The US Social Forum in Detroit

Off Cass Avenue, the main cycling corridor between Cobo Hall and Wayne State University, these abandoned buildings were far from unusual.

I went to Detroit for the US Social Forum from June 22-26, 2010. I’m really glad I went! I attended the Klimaforum in Copenhagen last December, and the World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil in January 2009; this US Social Forum shared a lot of qualities with those other events. Like those, the Social Forum densely filled time and space. The US Social Forum encompassed over a thousand workshops held in a half dozen different locations around Detroit over its four days, and no matter what, no individual could possibly take in more than a small percentage of all that talking and meeting. It’s another of those “blind man and the elephant” situations.

The Social Forum is structured to facilitate conversations, meetings, networking, and a rich cross-pollination among social activists. As Immanuel Wallerstein put it in front of 500 people while conversing with Grace Boggs, “the panoply of organizations at the World Social Forum (and US Social Forum) come to talk to each other instead of denouncing each other.” The Social Forum’s vitality lies in the unprecedented effort to find arenas for cooperation instead of the historically all too familiar sectarian power struggles that seek victory, submission, and control.

Immanuel Wallerstein (left) and Grace Boggs (center) at the US Social Forum, Thursday, June 24, 2010.

Formal political parties and trade unions are excluded in favor of “social movement organizations,” though participants from many unions and some socialist parties do take part (and dozens of NGOs and nonprofits are well represented). In Detroit a good number of US-based anarchists showed up too (those that weren’t headed to Toronto to protest the G-20 summit) and a “New World From Below“ convergence center was established at the Spirit of Hope Church a mile northwest of the Cobo Hall Convention Center where most of the Social Forum was happening.

LisaRuth is taking close-up photos of vegetables in the Spirit of Hope community garden. The anarchist convergence center was in the basement of the building behind.

This looked like it could be in Europe, but it was the same Spirit of Hope church where the anarchists converged.

I went with my colleague LisaRuth Elliott, and together we held a two-hour Shaping San Francisco workshop on June 23, followed by another two-hour workshop based on Nowtopia right afterwards. This was the second day of the Forum, but the first day that workshops were held on topics that weren’t focused on Detroit. We were pleasantly surprised when our Wayne State University classroom filled up with about 30 people for the Shaping SF/FoundSF demo and discussion, and they turned out to be from all over. A couple from Detroit, a guy from Lawrence, Kansas, some people from New York, a person from Kentucky, some Bay Area people, Santa Cruz, and Los Angeles, people from Florida, Ohio, and Vermont. We didn’t figure out all the points of origin, but it was surprising how widely distributed they were. A pretty good discussion ensued afterwards, though I can’t remember much of it now! The idea of producing community histories as a way of combating amnesia, which is how we titled our workshop, resonated, and a lot of the questions had to do with how we got it all going, how we keep it going, what kinds of participation we get, etc.

The US Social Forum opened with a big march through the city.

Detroit is full of open spaces and abandoned buildings, but the Social Forum put that blasted landscape into an entirely different context.

First demo for these militants?

There was way too many bullhorns and repetitive chants for my taste, but these guys rocked it too, and got one kid to shake his booty in this spontaneous moment.

We promoted the Nowtopia panel with the tag line “Jobs Don’t Work!” since a major reason I came to Detroit was to push against the insipid demand for jobs that seems to still imprison all too many people’s imaginations. Much to my delight, on my way to Detroit I was reading material from Grace Boggs and Rich Feldman, both from the Boggs Center in Detroit, and they are very much on the same wavelength. They too argue against “jobs” in favor of a more thoroughgoing transformation of how we think about work. They say we should be insisting on a right to do useful work, and that given the Depression that is commencing (and has been in full effect in Detroit for almost three decades), our only sensible path is to reclaim our activity from the suicidal and self-defeating tasks that capitalists (sometimes) pay us to do. I saw Feldman at a Tuesday morning workshop introducing the Boggs Center and its vital work in Detroit, and was quite impressed. He and Shea Howell were very articulate about the three decades of experimentation and work on the ground that have been accomplished while the looting and abandonment of Detroit were going on. Urban agriculture, peace zones, micro-enterprises, and more, were anchoring a real renaissance in the city, albeit one still far from dominant or complete.

One of many community gardens flourishing in Detroit.

This is the Earth Works garden in East Detroit.

