Sunday, July 25, 2010

"Like in Star Wars, We’re the Small Rebel Force"

Notes from the US Social Forum

I’m writing these notes 95 days into the Gulf Oil Disaster. Supposedly BP has just capped the well, but that’s cold comfort to the people along the coast who are out of jobs and not much consolation to all the dead sea turtles. It’s been nine years since the War in Afghanistan began, and it feels like a very long time since the economy went south in Michigan. It’s difficult to be optimistic, and perhaps the best we can do, as the poet from Saginaw Theodore Roethke wrote, is hope that in a dark time the eye begins to see.

I first heard about the US Social Forum last November when I was in Oaxaxca, Mexico, from Michele Gibbs, a poet and former SNCC organizer. On Thursday evening during the Social Forum I had dinner with her and some other friends near Cobo Hall. Edith Lewis showed me Michele’s poem “I Would Like to be Wrong, But…” from Harvest From the Field, a new collection. It contains these lines:

the facts i need
don’t seem to be recorded;
or at least, are in dispute

This feeling resonates with anyone who has ever suspected they will never be part of the conversations surrounding decisions regarding their lives. What facts do we need to live better lives? Why haven’t they been recorded? If they have been recorded, why can’t we find them? What tools do we need to sort through the trash and toxic distractions that assault us every day so that we might see things more clearly? What is to be done?

Over 15,000 people showed up in Detroit June 22 through 28 for the US Social Forum to try to answer these questions. Attendees wore day glow orange bracelets stamped with the statement Another World Is Possible, a hopeful slogan in this twilight era of late capitalism.

The US Social Forum is a national version of the World Social Forum, which was launched in Porto Alegro, Brazil, in 2001 by groups “opposed to a process of globalization commanded by the large multinational corporations and…governments…at the service of those corporate interests.” They were “committed to building a planetary society directed toward fruitful relationships among Humankind and between it and the Earth.”

The first Social Forum in the U.S. was held in Atlanta in 2007. Detroit was chosen as the second site because, among other reasons, “it is a post-industrial environment with the fastest growing urban garden movement in the country.” Organizers scheduled over 1,000 workshops and nearly 50 People’s Assemblies, placing the highest priority on groups that are actually doing grassroots work. “This is… a process built from the ground up.” According to the program guide, the Social Forum “is not a conference. It is a political process,” a space for people to exchange their experiences and a forum for debate.

I drove into Detroit on Tuesday morning with Jon Swanson, who was leading a workshop on the history of Gaza, and Don Watanabe, an activist from the south side of Chicago. We parked in a nearly deserted lot on top of Cobo Hall for the shockingly low price of $5 a day. Cobo was filled with people, especially young people and people of color. The place looked like a hip United Nations. The registration line moved in stops and starts, but no one seemed to mind. People were energized by being in the presence of so many other activists who shared their political commitments.

Behind the registration area was a huge hall for vendors. Exhibitors spanned a broad political spectrum, including the Evil Twin Booking Agency (“We’ll Teach You How To Change Everything”), the Detroit Marxist-Leninist Study Group, the Revolutionary Communist Party USA, the Indigenous Environmental Network, various anarchist and anti-authoritarian organizations, the International Socialist Organization, the Catholic Worker and Tikkun magazine, among many others. Even the U.S. Census Bureau had a table, but it didn’t appear to be busy.

I stopped by the Technology Inc. table because it seemed to be somewhat of an anomaly—quaintly utopian and retro 1950s—given the complex social and political challenges of the 21st century. Under the Technology Inc. program, private property and banks would be abolished and everyone would be issued a personal lifetime consuming power card based on their “measurable energy input.” The MEI determination would be non-negotiable. Leaders would be chosen by a system called “the vertical alignment method.” This would be similar to “the way that industry now selects its supervisory staff. Promotion would involve recommendation from below and appointment from above.” This felt to me like Ayn Rand meets the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. “Work less to have more” was their motto. Technology and “the scientific design of social operations” was their solution to our problems. “The dreamless, mindless machines… (are) immune to want or need.” I am less optimistic about the benign power of technology, but I’ve undoubtedly been poisoned by the Terminator and Matrix films.

