Monday, July 09, 2007

Taking the Midnight Bus to Georgia: US Social Forum Diary

As we approached the bus stop over on the north side of Union Square, we knew all of our hard work over the past few months had been well worth it. Looking out over the 100 person, two-bus delegation, you couldn’t help but be struck by the amazing cross section of people and organizations we were rolling with on our way down to the first ever US Social Forum (USSF) in Atlanta.

There was Jean, Lynn, Bruce and the rest of the Picture the Homeless crew in one corner with the big water cooler, preparing the egg salad sandwiches for the long ride ahead. There was Center for Immigrant families, with Priscilla and Ujju going over the map-quest directions that we had to print out for our bus drivers who showed up about an hour late. Weaving through the stacks of luggage and people are all of the kids running around along 17th street, trying to outpace the childcare volunteers from Regeneracíon who were doing their best to keep up. There was Janice, Prince and Joseph from Families for Freedom. Uruj, Doug and Daniel from Students for a Democratic Society. There was Kelley, one of the co-founders of Iraq Veterans Against the War, running around trying to get a last minute bite for her and Lovella who both came up from Philadelphia to join our bus. And of course there was the reverend Ashanti trying to sneak on board with us at the last minute. We were off to a late start, hitting the road a good two hours after we planned, but we were in good company.

Breakfast at Cracker Barrel (or, the journey is the destination)

There were several reasons why we ended up taking buses down to Atlanta instead of the quicker more comfortable method of flying down. A fundraising appeal circulated a few months earlier on behalf of the Another Politics is Possible (APP) delegation summed up some of the main points:
  • Many times, individual paid professionals and “token” community members represent community organizations in larger strategic conversations, gatherings, and conferences. The USSF provides an important opportunity to change this dynamic. Instead of choosing a few individuals to travel by plane and rent out hotel rooms, we will use a comparable budget to enable a large group of mothers, children, youth, and childcare volunteers to attend the USSF. Ground transportation will enable more participants to attend, particularly immigrants and families with children. The journey itself will embody our politics, fostering an intergenerational space of connection, sharing and caring for people from different communities in NYC.
Although initially only a one-bus delegation, the APP contingent was able to spill over when the War Resisters League agreed to help subsidize a second bus as a way for grassroots anti-war organizers, veterans, and low-income community based organizations to make the trip. Very quietly, and without much fanfare, the sponsoring of the bus was a nice example of genuine solidarity (without all of the usual strings attached), reflecting hopefully a larger trend among national organizations, towards what could be called a “movement building sensibility” (ie. something that facilitates the building of personal and political relationships between various groups, laying the foundation for future collaboration and joint work).

For those who took advantage, the bus ride offered lots of opportunity to hang out and talk to new people. Going to such an overwhelmingly large event like the USSF, it was nice to be able to have some time beforehand to get a sense of what people were thinking about and working on locally in New York City. I myself was lucky enough to be sitting behind Prince and Joseph who work with the aforementioned organization Families for Freedom, which focuses on post September 11th immigration and detention issues. Both had spent several years locked up in detention centers, the real casualties of this so-called “War on Terror”. Joseph, after five years of lock-down, literally got out just days before our bus orientation meeting and right away decided to make the trek down with us even though sitting in one place was very hard on his body after what he had been through. Joseph, in what is an all too typical story, had actually served in the US military during the first gulf war. After the war he came home with serious post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and instead of being taken care of by the military, he was given the cold shoulder and eventually turned to alcoholism and drugs to treat his depression. After several years of being on and off probation, he was put on the “enemy combatant” list after September 11th and was rounded up and thrown in jail.

Prince later explained to me in great detail the organizing he and others were a part of while inside the various detention centers and outlined a whole other aspect of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), where immigrants were being warehoused for months and in some cases years at a time without explanation. Although I had read many articles and had discussions with several staff organizers about the various detention increases, it was striking to hear it all first-hand from someone with the lived experience. Suddenly all of the long days and short nights leading up to the organizing for the forum seemed to pale in comparison to these harrowing experiences. It was a good reminder of why we were all traveling down together and the importance of sharing our stories.

