[Marxism] High-Energy Gathering Fires Up A New Generation of Activists in U.S. Left and Social Movements

c b cb31450 at gmail.com
Tue Jul 20 10:50:23 MDT 2010


High-Energy Gathering Fires Up A New Generation of Activists in U.S.
Left and Social Movements

By Carl Davidson
July 13, 2010
Keep On Keepin' On!
http://carldavidson.blogspot.com/

When 15,000 vibrant and politically engaged people
gather in one spot for five days and organize
themselves into more than 1000 workshops, dozens of
major plenaries and late night parties across five
major cultural hot spots, no one article can claim to
give a full account and get away with it.

But an event on that scale livened up Detroit, Michigan
during the week of June 22-26 at the US Social Forum,
when Cobo Hall and several nearby universities were
buzzing with thousands of people trying to shape a new
world.

I won't even try to capture it all. I'll just affirm
the common conviction that it was a major happening on
the left and a huge success, an inspiration and an
affirmation of hope that progress is being made towards
a better future. Then I'll humbly offer my take on it.
We'll start with some highlights and, for those who
aren't familiar with the Social Forum movement, offer a
few explanations.

The Forum started on June 22 with a massive march of
thousands through the streets of a devastated and de-
industrialized Detroit. "I've never seen anything like
this, in Detroit or anywhere," said Forum participant
and Detroit resident Charnika Jett. "The sense of joy,
support, and determination on the part of the people
here, both Detroiters and visitors, is just
incredible."

"What an amazing day!" said Allison Flether Acosta of
Jobs with Justice. "We held an orientation session for
local coalition folks early in the day, then joined the
march with the other members of the Inter-Alliance
Dialogue and more than 10,000 people for a lively march
through downtown! We ended at Cobo Hall, and then
convened for the opening ceremonies."

New entry of the Trade Unions

One important new addition to the young crowd in the
streets was the participation of organized labor.
According to the AFL-CIO News Blog, "Newly elected UAW
President Bob King joined Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO
President Saundra Williams; Al Garrett, president of
AFSCME District Council 25; and Armando Robles, UE
Local 1110 president, in leading a march and rally
through the streets of Detroit. Chanting `Full and Fair
Employment Now!' and `Money for Jobs, Not for Banks!'
Participants demanded Congress address the pressing
jobs emergency."

The opening events, unfortunately, were either ignored
or strangely spun by the mass media. "This ain't no Tea
Party,' said Noel Finley, in a scarce account in the
Detroit News, somewhat awed by the sight of it all.
"The forum is a hootenanny of pinkos, environuts,
peaceniks, Luddites, old hippies, Robin Hoods and urban
hunters and gatherers." Indeed it was, with even more
variety. And the diverse crowds and meetings grew
stronger as the week unfolded. To make sense of it all,
some history and background is in order:

The USSF 2010 in Detroit is an outgrowth of the World
Social Forum. The WSF started some 10 years ago as a
counterpoint to the World Economic Forum, the elite
gathering of global capitalists in Davos, Switzerland.
The first WSF was held in Porto Allegre, Brazil, with
backing from the Brazilian Workers Party. It soon
became co-sponsored by a wide and inclusive variety of
grassroots organizations working for global social
justice. Since then, the site has shifted around the
world's larger cities, usually in the Global South--
Mumbai, Nairobi, Caracas, and mostly recently, Belem in
Brazil. The next WSF will be in Dakar, Senegal in 2011.

In certain years, however, the World Social Forum
movement is decentralized, and various countries and
regions organize their own. The first to be held in the
U.S. was in 2007 in Atlanta, GA, which drew some 12,000
participants. Detroit was chosen for 2010, largely to
serve as a U.S. urban example of how the injustices of
corporate globalization have a powerful impact even in
the homeland of Empire. Despite the air-conditioned
conveniences of Cobo Hall and the modernized blocks in
the inner city's center along the riverfront, just
walking about 10 blocks in any other direction and you
would find yourself in a shocking urban wasteland of
closed factories, shuttered stores and abandoned
housing.