I gravitated to the AK Press bookseller table and purchased a copy of Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire, a collection of papers by David Graeber, an anthropologist and direct action group participant. The last essay in the book is “On the Phenomenology of Giant Puppets: Broken Windows, Imaginary Jars of Urine, and the Cosmological Role of the Police in American Culture.” I felt that chapter title alone was worth the price of the book.

* * *

Marilyn Sinkewicz, Ben Burkett (President, National Family Farm Coalition), Jess Gilbert.

I drove into Detroit from Ann Arbor on Wednesday morning with Marilyn Sinkewicz, UM Social Work prof, and Jess Gilbert, an Environmental Sociologist from the University of Wisconsin. I was anxious to be on time for Other Worlds Are Possible: Visionary Fiction, Organizing & Imagining the Future because I figured this session would be about the progressive possibilities of Science Fiction, my genre fiction of choice ever since I picked up Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint at the Civic Park Elementary School Library in Flint in 1956.

The workshop was sponsored by Left Turn magazine and was led by Walidah Imarisha, who has guest edited a special section on Visionary Fiction for the Jan/Feb 2010 issue. Ms. Imarisha told the thirty five people in attendance that she felt the need for a new term to separate work whose intent it is to spark social change from regular science fiction and fantasy. She described Visionary Fiction as having the following characteristics:

-explores current social issues
-conscious of identity/power issues
-change comes from the bottom up
-power is in the hands of the oppressed
-not neutral

This struck me as slightly formulaic. Art in the service of a specific political agenda usually doesn’t work for me, but I still take her point. I think science fiction is a wonderful way to get outside our usual conceptual frames around issues like race, class, gender and the social implications of new technologies.

Someone said that sci fi “tends to be dominated by white dudes,” which is undeniably true, but Ms. Imarisha mentioned Octavia Butler, the African American MacArthur Foundation winner who wrote Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (two novels I admire very much), as an author who wrote Visionary Fiction. Ms. Butler read at Shaman Drum Bookshop a year before she died. I recall she was somewhat shy but unfailingly gracious, especially to the young people who attended the reading.

“Like in Star Wars, we’re the small rebel force!” an energetic young woman informed us fiercely. I was definitely down with this given that it’s always been my dream to attend a Science Fiction Con costume ball dressed as Yoda.

“This is the sci-fi geek session. If you’re not here to geek out, you’re welcome to leave.”

Everyone stayed, although a nervous librarian left when we broke into groups to collectively write Visionary Fiction.

The exercise was fun, if not entirely successful. Despite my commitment to build a communal vision, I’m not convinced that writing collectively works (although I have heard from reliable sources that television situation comedies are all written by committee).

The issue my group chose to explore was militarism. We settled on killer drones and robots as our central characters, but we ran into trouble when we tried to build the story. We couldn’t decide on the setting and we weren’t clear about the conflict. Were the killer drones sentient? Or were they controlled by human beings back at military headquarters, far from the battlefield? Given the right plot twist, if they were sentient they might experience a collective crisis of conscience. I suggested we end the story with the mass suicide of the drones, but this didn’t get much support.

The second group reported their issue was lifeboat ethics—as in who gets to be on the lifeboat when the ship goes down. The main character was a queer and pregnant starship commander. This detail was the occasion for a burst of applause in the room. She gives birth to twins who can time travel, but then the story got a bit too muddy for me to follow.

The third group imagined a ravaged earth in which humans were divided into three castes. The ruling class lived in sky cities and controlled the technology, the lower class was left to work on the polluted surface of the earth, and a third group acted as intermediaries, transporting goods from the earth to the sky. This all sounded promising until the group spokesperson revealed that the main character, who was a member of the transporter class, could communicate with the spirits and energies of people who had died. I’m quite willing to suspend disbelief, but this revelation of special super powers sent me over the edge.