Besides the conversations, the other highlight on the way down had to be our breakfast stop at Cracker Barrel on Wednesday morning. We had resigned ourselves to the fact that we were unfortunately not going to make it on time for the opening march. While everyone sat down for pancakes and biscuits, I took the time to re-charge my phone on the outside deck in one of the many rocking chairs that seemed to be a staple of the Cracker Barrel franchise. No longer then five minutes into my stay, I was hit up by the grassroots outreach arm of some fundamentalist Christian sect who gave me “some important reading” which informed me I was to pay for my sins in the afterlife if in fact I did not “confess to my blasphemous lifestyle” and give myself to the lord. While not too into the propaganda, I had to confess that I was impressed by their hustle.

Atlanta Day One (Its getting hot in here…)

We knew the USSF was going to be hectic. Having experiences with conference organizing, my assumptions were that the organizers were going to be completely overwhelmed and that there would be a lot of logistical things that would inevitably fall through the cracks. When we were a few hours away we got a voice message from our friend and co-editor of Left Turn magazine, Rayan El-Amine, that the tabling situation at the civic center was a nightmare. The fire marshals had come and told the organizers that they were way over tabling capacity and that a large number of tables would have to be removed. When organizations started showing up with their materials they were being told that they would have to wait on several long lines to secure a spot, even if they had already registered and paid well beforehand. For us (Left Turn) this was a major problem, because besides the travel coordination and all of the sessions that we helped to pull together, tabling was going to be a major component of our stay in Atlanta. We had brought around 2,000 magazines that we needed to distribute along with boxes of t-shirts, books, dvd’s, and updated pamphlets and hand-outs. Left Turn was basically back to 0$ in the bank and we needed a solid week of tabling to ensure that our fall issue would hit the streets.

We were all staying at different places, and the bus drivers were not in the mood to accommodate our various stops. After the 20 hour ride down, we ended up unloading all of our luggage and boxes of magazines by the side of the road, two blocks away from the Civic Center in the hot Atlanta sun. Instead of being able to check into our hotel, get some food and rest up from the long trip, we had to go straight to the long registration line so that we could help Rayan with holding down a table. We got the word that after standing in line off an on for two days, that he had secured a great spot but there was still no table and he needed materials to save the space. From the registration lines we made our way to the tables and decided to do some tabling while we were there. Everyone was telling us how beautiful and spirited the opening march had been, with contingents representing from all over the US. We didn’t eat until after midnight that first night in Atlanta. We had missed the opening march, it was hot, we were exhausted, but we were happy to be there.

Atlanta Day Two (Moving the Movement)

The alarm clock woke us up with a jolt. No rest for the weary. We were at the first ever USSF and we were gonna make the most of it. We got to the tables at the Civic Center around 9am. Our friend Jordan who had come in with the (huge) New Orleans delegation, had been setting up for a little while and everything seemed under control. I scanned the (bit overwhelming) USSF program and found an interesting sounding 10:30am session that was right there in the Civic Center. The title was “Moving the Movement” and was organized by Grassroots Global Justice, one of the primary networks that helped bring the USSF together. For a second while we were re-arranging the chairs in the room I got scared that the title was meant more literally and that we were going to spend the session moving around the room like some of those Theatre of the Oppressed workshops (no disrespect to TOP-LAB, I was just in the mood for something else). The session ended up being exactly what I was hoping for and although it was basically a straight panel presentation (they wanted to break it down more, but ran out of time), it was engaging from start to finish (well until the guy from one of the Trotskyist sects stood up and informed us all of their platform—I actually left at that point). The presentation included some of the Social Forum’s main organizers (although really who is a main organizer when the event is so huge, it has to be a larger collective effort) representing organizations like Project South, The Miami Workers Center, South West Organizing Project, Labor/Community Strategies Center, and Grassroots Global Justice. They spoke candidly about the discussions behind the scenes and how the organizing for the forum eventually came together. Some of the points that really stuck out to me were:
  • Although there had been calls for several years to US organizations to organize their own regional Social Forum, the decision to organize one was put off until it seemed like there would be enough buy-in at the grassroots level to make it a real representative body.
  • Unlike some of the international Social Forums (speaking specifically of the World Social forums in Porto Allegre, Brazil), the USSF was a much more grassroots and bottom up initiative, not mediated through any major political parties or large international NGO’s
  • Funding was a big problem because forum organizers were explicitly not trying to get “the big organizations on board” (read: white organizations) and it was not until a few months ago that foundations started stepping forward with significant funding once, as one of the panelists put it, they realized “this thing was actually going to happen”
  • The main organizing committee for the USSF was 90% people of color
  • They are looking at a possible 2010 date for a second US Social Forum.

