Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Another world is possible; U.S. Social forum

Another U.S. is starting to happen

The slogan of the USSF was 'Another world is possible,
another U.S. is necessary.' It was interpreted both as
another U.S. and another 'us,' meaning the left has to
reinvent itself.


by Judy Rebick July 9, 2007

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

Ten thousand people, overwhelmingly poor and working
class, the majority people of colour, at least half
women, and a massive number of youth gathered in
Atlanta, Ga. at the end of June for the U.S. 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 halfway 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

The slogan of the USSF was "Another world is possible,
another U.S. 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 Azcarate, then with Jobs with
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 grassroots organizations and ensuring the right

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 grassroots 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 also 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."

Almost 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 NGOs in the United States were on the
planning committee. The idea that foundation-funded,
majority white, centrist and Washington dominated NGOs
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 had their own

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

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 whitewash 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 Center. A guest
worker 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 their

Their ability to stay in the U.S. is dependent on the
employer. Gallardo 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

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 People's Movement Assembly by removing
their microphone, they took grave offense and felt

Within 10 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

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

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 was 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."

Judy Rebick holds the Sam Gindin Chair in Social
Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University in Toronto.
She is a founder and former publisher of rabble.ca. Her
most recent book is Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a
Feminist Revolution.
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