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(en) US Social Forum Report Back - dig and be dug in return., Communique #1 - #3

Date Thu, 12 Jul 2007 09:51:17 +0300


THE JOURNEY: My friend and I decided to travel to Atlanta for the first ever US Social Forum – that momentous gathering of social movements – and left on June 18. We're both members of the same organizations (Industrial Workers of the World, Students for a Democratic Society and the Poor People's Union) so we were a good match for traveling. Our mode of transportation – hitchhiking. In seven days we traveled a total of 3000 miles and got there in cars, the back of pickup trucks, semi trucks, city buses and city trains. It was the first time we had ever embarked on such a trip and what was astounding about the whole adventure was people's generosity and selflessness... and deep concern for those of us who are being repressed and for all the injustices of the world. The truckers who picked us up held deep concerns about environmental degradation and the war and occupation of Iraq. They all shared hatred in the government, the police and the prison system but at the same time expressed varying degrees of racism and sexism. If anything the trip taught me that people, even the seemingly most apolitical or even conservative, really do care and do want to see a better world form and everyone we talked to, from oil rig workers and nurses to farmers, restaurant workers and truckers, feel the real daily oppression of work. Labor organizing is a starting point to change this world for many, if not most people, but at the same time critical attention needs to be placed on organizing around race, sex, etc.

Atlanta:

We made it in one piece, despite a few very close calls. We arrived a few days earlier than planned and had no place to stay so we called a friend of a friend who helped us out and let us crash at his place. He comes from a family of Black Panthers and also has been very involved with the punk scene and anarchist organizing. We met him at Madratz Infoshop where he was hanging out with two Wobblies and then ended up at his place for the night, an apartment carved out of an ancient building that was once used for the cotton industry. The next day, Monday June 25, we went to the Civic Center for a volunteer orientation. We found out that there was a whole range of community organizations from the South and throughout the nation that have been involved with organizing the forum, but it was a little unclear as to who exactly the national organizers were. (Apparently, they were all from out of town. There was no representation from Atlanta.) On Tuesday we helped volunteer the whole day, in the process running into some Olympians, war veterans, anarchists, student organizers, Wobblies and other unionists, and various other community organizers from all over the country. It felt like we all held similar uncertainties about what the forum would be exactly, how unorganized it would be and how many people would end up coming (1,000?, 20,000?...).
Time would tell.

The Forum:

The Forum kicked off on Wednesday with a massive march that snaked through the streets of downtown Atlanta, starting at the capitol building and ending at the Civic Center. I marched for a while with an IWW contingent, and switched over to the Port Militarization Resistance banner, hopping back in the march at times to march with a New Orleans brass band and some anarchists. I ran into a few dozen people I knew from SDS, local Atlantans I had just met and a few dozen people from the port protests, NW SDS and Olympia. Marches in the south differ immensely from other marches, especially ones in Seattle I've been to. There's more excitement, more noise and more flavor (thanks to all the brass and marching bands that kept us moving through the humidity). If it was the right time and place, I'm sure there would be more action as well. Honestly I couldn't tell how many people marched. The street was flooded and the crowd stretched beyond, around and between buildings throughout downtown. For the US in general and Atlanta in particular, the march seemed the most fitting way to kick off the forum – after years of the World Social Forum movement starting, people have been wondering why it's taken so long for a national US forum to take place. Not only was a social forum wanted, but it was needed in the US. What better place for a gathering of all social movements on the left ranging from progressive and liberal to revolutionary and anarchist, spanning across urban, rural and suburban communities, and concerned with issues of war, racism, sexism, capitalism, environmental justice, labor organizing, the State, hierarchy and imperialism, than in the most highly effective imperialist nation state and center of capital.

There is much excitement and anticipation held by everyone here. One attendee at the Social Forum stated that “there are many social movements but no Social Movement”. The burning question now is how do we create that one social movement? What will it look like? What will it lead to? And if “another world is possible”, is it probable?

-M.

Communique #2 US Social Forum

(Is it a coincidence that the US Social Forum started on the same day as Emma Goldman's birthday?)

What the hell is a social forum?

Before giving my report back, I'll say a few words about what exactly a social forum is. The first World Social Forum was held in Porto Allegre, Brazil in January 2001 as a gathering of anti-globalization (or globalization from below) movements and organizations from around the world. It's usually held around the same time as the World Economic Forum (the great convening of the world's capitalists). The World Social Forum is by no means a decision making body but acts as a time and place for the anti-globalization movement to network, skill share and become stronger and more effective. On top of the World Social Forum (WSF) you also have thematic, regional, national and local social forums which all adhere to the WSF Charter of Principles (which can be found online). The US Social Forum logically is part of the WSF movement, but on a national scale.

