Amid the austere architecture of collapse that describes most of this city’s East Side, one block of Heidelberg Street stands out. Brightly colored polka dots adorn the houses. Shopping carts and crucified teddy bears climb the trunk of a limbless tree. Faces with multiple rows of teeth grin forth from sheets of plywood, some of them inscribed with the cryptic words "God," "War," "Police" and "1967"—the year of the uprising of discontent (riot, if you prefer) that left forty-three people dead and more than 1,000 injured.
The Heidelberg Project, as it is called, is the creation of one Tyree Guyton, who with help from his family and later from other local artists gathered cast-off junk in a cast-off city and turned it into something at once painful and beautiful. At its best, the US Social Forum, the gathering of activists and organizers convened three miles away in downtown, felt a bit like Guyton’s polka-dotted vision: some scarred, slender hope emerging from the ashes, anomie and oil-slicked debris of American political life.
From the June 22 march that kicked off the Forum—at which a diverse crowd of several thousand drummed and danced their way through Detroit’s empty streets—to the more than 1,000 workshops spread around town, the mood was relentlessly cheerful. For five packed days, activists who are embattled all year long could be happy for one another’s company. Their high spirits, though, were everywhere shadowed by a multitude of crises that extend far beyond mass unemployment and foreclosures. Outside the glass walls of the riverside Cobo convention center were two wars, a rising know-nothing movement, politicians who respond to growing poverty by cutting assistance to the poor, a virulent racism spreading north from the Southern border, an entire coastline laid waste by corporate plunder and a putatively progressive president who misses few opportunities to kneel before the wealthy.
Detroit’s was the second US Social Forum. The first was held in Atlanta in 2007 as an extension of the World Social Forum, the convening of the global left held annually since 2001, most often in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The idea was to provide a space where organizers and activists on the grassroots left could exchange ideas and tactics and collaborate to craft a broader strategy. "The movement in the US is at such a low level," says Jerome Scott, one of the key organizers of the 2007 conference, "that we can’t afford to pull together all this effort and not have it be about movement building."
The various national crises appear to be helping out. About 18,000 people showed up in Detroit, 7,000 more than turned out in Atlanta. This despite a near-complete media blackout; Venezuela’s TeleSur and Al Jazeera English were the only major news organizations in attendance. Political bents ranged from progressive Democrat to Trotskyite. Unions and major liberal nonprofits—the media face of what gets called the American left—were largely absent, which meant that attendees were that much less likely to be white or even middle-class. Detroit’s crowd was by all accounts far younger than Atlanta’s—surely a good sign. Together, the Forum-goers formed a snapshot of the state of grassroots activism in the age of Obama, and of the full-spectrum emergency to which activists have been forced to respond.