Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Another US is rising

The first Social Forum in the US was bound to be, by its very happening, a historic occasion. But the grass-roots working class participation and the energy, solidarity, generosity of spirit and organisational skill it mobilised made it something special, writes Judy Rebick

August 1, 2007
8 min read

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite