Every Cook Can Govern: The First U.S. Social Forum

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When I mentioned to my friends that I was attending the
first United States Social Forum (USSF) in late June, I got
one common response—a blank stare. These are people
who consider themselves liberal, progressive, radical, leftist
or at least politically informed. The few people who had
any idea what I was talking about were activists/organizers
or had lived outside the U.S.—and even they were more
familiar with past World Social Forums (WSF) than the
USSF. How could something that Forum organizers were
billing as one of the most historic social movement gatherings
in U.S. history go this unnoticed? This is a question
that probably all USSF attendees are continuing to ask
ourselves after the event, for good reasons. But first let’s
figure out what the USSF is.
HOW WE GOT HERE
We can start with an event that many people around the
world do know—the protest against the World Trade
Organization that took place in November 1999. Though
post-Seattle mainstream media commonly refer to activists
as the “anti-globalization” movement, it is much more
accurate to see what happened as an amazing—both for
the unexpected size and surprising coalescence of various
movements—outpouring of multiple protests over several
global issues. How was it that unions, environmentalists,
non-profits, NGOs, feminists, teachers, anarchists, indigenous
people, immigrants, queers, and churches (and
more!) got together—and before anyone had an inkling of
what Bush II had in store? Because people recognized a
common enemy—neoliberalism—even as it went by different
names: welfare “reform,” Iraqi sanctions, attacks on
women’s and queer rights, NAFTA, dismantling affirmative
action, resource wars.
In opposition to the creeping neoliberalism, building
from the “Battle in Seattle,” and as an effort to be constructive,
the first World Social Forum was held in Brazil in
2001 and attended by 12,000 people—and by 2005 grew
to 155,000. The growth of local, regional, national, and
continental Social Forums (SF) has been explosive. The
WSF was also developed to counter-act some of the negative
traditions of the worldwide “Left”: dominance by
whites/Westerners/Northerners; uncritical admiration of
“left” governments; political party power plays; Ivory-
Tower navel-gazing; dogmatic ideologies—and top-down
decision-making. Not without continuing debate, the WSF
was designed to be an open space for resisters of all kinds
(except armed ones) to get together, share victories, defeats,
lessons, and strategies—and, hopefully, start to build unified
radical democratic power at the grassroots level.
Accordingly, the SFs are supposed to be an alternative to
mainstream policy, diplomatic, academic, and NGO conferences—
the tools here are direct action, civil disobedience,
non-violence, popular education, and street theater.
1,000 WORKSHOPS IN 400 WORDS
The opening salvo of the USSF was a large, feisty, and
youthful march through downtown Atlanta on Wednesday
afternoon. The march gave a strong sense of unity to the
thousands of attendees who participated, though there
were few onlookers on the streets of the state capital. I tried
to attend a variety of the 1,000 workshops to get a feel for
the current state of grassroots organizing in the U.S. (Here’s
what I missed—feminisms, anarchism, gentrification,
indigenous issues, prisons, youth, unions, global trade,
Marxisms, hip-hop, Katrina, political prisoners, non-violence,
homelessness.) All the workshops I attended were
well-executed and interactive, from Media Justice to Civilian
Diplomacy to Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools:
• Economic Transformation: The end of the Cold War has
seen new economic models that are neither state-capitalist
not state-communist.
Instead, we need a pragmatic,
democratic economy
that practices solidarity,
has diversity, and
builds healthy communities.
One example is
Austin Polytech Academy
on Chicago’s poor, Black
west side: a joint effort
between local manufacturing
companies, unions,
and the school to teach
shop-floor, management,
and ownership skills with
the aim to re-grow the
manufacturing sector and
keep good jobs in the
community.
• Black & Latino Alliances: The South L.A. Coalition
explained how they formed in the 1980s in response to
the crack epidemic, which the Left ignored. A memberdriven
organization, it moved past its origin as a service
provider by developing critiques of capitalism and
white supremacy—now as a policy analyst and maker,
the Coalition works with Black and Latino people in
south L.A. on four protracted issue campaigns: foster
care, land use, prison re-entry, and education.
• White Anti-Racist Organizing: White anti-racists are
known for intense, fruitless debates about how to get
white people to give up racism by talking about it.
Instead, the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) talked
about organizing on shared self-interest as the solution.
During the early 1990s, the ROP saw that the Right was
‘targeting’ white people in Oregon via anti-gay and antiimmigrant
ballot measures. In response, they successfully
organized dozens of white communities via house
meetings and rapid-response teams to see the common
thread between fighting xenophobia and homophobia—
that people can be united by common values of
democracy and human dignity.
DEMOCRACY—OR DIDDLY-SQUAT?
