Saturday, June 30, 2007


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US Social Forum: My First Three Days

I'm writing now from the lobby of a big fancy hotel where I am staying because I am attending the big, but not that fancy, US Social Forum,an event that I had no idea would be as rich as it already has been.

The forum is more than a series of meetings, so even before I boarded the plane from New York City to Atlanta for the forum I was in the forum - without even knowing it. I shared my plane ride with thirty or more members of Community Voices Heard, a New York City low-income organizing group, two professors from Adelphi College who were bringing students, and one of my union brothers from the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY. Since that moment, I've been in one conversation about organizing and activism after another.

By the time I was contemplating whether or not to go to the forum's opening march, I admit that I was not terribly enthusiastic. It was 90 degrees, I hadn't eaten, and I'd been travelling all day. Nonetheless, I met some Puerto Rican activists in the hotel who were going and decided I should go. We joined up to figure out the rail system and head to the demo. While in the rail station, of course I ran into an acquaintance from seven years ago in Minneapolis - we all exchanged "how d'you dos" and went off to town. By the time we got to the midway point, I left my new acquaintances and went outside to look for food. I thought I was totally lost, but within fifteen minutes, I'd spotted the tail end of the demonstration. I rushed off, joined it and despite my hunger and tiredness, found it to be one of the most spirited and diverse - in terms of race, age, and general demeanor - marches I'd been on in a very long time. It filled me with excitement about the days to come.
Later on in the evening, I ventured to the Civic Center, which was surrounded by "Solidarity Tents" and even a few food vendors. I managed to meet up with the rest of my union friends and get a snack. On my way home from there, I asked a woman outside the train station if she knew of a grocery store nearby. As she was a social forum participant, she offered to take me to a grocery store that was one station away from my hotel on the train system. Being a New Yorker, I had assumed that she meant that we'd get out of the train and find the store right there, but Atlanta is different, and it turned out that, in the spirit of the social forum, Crystal who is from Atlanta, but works with a Seattle group called LELO (Legacy of Equality, Leadership, and Organizing) drove me from the station to a grocery store and back to the metro. Clearly, it was going to be a good couple of days.

Early in the morning, I again chatted away on the buses and trains from my hotel to town with other social forum attendees. There was a guy from Finland with his mother and daughter, and a couple of artist /immigrant rights' activists from Providence.
The first session I went to at 10:30 am was a tiny group, but perhaps because of the size it became a powerful and intimate conversation between the session's "audience" and the organizers of the "Faces of Homelessness" campaign of the Washington, DC based "National Coalition for the Homeless." The panel began with an overview of general conditions of homelessness, causes of homelessness, and the current upswing in hate-crimes against homeless people perpetrated by young people. The main event of the panel were the stories of Joann Jackson and David Pirtle. Jackson, the director of the Faces of Homelessness speakers bureau told the story of growing up in a family that did not value education, which meant that despite being admitted to Howard University in 1965, she wound up working as a janitor after finishing at the top of her highschool class. Fortunately for her, her boss noticed her, promoted her to payroll clerk, and eventually helped her start her own business through a Small business administration loan. Despite her success, she became depressed, fell into alcholism and crack addiction. Although she maintained her business for a time as a "functioning alcholic" she wound up selling it, spending the money on drugs, and ultimately was living on the streets. Today, she lives in an apartment and is a national organizer giving a face to the experience of homelessness. The other speaker, David Pirtle, spoke about many of his experiences as a homeless youth with schizophrenia: sleeping in an abandoned house in Manhattan and waking up one night covered in rats ("I was the warmest thing nearby") and going back to sleep, and living more comfortably on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Eventually, he went into a shelter and received psychiatric treatment. He became an activist when the city tried to sell the homeless shelter where he lived to developers who wanted to make it a luxury hotel. Through that action, he said, he became empowered to ultimately get out of the shelter and get his own apartment.
Such stories are not didactic lessons in political strategy, but hearing the stories and talking with these formerly-homeless individuals highlighted the power of our society's hatred of the homeless simply by showing how the reality differs from the stereotype. In addition to that profound work, the workshop organizers talked about their project to have violence against homeless people classified as a hate-crime and about challenging local laws that criminalize homelessness. The media is one source of contempt for the homeless, but the laws directed at homeless (such as those that ban sleeping or lying down in public parks) are a more direct and serious problem - and those laws come from the real-estate developers and others involved in gentrification. Here, I also met to New York activists and exchanged information, in hopes that we could bring the "faces of homelessness" speakers to my school. My first impression of the Social Forum panels would hold true for most of the others: the session involved not just experts preaching to the converted, but became a conversation among a group of committed activists focused on a particular problem.

