Scenes from the Social Forum

Losing your job and your home can turn a moderate into a radical damn fast. So can watching one of your kids suffer through an untreated illness because insurance was lost along with that job. And if crowds of the newly disaffected are flocking to the Tea Party on the right, the U.S. Social Forum was evidence of serious organizing and deep engagement on the left as well.

But what did it accomplish?

from the Detroit Metro Times

By Curt Guyette

MT photo: Hassaan Bey


As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, and the quagmire in Afghanistan appears to grow more futile by the day, and the worldwide economic meltdown that began in 2008 lingers ominously, defenders of the status quo had a grand time last week snickering and sniping at folks who have the temerity to believe that there is a better way forward.

The call went out, and they came to Detroit to attend something called the U.S. Social Forum. More than 15,000 people from across the country and the world showed up. Socialists and communists and anarchists. Environmentalists and human rights activists, educators and social workers and progressive clergy. Union members, feminists and community organizers. Protestors of rampant militarism and people concerned about the rights of immigrants and the protection of civil liberties. Students and academicians, artists and poets and musicians.

They were fresh-faced and gray-haired and wheelchair-bound. They were gay and straight and every variation in between. They were black and white and brown, Asian and African and Latin American, Arab and Indonesian and members of this land’s indigenous tribes.

And what was the mainstream media’s response?

Nolan Finley, editorial page editor and resident sage at The Detroit News didn’t even wait for them all to arrive before casting judgment, proclaiming “a hootenanny of pinkos, environuts, peaceniks, Luddites, old hippies, Robin Hoods and urban hunters and gatherers. In other words, a microcosm of the Obama administration.”

Along with the name-calling that missed the mark in so many ways, he also got his rhetorical kicker wrong. The way many — probably most — of those in attendance view it, the Obama administration is far too centrist.

And then there’s Bill Shea, Finley’s ideological soul mate over at Crain’s, metro Detroit’s weekly business journal. Unlike Finley, Shea at least had the good grace to wait until the forum’s attendees arrived before unleashing the ridicule.

“Somewhere during the hot, desperate summer of 1968, a street parade of protestors and other hardcore left-wing activists apparently got lost in some sort of space-time vortex,” the business reporter blogged. “The colorful cavalcade of about 2,000 turned up yesterday on Woodward Avenue, every bit as hairy, smelly and sanctimonious (and loudly claiming victimization) as participants did 42 summer ago.”

Aside from that, and a few short pieces in the dailies describing the opening march, the mainstream press largely ignored the event.

Of course, it is easy to make fun of people who are earnest. There’s a sort of sport to be found in taking taunting swipes at people who talk of “transformative politics” and “paradigm shifts.”

It is also tough, in a country where a moderate Democrat like Obama is relentlessly assailed as a socialist, to give credence to an event hosting workshops with titles like “Marxism for the 21st Century.”

And there are plenty of hoots to be found at the expense of a group that would demand Cobo designate a number of unisex restrooms to accommodate people who don’t fit either-or gender divisions. And ain’t it a knee-slapper that these same types would also insist that bottled water not be sold at the convention center while they are using it. Something about not wanting to add to the mass of plastic that is turning a large area of the Pacific Ocean into a dead zone.

But those doing the laughing might consider for a moment the lyrics of a song written by that stalwart lefty Pete Seeger, who long ago sang that there is “a time for every purpose under heaven.” Because when we looked around the vast convention hall as Native Americans with feathers in their hair sang and danced, chanted and drummed, and the multi-hued crowd of several thousand respectfully watched, the realization hit that things — just maybe — really might be starting to turn, turn, turn.

Three decades from now, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, so-called minorities are expected to be the majority. Such is already the case in Hawaii, California, Texas and New Mexico. So perhaps those belly laughs coming from status quo white guys carry the undertones of a nervous twitter.

Taking in the crowd, it also occurred to us that, as this country’s problems mount for what used to be the middle class — as people continue to lose homes and jobs and insurance, and the insecurity accompanying all that spreads — it might be time for a new term to describe all those being pushed aside. Throw in all those kids who look toward the future and don’t see much more than dark clouds in terms of jobs and opportunity, and these people could all become part of a “marginalized majority.”