The fourth group was interested in prisons and race. In their scenario, three corporations ruled the world, each with its own skin color. It was illegal to look different. The conflict comes when suddenly everyone could change their skin color, like chameleons. A financial crisis occurs and all the poor people are radicalized. The story seemed a bit too schematic for my taste, and the resolution was predictable.

Whatever. We did the best we could, and after all we only had an hour to mind meld and create fully realized stories. I believe that if we’d had enough time, our ideas would have evolved into something more coherent.

* * *

During the noon break I returned to the vendor area and stopped to chat with Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn near the Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs Center booth. They both were delighted by the number of young people at the Social Forum.

Someone handed me an invitation to a workshop entitled Art Criticism—Betrayed, sponsored by the Platypus Review, a Chicago broadsheet whose mission is to reconsider “what is meant by the Left.” The flyer was a passionate call to “restart the dynamo of modernity…through…the recovery of emancipator politics (and) the necessity of revolution.” Contemporary cultural critics were called to task for betraying or failing their mission. “Critics have…pimped themselves for hire as cultural boosters.” Pimped? This was tough talk. Were these folks an aging cadre of disgruntled comrades from the Partisan Review, setting the ideological stage to spank the daylights out of the cultural poseurs and bourgeois philistines in our midst? I figured I needed to check this out.

When I finally located the meeting room, I felt I’d wandered into a Modern Language Association panel discussion. The speakers were young, serious and smart. The small audience of a dozen or so people was intensely attentive. The panelists read formal papers. We didn’t break into small groups.

It turned out the Platypus crowd is committed to reconnecting people with the arts, a project I can certainly get behind. They want to reinvigorate interest in literature, art and theater by creating a “criticism that exists outside the horizon of capitalism.”

This wasn’t an attempt to reduce art to political propaganda. We were told that “art shouldn’t be subsumed into the concrete world of politics.” Instead, the panelists wanted to explore the way contemporary art is bound up with social relations in a market economy. They were also interested in the relationship of artistic practices to political movements. They argued that these issues aren’t being discussed and that art criticism has degenerated into arts journalism. Criticism has become merely descriptive and it is ignored by the public. Critics are hobbled by a vocabulary that is no longer relevant. Art works are being produced now that the critics don’t understand.

One of the panelists rather plaintively asked, “What happens when we look at an art work and don’t know how to interpret it?” Well…we struggle with it. And sometimes we walk away from it.

I admired one of the panelists for stating that “anti-elitism is problematic,” but their angst regarding critical betrayal and the failure of modernism to save us left me slightly puzzled. Does our experience of art always require that it be mediated by critics? Sometimes it does, but I worried the panelists were inflating of the role of the art critic or the possibilities of art criticism. And aren’t there already a number of excellent critical voices—John Berger, Rebecca Solnit, the people at Adbusters magazine come immediately to mind—who speak from “outside the horizon of capitalism”?

Of course, the panelists were ultimately interested in reconstituting leftist politics. They wanted to “shake it up and move it forward”, as one of them put it. They were motivated by a fear that “the actual political possibilities to change the world are shrinking.” This should worry all of us.

The question and answer session was dominated by a young man who defended the political philosopher Slavoj Zizek against a panelist’s charge that Zizak was an unintelligible jester with a
meandering contrarian style.

I was more interested in a question posed by another person in the audience who asked, “What can poetry do for Detroit?” Although I don’t believe poetry needs any justification, there are many interesting answers to this question. Earlier one of the panelists said that the arts “offer us certain new possibilities,” which I liked.

