Saturday, June 30, 2007

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is David Pirtle, from the National Coalition for the homeless. I am glad you appreciated our presentation on the Faces of Homelessness. It's always great to hear that we are making an impact.