“To me, being in Cobo was like stepping into the future,” said Shea Howell, one of the event’s organizers. She is a communications professor at Oakland University and a frequent contributor to both The Michigan Citizen, which focuses on the African-American community, and Between the Lines, a local publication that focuses on gay and lesbian issues. Howell points out that most forum leaders were people of color or women, or both.

And what’s really going on, at least to some extent, is what speaker Maureen Taylor, chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, pointed out: “This ain’t about left and right, this is about the top and the bottom.”

What makes that point so pertinent is, as the middle class continues to get squeezed downward by stagnating wages, high unemployment rates and the foreclosure crisis, things are getting more and more crowded down below.

Losing your job and your home can turn a moderate into a radical damn fast. So can watching one of your kids suffer through an untreated illness because insurance was lost along with that job. And if crowds of the newly disaffected are flocking to the Tea Party on the right, the U.S. Social Forum was evidence of serious organizing and deep engagement on the left as well.

It’s not just an American thing, either. There was talk about what’s happening to the south. The Zapatista revolt in the Mexican state of Chiapas began in 1994 in reaction to the North American Free Trade Agreement. There is Hugo Chavez, the socialist leader of Venezuela, and Evo Morales, the labor leader who became the first member of an indigenous group to be elected president of Bolivia. As the writer Jorge G. Castaneda noted in 2006 in Foreign Affairs, in this decade “a wave of leaders, parties and movements generically labeled ‘leftist’ have swept into power in one Latin American country after another.”

So it’s no fluke that one of the final keynote speakers was Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s UN ambassador, who echoed what was said often at the forum: Change doesn’t come from the top down, but from the bottom up.

About the same time Solon was speaking Saturday, a massive protest at the G20 summit of finance ministers and central bank governors in Toronto was turning violent as “radical demonstrators clashed with riot police and lit cruisers on fire in the heart of the downtown core,” according to one news report.

“Dressed in black and with their faces concealed by balaclavas, the violent mob broke away from the mostly peaceful throng of 10,000 protesters before smashing bank windows and targeting U.S.-based businesses.”

Protests and parties

There were demonstrations in Detroit as well during the forum, but no violence. Organizers stressed that they wanted the event to be peaceful, and that those attending the forum show the city and its people “respect.”

That they did.

“We had no significant incidents and we had no arrests, nothing at all related to the forum. Everything was orderly and the organizers worked closely with our department,” Detroit deputy police chief John Roach told us.

Organizers here made it clear to representatives of the national groups forming the core of the Social Forum that, in return for hosting the event, help putting a spotlight on local issues would be expected.

The reason Detroit got the nod over two other prospective sites had to do, in part, with the city’s dire circumstances. In many ways it is considered a harbinger of what awaits the rest of America if our social course is not altered as we move headlong into the post-industrial era.

The city’s problem of vacant homes — long a blight on neighborhoods here — has indeed become a common sight across America since the foreclosure crisis hit.

But because the city has been dealing with the problems of deindustrialization longer than most others, the people here have plenty of experience.

Helping lead the way was social activist and political philosopher Grace Lee Boggs, who has long preached that positive change has to come from the grass roots.

One of the forum highlights was her 95th birthday, attended by some 1,000 celebrants. She is, perhaps, the closet thing the local movement has to a patron saint.

Her influence can be seen in the urban gardens dotting the city, and in the murals created by the youth who for years have come here to participate in the “Detroit Summer” program she and her late husband Jimmy Boggs helped create in the early 1990s.

Mural painting was part of the Social Forum as well. Art and other cultural events — including music, poetry, arts and photography shows, and a film festival that featured the premiere of Oliver Stone’s documentary about Venezuela’s Chavez, South of the Border — were consciously featured as a major part of the five-day event.

Despite the portrayal by some, who tried to characterize forum attendees as mirthless scolds, the event featured a healthy dose of partying. From what we saw, the under-30 crowd formed a major part of this forum.

With raucous marching bands enlivening protest marches and parties alike — including Friday night’s rollicking “Leftist Lounge” event at Eastern Market — this forum was anything but a staid gathering dominated by holdovers from the 1960s.