By any measure, this year's USSF was a big success. It
drew over 15,000 largely young and ethnically diverse
student and working class participants. They
participated in a total of 1062 workshops and panels,
50 major assemblies, and conducted a huge march of
thousands through the streets of Detroit-all in a
festive and cooperative atmosphere.

Tediously Planned and Well Structured

The Detroit gathering was, in fact, part festival, part
interconnected and overlapping teach-ins, part trade
fair, and partly a spontaneous `gathering of the
tribes.' But it was also carefully and tediously
planned and structured, which, despite a small degree
of chaos, was what made it all work so well. Months
ago, the core organizers sub-divided the event into
`tracks' around common but freshly defined themes. For
the U.S. in 2010, these included:

    * Capitalism in Crisis: tearing down poverty,
    building economic alternatives & a solidarity
    economy * Climate Justice: sustainability,
    resources and land * Indigenous Sovereignty *
    Displacement, Migration and Immigration * Democracy
    and Governance * To the Right: internationally and
    domestically * To the Left: building a movement for
    social justice: intersections and alliances across
    race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability. *
    Strategies for Building Power & Ensuring Community
    Needs (housing, education, jobs, clean air...) *
    Organizing a Labor Movement for the 21st Century:
    crisis and opportunities * Media Justice,
    Communications, & Culture * Transformative Justice,
    Healing, and Organizing * Endless War:
    militarization, criminalization and human rights *
    International Solidarity and Responsibility:
    building a unified response to global crises *
    Detroit and the Rust Belt

The tracks helped focus participants in two ways. For
those wanting to work downward with others on a given
workshop on a narrower topic, they helped establish
connections. For those wanting to pull forces together
for the larger `People's Movement Assemblies,' they
also helped to gather resources to a central focus. In
brief, the framework either contained or allowed
something for everyone, including the space to self-
organize pretty much whatever one had in mind. You
weren't necessarily guaranteed a large audience;
promoting your own special interests was largely up to
you and your friends and allies.

Since three years earlier, some 12,000 activists and
their various organizations had taken part in Atlanta's
USSF 2007, many participants this time around had a
`head start' of core experience to build on for
Detroit. Atlanta's core organizers even published a
book on the topic, `The United States Social Forum:
Perspectives of a Movement.' Newcomers would have to
pick up organizing techniques on the fly.

Many organizations started their preparations about six
months ago. For a few, this meant having people join
the nationwide organizing core for the whole event, or
at least getting in touch with it. But for most, it
meant figuring out what their two main workshops would
be (that was the maximum allowed for any one group),
and who they could ally with to form more workshops
around their preferred ideas, projects or perspectives.
It also required registering ahead of time, making a
small donation, planning displays, and then, via the
web sites, staying in touch with what others were
posting, so as to promote cooperation and avoid
duplication or conflict. In brief, the planning
structure encouraged networking horizontally, and from
below.

The result was an amazing array of workshops, on every
topic under the sun, ranging from `how-to' hands-on
organizing techniques to oral history and theoretical
debates. "There was a workshop for every cause and
strategy," said a Labor Notes reporter, "from stopping
natural gas "fracking" to using puppetry to move your
campaign."

Perhaps the most significant new development for the
2010 USSF was the active participation of the AFL-CIO
and other labor organizations. Labor's participation
gave the USSF important financial support and populated
the event with a cohort of labor activists from around
the nation. The AFL-CIO presented two workshops in Cobo
Hall on Thursday morning that were well attended.

Importance of Full Employment Campaign

The two hour workshop on the Fight for Jobs and
Economic Recovery was led by an AFL-CIO staff person
and the national jobs coordinator of Jobs with Justice.
The workshop focused on the tasks of organizing the
unemployed locally and mobilizing for the October 2nd
National March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. The
second focus of the workshop was around how to raise
the militancy of tactics in the struggle for jobs. The
workshop of 80 people broke into 8 subgroups to
separately come up with proposals for local organizing
and raising the level of militancy, then reported back
to the body.