Several of the organizers also notably touched upon the “serious tensions” that were prevalent within the national organizing committee, although obviously did not go into much detail on this. Although I have heard different stories through the grapevine and could speculate on what these differences were, I will leave it to someone actually involved in that work to tell the story at some later point (and hopefully they will, because I think if done in a respectful way it would be very instructive). All in all, it was the perfect introductory workshop to the forum as a whole. The presentations on “Moving the Movement” and the discussions that followed painted a helpful background picture for the days that were to follow.

After a few hours of tabling, I was offered a ride by my friend Kristin to a workshop that I really wanted to attend but initially seemed to hard to get to. Although the organizers did a great job with finding so many locations for the over 1,000 workshops, there were some spaces that were very hard to get to and that if you tried, you would basically forfeit either the sessions before or afterwards in order to make it on time and not starve yourself in the process. The 3:30pm session was being organized by the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), an organization which I am a part time staff member of. The panel was titled “Intergenerational organizing” and featured a great line-up of older organizers (Ashanti Alston, Bob Wing, David Solnit) spanning all kinds of movements in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Alongside them were some of the new faces that were active in the new SDS (which in case you want to, you can support by clicking here—sorry it’s the fundraiser in me). The session went really well, it was nice to see such a variety of voices talk about what it meant to be in this movement for the long haul, and how to stay committed and healthy through all of the ups and downs.

After the session I got dropped off at the Westin hotel, where most of the Another Politics is Possible crew was staying. Our friend Paula from Sister II Sista had set up an informal meeting with organizers from the LA Garment Workers Center (GWC). The following morning was going to be our big “Another Politics is Possible” session co-sponsored by about 15 organizations and GWC had played a big role in envisioning what it was going to look like. On Saturday we were also going to be working together (Left Turn, INCITE!, GWC) on running a four hour session on “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded” so it was cool to hang out by the pool for a bit and talk a bit in person. Looking back I wished I had scheduled more time for more meetings like this with specific organizations, no matter how informal but with everyone’s hectic schedule it was just not meant to happen.

After some more tabling—which I personally always enjoy a lot because it allows you to really meet folks from all over the country and talk to them on a one on one basis in a way that is much harder inside the workshops or panels themselves—we got the word that it was about to rain. We were supposed to roll over to the Palestine tent for some food and music but it ended up coming down so hard that we decided to run into the car and head back to the hotel. After another late dinner we just passed out in our room and didn’t make it out to what I guess turned out to be quite the party sponsored by Ruckus Society, Bloc Network, and a host of other organizations. The following morning looking at all of the missed calls at 3am, I knew we had missed out, but as we were quickly learning—in Atlanta, you had to pick your battles and get your sleep where you could.

Atlanta Day Three (Another Politics…)

Up early again. Friday morning was the big day—our APP session was going down at 10:30am and besides being a bit of a trek to get to, we realized that most of Atlanta was just starting to wake up from a heavy night of dancing. Some of us were worried that the turnout would not be very good, especially in light of the fact that we had received a 400 person room for the session—it might look silly to have 50 people sitting there. The nerves quickly passed after seeing people streaming into the room to the sounds of bucket drums that folks from the Garment Workers Center had brought and our new Left Turn volunteer Nekoro was helping out with. In the spirit of creating a different kind of politics and an alternative to the panel style formats so prevalent at these things, we started off with music, handing out the following questions to the 200+ people who eventually came through the doors:

*Horizontalism:

How do you practice leadership development when you are trying to implement a horizontal structure and politics?


