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.