At Atlanta’s U.S. Social Forum, Progressives Plan for Peace and Protests

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From June 27 to July 1, more than 10,000 grassroots organizers gathered in Atlanta under the banner ‘Another World is Possible, Another U.S. is Necessary.’

By noon, Atlanta’s downtown Civic Center is already packed. Weary from the blistering heat, yet sparked by boundless enthusiasm, thousands of people from across the country mingle. They smile, shake hands, exchange flyers, political buttons, and e-mail addresses as they move through an endless array of tables and booths, each showcasing a different movement or cause.

A tall, middle-aged black man approaches a table staffed by Freedom Road Socialist Organization. He recognizes an old friend from his hometown of Chicago and greets her with an embrace. Already attracting a crowd, he describes a litany of social justice issues he’s working on, people he’s met, and recent political rallies he’s organized. Condemning the poverty, racism, and police terrorism he says plague this nation, his booming voice issues a call to action for the crowd gathered around him.

“We need a revolution in this country!” The people around him people cheer, mesmerized.

Word spreads quickly in the crowd that this man is Fred Hampton Jr., son of the famous Black Panther who was gunned down by Chicago police while he slept on December 4, 1969. He has followed in his father’s footsteps as a community organizer, as chairman of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, and as the current president of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee. After a twenty minute impromptu speech at the Freedom Road booth, dozens linger in hopes of shaking his hand. Emerging activists of all ages and backgrounds have crossed paths with a legend.

It was exactly the kind of scene one might have expected to encounter at the first ever U.S. Social Forum. From June 27 to July 1, more than 10,000 grassroots organizers gathered in Atlanta under the banner “Another World is Possible, Another U.S. is Necessary.”

Many Twin Cities residents attended the conference, in part to announce and gain support for a massive anti-war protest in St. Paul on Sept. 1, 2008. Planned to coincide with the first day of the Republican National Convention, it will likely be the biggest street demonstration Minnesota has ever seen.

The U.S. Social Forum (USSF) is an outgrowth of the World Social Forum, which first met in Brazil in 2001. It became an annual event hosting up to 100,000 people while providing a platform to discuss alternatives to capitalist globalization as implemented by the World Economic Forum. The Social Forum in Atlanta was organized by a national coalition of social, economic, and environmental justice activists as a reaction to the war and oppression they see the United States engaging in at home and abroad. The goal of the USSF is to provide a space for networking, planning, analysis and renewed activism.

The Social Forum began with a 10,000-strong march through the streets of Atlanta. People came from all 50 states and 400 international guests represented 70 countries and virtually every progressive struggle in the world today. At least 60 percent were under age 30; more than half were people of color and about half were women.

Alice Lovelace, an Atlanta-based civil rights activist, poet, and lead staff organizer for the USSF, described the structure of the conference on Democracy Now, an independent news radio program. “We had 950 sessions that were submitted by people attending,” she said. “There were another 200 to 300 that were organized on the spot, what we call ‘open spaces,’ so the agenda is built by the people who come. People find it’s very useful for networking.”

The forum had six areas of focus: Gulf Coast Reconstruction, Militarism and the Prison Industrial Complex, Indigenous Voices, Immigrant Rights, Liberating Gender and Sexuality and Worker’s Rights in the Global Economy. Lovelace explained why the event’s organizers chose Atlanta for the forum.

“Atlanta was a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, which was a very successful convergence of movements from labor, education, healthcare, grassroots,” she said. “It was a bottom-up movement that ended in successful change. We wanted to stand on the shoulders of something great to demonstrate that we can succeed again.”

Nearly 100 Minnesotans attended the USSF including Jess Sundin, of the Anti-War Committee.

“The scale of the Social Forum is hard to comprehend,” she said. “Imagine over 900 workshops squeezed into just three days. It’s really social in every sense of the word. One morning I met a girl who lives in an intentional faith community called Sojourners in D.C. Then I met a man fresh off the plane from Harlem who works to end racism and does independent radio. Just walking down the sidewalk I met a South African working in Atlanta on AIDS research who will be off to Connecticut next week as part of his training. The USSF badge sparked a lot of conversations. Because and in spite of that, I wore it everywhere I went.”

Sundin attended the Peace Caucus and participated in drafting a Citizen’s Peace Plan to end the U.S. war on Iraq. Points of unity included immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops, sufficient payment for reconstruction and reparations, and words rather than war with Iran. Sergeant Jabbar Magruder, of Iraq Veterans Against the War, spoke about the spectrum of resistance available, even to men and women still serving.

“Soldiers are indoctrinated with the idea that they defend freedom, but they don’t practice it, “Magruder said. “We need everyone resisting this war from the soldier on the battlefield to the grandmother at the grocery store.”

Collective resistance was a popular idea at the USSF, especially at the “March on the RNC” workshop. Led by Sundin, the session focused on plans already underway for protesting the Republican National Convention when it comes to St. Paul in September 2008. Fifty people attended the workshop, including Twin Cities activists from the immigrant rights movement, the welfare rights struggle and organized labor. Sundin described their efforts as successful.

“Besides the workshop, we distributed 1500 flyers about the RNC protest,” she said. “I’ve got names of people from around the country who have great ideas and want to help out. Attending the Social Forum was a great opportunity to move forward, and we plan to do just that.”

Those attending the USSF hope the networking, brainstorming, and strategizing they engaged in will sustain their local activism and give birth to a stronger, more united social justice movement in the United States.

South African poet Dennis Brutus shared his post-conference thoughts on Democracy Now.

“I was very impressed,” Brutus said. “Many people in other countries talk of the U.S. as the ‘belly of the beast’ because it’s often where the oppressive process begins. But that’s only half the story, because there are so many people in the United States who are challenging that.”

Brutus was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela for his anti-apartheid work and is a veteran of several World Social Forums. “I feel a great kinship with these people,” he said. “We’re trying to discover humane values, not to despair, not to resort to violence, and achieve a kind of social justice by persuasion, by organization, mobilizing. Atlanta was a wonderful example of this process at work.”

Katrina Plotz is a Twin Cities-based free-lance writer.