Bangin' In Banga
With transnational corporations and the World Trade Organisation becoming ever more strategic in their drive to facilitate market dominance, the official line is "resistance is futile". However, a network of activists has now evolved to help co-ordinate resistance movements across the world. The second conference of People's Global Action took place in Bangalore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka from August 23rd to 26th 1999. Jon Towne reports on the triumphs, tribulations and remarkable encounters resulting from this multinational resistance network.
September 1999, also Squall Download 1, Oct/Nov 1999, pp. 14-16.
The hosts for this year's People's Global Action (PGA) encounter were India's mighty Karnataka State Farmers Association; the so-called 'laughing arsonists' renowned for the recent torching of genetically modified test sites (including Monsanto), the dismantling of a local office belonging to seed giant Cargill and the burning down a KFC outlet in India. Our host's credentials were definitely in tact.
The conference was called in the main to plan actions against the looming 'millenium round' talks of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle from November 29th to December 3rd 1999. A meeting which will see the world's most greedy political vampires gathering to carve up more of the planet under the guise of free trade. PGA distinguishes itself from the predominantly reformist NGO agenda on the WTO, by calling for its death, or - as they say in India - 'Kill the WTO before it kills us'.
Springing from the Zapatista-inspired 'Encuentro' held in Spain in 1997, PGA was really christened at a huge, chaotic and fantastically inspiring conference in Geneva in February 1998, where 400 or so activists from a huge variety of movements and backgrounds came together to "turn the fingers of resistance into a fist". It was in Geneva that the key PGA hallmarks (as well as an impressive though overlong manifesto) were formulated. Key amongst these is a rejection of reformist, NGO-style 'top down' approaches to resistance, a call to direct action and a non-hierarchical structure with no office, no employees and no HQ; relying instead on regional 'convenors' who would attempt to facilitate activity in their respective areas. So in Western Europe, Reclaim the Streets in London took on the role of convenor (somewhat reluctantly at first!), eventually making more of a go of it but not managing to get a promised 3-language leaflet and video out before the end of its tenure. All convenors have to change at every conference; the other regions are Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, North America, South- East Asia and the Pacific Rim (Australasia & the Far East.) [Interest in PGA issues in the Middle East has been hard to tap into, the area being one of the many holes in the latticework of resistance that still needs to be covered.]
An immediate result of the Geneva conference were the worldwide actions which took place in May 1998, with hundreds of thousands on the streets from Hyderabad in India to Brazil, not to mention a Global Street Party which found a home in over 20 countries. In the UK this took the form of a street party at the Bullring in Birmingham during the G8 summit.. And it was the Global Street Party which provided the template for the autonomous delights of June 18th this year, a date many of you may be familiar with.
But back to Bangalore, which was really an attempt to keep the some-would-say faltering global resistance movement on the rails and travelling at a healthy speed. How could it be faltering you may ask, with the successes of May '98 and J18 under its belt? Well the problem springs from the lack of real workaday day-in day-out networking and network building both inside and between regions.
While excellent links are being made between, say, the landless peasants struggle in Brazil and campaigners in the UK, the fledgling infrastructure of PGA has almost buckled because of many convenors' inability or lack of desire to play a part in building it. So, for example, the Bangalore conference wasn't as well planned as it could have been because it was left mainly to a valiant though unrepresentative and really quite centralised 'support group'. As has happened often in the last year and a half, the vacuum left by the convenors (who may well have been working their guts out on more localised issues) has been filled by this support group, of 'freelance' activists mainly based in Western Europe. One of the unspoken objectives of the Bangalore conference, then, was to see this support group dwindle in the onrush of convenors' keenness to share the day-to-day workload of the PGA's networking activities. Did we achieve that aim? Well read on and find out.