Imagine if you will the US Social Forum:

I still can't decide how many people are here. My guess is as good as any. I want to say it's around 15,000 or 20,000. It certainly feels like it. The central hub of the forum is located in downtown Atlanta at the Civic Center but a number of churches, hotels, community centers, other buildings and parks have been rented out for the week. Tents, literature tables and booths cover the plaza and street near the Civic Center and literature tables from a diverse set of community organizations line all the walls in the hallways of the center. Spontaneous marches, often accompanied by marching bands or drumming of some kind, erupt occasionally and people are always, always meeting other social justice activists, networking, sharing ideas and learning from each other. The buildings and streets and parks and plazas are constantly flooded. There are nearly 1,000 different workshops to choose from this week on every issue imaginable, nightly plenary sessions, and constantly there are meetings, discussions and teach-ins of every sort. Maybe the best way to describe the excitement is what I've experienced so far. But this is just one voice of many.

Thursday June 28

The first workshop I attended this morning was called The Legacy of Torture: The War Against the Black Liberation Movement. The focus of the panel discussion was on the San Francisco 8 – the eight Black Panther veterans who were rounded up this past year and given trumped up charges on a 38 year old case that involved coerced confessions which were only extracted by torture. One of the speakers on the panel was Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver. Ward Churchill, and several Panthers and Young Lords and some former political prisoners were also in the audience to hear about their imprisoned brothers. The panelists agreed that what the US government is now doing is simply a continuation of COINTELPRO and an attempt to erase the memory and the legacy of the black liberation struggle of the 60s and 70s. I also ran into retired US Army Colonel Anne Wright who was elated to hear that the Olympia 22 case was a success and also inquired about the next step in confronting the military in our ports in the northwest.

The next workshop I attended was put on by several members of UNITE-HERE. The focus of the discussion was on labor struggles in the Rust Belt. Union leaders and organizers gave detailed stories about personal struggles they have faced in organizing and the changing face in manufacturing and the service sectors in the Rust Belt. A lively discussion was held about popular education, using the union as a social instead of political (electoral) organization and difficulties with increasing youth involvement in the union. There were some members of SEIU and the IWW in attendance too. These two unions, along with UNITE-HERE, have a very visible presence at the social forum. Everywhere I go, I run into a union member of one of these three unions and the discussions seem to be the same, and are also steeped in an anti-neoliberal, and often anti-capitalist, and worker-controlled framework. It's not just Wobblies who want to destroy capitalism, but UNITE-HERE members in the Midwest as well. When not in the workshops I spent much of my day networking with other people.

At night there were two powerful plenary sessions held – the first on Gulf Coast Reconstruction in the Post-Katrina Era and the second on US Imperialism, War, Militarism and Prisons. I missed the Katrina plenary but there should be some information on it, if not a recording of it, found on the forum's web site. The imperialism plenary had seven speakers. The first speaker was Faleh Abood Umara of the radical Iraqi Federation of Oil Workers' Unions, a federation that has been on the forefront, but less heard of part, of the Iraqi resistance to US occupation. The federation has been actively fighting privatization in Iraq by using direct action on the job and even strikes that have shut down entire sectors in the oil industry. Another speaker, Eli Painted Crow, who is Yaqui and an Iraq War veteran spoke about how her consciousness was raised when she realized she was guilty of committing the same crimes the US Empire enacted (and continues to enforce) on her tribe. Kai Barrows of Critical Resistance spoke about the need to abolish the prison system and was very aware in making connections between the prison system, institutional racism, militarism, sexism and violence. All the speakers made calls for unity to make our struggles into one larger struggle to fight all forms of oppression.

The night ended for many at a party downtown where the Hot 8 brass band from New Orleans made an appearance.

Friday June 29

This morning I attended the most powerful workshop yet: Another Politics is Possible: Living the Vision from the Below and to the Left. At least 300 people attended the workshop, maybe more. A participatory discussion was held between members of Sista II Sista, INCITE, Center for Immigrant Families (Manhattan), Coalition of Immokolee Workers and LA Garment Workers. The “consulta popular” was broken down into smaller groups where people discussed concepts of horizontalism, decentralist organizing, intersectionality and various revolutionary organizational methods. What was really interesting about this workshop, and it stands in contrast to the workshop I attended later in the day, was that the majority of the people in attendance were people of color. Individuals from a number of different groups discussed how anarchist, Marxist, feminist, queer liberation, and direct action theories and ideas shaped those of their organizations in developing horizontalist structures and methods. The organizations and individuals in the room were anarchist, but not explicitly so, or at least very heavily influenced by anarchist principles and ideas. There was a general disdain for the vanguard party, democratic centralism, and seizing or taking State power. Ashanti, a former political prisoner and member of both the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army gave the closing remarks. I'm always elated to see Panthers still fighting, many of them now having a tighter grasp on fighting sexism and in struggling in an anti-authoritarian way. Ashanti said the 14 years he spent in prison were worth it – he feels that the real struggle is now.

