At first sight, the only applicable description of the first US Social Forum would be chaos. Utterly overwhelming. Ten thousand people mill about the Atlanta Civic Center and its environs, trying to choose between dozens of workshops, issue-themed tents, merchandise and information tables, meetings, and plain old socializing.
It is a scene perhaps best captured in fragments rather than full sentences. Organizers. Housing. Immigrant workers. Vision. Prison abolition. Puppets. Speeches, newspapers, fliers, banners, flags, books, shirts. Laughter. Dance parties. Water. Media. Fundraisers. Collaboration. Resisting state and interpersonal violence. Imagining.
Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, ghetto, barrio, reservation. The city. Youth. Networking. Strategy.
It is people running into old friends from across the country as they roll into Atlanta in buses from the Southwest to the Northeast. It is the sweaty hugs and warm handshakes of new friends collaborating on old projects, of people meeting others doing the exact same work across the country or complimentary work across town. It is a place of impassioned and often impromptu speeches. Spirited marches, ad hoc press conferences, and clever street theater seem as ubiquitous as the 1,000 panels taking place. The social forum is a gathering of veterans–of wars and of movements.
The forum can easily feel like just another conference, only supersized. The schmoozing, the talking heads, the exchanging of cards and brochures–it’s all here, just on a bigger scale. People trying to call attention to their cause or organization pass out flyers announcing the workshops they are organizing. There are many different workshop tracks to choose from, both from themes the forum organizers decided upon or the self-organized tracks groups have collaborated on to organize. It would be easy to pick a track and only see people interested in workers rights, urban community organizing, Palestine, transformative justice, or rebuilding the Gulf Coast. In that, the Social Forum is a conference of conferences for a movement of movements.
A bird’s eye view of the social forum would reveal an energy and excitement for something more. That desire is not just for an alternative to the Bush regime’s sinking ship. At its best, the desire stretches for a new way of conducting politics and social movement based on but not duplicative of what has come before. It is a call to build a left that is grassroots and democratic, visionary and strategic, a left that manages to have unity without sacrificing its political principles. If, as the World Social Forum slogan puts it, Another World Is Possible, the US Social Forum proclaims that Another US is Necessary.
There are surely problems: the pockets of people for whom politics consists of haranguing the public with conspiracy theories or tired ideas of Bolshevism. More pressing is the propensity for the forum’s size and excitement to outpace its ability. While less so than forums in the resource-strapped Global South, the US Social Forum is not exempt from the confusion of facilitators without panels or panels without rooms. The Ida B. Wells Media Justice Center has provided an impressive model of collaborative journalism, but its community newsroom started out in what seemed like a bathroom closet. The competition for, or at least confusion over, space and attention is apparent–even if it takes place in an atmosphere of inspiring cooperation.
The necessity for another America, one that, in Langston Hughes’ famous words, has never existed, permeates the forum. Indeed, the forum is in no short supply of proscriptions for a radical remaking of this country, and therefore the world. Panel after panel, table after table, conversation after conversation, meeting after meeting–each one makes apparent the need for another society, and what the ingredients of it must be. A sometimes too-quick-to-applaud audience cheers on as speakers denounce injustice and celebrate what Martin Luther King once described as a revolution in values.
The energy is kinetic and infective. Still, the real test is not what happens here but what emerges from it. And there are already reasons to hope: numerous urban community organizing groups from across the country sponsored a workshop track, parties, and meetings to solidify a Right to the City network. Under the auspices of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the marginalized left voices within the immigrant rights movement had a chance to make their position known through workshops and a national press conference. A pre-forum gathering sponsored by Queers for Economic Justice and Southerners on New Ground took first steps toward building the infrastructure for a Queer Left, while another pre-forum gathering–strengthened throughout the week–brought together queer, feminist, and antiracist groups to envision solutions to state and interpersonal violence that don’t involve the sprawling prison-industrial complex.
These examples show that a mass movement is slowly beginning to cohere. It is far too early to predict its success, failure, or specific forms. But the forum presents a picture of movements in motion, a chance to glimpse and above all participate in building the world we want to see. After years of patient organizing, the grassroots centers of social movements are beginning to burst through soil corroded by years of neo-liberalism and an impoverished dominant political culture. The consciousness, vision, and strategy emanating from the social forum is uneven and developing–and it may just be our best hope to have both democratic processes and liberating politics.