Celebrating the first ever U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in Atlanta, Georgia in 2007, National Planning Committee member Rubén Solís avowed, "This won’t end in Atlanta." He was right. Three years later, the second USSF was held in Detroit, Michigan, June 22-26.
In the period between the Forums, the country experienced economic crisis and expanded war and occupation. The potential role of the Forum was captured by this year’s National Planning Committee which stated that, "These and other crises and opportunities present a historical moment for movements to intervene, to shine, and to provide answers and solutions to the great problems facing our people and our planet."
USSF opening day march in Detroit, June 22 —photo from Prometheus Radio
With over 15,000 participants representing a multitude of social movements and hosting over 1,000 workshops, the event was an engine of hope and an expression of the need for social change.
Participating artist and activist Ricardo Levins Morales said he was there because: "I go to movement gatherings to pick up on the mood on the front lines. My major finding, and I found this very encouraging, is that there is a growing hunger for a way to unify our struggles. It is more obvious to people that our issues and reforms cannot be won in isolation from all the other manifestations of inequality. It is a major step forward in this country that the need is so acutely felt."
Peter Bohmer, a professor of political economy at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington (and part of a 70-person contingent from that state), said that the Forum provided a space where good networking took place and where "people feel energized with renewed purpose."
The workshops, plenaries, and panels comprised 14 program tracks covering domestic, national, and international focuses, such as "Capitalism in Crisis," "Climate Justice," "Indigenous Sovereignty," immigration, war, race, class, gender, and much more. Specific topics included transit, health, workers control, education, and community, and were presented by groups and organizations from Detroit and around the country.
Bill Fletcher, Jr., who is on the editorial board of BlackCommentator. com, said the USSF was energizing and that it "was well organized and extremely diverse, both at the level of demographics, but also in terms of politics." It was the "anti-Tea Party," he said.
On the one hand, there was a plethora of workshops, on the other, as Bohmer pointed out, "There does not seem to have been much progress on developing a program or strategy for moving forward towards a better society or for addressing the weakness of the U.S. anti-war movement."
Bohmer did mention some workshops that were "insightful" and that presented "strategies about how to get to a society that is not capitalist" while offering "the key institutions and structures of this alternative." One of these was the workshop by the Organization for a Free Society (OFS) "Economic Crisis and Strategies for a Participatory Economy." One of many hosted by OFS, it was described as examining "the impacts and opportunities the economic crisis offers for the construction of a revolutionary new economic model built on equity, solidarity, diversity, and self-management." The topics of economic crisis and vision and strategy for a participatory economy were presented compellingly to an overflow crowd by OFS members Meaghan Linick-Loughley, Pat Korte, and John Cronan.
Assessing the potential strategic role of the USSF, Fletcher identified several big questions at this moment. "One is whether there will be work that takes place in the aftermath of the Social Forum to engage participants, whether it is theoretical work or mass campaigns. The second is whether the forces gathered in Detroit are going to be thinking through how we build a strategic bloc in the U.S. that is capable of fighting for power—both in the short-term regarding significant structural reforms and in the long-term for a radical, anti-capitalist alternative."
USSF Communications Coordinator Adel Neives summarized her thoughts about the potential of the Forum and what stood out for her: "One of the most exciting parts of the Forum was the People’s Movement Assembly (PMA) process, which culminated in one large national assembly at the end of the week, where more than 50 national days of action were planned and more than 100 resolutions presented on issues ranging from workers’ rights, displacement, and global migration, challenges facing Detroit and other post-industrial cities, media justice, transformative healing, and fossil fuel extraction."
Can the PMA take advantage of what the National Coordinating Committee called the "historical moment" and become the "movement of movements" needed for fundamental institutional change? In a recent ZNet article, Thomas Ponniah, co-editor of Another World is Possible: Popular Alternatives To Globalization at the World Social Forum (Zed Books, 2003), frames the question: "Is the Forum primarily an arena for movements to propose a diversity of alternatives or is the Forum a political agent that is pulling movements together into a counter-hegemonic program?" Ponniah points out that, officially, the World Social Forum’s Charter of Principles states that "the Forum is a space that does not aim to take positions that speak for all of its participants."
Since the inception of the World Social Forum in 2001, the Social Forum process has proved to be a staple feature of 21st century progressive movements. As for the USSF, the organization and participant turnout at its second gathering has been exemplary and seems to be growing. Therefore, it may still be an appropriate choice for the USSF to temporarily remain a social movement space to bring others into the fold, building momentum for discussion about program and developing shared visions for the society we want.
However, when the time is right—when there is a critical mass—the role of the Forum as a social space versus a social agent should be challenged. Otherwise, over time, the Forum might succumb, at worst, to bureaucracy and academic exercise or, at best, to being a movement gathering and fair with no active purpose other than to exchange information and socialize. In either scenario, participants are lost to boredom and withered hopes.
It was in this spirit that, in 2007, Z Communications submitted a resolution as participants in the PMA to the effect that, "The United States Social Forum put out a call/entreaty that each organization, coalition, project, and movement that intends to relate to the second U.S. Social Forum in 2010… prioritize developing proposals and presentations for vision and strategy to win that new world."
With multiple social and material crises affecting the world and our everyday lives, the need for such an orientation and a "movement of movements" has long been obvious and necessary. Can the USSF become part of such a vehicle? It has the potential, but it is up to everyone to bring it closer to realizing that possibility.
Chris Spannos, an activist, is also a staff member of ZNet and editor of Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century.