Following the Platypus session, I purchased Criticism of Heaven: On Marxism and Theology, by Roland Boer, after I noticed the book contained a chapter on Zizek. I hoped it would bring me up to speed on Zizek, whose writing I find difficult. In his introduction Mr. Boer describes him as “a Leninist with a Protestant emphasis on grace.” ‘Nuff said!

* * *

I drove into Detroit late Thursday morning with my wife Dianne to attend the Interfaith People’s Movement Assembly: From Internal Reflection to External Action. It was sponsored by Jubilee USA, an alliance of religious and community groups that works to fight poverty and injustice in Asia, Africa and Latin America by calling for the cancellation of international debt. Our meeting was facilitated by Brooke Harper, a Jubilee National Field Organizer.

Despite the scandals and disappointing failures of organized religion, I believe many religious communities offer just about the only organized resistance to consumer capitalism these days. In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that I’m a Soto Zen Buddhist practitioner who feels at home in Christian communities that struggle with social justice issues. I’m currently a member of the Church of the Incarnation, a small Episcopal congregation in Ann Arbor.

The twenty-five workshop participants divided into groups, established norms (“to insure that all faiths are respected”), and introduced ourselves. I was in the group with Brooke, who grew up Methodist; John, a “cradle Catholic”; Jim, a Presbyterian; and Mary, who described herself as “active in the interfaith community.”

We worked through a series of grounding exercises. I was most interested in naming the core values we want to lift up in building the Movement. My group came up with some fine suggestions:
--emphasize hospitality rather than tolerance
--have a preferential option for the poor
--express anger nonviolently
--stress mutuality rather than differences
--build a foreign policy based on generosity
--create a long term vision

I volunteered two core religious values:
1. Pay Attention
2. Stay Curious

Paying Attention is an important core value with the Soto Zen crowd and is predicated on the assumption that most of us spend our waking lives in a kind of fog, either fretting about the past, being anxious about the future or just daydreaming. Whatever, we’ve checked out of the present moment. This isn’t helpful if we’re trying to do social change.

For me, Staying Curious means being open to experience rather than shutting down. My mother passed away a week and a half before the Social Forum, and so I’d been thinking about the gifts she gave me by the choices she made in her life. She lived most of her adult life within a one mile radius of where she was raised, in Flint’s Civic Park neighborhood. It was what we might call a sustainable life-style—modest, supportive and responsible, with a focus on community and family.

However, there is a downside to this. People who never leave the old neighborhood sometimes end up suffering from the Gated Community syndrome. They become small minded and stunted. My mother managed to avoid this trap by nurturing her curiosity about the world through her love of reading and her engagement with contemporary art. This deeply impacted my life. What would our lives be like if religious leaders taught us that curiosity is something positive, a core religious value? I suspect the world would be a better place.

We moved on to discuss spirituality, which Brooke suggested means “getting beyond ourselves.” It is experiential rather than a rational idea. Our group came up with adjectives like healing, nourishing and interconnecting, which we associated with spirituality.

I regret that we couldn’t stay for the second half of the People’s Movement Assembly. We missed the Large Group Amendment and the Resolution Process. Michele Gibbs was reading her poems at Hart Plaza.

Mary told our small group her grandmother had advised her that “You need to pray with your life.” This may have been the most important thing anyone said during the afternoon meeting.

* * *

Friday morning I hustled in to the Motor City and caught a shuttle bus from Cobo Hall to the Woodward Academy to attend Community Supported Publishing: Print Media Strategies for Movement Building, a session sponsored by AK Press. This was the Social Forum meeting I was most interested in.

I’ve spent most of my adult life working in independent book stores. In the last decade and a half big box chain bookstores, Amazon, the explosion of entertainment alternatives to reading, and e-books have made it more and more difficult for independent bookstores to survive.

I fear the independent bookstore is about to become a boutique business rather than a central public space where people gather to discuss ideas and celebrate literature. This culture is about to become a counterculture, which would be a great loss to the arts and letters in America. And if we assume there will be bookshops in the future (a leap of faith, I fear), what will they look like?