Milk cartons get a good repurposing at the Spirit of Hope garden, inspected here by LisaRuth.

Anyway, unlike the many Nowtopia talks I’ve done all over the world during the past two years, this one was not just me! I invited Julie Rosier, who lived with Grace Boggs for a year and is a Detroit native currently living in New York (where she recently hosted a public discussion with Michael Hardt of Commonwealth, Multitudes, and Empire, at the Brecht Forum), Emily Ramsey of the Los Angeles Bike Kitchen, Arlen Jones of the new project Bici Digna in Los Angeles, and Azibuike Akaba who came to give an intelligent rebuke to the platitudes about “green jobs.” We were in the same room and somehow another 25 people jammed in for this one, raising our attendance over 50. I was delighted with the different perspectives these comrades brought to the discussion. Julie told a bit about her personal history, and how she’s been trying to come to terms with her day job at the Juilliard Academy of Music in NY, since her “real work” in true Nowtopian style, is outside of what she does for money. Emily gave a brief history of the LA Bike Kitchen, and spoke to the problems of continuity and cultural/ethical transmission when the founders move on and the second generation of activists is trying to keep the spirit alive that once animated the project. Arlen presented an account of Bici Digna, in part by showing this video, which was really powerful.

He explained how the video was made during the meeting two weeks earlier in which the day laborers who have embraced Bici Digna (and are now running a DIY bike shop of their own) debated what message he, Arlen, should bring to us in Detroit. In his account he modeled a super radical concept of delegation and representation unfamiliar to anyone there. I loved it! Azibuike got up last and ran through a bunch of common “green” claims, like driving a Prius, or cleaning houses with “green” products. So is the miner who digs up the metal that goes into a Prius doing a “green job”? Is the domestic worker cleaning a house with citrus based solvents doing a “green job”? Smart questions, which quickly underscored the emptiness of the concept. He finally went all the way out on the limb and just said “Green Jobs are Bullshit!” and looked at me with some trepidation, wondering if he’d gone too far. Of course not! It was great, and he is a funny, engaging speaker.

I was glad to see this in the big opening march, since we all have to pitch in and re-start the anti-nuclear movement again.

The Social Forum was competing with the World Cup, so I didn’t go to as many workshops as I might have if I didn’t have compelling games to go and watch every morning. Still, I made it to a good, pretty open-ended discussion with my pals George Caffentzis and Monty Neil (formerly stalwarts of Midnight Notes) which they called “EduNotes.” It was well attended again, the room jammed full. Nick Dyer-Witheford was there too, as was Peter Linebaugh, among many others, and I thought the discussion of tactics and strategy in the face of the all-out assault on education these days was smart and inspiring. The idea of mass refusal of student debt was put on the table. An African American woman entered the discussion after a while and described her predicament in terms that must be familiar to millions of people. She is already a Ph.D. but saddled with an enormous student debt load, and now she’s trying to save enough money to put her three kids through college some years from now: “How do I save to pay for them when I’m still paying for me? It’s indentured servitude!”

There is growing sentiment for a new, wholly free set of institutions run by students and teachers themselves. This latter idea tends to get co-opted by homeschooling, charter schools and other private schooling ideas, but I know at least a dozen people who have been seriously talking about launching a new popular university. The notion of a free school for folks excluded by the drastic cutbacks and near destruction of public education was starting to pop up too. (A guy from San Francisco’s HOMEY had been quite angrily articulate at the Tuesday morning Boggs Center discussion” which veered into a 15 minute discussion of educational issues” decrying the destruction of public education in San Francisco and Oakland as “cutting off the feet” of the black and latino youth in the Bay Area.) In Vancouver just a week ago I was excited to learn about a public school there with absolutely no curriculum (which after nearly 40 years is on the chopping block in the coming year). Students are free to do whatever they like from kindergarten through high school! Of course it leads to a  lot more self-direction and critical thinking, and flies in the face of the idiotic domination of standardized testing. Underlying a lot of the reforms being pushed by Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a barely concealed hatred for the teachers’ unions, who for all their drawbacks and political myopia, remain a bulwark impeding privatization and the reduction of education entirely to job training. As Shea Howell put it, the one thing public schools still reliably teach is a sense of fairness, and that is exactly what makes people less governable as they reach adulthood and expect any kind of equity in society.