Many people say that “horizontalism,non-heirarchy,collective functioning sounds good but is it efficient”? Is it more of a luxury for folks who aren't experiencing immediate oppression and perhaps have more time? – how would you answer these critiques?

*Intersectionality:

How do you understand the idea of "intersectionality" and the way it relates to your work? How do put that into how you practice and build it into how you resist?

*Living the Vision:

When and how do you decide to make demands of and organize against dominant institutions, or build an alternative to that institutions?

When you say a principle is “living the vision”, what do you mean by this, how do you practice it and what are challenges in this practice?

*Larger Social Transformation:

Given the "new politics" that people are talking about, how does this change the methods of work: campaigns, organizational strategy? How does it change the way you think about broader social transformation?

What's the relationship of some of the politics we are trying to articulate and the broad revolutionary theories of socialism, anarchism etc.

After the small group discussions, we sat in a huge multi-layered circle as members from Sista II Sista, Workers Center, INCITE!, and Center for Immigrant Families spoke to some of the ideas that the questions had raised amongst their groups. After a lively discussion, we asked Ashanti Alston to close out the session for the final five minutes where he re-iterated the need to keep talking and thinking about the concept of Revolution itself and how important it was to “keep our eyes on the prize” even if our definitions of revolution and what the “prize” might actually look like kept changing. He was upset that no one on the closing plenary the night before (on War & Militarism) had even mentioned the “R” word and he was glad we were not afraid to keep talking about it. People came out of the session very inspired I think. Several people told me this was somewhat of a life-changing experience and that they had never seen a discussion like this organized in such a way with such sharp questions. As organizers, I think we all felt we could have done a few things differently but it seemed like most people were happy with how it went.

As we walked back from our session a few of us decided we would try and make it to the big: “Building Revolutionary Strategy and Organization in the 21st Century: A Multi-Generational Dialogue” which was organized by several of the remaining non-sectarian party building/pre-party building left groupings including; Freedom Road (OSCL), Solidarity, Labor Community Strategy Center & Bring the Ruckus (although BTR is more of an anti-authoritarian cadre formation). When I got there the session was packed. For some reason they had only given them a 75+ person room and there were well over a hundred people trying to squeeze in. Some friends of mine stayed around but I decided I couldn’t stand in one place against the wall for several hours so I left early. From what I heard the session went well and the discussion was friendly and principled, which is always a step in the right direction for the party building left. After grabbing my what seemed like my first lunch of the week, I headed back to the table to hang out with Left Turn folks who I had barely had a chance to see through the madness that was the USSF.

Weekend Comes (The social is the political…)

I think it was Mao Zedong who once said: “Revolution is not a dinner party”, but like a friend in Atlanta told me: “sometimes you gotta eat.” After running from workshop to workshop, facilitating a few sessions, meeting new people, engaging with new ideas, several of us realized that we would be missing out if we did not plan some more intentional hanging out with our friends who work on the magazine before it was all over. We made a plan to eat on Friday night and then again on Saturday. In the end, this probably ended up being the best part of the trip. Friday we found a great Caribbean restaurant which featured amazing (spicy) jerk chicken and a waiter who was out of this world. It was our first real (non fast food) meal in Atlanta and it was worth the wait.

As a national magazine with no staff and no money, we see each other once, maybe twice a year at most. The reliance on phone and often just email communication takes a toll on us over the course of a year, and we need to see each other in person just to re-affirm why we do the work we do at times. It was good to just be around everyone and remember how much I love to hang out with the Left Turn crew. I don’t know how we do it sometimes but even though we rarely see each other we have a very close relationship.

