It's one thing for 20,000 people to march together under the theme "Another World is Possible, Another World Is Necessary," as we did yesterday to kick off the US Social Forum (USSF) here in Detroit. It's another thing for those same thousands of people to split into hundreds of workshops and get down to the business of strategizing how to make that new world happen.
If the opening day of the forum was about celebration - "We are here!" - the second day was more about hard questions -- "So where exactly are we?" And perhaps more importantly, "Where the hell do we want to go?"
My day started sharing an elevator with a college student from Ohio, who knew exactly where she was.
"We're in Detroit," she said, which she found so exciting because "all the corporations have left." Wow. I wasn't expecting such a political analysis so early in the morning, especially from a forum participant. I replied that the companies hadn't "left" -- they'd abandoned the city, leaving destruction in their wake. What about all the jobs that have been lost?, I asked. "Hopefully they'll be replaced by local organizations, you know, community gardens."
Now I love community gardens as much as the next organic anarchist, but community gardens aren't going to replace unionized jobs at GM and Ford. The USSF is about political education, there's definitely a need for it, even among our own ranks.
The workshops I attended provided no shortage of smart analysis and lively debate.
My first session, entitled "DC is not your Protest Playground," spoke to a feeling I'd long felt having grown up in the nation's capital: huge, national mobilizations coming to town for a weekend protest at the White House or Capitol, and often not engaging the 500,000 local DC residents. As a disenfranchised city without Congressional representation, people living in DC are acutely aware of federal hypocrisy. Not content to focus just on the problems, the panelists (all DC-based organizers, as well as a great representative from Detroit, who talked about the successes and challenges her community's had hosting the USSF itself) offered solutions as well. One innovative idea, from Geoff Millard of Iraq Veterans against the War, was connecting local issues to national mobilizations. As part of IVAW's anti-war organizing, the group has started organizing DC National Guard members. Part of its national campaign is to say that if DC residents don't have a Congressional voice to vote on the war, then DC residents shouldn't be sent to fight. Now that's connecting the local to the global.
After lunch was the "Excluded Workers Congress," a large session (over 300 people) that felt more like a spirited rally. Made up of workers literally excluded from most labor laws, the room included farmworkers from Florida, taxi drivers from New York, public university employees in Tennessee, and (the loudest of them all) domestic workers from all over the U.S. Leaders of a new, dynamic, multiracial labor movement, the mood was energetic and celebratory, with songs and chants (often in Spanish) breaking out in the middle of speeches. While there wasn't much internal debate over the immense challenges facing these groups, it was a beautiful, rare moment on the grassroots Left to hear people say "We have won!" (referring to farmworker victories over McDonalds, the domestic worker bill of rights in New York, etc) and mean it.
My last session was maybe the most eye-opening -- and where I started a small controversy. Led by National's People Action and the Right to the City Alliance, the focus was on the fight to save and improve public housing. The Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department is proposing a new law called PETRA, which the workshop leaders called "petra-fying" as it would essentially privatize what's left of the country's public, affordable housing units. Declaring that housing is a human right and "not something to make money off," the organizers (some whom were public housing residents themselves) dismissed the stereotypes of public housing as filled with "crime, drugs, and dysfunction." This challenged me to rethink my own perspective: I'm adamant about promoting public education, public health, public transportation -- why not public housing?
Still, there was a question on my mind. I told the organizers I work with young people in the Bay Area, some of whom live in public housing. They're not trying to save the projects, I said. They're trying to get out of the projects. So how you do organize folks, especially young folks, with that attitude? The answers were on point: show people the big picture (the problem with public housing is not the community, but the lack of resources offered by the government), connect it with issues young people care about (in San Francisco, gang injunctions targeting young people of color began in public housing areas), and show the positives (community centers, field trips). The conversation got really heated when a woman from Miami, a NPA local member herself, said, "Well, I've lived in public housing, and I disagree: Why do you want people to stay in public housing? People should be able to improve their lives and move out." That got the room really going! Debate went back and forth on whether public housing should be seen as transitional or long-term, ending with another NPA organizer: "If public housing's good enough for the President, it's good enough for me."
After my best session of the day, it was time to march. Organized by local Detroit unions and community groups, over 1,000 of us rallied against municipal budget cuts and private banks (in this case Chase) that have made a huge profit over the foreclosure crisis that's turned much of Detroit into an abandoned city. I don't know if my friend from the morning elevator was at this march, but this was the type of action local Detroiters were calling for: good jobs, good homes, a safe, healthy city. Sounds so American, and yet so radical at the same time. Welcome to the US Social Forum.
Josh Healey is the Spoken Word Editor for The Progressive.