The Immigration rights workshop was also organized by
the national AFL-CIO. Panelists included a founder of
the Alliance of Guest Workers founded in 2007, who
responded to the abuse of immigrant guest workers who
are recruited by corporations on the basis of false
promises.

"Guest workers are treated as slaves," explained Pat
Fry, "forced to work for little pay in dangerous work
conditions under threat of being reported to ICE if
they quit their jobs.. The point made by the panelists
who were both either guest workers or undocumented was
that legal status does not end abuse of immigrant
workers. "I was impressed with the panel and the role
of the AFL-CIO in organizing it," Fry added, "and the
work that the labor federation is doing working with
the U.S. Labor Department to expand U Visas for workers
who quit their jobs due to abusive employers. We are
working legislatively with Congress to support the
POWER act introduced by Sen. Menendez (NJ) and its work
with the building trades unions who are requiring
employers who recruit guest workers to cover them under
the same terms of work - pay and working conditions -
as union members."

The role of CCDS

The Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and
Socialism, for its part, decided early on to try to
organize two panels, one on 21st Century Socialism,
which it hoped to do as a `left unity' efforts with
other socialist groups, and a panel on the role of the
struggle for democracy in the South as a critical
element to winning nationwide democratic gains.

But since we wanted to do more, we also cooperated with
other groups in putting together panels on the peace
movement and the economy, on Vietnam and Agent Orange,
on Anne Braden's Legacy as a Southern Activist, and
especially on the Democracy Charter initiative launched
by civil rights veteran Jack O'Dell. We also worked
with groups like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth for a
workshop on organizing in Appalachia and supported the
Iraq Vets Against the War on GI organizing. Altogether,
to promote these efforts, we put together our own
program, a "CCDS Track' of some 32 panels and two
`Peoples Movement Assemblies.'

Duncan McFarland, a CCDS National Committee member,
worked with the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and
Responsibility Committee and Veterans for Peace to
conduct a powerful and moving workshop on Vietnam the
first full day, June 23. He presented slides from a
recent tour of Vietnam showing the ongoing human damage
of Agent Orange within the broader context of Vietnam's
progress since the war. "We were also able to promote
the upcoming CCDS 2011 socialist study tour to
Vietnam," said McFarland.

The Democracy Charter workshop was held in the Westin
Cadillac Hotel on Friday, June 5. It was chaired by Pat
Fry, a CCDS Co-chair, and led by a well-organized
panel. Bill Fletcher, Jr., author of `Solidarity
Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path
toward Social Justice,' called for the organizing of
People's Assemblies where the Democracy Charter can be
a tool for engaging grass roots discussion on what we
stand for. "It is less a document," said Fletcher, "and
more a process." He cautioned, however, that the ANC
Freedom Charter would not have been the organizing tool
that it was without the South African Communist Party,
and it is hard to think about the utility of the
Democracy Charter apart from a more organized left in
the U.S.

Democracy Charter Panel: Carl Davidson, standing, Tim
Johnson, Bill Fletcher, Frances Fox Piven

Tim Johnson, a librarian at New York University and a
left journalist, said the Democracy Charter needs a
"conscious movement" that can organize around it.
Johnson also spoke about the ideological confusion sown
by corporate control of the airwaves. Frances Fox
Piven, the author of many books on poverty issues, said
there are many charters and that another should evolve
out of the mass movement, not before the movement.
Instead, she said, what is needed is a new manifesto
that explains the capitalist system. Others commented
on the specific points of the Charter in ways to deepen
the content. Jackie Cabasso of the Western States Legal
Foundation talked about peace and disarmament - no
country's population has ever voted to have nuclear
weapons, she said.