As for actual decision-making, the USSF stuck to the
much-debated WSF principle of providing an open space
while avoiding making decisions as a body. This makes
sense, as the SF process is young, movements are not unified,
and participation multiplies yearly. In practice, avoiding
decision-making, or even unified statements, seemed
painful to people who breathe, eat, and sleep organizing.
The six plenaries—on Katrina, war/militarism/prisons,
indigenous voices, immigrant rights, gender/sexuality, and
workers’ rights—had energetic analyses, diverse panels,
and an intensely hopeful vibe. The People’s Movement
Assembly saw group after hyped group recite two-minute
pleas for movement-building.
My most disappointing moment came during the Midwest
Break-Out preceeding the People’s Movement Assembly.
In a mostly empty room full of mostly white people
representing only a few Midwest organizations, we actually
debated whether to move ahead with concrete proposals
or focus on first building an inclusionary Midwest movement.
All the players were not at the table, and several of
the ones there did not seem to care. Whether this was from
lack of coalition experience or intentional disinterest in
others’ struggles, it felt alienating and exclusionary. Furthermore,
it felt like nothing had been done since the
(heavily academic) Midwest Social Forum a year ago. The
USSF rep seemed to do little to aid facilitation.
Calling for unity, applauding slogans, and endlessly
deferring decision-making should not replace analysis and
strategy—and judging by the overall level of debate, one
would think we don’t disagree about anything either! Many
people—especially those unfamiliar with the SF process
(including me)—had hoped for more of the latter and less
of the former at the USSF. While the workshops were
stronger on this point, it should be pointed out that this is
the first USSF—we were inventing something brand new,
and people were rightfully ecstatic and self-congratulatory
that “the movement” got together at all. Many older movement
veterans have been waiting for this type of event their
whole life. We were just getting to know one another; the
real test will be how we use these new comradeships outside
the networking bonanza that is the USSF.
One test case could be the USSF media model, which
was consciously outside the “star” system of the left (no
Chomskys or Sarandons). The Ida B. Wells Media Justice
Center was supposed to “create a revolutionary model of
media coverage, documentation, first-person storytelling,
and community-based newsmaking on location.” But the
Poor News Network reports that there was an apparent
effort by some to privilege the “real” media (i.e., Pacifica)
and ignore the “other” grassroots/participatory media—and
an appalling lack of media access and resources for poor and
disabled people. On the other hand, while Democracy Now!
and NPR were notably absent, dozens of papers and stations
in Canada and Latin America broadcast the USSF to the
world. A month later, the quantity and quality of Left
reporting on the USSF is still (surprisingly?) low. The USSF
website is cataloging audio and video footage on their Media
Server (http://media.ussf2007.org), and the best collection
of recent press is at https://www.ussf2007.org/en/news.
How do we assess all this—flawed model, flawed operations,
both—or rookie mistakes?
OLD LEFT, NEW LEFT—POST-“LEFT”?
The most intriguing workshop I saw was about child [sex]
abuse, GenerationFIVE’s Transformative Justice 101. Child
abuse is so widespread (across race, gender, class) that we
are all traumatized because being abused is how we, as
children, learn authority and violence. But violence is not
just an impulse; it is organized, political, and interpersonal.
We are re-victimized when the government co-opts our
outrage in a punitive manner—this doesn’t solve the problem.
We need to be working towards a healing model that
addresses abusers’ and victims’ internalized shame/blame,
guarantees survivor safety, and engages the community in
abuser accountability. The end result would be community
transformation: the prevention of child abuse would
allow us to challenge the very conditions that allow it, and
other forms of violence, to occur. What would this new
community be like?
I wondered if we, the “Left,” don’t have a lot of things
backwards. How do we talk about our issues? Do we take
the time to explain the hurt, pain, and sorrow we organize
against? Or do we remain abstract with words like “injustice”
and “oppression?” If we know our movement is rooted
in ending violence, then shouldn’t we say so? Otherwise,
who else knows? It’s true the language of suffering
has been denigrated: the victimized are disbelieved (rape),
re-traumatized (Katrina), told to bear it (poverty), or asked
to “prove” it (racism). But I don’t think we should stop try ing to resuscitate the language of hurt. If anything, it
would help build authentic communication, the lack of
which helps keeps the “Left” the “small but vocal minority”
Left—and not the majority of people (who we believe
share our values).
This leads to another point about reaching out and
growing—and winning. The “Left” likes to make use of
“experts.” The USSF eschewed them.
