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Bringing It Back Home, Building the 2007 US Social Forum

By: 
Eric Tang
Date Published: 
February 01, 2007

It’s true enough that US-based activists and organizers lucky enough to travel tend to leave their hearts in different corners of the globe. For some it was Cuba for the World Youth Summit, for others that trip down to Chiapas, Mexico. Perhaps it was the World Social Forums of Brazil and Mumbai? For me, it was Durban, South Africa, during the first week of September 2001. Two weeks before the twin towers were eviscerated, thousands of activists from across the globe gathered in Durban to participate in the World Conference Against Racism. It seemed a time for hope and optimism, but no sooner had we returned from the conference than the post 9-11 era began.

How different the world looks now. Indeed, five years later, it seems only wise that we keep our hearts elsewhere—anywhere but in a country that has ignited a bloody occupation and civil war in Iraq; that condones tortures and dismantles habeas corpus; that literally hunts the migrant poor on its borders; and that sits backs idly as hundreds of African American poor die in a massive flood that could have been prevented. In this context, looking to the international arena for inspiration seems understandable. But, sooner or later, globetrotting wears thin. And it can never overtake the importance of engaging in transformative struggle where one lives. It’s time to bring it back home. It’s time for the United States Social Forum (USSF).

From June 27 thru July 1, the city of Atlanta will play host to the first USSF, an official regional conference of the World Social Forum (WSF). It will be an unprecedented gathering of the social-movement left in the United States, certainly the first of its kind in the post 9-11 period. What’s more, it’s the only one of its kind that emerges from an international mandate—our allies of the global south have made this modest request of us: Take care of your own house.

Upon arriving in Atlanta, one can expect to see a wide cross section of the US grassroots movements: labor unions, environmental justice organizations, criminal-justice reform groups, immigrant rights and racial justice organizations, women of color and LGBT groups, youth organizations, and many more. It will be a vast ecumenical gathering, with some groups and movements invested in the radical transformation of the state while others promulgate an alternative path to power: community autonomy, non-state-centered liberation. This can give off the immediate impression of something far too broad for its own good. And, to be sure, the WSF has long been criticized for being politically vacuous; its detractors claim that sharp political differences are often overlooked—everyone gets along so well that little actually gets done. Yet such a criticism bespeaks a misunderstanding on how to transform difference into effective political strategy.

The Social Forum process is not so much about putting aside differences, as it is about placing them at the center—of bringing whole movements and whole selves to the table. From here, rather than reduce the political agenda to the vagueness of “common ground,” the Social Forum allows for the kind of tactical cross fertilization that has been sorely lacking among the social-justice left for far too long. At the Social Forum, strategically building the left transcends the either/or choice—either the left focuses on the electorate or it takes it to the streets, either it builds national organizing infrastructure or it focuses on building the power of the local base, and so on.

At the USSF, we should look forward to a politics of “both/and.” We can both build our local movements and acknowledge that we belong to something resembling a national trend—or even a movement. We can both fight for the radical reforms in the sate or private sector and engage in the work of “living the vision” through non-state centered autonomy: building cooperatives, establishing autonomous community institutions, and developing modes of mutual accountability. And we can be deliberate, even prescriptive, in offering a step-by-step plan to build the left while at the same time recognizing that the blueprint is always beholden to what we can not readily discern: those seemingly small acts of struggle which come together at strategic moments to create tremendous change.

The USSF offers no guarantees. It will be what we make of it. So arrive in Atlanta not only with the intention of being convinced and inspired, but with the desire to convince and inspire others. Certainly, the program promises to be dynamic, yet the forum as a whole will require the self-initiative of a restive and hungry social-movement left—those ardently seeking to return their hearts “back home”—to make it truly extraordinary.

For more information on how to register or get involved with the US Social Forum, taking place from June 27-July 1, please check out: www.ussf2007.org

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born, raised, and living in New York City, Eric Tang is a community organizer, teacher, and occasional scribe. Working in the Southeast Asian neighborhoods of the Bronx, he helped to found the first Asian-community-based youth organizing project in the New York City. He currently provides training and capacity building support to grassroots youth groups across the country.