Imagine a racism workshop–not a touchy-feely “prejudice reduction” workshop but an all-out emotional and cathartic conversation on race. Now imagine a church service–not a solemn devotion but the kind of rocking, joyous communion that shakes the floorboards. Now imagine, lofted above the congregation, a sea of protest banners. The orations are secular; the pulpit is political.

This pretty much captures the spirit that dominated the first US Social Forum, held in Atlanta June 27-July 1. Having appropriately fine-tuned the World Social Forum motto to fit the host country (“Another World Is Possible, Another US Is Necessary”), this gathering– with more than 900 workshops conducted in the Atlanta Civic Center, local hotels and theaters, and drawing some 12,000 registered attendees–made only partial concession to dry political strategy; it was a locus of progressive dreams and activist chutzpah.

“Our national dilemma today is not technological retardation but moral deficiency. We have a moral deficiency in establishing priorities when putting our technological advances to work for the common good,” said iconic civil rights activist Joseph Lowery at the opening-day march. The crowd left from the State Capitol and wound down Peachtree Street, the main business thoroughfare of the city, as bankers, clerks and secretaries gathered on steps and watched in wonder. A crowd of a couple thousand was a rare display, even in a city accustomed to conferences and rallies. Lowery had positioned the spirit of the marchers vis-à-vis the American Republic to a T: The problem was the need for an America less stingy, less conceited and altogether less thuggish.

The Civic Center sits blocks away from Task Force for the Homeless, which was also the site of a forum-sponsored art exhibit. The visibility of the homeless was much commented upon; invisible, however, were Atlanta public officials. The only Democratic presidential candidate to send representatives was Dennis Kucinich–who supports and in fact co-wrote universal healthcare reform bill HR 676, which was touted by several activist groups. The opening parade was too big a spectacle to be ignored by the press, but thereafter, the forum disappeared from the media, apart from a few rather trivializing articles.

What did it mean to sponsor a social forum in the United States–in the city of Martin Luther King Jr., but also in the heart of conservative Dixie? In Georgia, a state with heinous immigration policies? What the national media missed was that this meeting was big news among America’s grassroots organizers, who focused on issues such as immigration, gentrification, homelessness and prison reform.

It was commented on from the first day that the US forum was different from previous World Social Forums. There was a notable absence of political scientists, philosophers, policy heads and large NGOs. While all fifty states and several countries were represented, the largest US contingents came from the Southeast and Southwest. There was a large Latino contingent, and most sessions at the forum were translated from English into Spanish, or vice versa. Hundreds of participants arrived via the “Freedom Caravan,” commemorating the civil rights Freedom Rides of 1961. Buses that began in Albuquerque linked with others in Texas, the ravaged Gulf Coast and historic points in the Deep South such as Selma, Alabama, symbolically connecting the Gulf Coast with other seminal places in activist history.

A considerable number of attendees had never been to a World Social Forum–and often expressed scant familiarity with those gatherings. Most said they were in Atlanta to support a local group that practiced “bottom up” organizing. The workshops on antiglobalization and other world issues were accompanied by US-specific workshops on resisting the privatization of schools, building a black-Latino coalition and finding alternatives to foundation support, as well as a slew conducted by or addressing the concerns of hip-hop enthusiasts.

Nation-specific social forums are not new. The process initiated in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001 has already led to national and regional social forums throughout Europe and Latin America. According to researchers Jennifer Hadden and Sidney Tarrow, “In Italy alone, one of us found hundreds of local and regional social forums.” Yet social forums have received relatively little publicity in the United States, and for the first few years at least, relatively few US citizens participated in the world conclaves. This is ironic, considering that the anti-WTO protest of 1999, familiarly known as the Battle in Seattle, was the major impetus behind the initiation of the social forums–the five-day gatherings being a “positive” alternative to anti-WTO agitation.

The WSF International Counsel began talking with US activists about a US event as far back as 2003. Grassroots Global Justice, a California group that focuses on US trade policy, was integral to those early discussions. Executive director Michael Leon Guerrero remembers, “We saw that it was very important that grassroots efforts taking place in the United States receive more visibility in the international community…. Many of our colleagues in other parts of the world have little knowledge of conditions here, and they often do not know there are organizations working for social change here. But we thought it best at that time to delay a US forum. We found that the level of understanding wasn’t high enough. We were getting too many questions like, How will this be different from any other conference?”

