U.S. Social Forum: The view from Canada

After spending five weeks in Bolivia this summer, I was convinced that the new paths out of this destructive, hateful morass we call neo-liberalism would come from those most marginalized by its  greed and violence. Little did I imagine that one of the strongest signs of this direction would come from the belly of the beast itself.  Ten thousand people, overwhelmingly poor and working class, majority people of colour, at least half women, and including a massive number of youth gathered in Atlanta Georgia  at the end of June for the US Social Forum (USSF) signaling what could be the birth of the most powerful social movement the U.S. has ever seen. 

“Never in my wildest imagination, did I think I would ever see something like this in the United States,” Carlos Torres, a Chilean refugee now living in Canada told me half way through the forum.  The sentiment was repeated again and again by Latin American visitors who were there as emissaries from the World Social Forum (WSF).   It was radical, it was militant, it was feminist, it was anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, it was queer, it was loud and lively and it was brimming with love, kindness and a deep sense of solidarity.   The slogan of the USSF was “Another World is Possible, Another US is necessary.”   It was interpreted both as another U.S. and another “us” meaning the left has to reinvent itself. 

And it was a major step forward for the World Social Forum movement.   The idea of a U.S. social forum came from a couple of people who went to the 2001 WSF in Brazil and then brought a few more with them in 2002.   They formed a group called Grassroots Global Justice and began the process of organizing a U.S. Social Forum, firmly in the WSF spirit.  One of them Fred Ascarate, then with Jobs for Justice, now with the AFL-CIO,  explained to the opening plenary that “It took this long because we wanted to do it right by building the necessary relationships among the grass roots organizations and ensuring the right outcomes.”  And the right outcomes were to create the conditions to unite the disparate grassroots people’s movements around the U.S. across race, age, sector and region. They got the idea from the WSF but they took it beyond where anyone else has managed to go, except perhaps in Mumbai.    In Nairobi, poor people demanded a significant place in the WSF planning process and in Atlanta, they had one.  The National Planning Committee represented what they call national and regional “base-building” groups, whose base is mostly poor and working class people.   It seemed to this observer that the forum shifted the balance of power on the American left to the poor and oppressed from the middle class.   Time will tell what impact this will have. 

Every plenary focused on building alliances among the myriad of grass roots movement across the United States.  Most emphasis was on a “black-brown” alliance to combat the racism that divides African Americans from their Latino and immigrant brothers and sisters.  But there was a lot of focus on student/labour alliances and environmental issues were completely linked to social justice issues. Support for gays, lesbians and transgendered people who have been major targets of the Bush administration seemed universal.  The forum ended in a People’s Movements Assembly, where various regional and issue caucuses presented their resolutions.  Several new national networks were formed and the bonds of solidarity were deeply forged among those who are usually divided.   People left with the commitment to organize social forums in their regions, cities and neighbourhoods.  Over the course of the week, the social forum became a synonym for creating a movement of movements everywhere.

“People are asking me when Atlanta has ever seen something like this “Jerome Scott of Project South and veteran Atlanta activist speaking of the opening march.  “I’ve been reflecting on that and my answer is Atlanta has never seen anything like this. The Civil Rights movement was mostly African American and last year’s May 1st (immigration rights) demo was mostly Latinos but this march was the most multi-national action I have ever seen.  It was beautiful.”

Most of every one of the 900 workshops over four days was filled to the brim with activists who were sharing strategies in everything from food security to community/labour alliances to a new taking back our cities movement against gentrification.  The plenary speakers were majority women, people of colour, and young people.  There was not a single left-wing star among them.  In a culture obsessed with celebrity, the organizing committee decided they didn’t need any, even the good ones.    None of the big NGO’s in the United States were on the planning committee.    The idea that foundation-funded, majority white, centrist and Washington dominated NGO’s and think tanks have hijacked the left was present throughout the forum.  These groups were welcome to participate but not in a leadership capacity.  

Another extraordinary feature of the forum was the role of indigenous people who led the opening march and participated on several panels as well as their own plenary.   Much of the vision came from them. After talking about the melting of the glaciers,  Faith Gemmill from the REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Land) in Alaska said, “Our people have a prophesy that there will come a time in the history of humanity when people are in danger of destroying ourselves.  When that time comes, a voice will arise from the North to warn us.  That time is now.  I was sent here to give you part of our burden to speak up now against the greed.”

And Tom Goldtooth who represents the Indigenous Environmental Network on the national planning committee said, “”We must talk from the heart and shake hands with one another. A prayer has taken place that this spirit is going to grow. No matter who we are we must demand not reform of a broken system but transformation. We need to organize from the grassroots.”   And many did  speak from the heart.


The plenary on Katrina was stunning to me.  While I certainly followed the immediate aftermath I had no idea of the continuing efforts to white wash New Orleans.  Dr. Beverley Wright speaking from the floor said, “our parents and our grandparents fought to buy a house to pass on to their family and they are trying to take that away from us when they talk about turning the place we lived in East New Orleans into a green space.  They’re not talking about turning the place rich white folks live into green space. ” Another community leader said, “Katrina is both a reality and a symbol.  If you work in justice, if you work in health care, if your work in housing, you are in Katrina.” 


One of the most powerful speeches was from Javier Gallardo from the New Orleans Workers Centre.  A guest work from Peru, he explained that when African Americans were displaced, hundreds of workers, like him, had been brought in from Latin America for Gulf Coast reconstruction and their employers names are on the passports. Their ability to stay in the U.S. is dependent on the employer.  He said that there is now a practice that when the employer is finished with the workers, he sells them to another employer for $2,000 each.  “What is that?,” he asked.  “We call it modern day slavery.   They want to divide us but the old slaves and the new slaves can join together and together we can defeat them,” he continued to thunderous applause.  The old slaves/new slaves metaphor wove its way through the rest of the forum in the powerful idea of a black-brown alliance, that veteran activists said would transform left-wing politics in the United States and especially in the South where the vast majority of the working class is now black and brown. 


Another impressive feature of the forum was the handling of conflict.  When the Palestinian contingent objected that they were the only group not permitted to speak for themselves in the anti-war plenary, the organizers read their letter of protest to the next plenary.  When the report of the indigenous caucus was stopped at the end of their allotted time by the moderator of the Peoples Movement Assembly by removing their mike, they took grave offense and felt silenced.  Within ten minutes most of the indigenous people in the room were on the stage with the consent of the organizers.  What could have been an explosive divisive moment with a lot of anger and hurt was handled with incredible skill by both permitting the protest and making sure it was interpreted in a way that created unity rather than division.   I had the feeling that a new culture of solidarity was being born, one we tried for in the feminist movement but never quite accomplished. 


Of course there were weaknesses in the forum.  While strongly rooted in the traditions of the Civil Rights movement by the symbolic location in Atlanta and the presence of veteran civil rights activists, there was less discussion of working class or even feminist history.  Yet the impact of those movements were strongly felt in the powerful female leadership present everywhere and the strong emphasis on workers issues and organizing. None of the big environmental groups were present.  While the issue of the war and U.S. imperialism had pride of place, the mainstream anti-war movement had little presence.  The forum organizers bent the stick quite far towards poor, working class, indigenous, queer and people of colour groups and perhaps this was necessary to create the kind of movement really capable of making change in the United States. 

In her famous speech at the 2002 World Social Forum in Brazil, Arundhati Roy famously said, “Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. ”

 It wasn’t a quiet day in Atlanta but I could hear her shouting there, “What do we want?  Justice.  How will we get it?  People Power.”


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