Grace Boggs touched on all this during her wonderfully intelligent discussion on Thursday morning with Immanuel Wallerstein (that night the Forum celebrated her 95th birthday!). “What labor was the 1930s, education activists are to this era. It’s not about making THINGS now, it’s about creating humans.” Nick Dyer-Witheford hit a similar note during the EduNotes discussion when he invoked Beverly Silver’s “Forces of Labor” (a book I’ve been recommending for some years too) and her fascinating account of the rise and fall of class struggle among different sectors of the working class over time. The 19th century saw major conflicts led by textile workers, the 20th century led by autoworkers, and now what will be the arena of major struggle during the 21st century? Education seems quite likely.

No longer an industrial cesspool, Detroit can be wildly beautiful at unexpected moments.

Tons of gorgeous houses stand empty all over town.

A two-block stretch of West Canfield seems to be an island of inexplicable prosperity amidst the ruins.

Several miles east are ruins and vacant lots on East Canfield.

The Social Forum is not without flaws, to be sure. For one thing there were far too many similar workshops scheduled at the same times in different locations. It might have been worthwhile to try to get people to consolidate their presentations somehow. Another notable phenomenon is the way most of us attended topics that interested us and by doing so, tended to reproduce some of the separations that plague oppositional political efforts. It’s a bit like the internet where you can choose what news you want to see and avoid all the competing narratives.

My impression was that a lot of the youth activists fell too easily into clichéd leftist politics, demanding jobs, decrying corporate greed, emphasizing the contest for political power via elections. It’s just an impression, but most of the workshops I was at were mostly white even though there were thousands of youth of color in attendance at the Social Forum, while all of us were ensconced in Detroit, a majority black city. I don’t see this like a lot of white activists do. It’s not evidence of bad politics on our part that we don’t have racially balanced attendance. But it is too bad because it feels like a vital richness is lost. This came up in the last workshop I participated in, the “Radical Research” 4-hour workshop on Friday afternoon, sponsored by the Team Colors Collective. A good 50-60 people were there, all but 3-4 were white. A co-panelist, a woman from AREA Chicago, awkwardly tried to address it but all she did was to make everyone in the room feel the usual pallor that descends when political white people ask themselves why they are once again in a poorly integrated meeting. A latino guy responded well, arguing that it was each person’s responsibility to speak for themselves, to represent themselves, and to choose what was interesting for them. There was no reason for the people who HAD attended to feel bad about themselves or their politics. Later I spoke with a radical librarian friend (who works at the awesome Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan) who was there and she was also quite aggravated by the repetitive racial cul-de-sac white activists keep throwing themselves into. “If you want to be in a meeting with lots of people of color, hey, there were rooms up and down the hall full of them. Instead of expecting them to come to YOUR workshop, why don’t they go to theirs?” she sensibly asked.

At one of the many local demos that took place during the US Social Forum, this one in front of the local utility DTE Energy..

Protesting DTE Energy.

Beyond that, there was a good number of leftists there, from the cultish RCP to the Socialist Party and dozens of smaller local groups. The US Social Forum itself has spawned a dozen or more “People’s Movement Assemblies” that DO attempt to identify social issues and their solutions with an agenda of taking political action. Demonstrations took place around Detroit to address local issues, from a small-ish demo outside DTE Energy, the local utility, to a larger march on Saturday against a massive trash incinerator. Outside the utility, protesters chanted “Gas and Lights are Human Rights! For them we will stand and fight!” Apparently there have been a number of deaths attributed to the cutoff of gas and electricity during the past winter. Incineration of trash instead of a curbside recycling program is a self-defeating industrial process. The utility claims that burning trash to make electricity in a state-of-the-art facility reduces carbon emissions over putting it all in landfill, which is questionable at best. But if you take into account the “externalities” of local health problems, air pollution, etc., not to mention that it takes rather fewer people to collect the garbage and dump it into an incinerator than it does to run a robust recycling program that makes use locally of the materials it recycles, and you are compounding a whole series of social problems. The attendance at the incinerator march was about 150-200 people on Saturday morning and though it looked a bit desultory to my Bay Area eyes, the locals who were there were exultant at the turnout. I learned later that the fight against the incinerator has been going on for over 20 years!

Sunflowers, here at the opening demo, reappeared at the Incinerator protest on Saturday June 26.