At 1:00 pm, I made it to the Jobs With Justice discussion and heard about struggles at Allied-Barton in Phildelphia, and Verizon. However, as would happen again, the most interesting speech was from a member of the audiene. Mid-discussion, Larry Newsome a 19 year employee of Blue Diamond almonds, told us about the chemical hazards of that work. Demonstrations and solidarity campaigns were announced, people got up and spoke with passion. It was a wide-ranging talk about union power in general.

At 3:30, I went to a session provocatively titled SAY WHAT?! featuring a dramatic reading of the US government's testimony to the UN human rights commission on their handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in the Gulf Coast region. The panel began with a woman shouting/chanting a poem about the events, telling us how to participate "When you hear THE MAN!" she said, pointing at a man in a suit seated behind the table, "say a lie you say "SAY WHAT?!" When I say, "SAY WHAT" you say "I Want My Human Rights Today!"
The audience went right along with the program, shouting "SAY WHAT!?" Every time one of the dramatic readers of US government testimony read a piece. In addition to the audience's shouted response, members of the group stood up and read prepared statements about what the real conditions were in New Orleans and Mississippi, not only in those first few weeks, but continuing today. Not only was this a unique way to deliver information to the audience, but the group's analysis was sharp and exciting. They asked us whether we, and progressives outside the Gulf have "Katrina Fatigue." They talked about making Katrina a microcosm of the problems of the US. These speakers also discussed environmental racism, the criminalization of the poor in New Orleans, and the continued displacement of Louisianans from the region. The discussion was my first face-to-face encounter with organizers from New Orleans and I could see, after leaving there, that the left in general has much to learn from such organizers...the point is not just "helping" New Orleans, but seeing New Orleans activists as leaders and shapers of an improved US human rights movement fueled with a new sense of urgency. That was certainly the message that this panel meant to give, and I was convinced.
* * *
The evening plenary was also about New Orleans, and featured some of the speakers I had just heard, but also an Ecuadoran activist who had come to New Orleans to work. After describing the horrendous working conditions, withholding of pay, and general disregarding of human rights experienced by Latino immigrants he said, he didn't come to New Orleans to "steal" anyone's job. Rather, he said, we should united "The New Slaves with the Old Slaves." The audience responded with applause of chants of 'Si Se Puede!"
When the floor opened for comments, Mama D(scroll down till you get to 12/06) gave a rather sensational speech which began with her chanting in a deep, slow voice "WE DON'T NEED NO MORE N-----" and included criticisms of non-profit 501-C3 organizations, racism, capitalism in general, and with the defiant comment that she couldn't respect the plenary time-limits on speakers because we needed timet to heal.

* * *

I went to three sessions on Friday, although of the first one I tried to go to (about gender in the Palestinian movements), was cancelled. I ran into someone I knew from several years ago, and we chose a nearby session on US war crimes to attend. That turned out to be a session of the Bush Crimes Commission featuring Marjorie Cohn of the National Lawyers Guild, C. Clark Kissinger of the RCP, Dennis Brutus, and Ann Wright. They argued that it's important to get people to talk about the acts of the Bush administration as war crimes, not mistakes. They also believe that the movement to impeach Bush may come back. Although most of what they were saying was familiar to me, Ann Wright, a career army colonel who resigned because of her opposition to the US war in Iraq was quite amazing to hear, and I would love to see a film of her testimony in congress on US war crimes.
* * *
The second session I went to was about the debate between two different alternatives to contemporary globalization. One was global Fair Trade. The other was localized farming. This panel, set up by the grassroots organizing initiative and the Center for Popular Economics, staged a debate between two economists who played the opposing sides, and then featured comments by activists from other perspectives. The audience generally found the local position untenable in its pure form, though nice in principle, citing the problem of calling on denuded, deforested, and pillaged countries to produce locally despite a likely lack of resources. The most interesting speaker on that panel was Omar Freilla of the Greenworker collective in the South Bronx. His local cooperative in the Bronx was born of deep-roots in that communty as well as intensive study of other cooperative endeavors including tiny towns in the Basque country of Spain.

The third (and final) session I went to on Friday was a popular education program run by Project South, who were among the forum's main organizers. I'll say more about it in a separate post, with pictures....later.

I skipped the evening plenary to attend a meeting of Students for a Democratic Society with members of Bob Moses' Algebra project. I had been told that this would be a meeting of students and teachers about anti-war activism, and it wasn't quite that - but it was inspiring to listen to the process as a group of young high school and college activists tried to plan future actions.