The twenty or so people gathered in the classroom represented AK Press, Left Turn magazine, AREA Chicago, Charles Kerr Publishers, the Red Emma Collective, a radical bookshop in Philadelphia, and a newsletter for incarcerated youth in Olympia, WA, among others. I hoped that they might have some answers or at least some new ideas.

Editors were mostly upbeat but realistic about the crisis in publishing. They told us print magazines are dying because the advertising dollars aren’t there and readers are no longer subscribing. They are responding by publishing in both print and electronic formats.

Penelope Rosemont, a writer and director of Charles H. Kerr, the pioneering publisher of anarchist books, spoke about the differences in the social life of printed media and on line publications. “On the level of production, print publications bring people together whereas electronic media ruins community,” she said.

Another publisher reminded us that many people don’t have access to electronic publishing.

Max from Left Turn asked people if anyone had purchased a book or magazine in the last year. Everyone raised their hand. However, when he asked people if they had purchased an e-book in the last year no one responded.

Publishers spoke of the need to be nimble and focused in this difficult environment.

“We don’t depend on traditional sales,” one person said. “We see our magazine as a political project rather than a financial vehicle.”

This is a neat way to reframe the issue, but activists are still left with the problem of how to fund projects. What followed was a long discussion on grassroots fundraising strategies.

People described a variety of creative methods to raise funds. Staff at one magazine spent two months organizing a Fourth of July party. Another group had an auction in which people’s skills and services were raffled off. Someone mentioned the sustainer subscription program South End Publishers created as a model of community supported publishing. Financial contributors receive new South End titles as they are published. Everyone spoke to the need to build a diverse financial base by building relationships. Fundraising is relationship building.

Max from Left Turn shifted the conversation a bit when he suggested people ask, “Who is our audience? What is the Movement? What voices are we trying to put forward?” Usually white male academics write for movement publications, but Left Turn attempts to engage people on the front lines of struggle. The editors go to people who don’t think of themselves as producers of informational material and ask them to write material. “I think we get a more authentic voice,” he said.

Daniel Tucker quoted Civil Rights historian Vincent Harding: How can we be educators for an educational system that doesn’t yet exist? “We’re going to create a newspaper for a neighborhood that doesn’t yet exist. We want to make what is a loose network visible, but how then does a network become a community?”

Speakers stressed the importance of creating strategic alliances, which is probably what the anarchist Peter Kropotkin had in mind when he wrote Mutual Aid. Our ideas have strength and power. We don’t have money but we have lots of other things. We have contacts with cultural workers, we have publications and we know how to put events together. We know how to collaborate with other groups and alliances and create mutually beneficial arrangements. Both sides get something they really need. We can help make institutions more relevant to the community.

The discussion turned to organizational models. Kate from the Red Emma Collective in Baltimore, works at AK Press, which is collectively owned and operated. It is a workers collective that pays people salaries and shares editorial decisions. Daniel Tucker, editor of AREA-Chicago, said his organization has six coordinators (communications, financial, people, content, design, outreach) that are each paid to work five hours a week. Every year previous contributors to AREA-Chicago are invited to be advisors to the magazine. Finally, they can become coordinators. Tucker saw this as an organic way to build relationships.

“Our job is to come up with challenging questions that frame the issues and then attempt to discern who is coming up with interesting answers, political responses and practices” Tucker said. “We need to build community. This is a slow process. This is not theoretical.”

* * *

At 1:00 I dropped in on the Art Is Change: Art & Creative Practice for Cultural & Political Transformation workshop. One hundred and fifty people showed up. We crammed into a room that was scheduled to accommodate maybe thirty people.

The session worked largely because it was facilitated by Anasa Troutman, a Senior Fellow at the Movement Strategy Center. Ms. Troutman, who described herself as a Cultural Strategist, knows how to connect with people. Now based in Atlanta, she had worked on Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaign and was a music producer for India.Arie.