Democracy Charter as a Counter to the Tea Party
'Principles'

CCDS's Carl Davidson said the Democracy Charter filled
the need for a principled agenda as an organizational
tool and an answer to Glenn Beck's "9-12 principles"
for the Tea Party. "It reminds me of the old ten-point
program of the Black Panthers," he said, "but aimed at
the entire population." Discussion that followed
struggled with the various themes on process and
organizing that were expressed in the presentations.
Most important, the workshop helped launch the newly
formed Democracy Charter Grassroots Organizing
Committee.

The DSA-CCDS sponsored joint workshop on socialism that
followed was a big success. The speakers included David
Schweickart, author of `After Capitalism;' Carl
Davidson, national co-chair of CCDS; Libero Della Piano
of the Communist Party, USA; Eric See of Freedom Road
Socialist Organization; and Joe Schwartz, vice-chair of
DSA, with David Green of DSA as the moderator. Held in
the UAW's Ford Building, it was standing room only
until the room dividers were opened to deal with the
overflow.

David Schweickart opened with a PowerPoint presentation
making the case for `Economic Democracy' as a successor
system to today's capitalism. "If we can elect our
mayors, why not elect the managers of firms we own or
control?" he asked. Within a Marxist framework, he
segmented markets into three-labor, capital and goods
and services-and argued that the first two could be
restricted or abolished, while the third would best be
maintained, although regulated. This would allow for a
worker-controlled variant of a socialist market economy
that would give us a basis for a genuine democracy
rather than our current `dollarocracy.'

Carl Davidson elaborated on important political points
about democracy, both as an end and a path to it
socialism. He went on to describe 20th Century
socialism as compromised by Stalinism and its
distortions, the excesses of the Cultural Revolution in
China, and the genocidal results of Pol Pot's
Kampuchea. A 21st century socialism would do best to
recognize that all governmental power, of whatever
sort, is limited by natural human rights that are
inherent, even if they develop historically. Davidson's
second point focused on "our dual tasks, democratic and
socialist, which overlap but are not the same." The
first involved finding the forms to unite a progressive
majority, while the latter involved uniting a militant
minority around serious policy work and revolutionary
education.

Left Unity Arises in Struggle

Libro Della Piana opened by describing how left unity
was something that was achieved "after we've worked
together in a practical way. It's more of an outcome of
struggle than a starting point." Speaking to the
problems of past socialisms, he told how one friend
told him that the CPUSA had `the best brand' on the
left. `Yes,' he replied, `but what about the content?
Are we an Edsel? The point is we have a lot of baggage,
good and bad." He noted, however, that whatever the
problems of the left, "this system has no good answers,
and "even with the right's attacks on Obama as a
`socialist,' new interest is being aroused, especially
among young people, and we had best relate to it."

Eric See of FRSO started by taking a quick poll of the
audience: Were they socialists and what did it mean to
them, in a nutshell? He got dozens of quick responses,
from `eco-socialism' and `ending racism', to `bringing
democracy into the economy' and `the workers in power.'
The brutality of the system, he warned, could itself
bring us to Rosa Luxemburg's choice, `socialism or
barbarism.' After posing a series of poignant
questions, he noted that, first, efforts to `refound
our thinking' was in order, and second, however corrupt
our electoral system, we had to find ways to work
through it "in order to get past it."

Joe Schwartz of DSA noted the need to fan the flames
and expand the mass movements. "We have lots of local
activity on many fronts, but still not enough. Workers,
for instance, are not spontaneously demanding
unionization in any massive way." Next he stressed the
fight against racism and the apartheid-like divisions
created in both affluent suburbs and across the board
in the public sphere. "Who can deny the overt and open
use of racism to build a center-right majority for the
next election?" He concluded with a call for a `Second
Bill of Rights,' one that expanded democracy into the
economic and social spheres, beyond individuality.

The discussion that followed covered a range of issues.
People went deep into the matter of ecology and climate
change, into how socialist experiments could be
launched and survive with the context of capitalism,
and into the importance of engaging youth in social
movements and anarchist networks. When we had to leave
the room, DSA invited everyone to a tent outside
offering free ice cream, an `ice cream socialist.'

