I walked out of my constitutional law class, climbed into a car to go to a plane to fly to Chicago to fly to Sao Paolo to fly to Porto Alegre to get into a car to come to this. Brazil is hosting the World Social Forum, and Barlow and I will be on a panel with Manuel Castells and Gilberto Gil on Saturday. But Thursday night, we visited the Youth Camp, which in part this year is devoted to demonstrating and developing tools to support free software and free culture.
We arrived in the middle of a concert. Gil was asked to speak. As he went to the mic, the tent fell silent. Hundreds were packed into a tiny space. Gil began to describe the work of the Lula government to support free software, and free culture, when a debate broke out. I don't speak Portuguese, but a Brazilian who spoke English translated for Barlow and me. The kid was arguing with Gil about free radio. Two minutes into the exchange, about 8 masked protesters climbed onto chairs on one side of the tent, and held posters demanding free radio. A huge argument exploded, with the Minister (Gil) engaging many people directly, and others stepping in to add other perspectives. After about 20 minutes, the argument stopped. The band played again, and then Gil was asked to perform. For about another twenty minutes, this most extraordinary performer sang the music he's been writing since the 1960s, while the whole audience (save Barlow and I) sang along. When the concert was over, Barlow, Gil and I were led out of the tent. It was practically impossible to move, as hundreds begged Gil for autographs, or posed for pictures. At each step, someone had an argument. At each step, Gil stopped to engage. Even after Gil was in the car, some kid rapped on the window, yelling yet another abusive argument. Gil, with the patience of a saint, opened the window, and argued some more.
This was a scene that was astonishing on a million levels. I've seen rallies for free software in many placed around the world. I've never seen anything like this. There were geeks, to be sure. But not many. The mix was broad-based and young. They cheered free software as if it were a candidate for President.
But more striking still was just the dynamic of this democracy. Barlow captured the picture at the top, which in a sense captures it all. Here's a Minister of the government, face to face with supporters, and opponents. He speaks, people protest, and he engages their protest. Passionately and directly, he stands at their level. There is no distance. There is no "free speech zone." Or rather, Brazil is the free speech zone. Gil practices zone rules.
This is what the 21st Century looks like.
I don't want to bash the World Social Forum, which is always inspirational. But it's also a rarified and elite gathering. I'm a writer who spent much of the past three years living in squatter communities in the developing world (my book on these amazingly vibrant but misunderstood communities has just been released by Routledge.) I spent three months in Rocinha, the largest and most urbanized favela in Rio de Janeiro. I'd like to see the WSF get more directly involved with people in the poor communities that are battling for social change in modest, non-ideological ways every day. What's more, though there's much to applaud about politics in Brazil, it can also be horribly top-down and clientelist. Lula's government, though much more participatory than Fernando Henrique Cardozo's, has not pushed forward on land reform and other issues of huge concern to the poor.