Hearing the voices of the struggle
reports from the Socialism 2012 conference in Chicago.
SOCIALISTS AND activists from around the country and the world--representing the battle against austerity in Greece, to the struggle to defend the Egyptian Revolution, the fight against racist police violence, the Occupy Wall Street movement and much more--came together in Chicago from June 28 to July 1, to share the lessons of the last year and build for the resistance to come.
More than 1,300 people attended the four-day conference sponsored by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change, publishers of Haymarket Books and the International Socialist Review and cosponsored by SocialistWorker.org and its publisher, the International Socialist Organization.
The heart of the Socialism weekend was an electrifying panel discussion on Saturday night highlighing resistance to the racist justice system and featuring, among others, the mothers and fathers of young Black men murdered by police, from New York City to the West Coast. In an emotional meeting, they shared the stories of their loved ones-- but also their determination to campaign for justice.
After a short message from Mumia Abu-Jamal and an acknowledgement of the victims of the criminal injustice system in the audience, Jack Bryson, the father of the two young men who were with Oscar Grant III the night he was murdered by police on a transit station platform, read a poem by death row prisoner Kenneth Foster Jr., who was saved from execution by a grassroots struggle in 2007.
Airickca Gordon-Taylor, a cousin of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old from Chicago who was tortured and killed by racists in 1955 in a symbol of the barbarism of the Jim Crow South--spoke on the struggle against lynching then and now.
The parents of Alan Blueford came next. Their son's death had come less than two months before, but Jeralynn and Adam Blueford talked about Alan, who was two weeks away from his high school graduation when he was gunned down by Oakland police.
Adam described his son to the crowd, and vowed, "I am going to fight for my son till the day I die." Jeralynn looked into the audience and said, "This what justice looks like--standing together, people of all races, all different colors." She ended by leading people in a chant of "Jail the killer cops--now!"
The family of 16-year-old James Earl Rivera Jr. stepped up. Their son was murdered in 2010 by Stockton, Calif., police who fired 48 shots at James, hitting his body 19 times. As they spoke, other panelists held up enlarged photos of James' body, riddled with gunshot wounds. "We want to make sure people see," said mother Dionne Smith-Downs. "This is real."
The parents of Ramarley Graham were there from New York City, where they have been organizing weekly vigils to seek justice for their son since he was shot by police in the bathroom of his home, with his grandmother and 6-year-old brother nearby. "They say they're New York's finest, but they're nothing but bullies, the biggest gang members you can find," said Ramarley's mother Constance Malcolm. She concluded: "We're not asking for justice, we are demanding justice."
Describing the racism at the heart of the capitalist system, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of the International Socialist Organization summed it up with an apt comparison:
It's like baking a cake. You put in the sugar, the butter, eggs and the flour. You make the batter. You bake the cake. It comes out, it's perfect, but all of a sudden, you decide you're going to go on a diet, and now you want a sugar-free cake. As much as you'd like, you can't just pull the sugar out of the cake--it's baked in there for good. You come to realize that if you want a sugar-free cake, you're going to have to start over.
Racism is the sugar in this United States cake, and after being baked in for over 300 years, they can't just randomly declare that the cake is now sugar-free.
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THE PREVIOUS night, Antonis Davanellos, a leading member of the Internationalist Workers Left, a Greek revolutionary socialist organization that helped found the Coalition of the Radical Left or SYRIZA, spoke about how SYRIZA scored a stunning result in two successive national elections in May and June, nearly coming in first both times with its program for renouncing the bosses' austerity agenda.
Davanellos explained how swelling resistance to the poverty conditions imposed on the people of Greece led to protests and battles with the police in the streets and squares, occupations of state buildings and 17 general strikes--and then the massive turnout for the radical SYRIZA coalition in the elections. "The ruling class of Greece understands very well this policy is unacceptable. It is them or us," said Davanellos.
He also warned of the threat of the fascist organizing in Greece. The Nazi Golden Dawn had a breakthrough election, winning more than a dozen seats in the new parliament. Golden Dawn is notorious for its brutal attacks on immigrants--their rise shows the need to build an anti-facist opposition.
The promise of greater austerity after the victory of the conservative New Democracy party means more battles ahead, but the election showed the huge support for a left-wing alternative to austerity. "We'll be fighting like crazy to finish the job...taking the fight to the streets, into the factories and to elections again if needed," he said.
Resistance internationally was a central them of a meeting that featured a live call-in from Cairo with three founding members of the Revolutionary Socialists: Mostafa Ali, Laila Khoutry and Sameh Naguib. The three talked about the struggle to defend the Egyptian revolution against the attempts by the military and the old regime to take over all power before the presidential election that took place in June.
