From Protest To Politics | The Nation


From Protest To Politics

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Bringing It All Back Home

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

At last year's WSF there was a constant buzz about the conspicuous absence of US delegates--there was only a sprinkling of US attendees. But this year's event drew more than 400 stateside representatives, making the US delegation the fifth-largest. The AFL-CIO sent a small but high-level group headed by federation executive vice president Linda Chavez Thompson. And president John Sweeney electrified the crowd at the opening-night celebration with a live satellite video greeting from the New York City street protests against the World Economic Forum.

Labor-backed Jobs With Justice (JWJ), working with other Washington-based groups, put together a "New Voices" delegation of about forty frontline community activists, ranging from members of a Communications Workers local in Massachusetts to Southwestern environmentalists, immigrant textile workers and Florida healthcare organizers. "Up to now I haven't been involved in the antiglobalization campaigns," said an ebullient Tracy Yassini, development director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which has fought effectively for a living wage and union rights. "But coming out of this forum, now I feel I have an obligation to get linked up."

Overall, the Americans kept a low profile in the forum, deferring to the Europeans and Latin Americans, who were recognized as being vastly more experienced in building oppositional social and political movements. But they were treated with respect: Superstar attention was lavished on Chomsky, and Americans Lori Wallach from Public Citizen and Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies were on headliner panels.

There seemed to be a general notion among the Americans present that they were at a decisive moment: that in the post-Seattle rush, the movement's tactics had started running way ahead of its strategy, that protest was supplanting politics and that it was time to re-evaluate. "Seattle brought us visibility," said one organizer. "But it also brought so many people at once into the movement that our goals got muddied. Leadership got weakened and dispersed. We've actually lost much of the initiative in the past year and a half." The next stage, suggest some delegates, is to dig in. "It's ever clearer that this can't be a movement of hops from one summit to another," said JWJ executive director Fred Azcarate. "It's going to be a very long haul."

It would be disingenuous to deny that the US movement faces serious roadblocks. The blue-green coalition has frayed, and tension between much of organized labor and the rest of the movement is real. "The biggest problem inside the Seattle coalition isn't the war," said one key US activist. "The problem is around those who want to use violence. The post-9/11 labor movement doesn't want its rank and file to see its leaders in street demonstrations that turn violent. Labor is simply no longer on board for any ambiguity." Bad blood is also brewing around the Bush Administration's energy policy. The Teamsters, Mine Workers and building-trades unions support the White House on proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (as does the AFL-CIO in a more nominal way); nowadays their reps won't sit in some meetings with the Sierra Club, which opposes expanded drilling.

Some Teamster/turtle channels remain open. And in spite of the differences, work proceeds on several common projects. Public Citizen's Wallach is confident that coming out of Porto Alegre, and with the nonlabor part of the movement better focused, the coalition will be reinforced. "We have too much in common not to keep working together," she said.

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