bouzid, sparking a wave of uprisings and revolutions throughout North Africa. I watched from a distance on social media in anticipation. That spring, the 15M movement began in Spain, and then came the call from Adbusters to “#occupywallstreet.”

Inspired by these movements, the organizers of the World Social Forum decided to meet in Tunis from March 26 to March 30, 2013. It was to be the first such convergence in an Arab country. The stated purpose was to work “for a collective reflection on social movements, on the meaning of new struggles, and on the World Social Forum process itself, as well as the perspectives and strategies for the future, so as to guarantee the effective fulfillment of another possible and urgent world for everyone.”

In this spirit I made my pilgrimage to Tunis. I wanted to reflect on new struggles, but what I found were inflexible and outmoded structures. It was only in the cracks — the spaces in between — that I found the possibility of another world.

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Most of us who participated in the movement of squares — from Tahrir to Puerta del Sol to Zuccotti — had never met in person. I had the chance to meet a few of my counterparts at the Agora 99 meeting in Madrid and at Firenze 10+10, the most recent European Social Forum. Out of that experience came a group that planned to attend the World Social Forum in Tunis.

We saw an opportunity to coordinate with one another, to learn from our experiences and to open up the forum process. In the lead-up to Tunis we connected over e-mail, collaborative writing pads, and a series of Mumble conference-call meetings. Our stated purpose was to work “toward, around and beyond the WSF.” We called ourselves Global Square.

Upon arriving in Tunis we made our way to the forum site at University El Manar on the edge of the city. As a sprawling archipelago of buildings cordoned off with imposing green gates, it resembled a military compound more than a place of learning. Tunisian workers with WSF badges stood guard asking for our passes. The cost of registration was on a sliding scale according to region, favoring North Africans.

This arrangement was an improvement over the past, but to organize events within the forum required such things as tents, sound systems and translation equipment, all of which cost hundreds of euros. This prohibited low-income people and those with language barriers (such as Tunisians) from convening their own discussions. Instead, they could only attend meetings others had organized.

Global Square made contact with the commissions established by the International Council before the forum began. We were promised space for our events, tents, translation assistance and a free sound system. But none of this materialized.

Without even a place to meet, we decided to occupy a square inside the gates. We liberated tents that had been provided to the forum by the Saudi Royal Kingdom and UNCHR, the U.N. refugee agency. Another group friendly to Global Square offered us a sound system. In Occupy fashion, we improvised and self-organized to meet each other’s immediate needs. Shawn Carrié from Occupy Wall Street explained to passersby, “This is the first step. We set up camp. Tomorrow, the square will be filled with people.”

The square was located inside the Climate Space, where there were socially responsible and eco-friendly workshops sponsored by Petrobras, the Brazilian oil giant. The workshop led by Mova Brasil, a literacy project for young people and adults, for instance, was developed in direct partnership Petrobras.

Our occupied square, while a bit haphazard, had none of these corporate strings attached, and the result was a truly open space for cross-cultural dialogue. We could handle translation ourselves because we were an international group; every day we held open assemblies with translation available in English, Spanish, Italian, French and Arabic on an as-needed basis, and that seemed to work. We held workshops on facilitation, tactical media and open assemblies in which anyone could speak regardless of organizational affiliation.

On the second day a young Tunisian student from the university spoke of being tortured twice during the revolution. He said, “I am angry, and I just want to find people that feel the same way.”

Rami Brahem, a Tunisian activist working with Global Square, explained to me, “During this time at the WSF you are invited to conferences, where a man, rarely a woman, over 60 years, moves and speaks for three hours while you’re supposed to sit there, listening to them talk about things that you generally already know.”

“There is one exception in this forum,” he added, “and that is a small open space hosted by a group called Global Square, composed of people who share a common ideal they call ‘horizontality.’”

The tableWhittaker wrote. “What I would like to propose is radical: in our next meeting, on the occasion of the WSF in Tunis in March 2013, decide to dissolve the IC.”

He then went even further and asked for the movement of squares — which he called the “New Movement” — to step up and resist the current process. He suggested, “The New Movement could even incorporate them (the IC) into its own strategy.”

At the International Council meeting there were hours of speeches by representatives of various trade unions and NGOs who all expressed their disappointment with not getting what they wanted out of the forum. Then Whitaker spoke and delivered his proposal — his self-described “bomb.” The facilitator cut him off, announced a lunch break and explained that the International Council members would eat first, followed by the rest of us.

After break, council members announced that they would allow people other than themselves to take turns speaking, so some participants in Global Square got on stack. They were placed at the very end and given three minutes each to speak. Saif, a 15-year-old Tunisian boy who had been coming to Global Square, said, “I just have one question: Why do the capitalists have an anti-capitalist forum?” Shortly thereafter, the meeting came to a close.

The virus