These two workshops were not the largest or even
necessarily the most important.

"I attended three workshops that were very large," said
Randy Shannon, a CCDS National Committee member, "two
of which were packed with youth. The composition of
these workshops reflected that of the USSF overall,
which is predominantly young people. One of my
objectives at the USSF was to promote our new booklet
on full employment, and the concepts of employment as a
human right and full employment were very appealing to
them."

Since any one person at the USSF could only attend nine
workshops and three assemblies, a sort of `competitive
marketing' was essential if you wanted to use the
immense gathering as an organizing opportunity. It
enabled any group to use the USSF as a way to organize
its own `conferences within a conference' on any number
of subthemes.

The Solidarity Economy Network organized one of the
larger projects like this. SEN itself was founded out
of a project of about 10 groups to organize some 70
panels at the Atlanta USSF in 2007. It had also
gathered up the best of the 2007 presentations and
produced a book introducing the topic. In Detroit, it
expanded its effort to include some 109 workshops on
solidarity economy related themes, as well as getting a
speaker from the solidarity economy movement in Brazil
as a speaker on one of the major closing panels.

CCDS's Mark Solomon in discussion period of Socailism
Is the Alternative panel

Growth of Solidarity Economy Movement

"It's important for other parts of the world to realize
that there is a lot of organizing going on in the belly
of the beast," said Emily Kawano, executive director of
the Solidarity Economy Network. "But there has been a
lot of progress made, as you can see by the growth in
the number of SEN-related activities here."

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth served as a good case
in point on how local groups used the forum. Two dozen
of their members joined with dozens of Kentucky allies,
such as Jobs with Justice, and loaded buses for
Detroit. Once there, they hosted two powerful workshops
with about sixty people attending between them.  The
workshops were "The Struggle For Justice in the
Coalfields of Central Appalachia and Colombia" and "A
Discussion About the Life and Example of Anne Braden."

Inter-Generational Dialogue

"I'm an old radical," said Jack Norris of KFTC's
Jefferson County chapter, "and I've never been around
this many other radical people - including lots of
young people in leadership roles.  It was an
opportunity to pass the torch to the next generation."

KFTC partnered with the Alliance For Appalachia in
setting up a booth throughout the five days to talk to
people about mountaintop removal mining and other
damages inflicted on communities by the coal industry.

Climate Change Crisis Photo: Kentucky workshop on Anne
 Braden's Legacy

One CCDS local chapter, Metro DC, also organized a
workshop, entitled `Rapid Solarization Can Drive
Sustainable Economic Growth While Preventing
Catastrophic Climate Change'. David Schwartzman, Walter
Teague and Jane Zara from DC Science for the People
made presentations. "Unfortunately, we were moved twice
and ended up far from the center of the conference,"
said Teague, "and so the attendance was small. But we
distributed widely throughout the conference the new
three-fold leaflet "Preventing Climate Catastrophic
Change and a revision of the 18 page in-depth piece
"Climate Change: An Unprecedented Challenge."

The major venue for groups to display their wares was
the huge Macomb sector of Cobo Hall, which had hundreds
of tables and displays. "CCDS had a good, well-stocked
table,' said Mark Solomon, a former co-chair. "Our
material is becoming a bit more attractive!"

There were also additional street demonstrations
throughout the week. "I was thrilled to arrive downtown
one evening and see over a thousand union people
marching on the banks," said Pat Fry, a native
Detroiter. She was referring to a Jobs with Justice co-
sponsored march and rally with AFSCME Council 65 and
the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO demanding, "Money for JOBS,
not Banks!"

Cultural activities: 'The Leftist Lounge

One fairly interesting feature of downtown Detroit,
once you got the hang of it, was the `People Mover,' a
two-car train that covered a circular route through the
downtown area. New Yorkers tended to scoff at it as a
`toy subway,' but it actually worked rather nicely
getting people to decent and inexpensive restaurants,
and the nearby culture and entertainment area, labeled
the `Leftist Lounge,' for late-night parties and
revelry.

