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Five Heady Days At The United States Social Forum

By Cathy Stripe Lester

07 July, 2010

Glen Qualls got riled when Detroit passed a city ordinance that damaged his business. A lawyer for the city had boasted, “Half of our ordinances are not constitutional, but nobody is going to challenge us about them.” It took Glen 20 years of self-education in the law and the constitution to win his case, and he says the whole process disillusioned him about corruption in government.

A District Nurse from Dearborn, Ammany Elgahami has seen people who can’t afford health insurance get poorer quality treatment. “I don’t want to be just a cog in the system. As a Muslim I feel a duty to initiate change, to serve human beings,” she says.

Millie Hall, a dynamic black woman who’s president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, has been throwing herself into a variety of health, women’s and labor issues since she joined the UAW in 1977. She wants to encourage more women to run for office.

David Pepper, who suffered a right frontal lobe injury when he was shot in a robbery, says that becoming partially paralyzed made him appreciate things we take for granted, like walking or shopping, and the importance of access and other issues for the disabled.

These people were just a few out of the hundreds I met at the United States Social Forum, a convention for grass-roots groups held at Cobo Hall in Detroit over 5 days in late June. Security Coordinator Tom Stephens, who describes himself as a people’s lawyer, told me there were 18,500 people who registered and an unknown number who attended without registering. There were swarms of people going to thousands of workshops, plus performances, music, and a huge parade.

When people ask me what it was “about,” it’s hard to say. There were groups about the environment. Peace. Jobs. Housing. Gender issues. Health. Art. Fair Pay. Schools. The media. The banking system. Regenerating Detroit. Drug Policy. Foreign Affairs. Money in politics. Blacks, Hispanics, Palestinians, and whites. Old and young, affluent or not.

Being there was a heady experience. Among hundreds of tables in the main arena there are well-known groups such as the Sierra Club, and groups for causes I never even knew existed, such as “WeAreGuahan,” people of Guam who feel threatened by the proposed U.S. Military buildup which will destroy villages and harm the environment. (The Environmental Protection Agency agrees with the Guahan.) Well, who knew that?

That’s the aim of the Social Forum: “To get our message across.” Another purpose, expressed by one after another, was to meet other concerned people, network, make friends and learn about others’ efforts. A 6′7″ former specialist in the National Guard, Will Hopkins, now wears an “Iraqi Vets Against the War” T-shirt and works for New Hampshire Peace Action. He says he’s been thrilled to meet some of his heroes, like conscientious objector Camilo Mejia.

Cobo Hall was jammed with people meeting, laughing, earnestly explaining, reading, trading jokes, eating, catnapping in the few quiet corners, and just smiling at passersby. The friendliness is like another atmosphere, a positive layer of extra oxygen. I collect signatures on a petition for FreePress.org, which wants to keep our media honest and free of special-interest influence. People are clued up on the issues; I hardly have to do any persuading.

The whole thing is exhilarating, exhausting and enlightening.

If you believe all liberals hate religion, you’d be surprised. I talked to Christians of all stripes, from Methodists to Mennonites. Us radical ol’ Quakers have two different tables, yay! All of them are motivated by Christ’s teachings: that we’ll be judged by what we did for others, and even if we aren’t, we still ought to live up to the ideals of truth, fairness and compassion.

Matt Houston, a lean young man at the leftie Catholic Worker table, says his own views are grounded in the right wing. He got involved after volunteering at a soup kitchen and seeing how caring the people there were, “How much they push themselves out, and push me to do better.”

As well as Christians there were both Jewish and Palestinian groups calling for justice in the Holy Land. Also some that I’m not sure how to classify, like the African Americans in fezzes from the Moorish Science Temple, where Sheikh Robert Bey tells me, “A lot of folks turned their noses up at our table – probably thought we were Nation of Islam, but we aren’t.” They teach self-respect, tolerance and love.

A young man with warm eyes, Vicente Elizondo spoke of growing up brown in Ohio and being made to feel like “an exile” even though he was born here. He says he came to the Social Forum through “intuition and ethics,” and is interested in leftist faith organizations because, “If politics and faith don’t correlate with each other, you’ll be left lukewarm.”

People are selling things, like T-shirts saying “Drill – Spill – Kill.” My boyfriend bought me a beaded necklace for my birthday. The seller, an Anishinabe woman with a round, friendly face, doesn’t want her name in print because of the nasty messages she got at CMU when she helped retire the “Chippewa” paraphernalia and logo (though not the name). Like a lot of people, I’m puzzled. Aren’t team names just good sport? Not when they dress up with war bonnets and spears, get drunk and act stupid and offensive, she says. She felt humiliated, which is why she got active.