The second workshop I attended was Anarchy for the Future: Progressive Anti-Authoritarianism. The small room given to us couldn't hold the 150 or so people so an ad hoc anarchist discussion formed in another room. The bigger room had a small panel of anarchists from Worker Solidarity Alliance, Atlanta Anarchists, NY Metro Alliance of Anarchists, and NEFAC . The majority of the time was spent on networking and having discussions in smaller groups. I met an anarchist from the Boston area who told me about neighborhood assemblies in formation in Boston, based off of the neighborhood and popular assemblies in Oaxaca. This very same idea was discussed by some organizers in the northwest interested in developing neighborhood and community assemblies in Tacoma, Olympia and elsewhere in the Puget Sound area. Many of the anarchists present were interested in moving beyond the elitist and pretentious beliefs and actions often found in the anarchist community and were very interested in moving beyond the activist and anarchist ghetto into our greater communities. People also mentioned organizing around the DNC and RNC which will be held next summer. Other anarchists reminded us that we need to put ourselves and each other in check and realize that we need to help create the space for other communities to find self determination and that we need to be more accessible. As the first workshop of the day proved, you don't have to be an anarchist to be an anarchist.

Following the workshop there was a semi-spontaneous march of 300 or so that went down to Coca-Cola's headquarters for a demonstration against Coke's crimes committed in Colombia, India and around the world.

I'd sit and write some more but both you and I have some more important things we need to be doing right now. I want to say though that I first came into this social forum expecting it to be more of a liberal-left convergence with a number of people mainly concerned with seizing state power or manipulating it (or other patriarchal institutions) to achieve their goals... but clearly this has not been the case. I at first was using the vague term “social justice” activists and organizers to describe the people here in attendance. It didn't take me long to discover that the forum is filled with revolutionaries and radicals of all types – many of whom are clearly anti-authoritarian and sincerely concerned with destroying capitalism and all repressive structures, systems and beliefs.

Atlanta is hot right now and I'm not talking about the weather!

-M.

Communique #3 US Social Forum

(I don’t know how this slipped my mind from the last post but I met George Sessenko the other day at the forum. George is a member of Vets for Peace. The war he fought in was the social revolution (the ‘Civil War’) of Spain. He joined the international brigades at a young age and joined the Durruti Column in Spain. Anarchism, to him, isn’t some distant ideal or something purely theoretical. He experienced it and witnessed it. It was functioning, living and real and he believes that it can live again. If anything has come out of the social forum for any people, I‘m sure it‘s been hope.)

Saturday June 30

The day started (and I unfortunately missed this part) with Peoples Movement Assembly Breakouts. There were 10 assemblies in total, divided mostly by region but also an “1898 Assembly” (Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii and American Samoa) and an Indigenous Nations one so people could draw up written statements and proclamations for the closing ceremony. The northwest assembly saw 50 people attend (with at least 50-100 or more not in attendance). Some people wanted to talk about organizing a Northwest Social Forum but most people there wanted to work on statements about closing the ICE Detention Center in Tacoma and also about the port militarization resistance movement.

I started the day by attending a workshop entitled Behind the Walls: Building a Broad-Based Movement to Free US Political Prisoners and POWs. The panel included several former political prisoners from the Weather Underground, Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army and the Puerto Rican liberation struggle. The panelists covered a variety of topics, from the time they spent in prison, to the importance of supporting political prisoners, to the continuation of COINTELPRO and its recent attacks on the animal and earth liberation movements. Afterwards, four SDSers from the northwest approached Ashanti (the “anarchist Panther”) and Dhoruba bin Wahad (who spent 19 years in prison as a political prisoner) to see if they wanted to do a speaking tour this fall in Eugene, Portland, Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle and Bellingham to raise money for the San Francisco 8. They seemed elated and excited about it. Hopefully things will pull through and they’ll come to Cascadia. When people were clearing out of the room after the workshop, several SDSers from the northwest and Florida met and created a political prisoner working group to raise awareness about and funds for political prisoners in this country, but to also incorporate victims of ICE and DHS raids. We agreed that all prisoners in this country are political prisoners to some extent and discussed incorporating theories and ideas of prison abolition in the workgroup.