Eventually, a date was set for a US Social Forum: the summer of 2006. An organizing committee accepted bids from grassroots groups throughout the country; the finalists were Albuquerque, San Francisco and Atlanta. “I think we were swayed by Atlanta primarily for moral reasons,” remembers Guerrero. Project South of Atlanta became the lead USSF administrator. “We fought for it,” says Jerome Scott of Project South. “The South bears a legacy of slavery and oppression, but also a legacy of resistance that no one can deny. There’s no place better than the South to show that we can be–that we deserve to be–a part of the Global South.”

Then Katrina struck. The floodwaters that demolished the Gulf Coast in 2005 stole the energies of numerous grassroots organizations. In particular, Project South was overwhelmed by its own relief work with Katrina refugees displaced in Atlanta. Walda Katz Fishman of Project South anticipated the first US Social Forum as the place “to start connecting the dots of a US justice movement–something visible, something national. We have allies worldwide, but you can’t go from being local to global. First, you’ve got to be national. We did some tough wrangling over the decision to delay it, but I think it was necessary.”

“Katrina still hurts,” said an audience member at the Gulf Coast plenary. If the workshops were the nuts and bolts of the forum, the plenaries were the Oprah Winfrey version, charged and emotional auditorium gatherings. However, the Katrina panel, which included speakers on the black-brown coalition, marked a register of emotional turmoil that exceeded that of any protest at the USSF against the Iraq War. Panelist after panelist accused the government of indifference, racism, exploiting the hurricane as a gentrification scheme; some went so far as to use the words “murder” and even “genocide.”

No wonder the Gulf Coast plenary brought many audience members to tears. There were a number of Katrina warriors and veterans in the crowd; many belonged to groups that still have tentacles on the Gulf or that counsel Katrina refugees in their own communities. The decimation of the coast and its reconstruction affect the issues that grassroots activists take most personally, and see as their own: housing, healthcare, gentrification, community rights, wages and workers’ rights.

Doubtless the disaster would be much worse without their efforts. There is nonetheless a sense of having failed to promote the cause of Katrina survivors. The country still has not confronted the implications of having several hundred thousand former Gulf Coast residents displaced and scattered across the country–largely because of government neglect of the levees–while in many cases their home communities are being gentrified. From a bird’s-eye view, Gulf Coast “reconstruction” looks a lot like homegrown neoliberalism.

The plenary discussion on a potential black-Latino coalition reached a climax when Daniel Castellanos of the Alliance for Guest Workers for Dignity described his journey from impoverishment in Peru to substandard employment in New Orleans. “I saw so many African-Americans, and I asked, Why aren’t they getting this work?” he said. Then a dramatic pause. Instead of a lecture on how Bush’s post-Katrina suspension of worker protections resulted in an influx of cheap immigrant labor, he delivered the big picture: “It’s very clear. They want us to fight–they want the African-American and Latino communities to fight!” The crowd erupted in chants of approval.

The USSF may have been at its strongest in workshops combining information, practical experience and a human touch. Colin Rajah of the National Network of Immigrant Rights conducted a workshop titled “Trade and Migration: Exploring the Intersection of Trade and Immigration Policies.” Rajah’s lecture on free-trade economics was accompanied by live testimonials from “NAFTA survivors.” Says Rajah, “Even though we have different groups looking at trade and immigration issues, they are interlinked in a US foreign policy that seeks to accomplish two things: to open up markets and control those markets and, second, to manage and control the immigrant labor flow. I work for an immigrant rights organization, but to do my work effectively I need to be very savvy about trade policy. Trade and immigration work together to create a funnel effect, regulating the immigrant flow in ways that benefit multinational corporations. It’s not coincidental that Operation Gatekeeper [the 1994 security initiative that fenced the US-Mexico border near San Diego] and NAFTA were implemented months apart.” Testimonials that made the human impact of free-trade policies on immigrants real were provided by (among others) a former employee of a sweatshop operated by Levi Strauss before the company outsourced to China and a representative of a coalition of immigrant tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, who led a successful protest for wages and health benefits against Taco Bell. “The real solution is to look at trade and immigration patterns together,” says Rajah.