It is perhaps important to look closely and honestly at some of the problems as well as the successes that PGA has encountered. After all, it would be hard to over-emphasise the importance of this attempt to provide the bare bones of a structure to support what will have to be a constantly growing movement of global resistance against capitalism. The many cultural and other differences of outlook of the various groups involved are perhaps what the movement must struggle most energetically to recognise and respect; coming together physically provides the greatest opportunity to solve many of these problems. The problem is, like Christmas family reunions, they also provide the perfect opportunity for festering conflicts to erupt.
In a conference about a quarter of the size of Geneva, 100 people from over 25 countries as diverse as Nicaragua and Indonesia gathered for the four day conference (six days if you included roundtable discussions, and two weeks including 'exposure trips' to some very inspiring local struggles). Western Europe, South Asia and Latin America were most strongly represented, with Africa and Eastern Europe sadly absent. (The Chikoko Movement of Nigeria, who pulled off a massive demonstration of over 50,000 people on June 18th, had hoped to come but had to pull out at the last minute due to administrative problems in Bangalore.)
The general consensus of the group was that while there had been impressive worldwide actions both in May 1998 and on June 18th earlier this year, these were spectaculars which hadn't been followed up with a concerted bout of global networking and communication. The regional convenors had failed to facilitate a dialogue between themselves or to build a meaningful network of grassroots resistance contacts within their regions. (The new Western European convenors are the Milan 'branch' of the Zapatista solidarity movement 'Ya Basta', based in the very sorted Leoncavallo social/resource centre there. London RTS will be part of a support network of groups in the region who'll attempt to make Ya Basta's job a little less daunting.)
Although many of the meetings were fantastically chaotic and necessarily slowed down by translation into Spanish and two or more Indian languages, the final mood was of a renewed resolve to make this frighteningly important experiment work properly in the coming months and years. One tip especially for all English-speaking activists at these events: having a second language (preferably Spanish or French) really makes border-breaking dialogue a reality, as well as chipping away at our reputation as arrogant linguistic imperialists! Many who went might well argue that the really useful networking stuff took place over plates of coconut curry or late into the night whilst nursing preciously acquired bottles of beer. This rendered the 'plenary' discussions as empty in comparison, with lasting cross-border/ocean relationships being formed informally and fused by friendship.
But interminable plenary sessions have their uses. After all, a certain amount of bureaucratic chat had to take place, and it certainly sent a shiver down the spine of this correspondent to hear the angry and eloquent speech to all the gathered tribes of resistance of an Indian activist pledging all in the battle against the hugely destructive Narmada River dam project. The shadow of this extraordinarily inspiring campaign to save local lives and villages not to mention thousands of years of irreplaceable culture from the western TNC-backed dam (the main TNC being Siemens) was ever-present during the week. Many anti-dam activists were unable to be present because of their promise to stay in their villages even as the water level rose to waist height and threatened to take their lives. Many European activists travelled to the soon-to-be-submerged valley either before or after the conference, some no doubt returning to these shores in the early autumn with a strong desire to act in solidarity with the Adivasis (indigenous people) of the region. Another inspiration was the presence of one of the most active campaigners against GM and globalisation in France. The presence of Rene Riesel, a veteran of Paris 1968 and a prominant campaigner against GM foods and American corporate imperialism in France - gave the whole gathering a real boost.
There were flashpoints during the week, especially when much of the delegation from Nepal threatened to leave the conference over what they saw as unacceptable behaviour from one of the conference organisers, who had been driven - it seems - to distraction by what he regarded as their unacceptabley high-handed attitude to everyone else, (including those from the more 'grassroots' Nepalese groups). Disputes such as these are almost impossible to present accurately, since they are so bound up in cultural mores and the subtle shading of relationships between groups which have yawning political differences even while agreeing that the WTO must die. In this case, on the one hand there was a fear that PGA was being overrun by unrepresentative NGO-style campaigners, and on the other that Western colonialist values were still dominating our new and supposedly mutually co-operative structures. Complicated stuff, especially if you're attempting to facilitate a fair discussion between angry contributors who are unaware that the planned agenda is running three hours behind schedule! This particular flashpoint ended fairly happily with honour intact, but it was touch and go for a while.
