2010 U. S. Social Forum, Detroit

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If you want to connect to people involved
in just about every social justice issue our
nation faces, you would find your people
at the US Social Forum. The first USSF
was held in Atlanta in 2007. This year the
gathering of over 12,000 convened in
Detroit. The USSF program states: “a unifying theme
amongst all the forums…is that the solutions to the global
crises we are all facing will not come from the governments
or institutions, but they will come from the people’s movements
and organizations. We have the bottom up, trans-local
exits to the crises. The alternatives to the neo-liberal agenda
are becoming reality.” This was apparent not only in the
many reports from organizations around the nation, but in
Detroit itself. So, it is apt that a gathering of movementbuilders,
organizers and activists would come to a city that
has become the icon of capitalistic disasters. Detroit, the city
of hope, had a lot to show the nation, and it did.
The Forum opened with a beautiful march down Woodward
Ave., through the downtown, to the waterfront where
the conference center was located. The march, a more than
two hour walk on a very hot June day, was attended by
everyone from local Detroit activists to organized domestic
workers from New York to formerly incarcerated “Ban the
Box” organizers from Massachusetts. Songs were sung, music
was played, and the gathering ended with a plenary in Cobo
Hall. The bulk of the Forum followed a somewhat typical
conference format, with a dizzying amount of panels, assemblies
and plenaries. Workshop tracks included panels discussing
pressing issues such as displacement, migration, the
rust belt, democracy and governance, media justice, and
Indigenous Sovereignty, just to name a few. I followed a track
that included ideas of prison abolition and organizing, which
I will mention below.
Others in my group found panelists from New Orleans,
working together as the Greater New Orleans Organizers’
Roundtable, who shared methods for building a regional
network of trust and support. Much of their methodology
was founded on the work of the People’s Institute for Survival
and Beyond, an organization that “helps individuals,
communities, organizations and institutions move beyond
addressing the symptoms of racism to undoing the causes of
racism so as to create a more just and equitable society.”
Some went to the Detroit Black Community Food Security
Network, which detailed how African-American residents
in the city were mobilizing food production and land use to
build both political and nutritional infrastructure. The significance
of food gardens is hard to overestimate in a city
with no full-service grocery stores!
I attended a panel hosted by formerly incarcerated youth
in Los Angeles–a group called Youth Justice Coalition–who
eloquently articulated how aggressive policing in their
neighborhoods resulted in more crime, not less. Furthermore,
they described how the LAPD has, and is, exporting
this model of policing throughout the country. Another
panel I attended focused on why rural American matters for
prison abolition, hosted by Lauren Melodia. Melodia, a
recent transplant into a rural prison town in upstate NY, is
working on a project titled “Milk Not Jails,” a campaign to
make urban connections for a fledging dairy market in rural
New York. These kinds of projects are crucial to demythologizing
the idea that prisons create good jobs or do anything
positive for the community in which they are located. This
panel realized the need for people to work, but recognized
the costs of particular kinds of jobs–prison jobs– on both
sides of the prison wall. All of the panels related to prison
reform or abolition reflected on the urgency to reject Arizona
SB 1070. In another panel, titled “Beyond Walls and Cages”,
organizations and activists from all Arizona and New Mexico
discussed the ease with which we recently have, as a nation,
commingled immigration and criminalization.
Other activities at the gathering involved learning with
and from Detroit. The city has seen decline–any visitor
could tell you this–but it is also making radical change.
Detroiters have been told again and again that this car
plant or that casino will bring the city back, but the results
are never realized for the majority of residents. So, like the
USSF program statement, residents have initiated blockby-
block change. Detroit has more community gardens
and urban farms that any other U.S. city. Residents are
building a network of social justice centers, leadership
training spaces, internet nodes and community radio stations.
In response to recent police shootings, they created
Peace Zones for Life—in which mediators help resolve
conflict between families or neighborhoods, rather than
calling the police. So, Social Forum attendees could escape
the conference center and participate in building community
gardens, building outdoor classroom units, repairing
bicycles or painting murals. In addition People’s Movement
Assemblies organized actions throughout the week:
action to stop shut offs of low income and persons with
disabilities by the power company, action for environmental
justice at the Detroit Incinerator, and more.
The US Social Forum was a remarkable convening of
people, ideas, and actions, making clear what’s at stake in
our future. This gathering also made clear that there are
many of us, all working in our towns, cities and regions to
make real, sustainable, just change a reality. We didn’t need
to wait for a new president of a university, or of the nation,
the possibilities are in front of us. It is happening now.

Detroit Black Food Security Network
Youth Justice Coalition
Milk Not Jails
Beyond Walls and Cages
Allied Media Conference
Peace Zones for Life
Boggs Center
Hush House
The People’s Institute

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