Saturday, July 28, 2007

U.S. Social Forum: Visions to Build, Reasons to Hope


Opinion: The forum created a much-needed space for traditionally marginalized groups to affirm their place at the helm of movements for change.

Organizers estimate that more than 10,000 people filled Atlanta from June 27 to July 1 with visionary panels, spirited marches, fiery speeches, bumpin' dance parties and an all-around impressive political spirit. The feedback is (nearly) unanimous: the United States Social Forum (USSF) -- held in the United States for the first time -- was amazing.

And now that it's over, the real work of the forum begins.

Rather than provide only fleeting inspiration, the forum was structured to build for the future. The atmosphere provided a chance for groups to showcase their work, challenge one other, and build stronger, more unified networks. More than a few chose the forum as a site to launch new projects or alliances: the Right to the City Alliance, the radical social networking site, and a National Alliance of Domestic Workers.

Unlike the World Social Forum, heavily dominated by large nongovernmental organizations, the U.S. Social Forum was a truly grassroots endeavor representing some of the key sectors of social movement mobilization in recent years: labor and anti-poverty, students and youth, media and culture, environment and Gulf Coast, anti-war and anti-imperialist, immigrant and indigenous, feminist and anti-racist, and queer and trans. The social forum showcased the fertilization of organic intellectuals, the bottoms-up brainstorming enabled by the free exchange of ideas among communities of and in struggle.

Social forums remind us that whatever technology enables, organizing only happens among people in face-to-face settings. The participants at this particular face-to-face gathering were the grassroots organizers, culture workers, and assorted radicals working not only to topple Team Bush but to remake the United States. The forum demanded that we think big our visions and plan smart our strategies.

The forum's structure was too loose for a national organization to proclaim the Left's agenda. But that was the point, which is both a strength and a weakness.

The forum provided a place for networking toward and strategizing for a world without walls -- but mostly, it created the space for traditionally marginalized groups to affirm their place at the helm of movements for change. Housing organizers, domestic workers, low- and no-wage workers, people with AIDS, anti-violence/anti-prison organizers, queer youth of color, Hurricane Katrina survivors -- this is the grassroots in all of its glory.

"It gave me a feeling like, the Left is finally getting its shit together," AIDS activist and independent journalist Suzy Subways wrote of the forum. "I got a sense that people of color -- especially immigrants, indigenous people, women of color and queer people of color -- were like, 'the Left is ours,' and were bringing the most innovative strategies and concepts to be seen in years, rocketing the whole thing into another dimension."

With a scale so big, the forum was an unprecedented coming together of U.S. social justice movements from, as Zapatista spokesperson Subcommandante Marcos puts it, below and to the Left. Given that magnitude, encapsulating the forum is an elusive task. The six plenary sessions attempted to define strategic imperatives for the U.S. Left: Gulf Coast reconstruction; U.S. imperialism, war, militarism and prisons; indigenous voices; immigrant rights; liberating gender and sexuality; and workers' rights in the global economy. The hundreds of groups present attempted to flesh out, give meaning, and add on to these arenas. Many speakers criticized the limitations of a nonprofit structure, calling for social justice activists to think and work beyond its confines.

Two palpable questions permeated the forum. Like the forum itself, these questions are huge -- and they will no doubt continue percolating among various groups, campaigns, actions and even regional social forums in the months and years ahead. How do we build movements that don't replicate the same oppressive dynamics we abhor? How do we build pockets of resistance in our various communities (defined both demographically and geographically) and on various issues while building toward a winning, radical mass movement? These complicated questions guided discussions of building explicitly queer and transgender leadership in the Left as they did talks of ending the drug war. The forum's open structure makes it sometimes difficult to amplify, or even agree to, a clear position. But raising, struggling with and learning from these questions collectively builds movements.

The humid air brought high hopes of a reinvigorated mass movement -- a visionary movement across class, age, race, gender, sexuality, citizenship status and ability; one where leadership emerges from the most marginalized sectors of the population; an imaginative movement, managing to be strategically sound, tactically flexible, and politically uncompromising. One whose roots grow from local communities and stretch across the world.

The Social Forum offered reasons to think this movement is within reach. It also exposed some of the tensions that need to be addressed as we continue to build. A furtive group calling itself Bakers Without Borders and Co-optation Watch shoved a pie in Medea Benjamin's face, accusing Code Pink and its executive director of betraying people's movements in the United States and Latin America. (Although the National Planning Committee chastised these clandestine cooks, the quarter-page communique distributed at the site cast the action as the high-fructose version of an invective common at the forum: The traditional nonprofit structure mollifies dissent. Benjamin was targeted for being a "Premiere Spokesperson for the Commodification of Resistance and Sustainability by the NGO Industrial Complex.") Indigenous activists took the stage for 20 minutes at the closing People's Movement Assembly to chastise the forum for disrespecting Native people during the assembly and in the Left more generally. Activists from Poor magazine and the Media Justice Center similarly accused the forum of marginalizing youth and poor people.

Whatever the criticisms of form and content, the under-30 crowd made its work known at the forum. Youth leadership was often invoked; more importantly, it was actually present.

Speaking at Sunday morning's plenary, Rickke Mananzala told the crowd how his group, Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE!), organizes LGBTQ youth of color in NYC against gentrification and police brutality -- through meetings and marches but also through pageants and parties. Baltimore's Algebra Project shared its work for a youth-led takeover of education. The new Students for a Democratic Society discussed some of the opportunities and challenges it has faced in trying to build a youth-led organization with ties to leftists from many generations. Organizers with Iraq Veterans Against the War -- whose wartime experiences obscures their young age -- made the forum a stop on their bus tour of military bases, presenting those assembled with a strategy to make U.S. militarism impossible from within.

But here, too, the significance is broader than rattling off a checklist of young people's participation. Numerous panels consciously presented themselves as intergenerational dialogues. Youth play a vital role in the organizing work of the many groups present, whether 84-year-old War Resister's League, 14-year-old Southerners on New Ground, or six-year-old National Day Laborer Organizing Network. The work these and many other groups are doing carries with it the promise of a just world, brought into being by intergenerational movements with youth leadership.

This notion was perhaps best expressed by Dhoruba bin-Wahad, who got active as a youth in the Black Panther Party and remains a tireless organizer, despite serving 19 years in prison before it was revealed that the government withheld exculpatory materials. Speaking at a Jericho Amnesty Movement panel for the freedom of U.S. political prisoners, bin Wahad said, "The most important thing we need from you [young people] is to make our movements strong." The forum showed two things: Young people don't do this alone, but they are doing it.

Dan Berger is a writer, activist, and graduate student living in Philadelphia. He is the author of Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (AK Press, 2006) and co-editor of Letters From Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out. (Nation Books, 2005).

Photos by NYC Grassroots Media Coalition, Logan Price, and Guillermo. All photos in this story are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0.

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