If by some miracle the USSF did receive widespread media attention–if, say, every plenary were broadcast on national TV–would it galvanize a hidden majority of closet or disenfranchised radicals? Or would the rhetorical excesses of aspects of the forum provoke dismay, or laughter? Social forums could be called “orgies of idealism,” and thus would be easy to mock. But the few forum-related articles in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution were characterized less by condescension than simple befuddlement. “Marchers Take Beefs to the Streets,” ran the headline of a June 28 article that detailed few of their “beefs” in particular. A confusing article published during the forum began, “Karl Marx…held court Thursday night…at the US Social Forum” (the sixth paragraph finally explained that Marx was an actor in a performance), and summed up the week’s events as “a Woodstock for the globally conscious set, sans drugs.”

In addition to potential scoffing from without, there were treacherous fault lines within. Candido Grzybowski, one of the original founders of the World Social Forum, who now sits on the WSF International Council, said efforts to encourage groups to combine workshops often merely resulted in “two workshops in the same room,” an apt metaphor for the doggedness and insularity of activists who, accustomed to oppositional stances, are often loath to compromise. The agendas that make up social forums do compete–for attention. The forum itself is left of center, but where is the center of the forum? At the final plenary Native American activists were insulted when time limitations resulted in a speaker being cut short. In the context of the forum–a space for dialogue on race, justice and stories of oppression–the move struck the first Americans as hugely symbolic. They reacted by flooding the stage and performing a healing ritual. The conflict was resolved; in fact, it was resolved with admirable grace. But the incident underscores the problems of building a movement between spheres of regional activism and among oppressed communities.

That said, there was a freshness to the USSF. It was a coming together of activists who operate under the radar in the United States, who brought something new to the table: an army of small organizations devoted to their communities, whose efforts rarely make the evening news, acting locally but (potentially) connecting globally. The atmosphere was distinctly “hands on” and tutorial–political science and strategy took a back seat to insider knowledge. For instance, the Ruckus Society conducted workshops on violent and nonviolent protest, including one on “Blockades: How to Effectively Hold Your Ground,” just as other groups conducted workshops on maneuvering through the criminal justice system, the practical minutiae of voter organizing, immigrant organizing and resisting college military recruitment programs. There was an identifiable thrust behind the workshops considered as a whole: Teach organizing techniques that participants can then take home and use in their own communities.

It helped–greatly–that the planning and implementation of the USSF was a model of multicultural cooperation. The majority of the administrative personnel as well as the plenary speakers were women and people of color. It was not an environment where activists and minorities were lectured to by “others”–scholars, whites, representatives of establishment NGOs. “Where was the color in Seattle?” was a common joke that parodied the 1999 Battle in Seattle, implying that antiglobalization activism and its offshoots were the domain of a privileged white middle class. The USSF reversed that impression, bringing white activists initially inspired by the WTO protests together with radicalized blacks, Latinos and indigenous Americans.

The USSF won the respect of the participants by mirroring their own grassroots efforts. It was funded with a $900,000 budget–peanuts in today’s world–from sponsors, donors and registration fees, and it depended largely on the volunteer efforts of grassroots groups. For most of the implementation stage, the forum employed only three full-time staffers. If the seventh World Social Forum, held in Nairobi this past January, was by some accounts corrupted by commercial sponsors, the USSF was smaller, humbler and underfunded, but also untainted.

Although much ire at the gathering was directed against the United States, American pragmatism was in evidence in Atlanta. World Social Forums have been called confusing; in Atlanta the forum provided a space in which groups were able to make the connections they needed without the burden of having to sign off on every agenda or defend every plenary statement. The spirit of community and the welding of alliances was encouraging. “A disappointment of the grassroots left was that while there was a big response to Katrina, it wasn’t an organized response,” says Guerrero of Grassroots Global Justice. “If Hurricane Katrina hit today, the response would be very different. From all the relationships that have developed here in terms of communication, infrastructure, the feeling of solidarity, we could put out a general call and create a unified response. This forum has created a different situation; there could be a much higher level of coordination.”

A number of groups concerned with housing and urban issues decided to coordinate their efforts and drew up a collective “Right to the City.” Thirteen domestic workers’ rights organizations from various parts of the country (New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco) voted to form a domestic workers’ alliance. “We have those regions in our domestic workers’ alliance thus far. And we know of other cities where organizing is happening. We’re hoping our example will inspire them,” says Ai-jen Poo of Domestic Workers United.

This is movement–perhaps not “a movement” but movement-building. The best that interested parties can do now is find ways to facilitate and sustain those links until the next US Social Forum, in 2010.