The holding the USSF in the southern location of
Atlanta meant going against the grain of U.S. power and
the nonprofit/NGO culture in this country. …There was a
sense from many that the South could not pull something
like this off and this resulted in a USSF process deprived
of significant support from national, regional, and local
organizations in other regions of the country. Until the
South “proved” it could mobilize and organize a social
forum… was little support and hope from the national
level. (my italics)
At the USSF, foundations, philanthropies, and some
unions fell into the much-criticized “nonprofit/NGO”
category: 501(c)(3) organizations run by experts, unaccountable
to members, financially tied to the mainstream—
and strategically limited (and thus dis-empowering).
Of course, there were plenty of groups who
wouldn’t fit a pure definition of “grassroots” or “NGO.”
But there was the sense that the grassroots should be
leading the struggle.
The USSF was brought into being, and attended,
mostly by people who get these two points on some level.
However, the radicals who showed up were more representative
of the organized movement than of the actual
people affected by the issues addressed. So do we have a
“movement of movements”—or was the USSF an “organization
of organizations?” Is the “Left” simply a mixture
of relatively-privileged people and full-time paid organizers
who get to choose to speak up? Are the “grassroots”
simply disenfranchised people who organize for their
very survival on spare time from their low-paid jobs? In
other words, is the “Left” incompatible with the grassroots?
Where, exactly, is the overlap, the synthesis? If you
paid attention, the USSF highlighted these challenges
and questions. Despite the holistic sense that we are all
fighting for healthy communities and against the same
enemies, we’re learning not just to respect but also work
with people—and politics, tactics, and strategies—we
may never have seriously considered.
LOOKING BACK WHILE MOVING FORWARD
If it were as simple as having common goals or enemies,
we wouldn’t be in the position we are. Our movements
are still very divided—by demographics, privilege, displacement,
violence, misunderstanding, and disrespect.
Flashback to U.S. Movement History 101: betrayal after
betrayal of people of color by white allies, poor people by
unions, lesbians by [straight] feminists. We are living this
history, and yet I was still shocked, for a few seconds, by
the white woman who first claimed that “there’s no
Indigenous issues in Ohio,” backtracked to “I meant
there are no Indians in Ohio,” and ended up at “well,
there are no reservations in Ohio.” One of the most powerful
speakers was Jabbar Magruder, a young Black man
from Iraq Veterans Against the War: his anger was as
directed against the anti-war movement for tokenizing
and silencing him as it was against the war itself. None of
the problems at the USSF were new to any of us, even if
this was the first one.
In the run-up to the USSF, separate Forums were held
(the largest were in the Southeast and Southwest) to
build authentic grassroots leadership. So not only were
the 1,000 USSF workshops run and attended by a majority
of people of color, women, and youth, (70-80%, 60%,
and over 50%, respectively, according to Project South’s
Jerome Scott)—but also the logistics for 15,000 attendees
(funding, housing, transportation, programming, media,
communication, cultural events) were planned and executed
by these same people. So, the South—the nonnon-
profit, grassroots South—did pull it off after all. And
now what? What about the internal politics we all know
from experience are there—jockeying for “issue” turf and
money, despite the non-501(c)(3) shoestring budget of
under a million self-raised dollars? Logistically there
were few glaring hitches—but wasn’t the whole thing too
spread out, too inaccessible, with too little time between
workshops?
Debating these nitty-gritty
questions—the heated
ones that can destroy
friendships—is actually
what this is all about. If
democracy is a process as
well as a goal, how do we
bring more people on
board? Fundraise more
effectively? Balance analysis,
debate, strategy, and
decision-making? Make
venues more accessible?
Keep it real, keep it grassroots?
Here’s the real kicker—
if the USSF was supposed
to build movement power in the South, what did
Atlanta’s poor majority get out of it—besides tips if they
were working at one of the posh hotels we stayed at?
Answer: we don’t know, we won’t know for a while. For
organizers, trying to accurately measure our effectiveness
is often like turning on the brights in fog. In the end, we
do know that the first U.S. Social Forum happened. We
know that many people thought it improved on the
WSFs—fewer lectures, better logistics, more work getting
done. We know that people got together, made new
connections, shared ideas, and got really hopeful and
excited about the future.
I think this bodes well—as long as we keep in mind
Philip Hutchings’ (from Oakland’s Institute for MultiRacial
Justice) organizing principles: emphasize unity while
being aware of differences; “blame up”; physical solidarity;
agree to disagree; ask “what do you need to survive?”,
“how would others perceive ‘X’?”, and “who’s doing the
shitwork?”—and, perhaps most importantly, people relate
to people, not abstract concepts. These are the principles
of radical grassroots democracy, the idea that is best
summed up in four simple words from C.L.R. James—
“every cook can govern.”

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