"The most fun I had was at the Leftist Lounge," said
Tina Shannon, a CCDSer and also president of the 4th CD
Progressive Democrats of America in Beaver County, PA.
"It was a series of warehouses turned into dance clubs.
The walls were covered with posters from social
movements and pictures of activists and videos
documenting protest in different places. The music in
each room had a different flavor. The crowd was mostly
young and very diverse. The social atmosphere was
welcoming. Us old folks didn't feel out of place. We
just danced and let our hope and faith in our young be
rejuvenated. My only regret was that CCDS only had one
literature table in the main hall and not here."

As for housing, the downtown hotels were filled, as
were motels as far as 25 miles out. Naturally, everyone
looked up old friends still living in the Detroit area,
and for the more adventuresome youth, a vacant lot
about half a mile from Cobo served as `Tent City' for
tent campers. Along with one or two others, I found a
legal spot to park my truck camper/RV within a ten-
minute walk.

"We secured 3,000 hotel rooms in downtown Detroit,
except for the MGM Grand Hotel who wouldn't work with
us," said Maureen Taylor, chair of the organizing
committee in Detroit. "It was good to come to Detroit.
We are validated. We've got love, commitment and
anger."

Somehow it all worked out. One reason is that the
Social Forums, both here and abroad, are not so much
organizations as a `political space,' or common ground
where groups with conflicting and contending idea can
seek common ground, or at least co-exist cooperatively
for a time. That usually means there is no document or
set of unifying principles or common political platform
to wrangle over. One can try to organize an assembly
under the bigger tent that does come up with a common
statement, which is then reported to the closing
assembly, but it's not binding on anyone. Here's some
excerpts from a just a few resolutions:

 From the assembly discussing the Oct 2 March on DC
for jobs initiated by the NAACP, La Raza and several
unions: "Support the One Nation, Working Together march
to be held in Washington, DC, October 2, 2010. Jobs,
Education, Housing, Immigration Rights, Cut the
Military Budget!"

 From the resolution on Displacement, Migration, and
Immigration: "The freedom to move across borders that
were set up to colonize and exploit people for profit
is a basic element of human dignity. We recognize the
right and need for Peoples to migrate and connect
across the world to experience other cultures and
expand our understanding of life."  From the Endless
War and Militarism resolution: "We call for a
diametrical shift of U.S. tax revenues from war and
militarization to meet human needs, here and abroad.
This requires recalibrating the moral compass of the
nation in ways that prioritize sustainability, justice
and equity over power, growth and control of
resources."

The WSF approach to resolutions and platforms has
developed several criticisms over the years. Some argue
that the SF structures bend too much towards anarchism,
avoiding a unified spearhead against a common target. A
few others argue that the Social Forums have become
`tame' and `taken over' by foundation-funded Non-
Governmental Organizations, or NGOs, meaning
Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the like, which have
more liberal politics and are engaged with government
in various ways. Still others have become more
receptive to the recent call by Hugo Chavez of
Venezuela to found a new `Fifth International' of
socialist and related anti-imperialist liberation
movements, which would have a higher level of unity and
discipline.

But these criticisms are all a minor chord in the
background. When all is said and done, there's still
nothing quite like the cross-fertilization and synergy
that arises en masse from the formula devised by the
Social Forum. Its efforts bring the political left and
the social movement left together in one intense
happening. As long as it's not broke, it's not likely
anyone is going to be successful fixing it.

(Thanks to Pat Fry, Duncan McFarland, Ted Pearson, Mark
Solomon, Janet Tucker, Jim Skillman, Ben Skillman,
Walter Teague, Randy Shannon, Tina Shannon and many
others who helped pull this report together. If you
like this article, go to Keep On Keepin' On and make
use of the PayPal button)

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