Grace Boggs kind of hovered over the whole Social Forum in Detroit, which might be a great thing, depending on whether or not people actually get acquainted with her writing and thinking. During her panel with Wallerstein she said a few things I jotted down:
“Those who capture the state become prisoners of the state”¦ We have not had enough thought and analysis about the changing nature of revolution”¦ How do we get past all the opposition and anger that really bogs us down?… Each revolution is an advance on our concept of what it means to be human”¦ We need to understand the difference between imagination and knowledge. Knowledge is about the past, and imagination projects a future”¦”

She concluded by quoting Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, in a couple of lines that still ring quite loudly a century and a half later:

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

My only point of disagreement with her was when she said “In our revolution (now) we have to give up things in order to advance our humanity.” I get what she means, but I don’t think we’ll get too far by framing our political advocacy this way. Rather, I’d prefer to start the conversation by saying that we can all have everything we want. (As the Bolivians are saying these days, “there’s enough of everything for everybody, there’s just not enough for some people to have more.”) Once we start trying to identify what that “everything” is, and how much work it would take to produce it, and what the ecological consequences of all that work and production would be, most people would begin to ratchet back what they think they need or want. And even if they don’t, it’s the kind of social conversation about work and its effects that we need to have, as publicly and broadly as possible. The US Social Forum turned out to be a place where that conversation WAS happening in various ways, and I’m cautiously optimistic that interesting initiatives will emerge from the ferment that made Detroit such an inspiring experience.

Here’s a few shots of the Heidelberg Project, a crazily decorated couple of blocks in eastern Detroit:

2 comments to The US Social Forum in Detroit

  • Martin White

    Great report, a must -read, but- EDUCATION???
    That’s been the non-answer since I was young. Education is just enforced sitting listening to other drones. Here’s an obvious link on how solid “teaching” is these days:
    Also, finally, a mainstream book attacking the dismal, horrific scam known as “elite” American higher education, written by Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker, has arrived.
    Anti-establishment “education” is a miasma.  I’m for an “Open University”  coming to the US, but I don’t have any real hope for it, nor for any “social change” emanating from the micro-level of allegedly “radical”  higher ed.
    Back again with the nihilism – sorry.
    Why do I continue to read? Your fortitude, and your insights.

  • Bernard Marszalek

    Great report Chris! … and made all the better with photo documentation. As you say, the downside of this event is that there is a tendency for “gangs to hang together” … but as I understand, some efforts were made to have certain “gangs” actually move out of their “hoods” and think beyond, for example, “We Want Jobs” B/S to think about some control OVER their jobs, and hopefully therefore more meaningful ones.
    JASecon ( participated in workshops that offered Worker Cooperatives as an effective alternative for economic justice advocates. One new area where W-C’s becomes a practical alternative is in education. As I understand ten public schools in Milwaukee are set up as staff-run – AND they are UNION! They range from pre-school to High School. Of course, in the SF Bay area we have a 30 year old “alternative” (how long before an experiment, becomes simply FACT?) with the staff-run Maybeck HS in Berkeley.
    The issue of race cannot be simply dismissed as evidence of “guilt” absolution in these circumstances, as race often stands for class. That’s why the focus on The Boggs Center and of course the legendary Grace Lee needs to be emphasized. She articulates what many of us have been saying for some time, but she has the “gravitas” to give these ideas the coherence (as historically relevant) that we “fringe-types” cannot muster… even with our gray hairs!
    What next? One cannot hide today from the enormous challenge we all face. Not only are we facing a crisis that threatens our existence (we who grew up in the Age of Bomb Shelter practice have been to this kiosk before), we are also deprived of responses on our part that propel immediate recognition. Yes we can refer to the “Bolivians” among us, but frankly who will understand what we are talking about? And yes we can say that grassroots efforts are happening all over and foretell a new way of life, but frankly again, is this delusion? Are we simply becoming “POST-MODERN PEASANTS” ??? Are we, in other words, creating our own exuberant, but minimally subsistent, existences and saving the ruling class the trouble of incarcerating us?

    The ballet we need to perform gladly won’t be to leninist martial music, or any other brand of musical misery, but to the free-spirited, spontaneous and improvised music best illustrated by Jazz luminaries. Ornette Coleman and Isodora Duncan embraced by sound waves across time, as we continue to devise ways to make practical attempts to eroticize our projects so that, as Boggs says, we attain a more revelatory expression of our humanity.

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