"Who's ready to fight?" Bill Fletcher, the progressive labor activist, demanded to know of the audience. "More importantly," he followed up, "who's ready to win?"
A great question, and one we rarely have the opportunity to consider on the Left, I thought while sitting in the morning workshop of my final day here at the US Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit. Activists are always down to rally, to march, to struggle -- but it sometimes seems we expect to lose the fight even as we step into the ring.
Not the panelists at this workshop, though. Activists who have fought - and won - against budget cuts across the country shared stories and took notes. A community organizer from Central Florida explained how the local alliance between the bus drivers union and the bus riders themselves has pushed for more investment in public transportation. In Oregon, Jobs with Justice led a successful campaign last year to pass a progressive tax increase (on corporations and the richest 2.5%) for the first time since the 1930's. While it was a relatively small increase, having the public vote for higher taxes to support public services was a powerful shift in state politics.
In another victory in a small Midwestern city, they found a surprising, strategic issue to organize around: libraries. Working people needed them because they provide the computer access to do job searches, and suburban soccer moms "wanted to make sure they keep up with the latest Danielle Steele novel." In all, the message was to unite beyond individual issues -- rather than fight for a bigger piece of the pie, let's fight for a bigger pie. "With whipped cream!" the Florida organizer added.
Later, I attend an anti-war workshop featuring voices from Iraq and Afghanistan, which we rarely hear in the U.S. The Iraqi activist said the U.S. agreement to fully withdraw from Iraq by July 2011 is actually a good one -- we just need to make sure the Obama administration lives up to it. The brother from Afghanistan gave a dire view of his country, where U.S. troop numbers have tripled in the last year but "the occupation is a lost cause -- for everyone." The pain in his voice made it clear, he spoke from personal experience.
After a brief stop at a youth organizing workshop with Bay Area allies of mine, I checked out two of the larger People's Movement Assemblies (PMA's), one on media justice and one on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Both had well over 100 people in attendance, and while there were many yawns and slumped shoulders in the room, that reflected that it was the last session of the week more than dedication to their respective causes.
Unfortunately, I had to leave before the final actions of the forum, including a huge march against the Detroit incinerator (the largest, most polluting incinerator in the country -- in a city with no curbside recycling). I also missed the National People's Movement Assembly, where all the 50+ issue-based PMA's presented their declarations to the entire forum for discussion and approval (see http://pma2010.org for the full list). I was sad to miss the final day, but there is no real "final day" when it comes to this work.
As I got ready to go, I began thinking: what was not going on at the USSF that maybe should have been? Of course I couldn't attend every panel, workshop, and impromptu protest, but there were some issues did not garner much discussion. Neither the BP oil disaster in the Gulf nor post-Katrina justice in New Orleans figured prominently in the program. Police violence was not at the top of the agenda, an especially glaring omission after the Detroit police killed seven-year-old Aiyana Jones last month. And a thousand more issues that one person or another wanted to see taken up more. Those conversations were happening somewhere, I know that. That's just the autonomous nature of the forum: you can't capture everything, and some issues don't get the love you want.
What you do get are the small moments: the crazy comments and "Oh snap!" experiences that really make or break a person's time here at the USSF. So here's my top 10 unexpectedly memorable moments from the US Social Forum:
10. Marching through downtown during rush hour, and looking around wondering, "Where's the traffic?" Then we realized: that's how few people there are in downtown Detroit.
9. Playing a 30-on-30 game of Capture the Flag with a group of high schoolers from Chicago, in the huge room made for the plenary sessions. When a USSF organizer asked us to wrap it up to get ready for the plenary, one of the students asked, "Why? What else is going on?"
8. Feeling an earthquake, a huge thunderstorm, and a near-tornado all in one day. And they say California has crazy weather.
7. Hanging out with an immigration activist from El Paso, TX, who looked across the Detroit River and asked, "That's Canada? This border is different up here. It looks...happy."
6. My friend Ryan outside Cobo Plaza: "Are those Navy Seals?" Me: "No, that's the Social Forum security." (Seriously, the private company the USSF hired to stand between us and the cops...they were cool, but they looked scarier than the actual cops.)
5. The Center for Media Justice's remix of Warren G's hip-hop classic "Regulators." They turned the gangsta braggadocio into rhyming about the need for stronger regulators in the FCC. Hilarious, and actually decent lyricism.
4. The contradiction of attending the biggest Left gathering in the country, while staying at the Greektown Casino Hotel. Or as my roommate said, "Socialist by day, capitalist by night."
3. The one thing that everybody planned to go to: the Leftist Lounge. Glad to know progressives still like to party. (And what a party it was.)
2. Talking with a comrade from Oakland, who said the Oscar Grant police murder verdict could come down this week back in California. If the cop Johannes Mehserle is found not guilty, there will be chaos in the streets of Oakland -- while many of the community's progressive leaders are here in Detroit. A reminder of what's really at stake, and a warning that maybe we need to make sure our hometowns are cool when we go leave for national events.
1. My conversation with a 70-year-old USSF participant and Detroit resident, born and raised in the city that is now 80% black, as we looked at the crowd outside Cobo Plaza and he told me with only slight exaggeration: "This is the most white people I've seen in Detroit since Kennedy was President."
There you go.
Was the USSF worth the travel, the chaos, the lack of sleep? Only time will tell. The Left needs moments like this -- when we come together, in all our beauty, in all our all faults, to see where we're at and reaffirm the decision that, yes, we are in this together.
We are here to make a better world, from Detroit to Dakar and back. We are in the fight for our lives, for our planet, for our future. We will fight with joy and with song, across languages and borders and non-profit status.
We will fight. And we don't intend to lose.
Josh Healey is the Spoken Word Editor for The Progressive.