Connecting the dots

As we said, one of the reasons Detroit was chosen to host the second U.S. Social Forum — the first was held three years ago in Atlanta — is the city’s dire condition.

Teetering on the edge of insolvency, with a true unemployment rate that some (including the mayor) have said is near 50 percent, and a largely dysfunctional school system that’s being run by an emergency financial manager, the city is also a place where toxic-spewing industries have turned some neighborhoods into the stuff of nightmares.

In that regard, the area round the Marathon oil refinery along I-75 in southwest Detroit has been the hardest hit. Residents of the area participated in one of the more than 1,000 workshops held during the forum.

The fact that they have a dramatic story to tell wasn’t particularly surprising. What did come as a surprise, at least to some, was the workshop they appeared at: “Tar Sands: The pipeline connection between Detroit and Alberta.”

That’s Alberta, Canada. After Saudi Arabia, Canada’s known oil reserves are the second largest in the world, much of it in oil shale beneath vast stretches of arboreal forests in Alberta. “Also known as the Athabascan oil sands, this form of petroleum is of the dirtiest fuels on earth,” according to the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “Entire forests have been destroyed in Alberta so that strip mines can be dug to remove the tar and turn it into petroleum and pump it to the United States. Besides the direct environmental damage to the wilderness and the habitats of animals and birds, tar sands oil produces at least three times as much global warming pollution as pumped oil from places such as Alaska or Saudi Arabia.”

“Tar sands extraction in Canada is devastating Indigenous communities, wildlife and vast areas of boreal forests, as well as being many times more carbon-intensive to produce than ‘conventional’ oil,” according to the group PLATFORM, based in London, England.

“We are seeing a terrifyingly high rate of cancer in Fort Chipewyan where I live,” George Poitras, former chief of Mikisew Cree First Nation, told the group. “We are convinced that these cancers are linked to the tar sands development on our doorstep. It is shortening our lives. That’s why we no longer call it ‘dirty oil’ but ‘bloody oil.'”

In 2008, the Marathon refinery in southwest Detroit obtained permission — over the objection of local residents — to begin a $1.9 billion expansion. The reason: to turn Alberta’s oil sands into gasoline and diesel fuel.

At the workshop, a group of residents described life in an area that is home to not only the refinery but also the city’s massive wastewater treatment plant, several asphalt processing plants and a steel company. All told, there are 27 heavily polluting industries in the area.

As the Detroit Free Press recently reported, researchers at the University of Michigan have determined, after studying federal air pollution data, that the 48217 ZIP code where these people live is the state’s most polluted.

Resident Jayne Mounce described odors “so strong and so foul you can taste them.” She also described “toxic, shiny fallout.” Unable to get adequate help from state environmental officials, residents have been working with a California nonprofit group, Global Community Monitor, which has established what it calls a “bucket brigade.” The buckets are used to collect air samples, which the nonprofit tests. A recent sample found high levels of methyl ethyl ketone, a substance that, as the Freep’s Tina Lamb reported, “can irritate the lungs and affect the nervous system.”

One after another, area residents detailed the health problems — including cancers of all sorts and respiratory illnesses — they say plague their neighborhood.

In a way, this workshop offered a snapshot of much of the impetus behind the forum. It shows how people located in different countries — largely minority in Detroit, and indigenous in Canada — are linked by a common problem. There are also activists from nonprofit groups trying to help spur grassroots resistance to the polluters.

What the forum has done is provide a platform for them all to gather and compare notes about strategies that work, and open avenues for the seemingly disconnected to work together on overarching problems. And the same networking opportunities played out on a panoply of issues, from urban gardening to union organizing, from juvenile justice reform to opposition to mortgage foreclosures, from climate change to alternatives to the two-party system.

It also did something else. It helped spread the word. Not necessarily through traditional media, which paid little heed to the substantive issues being discussed at the forum. But, rather, through new media — primarily the Internet, where videos and blogs and reports can be posted, and connections maintained through e-mail and social networks such as Facebook.

“We are taking charge of our own stories,” said Howell, and those stories are spreading around the world.