Towards the end of our meal, we were treated to a special guest appearance by our friends Kymberlie and Thomas who made the last minute trip from Texas with their beautiful five-month old Elliot Thomas Quong-Charles. After dinner we went to the Westin hotel and took advantange of their comfortable couches (though not their $10 drinks) as we talked until late in the night. It was around 2am that I realized that I was helping to facilitate a two-part, 4-hour session, on “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex” the following afternoon. Sleep would have to wait until the ride home.

Atlanta Day Four (is the US even necessary?....)

Saturday morning didn’t really start off the best way. After only a few hours of sleep I got ready for a 9am SDS meeting to talk about the weeklong Action Camps that we were organizing in August. Stepping out of the hotel, after pulling myself from a pleasant dream, I received a text message saying the meeting had been cancelled. Knowing that if I went back to sleep it would be twice as hard getting up later, I proceeded to home base over at the Civic Center and helped my partner Francesca get ready for a session that Left Turn helped put together on “Independent Media & Movement Building”.

From there I was off back to the Westin Hotel to hook up with Paula, Andy Smith (who later gave the talk of the USSF during the Gender & Sexuality plenary) & the Garment Workers Center crew for our 4 hour session on the NPIC. We had the feeling it might be a big turnout, but damn, organizers ended up having to put all sorts of fire code signs around the doors, even after we moved into a larger room. The space was packed, all of the bodies made the temperature even higher then it already was, and we were all pretty tired, but we huddled up and went over the game plan one more time. The first session was more of an introductory analysis of the “Non-Profit Industrial Complex” (please read the book, or order the amazing audio CD set from the 2004 conference here) with a traditional Q&A and the second session was a small group break out session where we came up with scenarios that the groups had to navigate in an effort to think outside of the “non-profit/foundation funded box”. Both sessions went really well, although there was one point of controversy towards the very end of the first session. During the Q&A, I was trying to navigate the seas of people who had their hands up and eventually an older black woman, who was a fairly well known tenant organizer from New York stood up and shouted at me that I was trying to exclude her and by extension a “Black Revolutionary Socialist Perspective” from the conversation. Although I personally disagreed, we let her shout at the room for about ten minutes during which she mixed in some important comments (her personal experiences of being iced out by foundations for being a militant black organizer from Harlem), along with ultra leftist rhetoric and personal insults. I had seen her do similar things around the New York area, but in this space people were confused as how to perceive her comments. Some folks came up to me afterwards and asked me about the situation and we had some interesting discussion but in the end I felt that unfortunately the speaker was not really interested in fruitful dialogue or pointing out some helpful critiques of the make-up of the speakers (which happened to be all people of color including Indigenous, Latin@, and Asian-American) with myself as the (white) moderator. After the two part session I was about ready for a long nap, but Andy was getting ready for her plenary talk so we decided to head over and hear her talk.

For those who have never heard Andy Smith speak, it is truly an experience. Numerous times she had the entire Civic Center auditorium on their feet, most notably when she said (paraphrasing here) “I saw the USSF slogan ‘Another world is possible, Another US is necessary’—but shouldn’t the real question be: ‘is the US even necessary?’ If our collective social justice imagination is only able to come up with a kinder and gentler US, we have failed as a movement.” The Gender & Sexuality panel had some amazing speakers on it, and it was actually the only one where I stayed for the entire thing, but as my friend Tej pointed out to us, it was unfortunate that with all of these great speakers on the evening panels there was not more discussion of some of the amazing work being done around the US and the kinds of coalitions, networks and organizations that have been able to make progress on a variety of issues. Perhaps the discussions could have focused more on some concrete alternatives or uplifting stories from some of the many communities represented throughout the Social Forum. In my humble opinion, the whole concept of the nightly panels could have been thought through a bit more and the USSF organizers might have used the opportunity of the large evening gatherings in a more cohesive way, but that would be one of my few critiques for the folks who did just an incredible job with the whole week.

Closing night (And after the party it’s the hotel lobby….)