Her son is a drummer for the dances I had been watching. She voices a thought that a lot of people echo: “It warms my heart to see young people getting involved.” Gray-haired and distinguished Prof. Mike Whittey, whose business card announces he’s a “futurist,” agrees. “There are a lot of progressive young people – Hallelujah! ‘Coz we were wondering who would carry on the banner.”

I run into a history teacher whose name I don’t catch – I can barely scribble fast enuf to gt hs mst imprtnt thots dwn. “Historians aren’t inherently liberal by temperament, but they are informed about the issues. So when President Bush said Saddam was a danger to the USA, University profs had the knowledge to say, ‘No, not so,’ and back it up with real facts. For which effort they were branded anti-American.” He’s aggrieved at that; he loves America but the teacher in him wants us to get the answers right.

He also says Americans don’t know what Fascism is. I say everybody knows that. He smiles pityingly, and I feel a D-minus in Fascism 101 coming my way. “The Nazis sent Communists, Socialists and labor organizers to the concentration camps. Right-wingers call anyone they don’t like a Fascist, but Fascism is actually a right-wing movement, very hand-in-glove with big corporations.”

I ask how people can sort out the truth from all the political rhetoric? “By doing their own research, which most people simply don’t have the time for. Or by listening to impartial researchers, who study the methods of determining what’s credible or not.” Like history teachers? He beams; I’ve passed.

A retired autoworker identifies himself as a redneck, “and I got the sunburn and the beer belly to prove it.” If those are his qualifications, I have to admit they seem substantial. He describes going to a couple Tea Party rallies, and I ask if the Tea Party movement isn’t on a similar wavelength with the Forum. Both are grassroots movements, both want a better America, an America that lives its values. He scratches his qualifications for a bit, then snorts. “Naah. Them guys’re all about thesselves. No taxes for ME, send out the troops so me and my family can stuff our faces at (censored) Mc(Censored) and not think about the rest of the world. But most of all them tea party guys’re strung out ‘cause there’s a c**n in the White House. That’s what they mean – take the government back for us white guys.”

People here talk more about issues than about politics. Larry Sparks of Detroit, who created a website for the Boggs Center for urban renewal, thinks it’s because a lot of young people see themselves as alternatives, not capitalists or socialists.

For example, there’s less talk of the Tea Party movement than there is of corporate money and its effect on honest government. No one argues the main point; the emphasis is on the details. Workshop after workshop brings up solid examples, complete with well-researched figures and graphs, of how special interest money has skewed the democratic process and induced our congress critters to vote for things which are harmful for the American people, like relaxing EPA rules on agribusinesses, allowing them to spray our foods with toxic chemicals. (Check out methyl iodide, which is a suspected carcinogen and is known to cause lung, liver, kidney, brain and central nervous system damage. Agribusinesses are pushing to use it on California strawberries. Aren’t you glad to know that?)

The few right-wing blogs I’ve seen on the subject of the Forum don’t seem to have got past the Forum’s slogan: “Another World is Possible: Another U.S. is Necessary.” Proof, they say, that Liberals “hate America.” If that’s true, I had a little difficulty finding the evidence.

University professor Susan Chacin is probably the most radical person I happened to run into. A gray-haired good-looking lesbian, she’s been an activist since she joined the Socialist Democratic Party (SDP) as a student at the U of M. She lived for a while in Venezuela, but she says the USA is “a marvelous blend of VERY honest people from so many places, most of them trying to live a good life and give their children a better one. There is nothing like it in the world, and I feel blessed to be living here.” I talk to other Socialists too. Though they hate Wall Street swindles and tax breaks for the obscenely rich, and hate corporations corrupting our politicians, none of them hates America.

What everyone there, Socialists and Christians and Muslims and all, seemed to want is an America that lives up to its own founders’ ideals: freedom and justice for all, honesty and fair play and equal rights. Is it too much to ask? For those ideals they’re willing to march, sign petitions, donate money and form little home-town groups that, in the dark hours, can seem as effective as a flea trying to steer a dog.

Their hope is that enough fleas will get the dog’s attention. (Like me, they identify with Socrates’s gadfly.)

They are hopeful about America and its real core values – not the values of politicians but those of its citizens. The reason they’re at the USSF is because they see these values being trampled, but they still have faith that we, the people, can make things better.

It’s a faith they keep working for.