Anasa Troutman and workshop participants.

“Art is my transformative religious practice,” she told us. She said she believes that politics must be rooted in personal transformation and that the arts are a powerful way to decrease the cycle of social isolation in our world.

She presented a series of exercises intended to get people to connect with their own creativity. Each of us wrote autobiographical poems and read them to another person, and we had short small group discussions about reimagining our work. In the hands of a less skillful leader, these exercises would have fallen flat. With Ms. Troutman’s encouragement, people in the room suspended their normal defensiveness and skepticism.

“Art is a way to communicate. This is the way we reimagine art, engage in creative practice and recreate the world.”

Ms. Troutman advocated for what she called narrative based organizing. “Most of the time we chase the story without asking what the story is really about,” she said. “We should ask ourselves how we would like to change the story.”

She ended the session with a series of questions. “We should ask ourselves, Who do you need to be? Who do you need to become? Who do the people around you need to be? Who do the people around you need to become?”

She suggested that we should care about the impact of our work as much as we do the outcome.

The tone and content of the Art Is Change workshop couldn’t have been more different from the Art Criticism—Betrayed session I’d attended two days earlier. I left the Social Forum Friday with a sense of the healthy variety of conversation about the role of the arts in social change.

Re:Imagining Change by Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning (PM Press) is an excellent introduction to story-based strategy, and there are two websites that showcase the range of participation by artists engaged in social and

* * *

I was only able to attend a tiny fraction of the sessions offered at the US Social Forum in Detroit. I missed Grace Boggs’ 95th birthday party, I couldn’t get in to South of the Border, the new Oliver Stone documentary, and I was just too tired to make it over to the Leftist Lounge Friday evening. But I was moved by what I did see. I thought the US Social Forum was terrific.

In one of the sessions I attended in Cobo the panelists decided the Left was dead. That conclusion seems premature to me given the energy level of the 15,000 plus people who attended the Social Forum.

The vibe in Detroit was markedly different from mass meetings I’d attended in the late 60s/early 70s, when most of the resistance was centered in universities and colleges. Back then, in spite of our commitment to radical democratic values, we replicated the power structures and hierarchies of academia, and too often movement organizations self destructed over ideological struggles. Activists forgot how to talk to people other than themselves, and they became superfluous.

This is a different scene now. It reflects the impact of feminism, the leadership of people of color, and the input of direct action movement activists who understand the provisional nature of political struggle. This is the New New Left.

A few of my friends were dismissive of the Social Forum. They said it was a cool scene, but they noted that a cool scene wasn’t a mass political movement. To some extent I share this concern, but no one should underestimate the energy and intelligence of the people at the Social Forum in Detroit.

Early Thursday evening when we walked back to Cobo Hall from the USSF Village, we met a young woman from Georgia. Marilyn asked her what she thought of the Social Forum.

“I kind of wandered into the first Social Forum in Atlanta three years ago,” she said. “That experience changed my life.” She told us she drove to Michigan from Georgia without enough money to stay in a motel, so she logged onto That night she was staying someplace in Dearborn. She said she is active in progressive politics in Georgia. She said she was absolutely thrilled to be in Detroit.

If there are enough people like this around, maybe another world is possible.


Joe said...

Dear Karl, As one who was able to attend very little of the Social Forum I so appreciate your sharing your experience of it. It strikes me as an important way to become aware of new energies for change. Recently I went to the Rock N ROll History museum in Cleveland. One of the things I noted was that in each period in which I felt the music had seemed really dead---in fact there was new kinds of music emerging that I simple didn't know about until much later. It feels like one of the most important things we can be going in this dark time is to be paying attention to the new energies for change and what forms they are taking.
Joe Summers

julia said...

all very interesting; thanks so much for writing such a detailed report. there has to be an alternative to the destructive way we are living and the society we've created. 15,000 people attending--impressive.