Radical gathering sets agenda for change

WILLIAMS BAY, Wis. – Left-wing activists of all stripes held their annual gathering known as RadFest here on June 4-6. The event, organized by Patrick Barrett and the Havens Center of the University of Wisconsin, drew hundreds of participants from across the Midwest and several from other regions and countries.

The themes that dominated the conference this year were the interconnected goals of replacing Bush, ending the war in Iraq, reforming the mass media, and inclusively building the movement for change.

The assembled socialists, communists, Greens, pacifists, Democrats and progressives voiced only occasional disagreements. When Barrett asked a panel of distinguished activists at the Saturday evening plenary session to discuss whether the removal of Bush should be the primary task of progressive movements, participants differed only on the priorities of tasks, but not their urgency. Some participants took issue with Democratic challenger John Kerry’s position on sending more troops to Iraq, and panelist Brenda Konkel, a member of the Madison City Council, said of removing Bush, “I really don’t see it as the priority.”

But Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin drew an ovation when she said, “It has to be our priority because this country is in crisis. … The rest of the world is looking to us to get rid of George Bush.” Benjamin said she agreed that the battle against Bush should not obscure other important goals such as electing a better Congress or building a broader movement, but said that done properly, it could aid in these goals.

The Saturday plenary was the only meeting among dozens to focus explicitly on Bush, yet his shadow hung over the entire gathering. The halls of the main conference building were filled with anti-Bush books and paraphernalia, and his presidency was discussed prominently in other sessions.

In one of numerous sessions focusing on media reform, John Nichols, a writer for The Nation, said that the corporate mass media had quietly admitted two “little mistakes” in the past few years: “getting the 2000 election wrong, and leading us into an unnecessary war.

“I can’t think of a more serious indictment,” said Nichols.

The war in Iraq was also relegated to just one of the many workshops, but conference-goers packed in to take part. Moderator Alan Ruff underscored the importance of the topic when he explained the “historical generalization that can be made about all wars,” that they deplete local economies, engender racial animosity, and are exploited to centralize power and destroy civil liberties, “and thus must be a focus in everything we do.”

The only negative note that was sounded at the convention concerned diversity and accessibility. The gathering has been held for several years in a rustic setting where few buildings are wheelchair accessible and which is itself remote from communities of color and not served by any public transportation.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.