Festival of resistance in Detroit

June 25, 2010

Lee Sustar reports from the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit.

THOUSANDS OF left-wing activists of every stripe came to downtown Detroit this week for a lively show of opposition to the system as the second U.S. Social Forum (USSF) became a center of debate on how to rebuild the left.

The USSF began with a bang June 22 with a march of an estimated 8,000 that signaled the many issues that activists were focusing on--from poverty and unemployment to immigrant rights and the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Movement veterans and young people attending their first political event converged in the street--and in the next days, attended more than 1,000 workshops.

Given the sprawling array of meetings--both politically and geographically--it's practically impossible to summarize the USSF. But a brief look at some workshops on the first full day of the forum conveys a sense of the event. At the first workshop session, about 75 people jammed into a small room to hear exonerated former prisoner and Chicago police torture victim Mark Clements, who spent nearly three decades behind bars for a crime he didn't commit.

A panel discussion at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit
A panel discussion at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit (Sarah Levy | SW)

A similar number piled into an even smaller room to hear a panel discussion on the "Capitalist Roots of the Ecological Crisis," with authors and activists Joel Kovel, Chris Williams and Terisa Turner. More than 80 attended a meeting on students and social change, where a racially diverse group of young people going to community colleges and state schools talked about the contribution of students to social movements in U.S. history and debated how to overcome apathy and build activist organizations.

The first evening plenary stressed the continuity between the USSF and previous struggles. Featured speakers included Grace Lee Boggs, an influential writer and activist in Detroit since the 1950s and 1960s, and General Baker, leader of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement that shook up the city's auto plants in the late 1960s.

They and other speakers drew upon those experiences to frame their perspectives on today's challenges for movements in Detroit, as the city slashes social spending, cuts public sector workers' wages and prepares to cut off services to entire swathes of the city hit by massive population loss.

WHILE THE workshops often focused on highly specific issues, there were several running debates on a number of questions that flowed from session to session.

One particularly hot topic was how to take forward the struggle for immigrant rights. Many young immigrants expressed their solidarity with youth who have taken part in civil disobedience to support the DREAM Act, proposed legislation which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youth who go into the military or attend college.

"But they also said that they wanted an amendment that wouldn't leave behind those who would be excluded because they've been convicted of a minor crime or can't afford to attend college," said a young undocumented activist from Chicago. "One woman said, 'I don't want to have to join the military and kill people.'"

More generally, the USSF drew together immigrant rights activists critical of the strategy put forward by the liberal coalition Reform Immigration for America (RIFA).

Renee Saucedo, a leading Bay Area immigrant rights activists, attended a four-hour People's Movement Assembly (PMA) on immigration and distributed her own proposal for just immigration reform. "There wasn't necessarily clarity in the meeting on what the movement should do next, but there was a sense that we can't look to RIFA--that immigration reform would have to come from pressure from below," said Orlando Sepúlveda, an immigrant rights activist in Chicago.

Another PMA drew together the main antiwar organizations in a discussion on how to revive the antiwar movement. Sponsored by the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the meeting featured an array of antiwar groups and activists, including Michael Zweig of U.S. Labor Against the War; Gilbert Achcar, co-author with Noam Chomsky of Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy; Ahmed Shawki, editor of the International Socialist Review; Bushra Khaliq of the Labor Party Pakistan; and Medea Benjamin of Code Pink.

Discussion focused on the need to come to grips with the U.S. escalation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as to step up efforts to oppose Israel's U.S.-backed blockade of Gaza.

Housing was another topic--ranging from opposing foreclosures and evictions to a more general campaign for tenant rights.

Some 150 residents of federal Housing and Urban Development housing strategized about how to force landlords to make repairs and stop harassing tenants. Activists also said that some 400,000 public or federally subsidized housing units have been lost since 1996 as the result of privatization. At another meeting on housing, members of the Boston group City Life/Vida Urbana discussed their recent successes in organizing against evictions, showing the way for activists in other cities to organize similar campaigns.

Organized labor also had a significant presence at the USSF. The AFL-CIO and several big unions contributed funds for tent exhibition, and the United Auto Workers donated the use of a building. Representatives from a number of unions organized and participated workshops on a series of labor and political issues.

Non-traditional labor organizations, such as workers' centers, also held a series of well-attended workshops. A meeting of excluded workers, such as domestic workers, discussed how to organize outside the framework of labor law. Another group, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, held a workshop that explained its success in winning court-sanctioned settlements with owners of fine-dining restaurants around the country that established higher wages, grievance procedures and more.

Important as the workshops were, even more organizing and political education took place informally.

"The real story of the USSF is what happened in the process of organizing the event," said Holly Krig, a community organizer from Chicago. "People came on the bus, not knowing what to expect, and rarely having their opinion asked. But they found that their experience is actually critical in responding to questions about any number of human rights issues. They found out that this is a movement of them, rather than about them."

As the USSF draws to a close June 25, representatives from a wide range of groups were preparing for a general People's Movement Assembly to try to establish a common set of political positions and a call to action.

While it's unclear whether the USSF can give rise to an organizational vehicle, the event helped to cohere networks of activists who otherwise would be working separately. At a time of crisis on many fronts--economic, social, environmental and political--that's an important contribution to reviving the left.

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