I attended two other workshops during the day. I missed the one on militant student unions (there was a little confusion because a few dozen workshops had to change times and locations last minute) so I instead walked into a random workshop put on by the anarchist cadre group Bring the Ruckus and another workshop put on by NY Metro Alliance of Anarchists’ group Ya Basta (which is somewhat of a tactical protest street performance group). Both workshops weren’t what I really expected them to be but were still worth going to.

I also met again with a group of anarchists who were interested in setting up a more cohesive and connected anarchist network in the US. One anarchist encouraged people to look into Love and Rage and the Black Brigades to learn about successes and mistakes of past national anarchist networks. But many of the anarchists agreed (a number of them from the northwest) that in order for an effective national anarchist network to form we really need to focus on community organizing first. A national network isn’t entirely out of the question though (and wasn’t entirely up to the people at the meet up).

A Problem with Plenaries:

At night there were two plenaries. The first was Liberating Gender and Sexuality: Integrating Gender and Sexual Justice Across Our Movements and the second was Workers’ Rights in the Global Economy. The night before I attended a plenary called Indigenous Voices and another called Immigrant Rights. Because of time constraints this week and trying to find an accessible computer so I can post this, I’ve only been to a little more than half of all the plenaries. There were a number of people offended by how some of the pleneries were set up during the week. The anti-war/imperialism/prison system plenary had some white Israeli Jew speak about the struggle in Palestine instead of a Palestinian. The woman spoke about internal Palestinian conflicts out of context and also likened HAMAS to right wing conservatives in this country (that too out of context and it helped reinforce a number of orientalist stereotypes). A Palestinian woman read a statement the next night criticizing the woman and the USSF organizers for not having a Palestinian voice on the panel. In the closing ceremony, some people were more concerned with time and punctuality then letting people speak their mind. There was a point when a native person spoke over the short two minute time limit and the mic was cut. This offensive and racist act didn’t sit well with many people so later on there were 60 or 70 indigenous people who went on stage and spoke about their place in the movement, their struggles, fighting racism and what’s expected of white people in the movement. It was a time of constructive criticism and healing. What these two instances revealed was the levels of racism and other forms of oppression that exist, even and especially within the social justice movement, and how much work we have to do to dismantle it. Let it be a lesson learned to all who attended.

Sunday July 1 - The Last Day (at the forum, but not in Atlanta)

The closing Peoples Movements Assembly was held this morning (briefly mentioned above). Countless people came forward reading proclamations and statements, many of them very moving and powerful. I didn’t attend the whole assembly but did sit in for a good hour and a half or so. The auditorium was packed. People read statements from their regions about indigenous struggles, rebuilding New Orleans, smashing racism, sexism, queer phobia, capitalism, etc., freeing political prisoners, making a stronger movement in the US and everyone demanding that “another world is possible and another US is necessary”. But the question remains. What will that new world and that new US look like? I’m certain many people have a better idea of what that new world will look like and how to get there but on a grander scale, and this has been a frequent criticism of social forums in the past, the USSF itself did not draw up a pragmatic strategy or plan for creating another world. Of course, this is a criticism held by some, not necessarily by me. It might work better for people to skill share and develop connections and ideas nationally at forums such as this and then go back to their communities, local and regional, to practically and pragmatically apply what was learned and shared (through a lot of listening and asking of course). Everyone I talked to now has a better sense of what they and their communities want and need.

Another View:

As I mentioned before, what I have written about the social forum is just one view of many. When I was walking outside the Civic Center today I ran into an old friend - Howie Hawkins. Howie was a co-founder of the US Green Party and currently resides in Syracuse, NY where he’s active in organizing around energy, the environment, in his community and in his union. He’s very ant capitalist, very working class and (as I learned today) very anti-authoritarian. He said he was supposed to speak at a workshop about using the State to make our world better. He shook his head when he told me about the workshop and said, “It’s not about seizing State power, you have to smash the State!” Howie had a number of criticisms about the forum. He said that the closing ceremony didn’t have as many African American voices as it should or could have (after all, this is Atlanta) and the forum was also lacking an environmental justice and anti-war mood (or at least during the closing part of it). He also felt like NGOs had a monopoly over the forum, much like they do at the World Social Forum. He was also upset that some committee of the USSF only endorsed a demonstration at the RNC, but not at the DNC. I told him though that the Rocky Mountain statement denounced capitalism and the Party that helps perpetuate it (the Democrats) and encouraged people to come shut down the DNC. He was met by wild applause.

In Deceember 2005 Howie was one of the keynote speakers at the Utica, NY Social Forum. It was small. It was local. He said he liked that forum a lot better than the USSF because of its accessibility to more people and locality. I agreed with Howie but am also satisfied with what I got out of the USSF and what I, and many others from the Northwest, will be bringing back to Cascadia.

M.
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