Some 10,000 grassroots organizers, anti-racist fighters, farm workers, domestic workers, anti-war veterans, former prisoners and their families, spokespeople for lesbian/gay/bi/trans rights, women’s rights and environmental organizations, and activists in virtually every progressive struggle underway in the U.S. today came together in Atlanta from June 27 to July 1 for the U.S. Social Forum.
WW photos: Imani Henry, John Catalinotto,
They came from 1,000 organizations and held more than 1,000 workshops, meetings and plenary sessions, one major march and other demonstrations in five days under the broiling sun of central Georgia—and one torrential rainfall. They came from all 50 states, and 400 international guests came from 70 countries, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
There are undoubtedly different evaluations of how successfully the USSF organizers and its different departments were able to address the needs and rights of all oppressed groups present. Still, there were some remarkable features. These include the composition of the forum and its strong spirit of grass-roots struggle and solidarity. Forum participants were multinational, with more than half being people of color. They were almost all personally engaged in struggle and they were looking to give and get support.
There were people of all ages, including many youths under 30. The workshops included but also stretched beyond the movement veterans who cut their teeth in the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the other struggles that took place in that relatively progressive period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A workshop organized by the youth organization FIST—Fight Imperialism, Stand Together—on the contributions of Che Guevara reflected this youth upsurge in the struggle.
There was strong representation from sectors of society that normally have the least access to funds for traveling. This lack often limits participation of people without personal or organizational resources in national gatherings. Either the many local or regional groups were able to overcome many of these obstacles or the national organization was.
From welfare rights to organizing the South
People worked on issues from health care monopolies to welfare rules in West Virginia, state repression of ex-prisoners in Los Angeles, combating the modern enslavement of immigrant farm workers and domestic workers, food preparation, gaining full rights for those with “disabilities,” preparing vegan food, understanding of the need of trans people for gender neutral bathrooms, struggling to organize labor in the South, battling police brutality, defending immigrant rights.
Also, freeing political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Puerto Rican liberation fighters and the Cuban Five and defending the rights of the more than 2 million prisoners of an oppressive state, and fighting to end the occupations of Palestine and Iraq. This list doesn’t begin to exhaust the choices. A message from Mumia Abu-Jamal to the forum was played at the closing plenary session and at the family reunion rally organized by family members of prisoners and former prisoners.
Hundreds of workshops—each with a half-dozen to a few hundred participants—took place at each of the sessions over the three conference days. Special tents on Africa, Palestine, youth and others hosted hundreds of guests. And full-time networking went on in every space on the venue throughout the forum.
From Katrina to TransJustice
The plenary sessions—attended by some 500 to 1,500 people depending on the particular evening and topic—gave organizers an opportunity to reach the most people with one talk.
The plenary sessions attempted to cover the following six struggles: Gulf Coast Reconstruction in the Post-Katrina Era; War, Militarism and the Prison Industrial Complex; Indigenous Voices: From the Heart of Mother Earth; Immigrant Rights; Liberating Gender and Sexuality: Integrating Gender and Sexual Justice Across Our Movements; and Workers’ Rights in the Global Economy.
The plenary on Katrina drew a strong audience and made a strong statement that the survivors of the hurricane were still fighting against a hostile and racist government authority but had not given up on winning back their right to return and to rebuild their lives.
The Indigenous plenary—and a later demonstration on the stage at the Sunday morning “Peoples’ Assembly”—showed that the first nations in this hemisphere would be heard.
For anti-imperialists, the militarism plenary was likely the most disappointing. Though the early speakers laid the groundwork for a fighting plenary and an Iraqi oil unionist got a standing ovation when he called for “driving out the occupiers,” the strategy talk called only to get rid of the Bush government, which meant little more than electing a Democratic president in 2008.
In addition, one of the speakers, an Israeli woman, made a frontal attack on Hamas for alleged misogyny and had the gall to demand a change in Palestinian leadership. The next night, after the Indigenous plenary, the USSF organizers gave the floor to a Palestinian woman activist to answer this frontal attack on self-determination.
The gender and sexual justice plenary, which opened an insightful discussion involving a lack of understanding and sensitivity within the progressive movement on this issue, ended in a burst of anti-imperialist and pro-socialist education. Imani Henry of the International Action Center, who is also a leading activist in TransJustice, was able to effectively raise a series of militant issues.
Henry discussed the defense of the Cuban Five—the only time this important case was raised at a plenary—and also of the New Jersey Four lesbians, all African Americans, jailed for up to 11 years for defending themselves. He aroused solidarity for some transgender people at the forum who had been harassed by the Atlanta police, called for making September an anti-war month, and raised a cry for ending capitalism and building a socialist society. He got a standing ovation.
Since at the current time the social forums are structured as a space for discussion and not as a plan for action, those interested in planning joint actions participated in a “People’s Assembly”—the last plenary. Though many had left, more than 1,000 people stayed for this session, where all the organizations and regions could raise their proposals. The only anti-war proposal was a call from the Troops Out Now Coalition to make September the next anti-war month and to raise TONC’s call for an encampment in Washington, D.C., starting Sept. 22, with a “People’s Peace Congress” on Sept. 28 and a mass march Sept. 29 calling for an end to the war abroad and the war at home.