After five weeks in Bolivia last summer, I was convinced that any new paths out of this hateful morass we call neoliberalism would come from those most marginalised by its greed and violence. Little did I imagine that nearly a year later, at the end of June, one of the strongest signs of a new direction would come from the belly of the beast itself.
Ten thousand people, overwhelmingly poor and working class, a majority people of colour, at least half women and a large contingent of youth, gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, for the US Social Forum (USSF). The gathering possibly signalled the birth of one of the most important social movements the US has ever seen.
'Never, in my wildest imagination, did I think I would ever see something like this in the United States,' declared Carlos Torres, a Chilean refugee now living in Canada.
The sentiment was repeated again and again by Latin American visitors present as emissaries from the World Social Forum (WSF). It was radical, it was militant, it was feminist, it was anti-capitalist and antiimperialist, it was queer. It was loud and lively and it was brimming with love, kindness and a deep sense of solidarity. The slogan of the USSF was 'Another world is possible, another US is necessary'. It was interpreted both as another US and another 'us' - meaning the left has to reinvent itself.
It was also a major step forward for the World Social Forum movement. The idea of a US social forum came from a couple of people who went to the 2001 WSF in Brazil and then brought a few more with them in 2002. They formed a group called Grassroots Global Justice and began to organise a US Social Forum, in the WSF spirit. One of them, Fred Ascarate, then with Jobs for Justice, now with the AFL-CIO trade union federation, explained to the opening plenary that: 'It took this long because we wanted to do it right by building the necessary relationships among the grassroots organisations and ensuring the right outcomes.'
The idea came from the WSF but they took it further than anyone else except perhaps the WSF in Mumbai. In Nairobi, poor people demanded a significant place in the WSF planning process and in Atlanta they had one. The national planning committee represented what it called national and regional 'basebuilding' groups. Their base is mostly poor and working class people. It seemed to me that the forum shifted the balance of power on the American left to the poor and oppressed from the middle class. Time will tell if this is true and what impact it will have.
Every plenary focused on building alliances among the myriad of grass-roots movements across the United States. Most emphasis was on a 'black-brown' alliance to combat the racism that divides African Americans from their Latino and immigrant brothers and sisters. But there was a strong focus on student/labour alliances.
Environmental issues were linked to social justice issues. Support for gays, lesbians and transgendered people, who have been major targets of the Bush administration, seemed universal. The forum ended in a people's movements assembly, where various regional and issue caucuses presented their resolutions. Several new national networks were formed and deep bonds of solidarity were forged among those who are usually divided. People left with the commitment to organise social forums in their regions, cities and neighbourhoods.
'People are asking me when Atlanta has ever seen something like this,' said Jerome Scott of Project South, a veteran Atlanta activist who spoke at the opening march. 'My answer is Atlanta has never seen anything like this. The civil rights movement was mostly African American and last year's May 1st [immigration rights] demo was mostly Latinos but this march was the most multinational action I have ever seen. It was beautiful.'
Most of the 900 workshops over four days were filled with activists sharing strategies on everything from food security to community/labour alliances to a movement against gentrification to take back our cities. Women, people of colour and young people made up the majority of plenary speakers. There was not a single left-wing star among them. In a culture obsessed with celebrity, the organising committee decided they didn't need any, even the good ones.
Nor were any of the big NGOs on the planning committee. There is a big debate in the US about what they call the NGOindustrial complex.
The idea that foundation-funded, majority white, centrist and Washingtondominated NGOs and think-tanks have hijacked the left was present throughout the forum. These groups were welcome to participate but not in a leadership capacity.
Another extraordinary feature of the forum was the role of indigenous people, who led the opening march and participated on several panels as well as their own plenary. Much of the vision came from them. After talking about the melting of the glaciers, Faith Gemmill from REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Land) in Alaska said, 'Our people have a prophesy that there will come a time in the history of humanity when people are in danger of destroying ourselves. When that time comes, a voice will arise from the north to warn us. That time is now. I was sent here to give you part of our burden to speak up now against the greed.'
The plenary on Hurricane Katrina was stunning. Monique Hardin from Advocates for Environmental Human Rights opened the forum by saying, 'New Orleans is a man-made disaster. Bush is the man and Bush is the disaster. Reconstruction on the Gulf coast is a massive privatisation scheme to destroy people of colour and white people.'
Another community leader described Katrina as 'both a reality and a symbol'. One of the most powerful speeches was by Javier Gallardo from the New Orleans Workers Centre. (Workers Centres have been created mostly in immigrant communities for workers to organise themselves. They have grown from a handful in the early 1990s to more than 120 today and they were very present at the forum.)
Gallardo, a guest worker from Peru, explained that hundreds of workers like him had been brought in from Latin America for Gulf coast reconstruction. Their ability to stay in the US is dependent on their employers, whose details are marked on their passports. Gallardo said that there is now a practice that when the employer is finished with workers, he sells them to another employer for $2,000 each.
'What is that?' he asked. 'We call it modern day slavery. They want to divide us but the old slaves and the new slaves can join together and together we can defeat them.' The old slaves/new slaves metaphor wove its way through the rest of the forum in the powerful idea of a black-brown alliance. Veteran activists predicted that this would transform leftwing politics in the US, especially in the south, where the vast majority of the working class is now black and brown.
Another impressive feature of the forum was the way it handled conflict. When the Palestinian contingent objected that they were not permitted to speak for themselves in the anti-war plenary, the organisers read their letter of protest to the next plenary. When the report of the indigenous caucus was stopped at the end of their allotted time by the moderator of the people's movements assembly removing their mike, they too felt silenced and objected. Within ten minutes most of the indigenous people in the room were on the stage with the consent of the organisers.
What could have been an explosively divisive moment was handled with skill by both permitting the protest and making sure that it created unity rather than division. I had the feeling that a new culture of solidarity was being born, one we tried to create in the feminist movement but never quite accomplished.
Inevitably the forum had weaknesses. While strongly rooted in the traditions of the civil rights movement by the symbolic location in Atlanta and the presence of veteran civil rights activists, working-class and even feminist history were less discussed. Yet the impact of those movements was strongly felt in the powerful female leadership present everywhere and the strong emphasis on workers' issues and labour organising. None of the big environmental groups were present. And while the issue of the war and US imperialism had pride of place, the mainstream anti-war movement had little presence.
In her speech at the 2002 World Social Forum in Brazil, Arundhati Roy famously said: 'Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.'
It wasn't a quiet day in Atlanta but I could hear her shouting there.