The forum also served to help strengthen bonds here.

On Saturday, when an estimated 1,000 people marched from the city’s main public library on Woodward Avenue to the incinerator located near the intersection of Interstates 94 and 75, residents of the 48217 ZIP were shoulder to shoulder with environmental activists, out-of-town forum attendees, people living around the incinerator and a dozen men wearing shirts that identified them as “Teamsters for Clean Air, Good Jobs & Justice.”

Asked why Teamsters would be supporting an action like this, one of them replied, “We breathe the air too.” And, moreover, said organizer Alex Young, recycling operations in places like Oakland, Calif., are providing union members good-paying, green jobs.

“We in the union movement want to be progressive,” he said. This from a member of a union that once backed Richard Nixon and took pride in bashing hippie anti-war protestors in the Vietnam era. (Notably the forum saw the UAW play a prominent role.)

Among those joining the march on what has been described as the world’s largest incinerator was Cynthia Mellon of Newark, N.J., home to what she said is the world’s second-largest incinerator.

“We didn’t know you existed before,” she told the Detroiters. “Now we are all part of a big cause.”

Rhonda Anderson, who does environmental justice work for the Sierra Club’s Detroit office, has been one of those working for more than two years to get the incinerator shut down. One of several speakers to address the crowd, Anderson choked back emotion as she declared: ” You have lifted our spirits. You have raised our expectations. You have served as a model for our children.”

Beyond the feel good

One of the questions we asked forum organizers and attendees was, “What tangible good comes from a gathering like this?”

One answer we consistently heard was the uplift Anderson described.

“The feel good is good,” said Sankaran Menon, who came to the forum from India. “That is why we do it. It keeps the hope alive. And also, it brings more people in to join the effort, because making change takes a lot of effort.”

He had his doubts, though, about the concrete accomplishments that might be expected.

“The idealism is poorly matched against the extreme strength of the U.S. as it is today,” he offered. “I think the critical mass necessary to make change is missing.”

Maybe, he said, after another five forums are held across the United States.

As a number of organizers pointed out, even though world social forums have been held regularly since the first one in Brazil in 2001, this is only the second U.S. forum. “We are still in the organizing phase,” say the organizers. “We need to keep growing the movement.”

“There is an old West African proverb that says a spider web can trap even a lion — if the spider web is big enough,” said Jonathan Wilson, a 19-year-old community organizer from Gary, Ind. “I don’t think anyone has all the solutions or answers finalized. But I see the spider’s web continuing to expand.”

As should be expected with any event attracting more than 15,000 people who may all consider themselves lefties but don’t necessarily share ideologies, there was inevitable infighting and power struggling going on behind the scenes. One flap spilled into the open when an Israeli advocacy group’s workshop on gay rights in the Middle East was canceled by USSF organizers.

But what we saw mostly were people experiencing a kind of euphoria as it all began to wind down.

The latter part of Saturday was spent deciding the course of future actions and areas of concentration, arrived at through a process known as People’s Movement Assemblies.

One aspect of this second forum that is likely to be carried on into the future is the emphasis placed on providing tangible benefits to the host community. In this case, attendees came carrying books — thousands of them — which will be used to establish a lefty library here. There were also bikes donated, which will be tuned up and used to help people get around town And there are plans to open a theater to screen progressive films.

One very significant tangible result, according to national organizer Adrienne Maree Brown, was a commitment from funders to help raise $200 million that will be directed to grassroots organizations around the country that were present at the forum.

“That’s about as tangible outcome as you can have,” Brown said.

Did they change the world?

Not yet.

But they opened eyes and lifted spirits.

They also succeeded in making at least some people more aware of urgent issues. As one of the women participating in the tar sands workshop pointed out, “Sometimes victory means just getting information out to a broader audience.”

And sometimes victory means simply keeping up the struggle to create the kind of world you believe we need.

“It is always easy to laugh at people’s hopes,” said Brown. “It is much harder to work to change that hope into something tangible, to go from doubt to experiencing what it feels like being part of a movement. It’s a learning process.”

See for text, photo and video blog postings from throughout the forum, and our extensive pre-forum interview with local organizers.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-804 or