Boston - The Boston Social Forum, a shadow conference held over the weekend before the Democratic National Convention, July 23 to 26, in many ways resembles a three-day music festival. Instead of indie band Ts, activists sport an array of Bush-hating slogans like "The only Bush I trust is my own" and "Bush is from Mars, Cheney is from Uranus."
The most moving exhibition is the thousand empty combat boots, each lettered with the name of a dead American soldier - and sneakers that represent the murdered children of Iraq.
As at a well-booked festival, even the most experienced of the 4,000 attendees has to make hard choices about what to listen to, learn from and participate in. My copy of the 43-page schedule for the 600 or so lectures has me circling up to five awesome possibilities in each time slot.
I quickly resign myself to the fact that some very good events will be missed, like the speeches of the Council of Canadians' Maude Barlow, native American author Winona LaDuke, 82-year-old peace walker Granny D, who trekked on foot for 14 months to Washington from her home in Pasadena to address the issue of campaign financing, and ex-president Bill Clinton's first-term secretary of labour, Robert Reich.
Suffering from first-day-of-high-school navigation problems, I slip into a room full of supporters of presidential contender Dennis Kucinich, gathered to hear their beloved leader speak on the topic We All Want Peace, But How Do We Find It?: A Platform Of Peace. The petite, yoga-practising vegan, who at this writing is still on the nomination ballot, talked up the idea of pushing the new administration - if, indeed, there is one - to set up a Department of Peace.
Currently, he holds the loyalty of 70 delegates, but he's bummed out his followers by directing them to vote for John Kerry on the first ballot. Kucinichites believe that unless their man convinces Kerry that his plans to expand the war in Iraq with money and troops is not the answer, there is most certainly going to be a draft.
Many worry about reports that the draft is going to return in an expanded form that will include women, raise the age limit to 34 and eliminate the education exemption. There's speculation is that drafting will begin soon, no later than June 2005. But when I nab Kucinich after the meetings, it isn't the draft I want to talk about, but the two AWOL soldiers residing north of the border, Brandon Hughey and Jeremy Hinzman.
Before answering, Kucinich unnerves me by getting very close to my personal space and looking me directly in the eye. "We need to make sure that the policies of this country do not drive our youth to abandon this country," he tells me. Not content with his avoidance of my question, I follow up with, "What about the young Americans who feel they are trapped in the military? Who were misled as to what the armed forces are about? Who signed contracts at 17, 18, 19 and now, after realizing they were lied to or having adopted a more peaceful outlook, can't get out of the army and are forced to ship out to Iraq?"
He replies diplomatically, "Look, look, I'm opposed to the war. I'm opposed to the draft. I would hope that the Kerry presidency is going to recreate the context of our nation so that we don't have the kind of fear that is driving the two people you mentioned to your country."
The last time slot on the very last day is given to Ralph Nader's running mate, California Green party member Peter Camejo. Camejo knocks nervous Democrats with an over-the-top left hook: "How do you get people to vote for Mussolini? You run Hitler against him. Can you see these people? 'Well, you have to vote for Mussolini or we'll get Hitler. '"
Later, when I ask him about American draft dodgers or AWOL soldiers, Camejo tells me: "Canadians should be prepared for draft dodgers. Nader and I are warning the American people that the Democrats are preparing to bring back the draft. The Democrats have already submitted bills in both the Congress and the Senate for a draft. Kerry and Edwards will not say one word against it. The battle for oil over the next 25 years is going to be a permanent war."