Grassroots Gathering Five: a step forward for the movement

This is a quick personal report on the fifth Grassroots Gathering, which ran from Friday 27th to Sunday 29th June in the Teachers' Club, Dublin. The Gathering is a network of activists and groups opposed to neo-liberalism who are committed to non-hierarchical ways of organising and the use of direct action. It's been in existence for two years, giving birth to the Grassroots Network Against War last year. Each Gathering is independently organised by a local team who take it on themselves to create the space within which activists meet, discuss and organise actions. So far Gatherings have been held in Dublin, Cork, Belfast and Limerick.
This Gathering was deliberately ambitious. This spring, a wide variety of different campaigns and actions against the war on Iraq marked the first really large-scale participation of Irish people in the global movement against neo-liberalism. This autumn, the mobilisation against the World Economic Forum creates the chance to take this participation further and deeper, and to connect campaigning on global issues to the local struggles of Irish people for basic needs. Our aim in organising this Gathering was to take a step forward in terms not only of our own numbers but also of outreach, of communicating more with each other across our own differences, and in terms of our shared political organising.
The final programme that actually happened (including last-minute changes) included six plenary events; twenty workshops focussing on networking, skills or discussion; about fifty introductory speakers giving five-minute openers for the workshops; a weekend-long programme of videos; and a range of other activities including soccer, walking tours, poi, meditation, Indian head massage and co- operative games, as well as a benefit gig on Saturday night. (See the official programme at this address for an indication of the shape of the weekend.) Amazingly enough, we even finished each day within half an hour of the stated time...
Because our goal was to encourage networking between activists from different movements, we deliberately organised a programme of workshops around issues which are shared across movements alongside the usual collection of workshops proposed by other activists before or during the Gathering - about a third of the total (in some Gatherings these are the only workshops). We invited large numbers of people involved in different struggles to give short intro talks to these: in order to encourage discussion rather than simply sitting and listening, we asked speakers to keep their talks to 5 minutes.
This was an experiment which mostly seems to have worked, although in a few cases it was felt that five minutes was a bit too restrictive. Rather than hand-picking facilitators (except for the final plenary), we simply asked for volunteers (and provided training and handouts), getting perhaps twenty different facilitators over the course of the weekend. Participants also mentioned appreciating the way facilitators would prioritise those who hadn't already spoken, again encouraging more people to share their experiences and contribute to the workshops. Our general feeling is that we were vindicated in orienting the Gathering towards active participation rather than assuming that most people really wanted to listen to long talks and leave everything to a handful of leaders.
The feedback session at the end was almost entirely positive, making several of us rather nervous ("what are they not telling us?") What criticism there was was mostly technical. Obviously, it feels as though this meant we got it largely right in terms of the plan, but more importantly that participants really felt ownership of the Gathering and felt in control of the different events they took part in. Which of course is the main point of the Gathering and of non-hierarchical organising more generally.
In all, over 160 people registered at the Gathering, making this apparently the largest libertarian gathering in Ireland in the last thirty years. The vast majority of participants were committed activists, with a sprinkling of visitors and people coming to check out the scene. Along with anti-war activists, environmentalists, anarchists, anti- racist activists, feminists, non-dogmatic Marxists, autonomists, alternative media workers and more, there was a significantly higher proportion of community activists and a more international participation than at recent Gatherings, with languages needed including Spanish, Italian and German.
The range of material available from different groups in the info- room gave a good sense of the diversity and level of activity of the different campaigns and groups involved in the movement - ecological magazines, anarchist literature, reports from community projects, flyers for prisoner support benefits, Food not Bombs picnics, the Irish Social Forum launch, CDs with the Irish report back from Evian... At the final session, the announcements of future protests, benefits, meetings, get-togethers and actions planned went on for over quarter of an hour. This movement has not been killed off by the invasion of Iraq. It has caught its breath, found its feet and is growing. Like Terminator 3, "We're baa-aack"!
There were two real high points of the weekend from my point of view. The first was the participation of two Argentinian activists: community artist / human rights activist Graciela Monteagudo, whose puppet show on Friday night convinced many sceptics that there are alternative ways to communicate radical political analyses; and piquetera (unemployed blockader) Neka Jara, who rather than give a formal talk on Saturday night gave the session over to an exchange of experiences between the Argentinian and Irish movements. Both activistsm stressed that the most important support Irish activists can give to their struggle is to build our own movements; and this weekend we certainly did that.
The second high point was the series of workshops covering past and future actions: the experiences gained from the anti-war movement and the need to create continuity for the next war; the lessons learned at Evian; issues of prisoner support; and preparing for the World Economic Forum, the main subject of our final plenary. We agreed to focus on raising awareness in advance and getting our point of view across; on organising direct action to stop the WEF if possible; and to create space for ourselves within the Irish Social Forum rather than try to organise a counter-summit as well. Even if we can't work together with other anti-capitalist groups on every kind of action, we should all be able to cooperate on organising practicalities such as legal and medical support, accommodation, etc.
The level of energy and enthusiasm was high, a major turn-around from the Limerick Gathering when many people and groups were struggling with the experience of defeat in the anti-war movement and burnout from doing so much under such difficult circumstances. Participants mentioned the high level of donations (the surplus was given to Anarchist Prisoner Support), the willingness of participants to stay on board a challenging schedule of events, the way events ran themselves without needing the organising team to make things happen, and the high level of interest in the political workshops as against the more relaxing events as indicators of where people are at: self- confident, recovered from the anti-war movement, and ready to move further forward.
Despite our political differences, it's clear that the last two years of Gatherings and the last year of anti-war activity have given us a much higher level of trust in each other and have led to the building of friendships across traditional boundaries. Reaching consensus, including on challenging practical issues, was remarkably easy and it was clear from discussions that our practical orientations to the issues facing us are very similar. Even where we had deliberately set up sessions to debate issues that divide us (such as ecology vs. industrialism, voting vs. consensus, or explicit ideology vs. non-dogmatism) disagreements were respectful and we found we had at least as much common ground as divergences.
Practical outcomes include the following:

  • The setting up of over a dozen practical working-groups to get going on the different tasks facing us around opposing the World Economic Forum;
  • Agreement to hold an assembly based on these groups in a few weeks' time to report back and see what further steps need to be taken;
  • Agreement that our anti-war networks should not shut down completely but should keep some level of continuity and communication in preparation for the next war;
  • The offer from Galway to organise the next Grassroots Gathering at some point after the World Economic Forum (October 20th - 21st).

Thanks are due to everyone who made this Gathering such a success, in particular Neka and Graciela who stole the show; Robert for organising their visit; our invited speakers both for coming and for restricting themselves to the five minutes we had asked of them; Nick, Martha and the other interpreters; and to all the participants for taking responsibility for their own workshops and events, for staying on board throughout a punishing weekend schedule, and for bringing so much of themselves and their own activism to this weekend. As the companeras from Argentina put it, "We will meet in the struggle!"
Laurence- Indymedia posting, Tuesday, July 1, 2003