And now, readers, it's almost two am, and there are more sessions tomorrow, so I'd better get to bed.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Social Forum Opening March with Pictures

I can't write much this morning because if I want to get a seat at the 10:30 "Right to the City" panel, I've got to leave my hotel in about fifteen minutes. Look below for pictures from the very spirited opening march of the US Social Forum in Atlanta from Wednesday June 27th.
I arrived in Atlanta that afternoon at about 12:30, and for the rest of the day just about everyone I met was also here for the events. I had a little trouble figuring out where everything was, but I was lucky enough to run into the opening march before it ended. As you enjoy the pics imagine the sound: an extraordinarily good drum section, and a blaring hip-hop against patriarchy truck shouting "down with coca cola" "Down with the war" - not to mention the conscious rhymes. Atlanta's business people were gaping on the sidewalks and the Hooters waitresses, in hot-pants came out to cheer and do a kick line. Was it for the "End Patriarchy" message? or the fresh beats?
Who knows, but it made me feel that:
....Another World is Possible; Another US is Necessary!

Hip Hop Against Patriarchy at the Social Forum Opening March

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Getting Down at the Hip Hop Truck Social Forum Opening

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New Orleans at Social Forum

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new orleans at social forum

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social forum opening

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

The UCU Boycott of Israeli Universities - Whose Freedom Counts?

Among the issues being misreported in the American media, there are few that have been as befuddling to American progressives as the UCU's decision to discuss a boycott Israeli universities and Hugo Chavez's denial of a broadcasting license to RCTV. Both are represented in the American media as challenges to fundamental liberties cherished by those on the left. Today's entry discusses the boycott. I'm saving Chavez for tomorrow.

* * *
The other night, my union, the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY passed a resolution objecting to the British University and College Union's beginning of discussion of a boycott of Israeli universities. The hour being late, and the US media being what it is, there was very little substantial discussion of the reasons and logic of those who are promoting this boycott, most of which have to do with what actually goes on at these universities. Those supporting this resolution to oppose the UCU boycott proposal were probably reading articles like this one, by Charles Small at 'Inside Higher Ed," which claims that the boycott proposal is motivated by anti-semitism and that it thwarts academic freedom.
Indeed, it did give me pause to think about boycotting academic institutions in particular. When I came home from the meeting, I wanted to know what my favorite Israeli leftist academics had to say about the boycott. I started with Tom Segev, whose works on Israel's history are hardly "extreme" in their orientation. He supported the boycott of Bar Ilan University in 2005, on the basis that the only people who could support that particular university were those backing settlements in Palestinian territory.
The university's attempts to assert that politics had no place in academia were undermined by Bar-Ilan's embracing of the College of Judea and Samaria, and in the government's decision to upgrade it to a university.
Mr Sharon's education minister, Limor Livnat, said that upgrading the college "is designed to support the settlement vision out of a national interest of the state of Israel". Tom Segev, a renowned Israeli author, said that far from being an attack on Israel, the boycott of Bar-Ilan Uni versity hit the intended target. "The boycott of Bar-Ilan doesn't hurt the state as a whole, but at most, those Israelis who support the perpetuation of the Israeli presence in the territories," he wrote in the newspaper Haaretz.

Ilan Pappe, a professor at Haifa University, strongly supports the boycott, saying that pressure on his own school was one of the only reasons that he was able to continue teaching there after he defended a student who was charged with libel and stripped of a "research" MA because of his thesis about a massacre of Palestinians.
Avi Shlaim, on the other hand, is against the academic boycott, arguing that it would be polarizing:
I'm for a boycott of Israeli goods and against a boycott of Israeli academics. Israel does 40 percent of its trade with the EU and very little of its trade with the US, so EU economic sanctions against Israel would be effective and I'm in favor of them, as well as an arms embargo. Britain to its credit has implemented an embargo on arms sales because Israel has violated the rule it purchased British military equipment. A cultural and academic boycott is an entirely different proposition: that wouldn't hurt the government. On the contrary, it would play into the hands of the government,because the government would say, "You see, there is anti-Semitism, there is hostility towards us as a people. We are all in the same boat, so you should rally behind the flag." Most Israel academics are liberal. Or they used to be anyway. You don't want to discourage them from dialogue and contact.

I tended to agree with Shlaim before reading the articles about the policies of these schools, but after reading about the lack of academic freedom at the Israeli universities, about their cooperation with the Israeli military and finally their discrimination against Arab students, it seems to me that one can't argue that academic freedom currently exists in those universities. In that case, as the boycott's authors argue, there will be more space for real academic freedom in Israel if people around the world confront the issue of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Israel has long claimed to be unusually democratic and has held itself up as a shining example of democracy in contrast to the Arab regimes of the Middle-East. Its academic institutions are one example used ot bolster this argument. If people knew more information about the scandalous violations of academic freedom - and freedom in general- within these universities, they would be less inclined to support them as bastions of liberalism.