Saturday night was our last night and although we had to wake up around 6am to catch our 20 hour bus back to New York City, we decided to go the “you only live once” route and made the most of it. After dinner & drinks in the comfortable Westin hotel lobby (staying true to the grassroots, we snuck both our food and our bottles inside), we headed up to the pool party which was being thrown by the APP crew for all of the childcare volunteers and mothers who wanted to have one nice relaxing evening before heading back. When we got up to the pool we saw that the police had just been called and so we left for the big New Orleans delegation party which was happening in the Hilton hotel (the whole thing with the fancy hotels was obviously a bit strange and a story for another day). It seemed like everyone we had met throughout the course of the week was right there in one place, it was a nice way to close everything out. After some drinks and some sweaty dancing, we said our goodbyes to everyone we might not be seeing for a while (or at least not until 2010 – USSF part II... the remix) and headed back to the hotel one last time.

I wont bore everyone with the story of what happened to our bus on the way back home, but just some final thoughts I hope others will explore in future (more concise) report backs other then this one.

- The Children’s Social forum was amazing and a truly inspiring model for future conferences/gatherings/meetings large or small. A huge thank you to all of the childcare volunteers who were running around all weekend!

- The unfortunate situation with the Ida B. Wells Media Justice Center and its marginalization throughout the USSF. Another sign of the ongoing struggle to get independent media recognized as the important force that it can be within our movements and organizations.

- The closing plenary, and the proposal and plans coming out of it, specifically the calls for coordinated days of action and future local social forums which various regions have already been experimenting with. Is there anyone who can clearly explain this process?

- I know for younger organizations (both in terms of membership age and how many years the organization has existed) like the new SDS, the USSF provided the ideal space for more face-to-face connections and relationship building. How did other organizations take advantage of this event, were they able to balance their own meetings and gatherings with the crazy-ness that was the USSF or did it just make the whole thing a bit too overwhelming?

And finally, thanks to everyone who had the patience to read this (way too long) report back, thanks to Tej & Francesca who worked really hard to make the trip as smooth as possible, and a big thanks to the War Resisters League for recognizing the importance of this event and helping to support the delegation.

PS. - for everyone who attended the USSF, please take a moment to fill out your feedback/evaluation forms


Max Uhlenbeck is a member of the Left Turn editorial collective, and a national organizer with Students for a Democratic Society (www.newsds.org) who works and lives in New York City.

5 comments:

Andrew said...

Thanks for your account, Max! Its not too long at all. It was nice to read a personal account of how it all came together.

You guys rule for the huge amount of work you put into it. Sounds like it was well worth it. I'm so bummed I couldn't make it and help out! The union campaign is going well, though.

see you soon!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to write this up, Max. As usual, your reflections are really useful. Since I couldn't be at the USSF, I've been looking for things just like this to give me a better perspective.

Best,
Chris

sadie said...

good account, Max! I'm posting a link on the Heads up blog, hope that's ok...

--Rahula

max said...

Hey Rahula!

by all means, link away...

mor::pho said...

max,

thanks for the in depth thoughtful consistently coherent account. i've had so much other stuff to do since getting back i am only now getting all my parallel processors up and running to even begin to digest what i experienced in atlanta much less "all that happened". a few comments:

-mucho kudos to yr delegation and the way ya'll organized it with the bus and the childcare and so forth
i was one of the those suckers on a plane though as it happened on the way down it was with 31 members from CVH , anarchists from boston and a fellow union member and on the way back i was all set to relax with some folks in my union but when i ended up helping out this lady with two young kids who was in desperate need of some USSF solidarity!

-i had never heard andy smith speak before. i am still stunned. i must of jumped to my feet more than five times--i never jump to my feet for plenaries, i mean come on, but i could not stop myself. it was ridiculous. she was so on point, so concise, so powerful on so many levels (anti state but bringing the critique of heteropatriarchy to the center of our analysis) and on and on. and the speaker after her was truly tremendous as well (on "able-ism")

anyway, there is much more to say and write but let's continue the conversation at the july 25th event at brecht and elsewhere. the USSF has laced the twisted US political landscape with some seriously potent possibilities and it will take much coordination to unravel those knots .
in solidarity, mike menser