The weekend opened with a meeting featureing representatives from CLASSE, the largest of the student unions involved in organizing the massive student strike that has shaken Québec, Canada to its roots for months this year. "Socialism 2012 introduced us to the promise of radical social change for the United States," Jérémie Bédard-Wien, one of the CLASSE representatives said of the conference. "We received overwhelming support from hundreds of talented organizers, and hope to push our message of accessible education forward in the country that needs it most."
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OTHER MEETINGS took up related discussions about the fightback against austerity in the U.S.--including the debates within the movement here. One important discussion was about the Occupy movement, featuring independent journalist Arun Gupta and the ISO's Jen Roesch.
There were many veteran activists at these meetings, but plenty of others who have just become involved in struggle over the last year. "This was my first Socialism conference," said Patrick Delsoin from Chicago. "It was insightful and inspiring to find out there were so many likeminded people. Sometimes you can feel alone, but coming to this conference makes you realize that it's greater than you'd imagine and you get the sense that you can do more than you imagine because there are more people like yourself out there."
Both before and after the Saturday night panel discussion on police violence, the fight against racism was the focus of many more meetings--including "From Black Power to the New Jim Crow" with Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor; "Why We Can't Wait: Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Justice in the 1960s" with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's Marlene Martin; and "The Black Revolution on Campus" with historian Martha Biondi, to name a few.
Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin spoke on their invaluable book about Black autoworkers, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, which was just republished by Haymarket Books. Surkin described the importance of Socialism to the new resistance today: "Socialism 2012 in Chicago was more than a conference; it was the best shot we have in this country right now of revolutionary theory and practice."
In another meeting, Mumia Abu-Jamal spoke live via speakerphone from a Pennsylvania prison, where he was recently moved after finally getting off death row. "Hearing Mumia speak today made me think of how long we've been working on his case and how exciting it is that we are making the connections between the fight against the death penalty and the new fight against the justice system and the New Jim Crow," said Cameron Sturdevant.
Kris Hermes does legal support work for National Lawyers Guild in Chicago and was part of a panel discussion on "Police Infiltration and Entrapment: The Attack on Occupy and the Antiwar Movement." Hermes said, "The Socialism conference was simultaneously thought-provoking, inspiring, informative and very relevant to the issues facing movements for social change today."
Longtime activist Michael Letwin was on a panel about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. As he said:
Several meetings at Socialism 2012 underscored the importance of solidarity with revolutionary movements in Palestine and Egypt. In both areas, the urgent need for solidarity was based on understanding that the fate of emerging justice movements in the United States is inextricably linked with that of our Palestinian and Egyptian comrades: that without Tahrir, there would have been no Wisconsin or Occupy; that without the Palestinian Intifada, there would have been no Tahrir.
Many talks during the weekend provided the hidden history of working-class and radical struggle in the U.S., from the "History of Industrial Workers of the World" to the "The Battle for the Soul of Teacher Unionism" and "After Wisconsin: The Struggle for Public-Sector Unions."
The challenges for rebuilding labor today were discussed, with several meetings bringing together longtime labor militants with new activists. Among the featured speakers were Dan Coffman, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 21 in Longview, Wash.; National Union of Healthcare Workers President Sal Rosselli; veteran autoworker militant Gregg Shotwell; and Dan Lane, a leader of the 1990s Illinois War Zone labor battles.
The relevance of Marxism today was asserted throughout the weekend--with sessions such as "Understanding the Marxist Method," "Marxism and Women Liberation," "Marx's Theory of History" and others. Michelle Farber, who attended the conference for the first time from Seattle, said:
After going to ISO meetings all year and falling in love with being politically challenged, learning and growing as a Marxist, I couldn't have asked for a more amazing experience. I feel like I learned so much, not only from the speakers, but also from comrades all over the country--and world!--about what it means to apply socialism to lived practice.
Sharon Smith's talk on women's liberation and socialism helped me begin to integrate a lot of complex theoretical ideas about Marxism and feminism, as well as connect with other activists fighting back against the war on women.
Dan Lane described the many threads woven together throughout the weekend:
Again, the ISO has put together another successful summer conference, featuring panels about the major things the capitalist boss tries to shove down our throats. Also discussed were issues like murder-by-cop in the Black community and fightback strategies to challenge the greed of Wall Street and corporate boardrooms with an awareness of all the struggles of our brothers and sisters, whether they are red, brown, black, yellow or white.
In conclusion, there is an alternative to the 1 percent answer of capitalism...socialism. It's based on the idea that the poorest worker that will be elevated by all workers, creating a just and equal society.