Anyway, after a few false starts and sessions lost to rain and wild local folk drummers, a determined desire to get things sorted out emerged, becoming more focussed in direct relation to the diminishing amount of time available. There will be a regular bulletin, customised to suit each region, and a more dynamic, useful and regularly updated website. There was strong support for a move away from elitist e-communication, a view especially vehement in India, where such resources are thin on the ground and only available to those often at the top of steep hierarchies. One issue which became central during the week was that of gender, which many felt had been left out of the previous 4 'hallmarks' and the mammoth manifesto thrashed out in Geneva in February 1998. For this reason a new hallmark was adopted: "We reject all forms and systems of domination and discrimination including, but not limited to, patriarchy, racism and religious fundamentalism of all creeds. We embrace the full dignity of all human beings". This was seen as a crucial step in the battle to disassociate PGA from right-wing anti-globalisation groups threatening to hitch onto our bandwagon. A more outright anti-capitalist thrust was also welcomed, most realising that the WTO et al are simply modern manifestations of the age-old capitalist beast. (There is also a plan for the creation of a new convenor, to be a group working specifically on gender issues.)
What tensions there were often centred around the big differences between autonomous Western activists and those who came representing large social movements, mainly in this case from Latin America (even with the absence of Brazil's Movimento Sem Terra and the Zapatistas.) This correspondent certainly felt an urgent need for the European posse to be more representative of its region (including non-white struggles for example.) The next conference, pencilled in for 2001 in Latin America, will have to make some well-judged and possibly controversial decisions about who attends, otherwise some of the movements many of us see as central to future worldwide resistance will probably stay away. Wherever the conference takes place, there will always be cultural and regional differences to consider, such as the fact that in some areas those who speak at great length deserve respect, while in other areas they would be asked to edit their contributions more brutally. Frequent male domination also needs to be addressed.
But notwithstanding all these problems, the final vibe was pretty positive, with plenty of energy set aside to make November 30th a powerful global day of action (even if the UK contingent warned that their input wouldn't be on the scale of J18.) There was widespread support for decentralised actions a la J18, with more of a thumbs down for centralised affairs like the Inter-Continental Caravan. (Having said that, there are plans for a much smaller North American caravan leading up to Seattle, starting fairly soon.) There was also growing enthusiasm for a big day out on May 1st 2000 in a 'Reclaim Mayday' style. People from Latin America, Sri Lanka, North America and Western Europe all seemed up for it, but obviously the real proof will be in the responses of their groups back home. One final heartening sight: the Vice-President of the Karanataka State Farmer's Association (KRRS) leaving Bangalore for a 12 hour bus ride to a marathon of weddings with only his green plastic PGA wallet containing the SchNEWS Survival Handbook for company.
Held in the very relaxed grounds of a craft museum across the way from a blind school, many evenings ended alongside a nearby lake with bottles of over-empowered Indian 'Knockout' beer, (to the mild annoyance of the KRRS who are in the middle of an anti-alcohol campaign - some of the biggest recent mobilisations for example, women in Nepal and in areas of India, have been dedicated to implementing a prohibition of alcohol, seen as a way of stopping the men abusing the women and drinking away their earnings.) On the last night the lake resounded to an impromptu rewrite of the Diggers anthem 'The World Turned Upside Down', beginning: "In 1999, in Bangalore, a ragged band of jetset activists came to give it some jaw-jaw" and heading rapidly downhill.
So, the PGA: battered but unbowed. If you would like to be a part of making the thing work e-mail: email@example.com Or email the new Western European convenors at firstname.lastname@example.org Or contact the new PGA secretariat: Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), 377 Bank Street, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; email@example.com (There are plans for a UK PGA get-together sometime in October, possibly in London. Contact RTS for more details: 0171 281 4621; firstname.lastname@example.org; PO Box 9656, London N4 4JY.)