The U.S. Social forum brought together 10,000 activists from organizations across the United States in an experiment in movement building and popular education unlike any in recent memory. Picking up where the anti-globalization coalitions of the 1990s left off, the assembled forces had the sort of momentum that was building just before the Seattle WTO protests in 1999. But today, the political agenda is far broader and the isolation by issue is less extreme. While still lacking in crucial elements of a successful social change movement, (including participation from organized workers and practicing people of faith) this assemblage may hold the seeds for the development of a radical movement in the United States—but not any time soon.
The forum's aspirations were from a pragmatic political point of view quite minimalist. "More than a networking bonanza, more than a reaction to war and repression," the website proclaims, "The USSF will provide space to build relationships, learn from each other's experiences, share our analysis of the problems our communities face, and bring renewed insight and inspiration. It will help develop leadership and develop consciousness, vision, and strategy needed to realize another world."
There were no plans to launch a national campaign against a corporate target, no nascent development of an electoral party capable of challenging the current party duopoly, no national program for economic disruption of key war industries as a material contribution to peace.
But from an educators point of view the forum was centered on all the key ingredients of a participatory educational experience: relationships, learning, analysis, insight, and inspiration to develop leadership, consciousness and vision. At the core of this process was the workshop exchange. Over 1000 workshops were presented, almost all by forum registrants who also attended other folks workshops. Every major thematic in today's social movements was represented from immigrant rights to gender liberation. Trainings in media making, messaging, organizing basics, economic analysis, undoing racism, health care access, reparations the list is exhaustive.
Were this massive horizontal exchange of information, strategy and skills training to have been conducted on a fee driven basis it would have had an economic value of millions of dollars. The people participating were mostly under 40, many in their 20s. A substantial number of people were of color and the conference had a visible and audible presence from the queer and trans communities. All of the eight workshops I attended were worthwhile, some were overenrolled, some were less than perfectly organized but my impression from talking with many delegates was that the presentations and dialogues were more often than not hitting the mark and making the connections. The logistical success of this workshop extravaganza was noted by many many people and particularly appreciated by those who had gone to World Social Forums where disorganizations reigned.
None the less Logistical and political missteps were clearly visible, the media justice center was crammed into backstage dressing rooms behind a labyrinth of halls and stairways made inaccessible to even the alternative media, much less the masses. Security screeners kept many poor folks and Atlanta residents from coming into the civic center. Swank hotels held the meetings hostage to erratic elevator service, and community venues were often so far offsite that only someone with an automobile and a local guide could have made it to any two theater workshops in a row but overall one result was clear:
People learned from one another.
That's significant. If they learned anything close to what the presenters alleged to have been teaching, these thousands of young people are in an excellent position to return home to their own communities with the confidence that in hundreds of cities, towns and counties across this country other people like them are struggling to solve the challenges of winning economic and social justice for all. And they should have a fistful of business cards, scribbled contact names, email addresses and cell phone numbers tapped into their mobiles to be able talk to those allies when they are ready to launch their own national tour.
On the other hand, the attempts to "build a movement" through the plenary sessions which were promoted as dialogues fell quickly into the abyss of something that might be aphoristically called "red television". In front of an audience of thousands, shivering in the concert style over-air conditioned hall of the Atlanta Civic Center, small figures seated at conference style desks in front of a huge red backdrop exchanged rhetorical insights and sound bites to thunderous and repeated applause.
The almost pep rally fervor followed by semi-scripted two minute soundbites from the floor hardly called for much heavy mental lifting and left no real room for dialogue. On the last day of the conference, this theatrical part of the operation fell though into bickering over time limits, disrespecting elders and gripes and laments about stage access. The final act pulled back the red curtain to reveal a movement that still lacks the essentials capacity to work together against the common opponent and oppressor, global capital.
I am heartened by the fact that there was no false attempt to impose a national strategy at this gathering. I am delighted that I never heard participation in the democrats 2008 election campaign promoted as a central means of winning social justice ( I do admit I avoided anyone who looked like they might say that .) I reveled in the absence of celebrity speakers and national entertainers that so infest the left gatherings in the bay area. Yet it did seem a sign of our weakness that there was no attempt made to unify around even the most simple action steps to end the U.S. war, challenge privatization or defend immigrant rights.
Small groups with local agendas seeking national allies, visibility and connections staged mini-demonstrations just through their uniform visual presence in printed t shirts featuring their groups demands. Domestic workers managed to pull together a national network. Immigrant rights groups stages some national press conferences and built on their already nascent national networks. Climate change organizers strengthened their training and outreach capacities. National networks took advantage of the occasion to hold training or decision making meetings of their own.
It seems, as the radical minority within the United States that feels the necessity to build another world, we are going to have to think small. It is abundantly clear that skin-deep united fronts controlled by white liberals that are afraid to say the word capitalism are not going to transform this society. We are going to need to look in our own wallets, in out own psychic closets. in our own close-knit networks that have enough quivering energy to bridge to close-knit networks not our own, in order to survive and transform the fragmented, alienating and harsh conditions of capitalism in the Americas. We are going to need friends who can keep our backs as the struggles intensify and the stakes are raised. And we are going to need allies that arise from places, cultures and spiritualities not our own.
Then working together, across the chasms of identity, sexuality, class, race and region, we are going to have to identify the leverage points where we can disrupt business as usual, win political and social space for experiments in equality and practice a warrior form of peace.
It seemed at this conference I felt the stirring of such ideas.. But this is a young movement that will have to find a new path through battlegrounds littered with the shards of sectarian politics, infiltrators and co-optation of the past.
Something deeply practical and deeply dangerous needs to be done. I sure hope these kids figure out what it is. When they do, I plan to follow their lead.
B, Jess Clarke is an advanced cynic who still finds room for hope in a species doomed to create a global catastrophe.