U.S. Social Forum a Mechanism for Change

Fifteen thousand social movement activists descended on Detroit during the fourth week of June for the second United States Social Forum (USSF) to discuss and debate proposals for how to build a better world. Latin American solidarity activists held a minor but impressive presence. The Latin American Solidarity Coalition (LASC) pulled together an impressive listings of events. Together with other groups such as the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) and a variety of Venezuelan and Cuban groups, solidarity activists had a notable presence.

Fifteen thousand social movement activists descended on Detroit during the fourth week of June for the second United States Social Forum (USSF) to discuss and debate proposals for how to build a better world. The slogan for the forum added “Another Detroit is happening” to the previous USSF slogan “Another US is necessary” and the standard World Social Forum (WSF) insistence that “Another world is possible.”

The structure of a social forum originated a decade ago in the global south as a response to the exclusionary and militaristic policies of the World Economic Forum (WEF) that meets at the end of January each year in Davos, Switzerland. From its first meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, the idea of holding social forums quickly caught fire and spread across the world. This organizing strategy effectively shifted the terms of debate regarding the Washington Consensus away from social, economic, and political policies that benefitted a wealthy elite.

While the rest of the world seems to have moved on to other issues and strategies, and the political environment in Latin America that initially gave rise to the need for social forums has shifted significantly to the left, the social forum process continues to gain force in the United States as a mechanism to struggle for social justice.

WSF founder Chico Whitaker observed that Detroit had a similar ambience as Porto Alegre had at the first forum in 2001. People began to organize both forums without a clear idea about what they would find, but they realized unprecedented success in launching a new and innovative process. The challenge, Whitaker said, was to create spaces, to create a new political culture.

Similar to how the global south originally gave rise to the social forum process, marginalized peoples and those representing the south in the United States have taken key leadership roles in organizing the USSF. These include African-descendants, Latinos, Indigenous peoples, and poor people.

Although apparently not intentionally planned and organized as such, similar to how the initial WSFs were originally held opposite the meeting of economic elites in Davos, the USSF was held at the same time that the Group of the 20 largest global economies (G-20) met across the border in Toronto. Participants began to talk of the meetings as a tale of two cities, one with a heavy police presence while the other presented peaceful and positive alternatives.


Over the course of five days of meetings, activists in Detroit participated in more than one thousand self-organized workshops. Heavily influenced by critical pedagogy, the USSF attempted to move away from a standard conference model of panels with “experts” presenting their knowledge to a passive audience. Instead, organizers urged a more participatory model of collaborative workshops to bring people together to solve common problems together.

An innovation of the USSF was an emphasis on People’s Movement Assemblies (PMAs) that were intended to bring activists together around common issues and concerns. During the process of the Detroit forum, participants organized almost one hundred PMAs, 45 in the lead up to the forum and 52 during the forum. Summaries of the resolutions from the PMAs were presented in a National People’s Movement Assembly on the last day of the forum, and are posted to the website http://pma2010.org/.

A summary review of the resolutions indicates the broad array of topics and issues discussed at the forum, including worker struggles, gender justice, transformative justice, poverty, immigration, environment, media, and militarism. One group gave a passionate call for the independence of Puerto Rico. PMAs are a key feature of the USSF that will be contributed back to the broader WSF.

Most social forums begin with a march through the streets of the host city, and Detroit was no exception. On Tuesday, June 22, between seven and nine thousand participants paraded to Cobo Hall along the river front that was host to the meetings. Placards along the march pointed to the typical array of demands of social forum participants, while feeders that joined the main march emphasized more local concerns such as utility turnoffs. Detroit has a long history of radical labor union organizing, and is often the case the presence of the forum encouraged a heightened level of activism. Various marches and protests popped up during the week’s events, culminating with another massive march for clear air, good jobs, and justice at the world’s largest incinerator on the final day, Saturday, June 26.

Even though the Detroit forum was significantly smaller than the largest WSFs that have ranged up to 150,000 people, it was still massive enough that it remains difficult for one person to comprehend the entire event. Three blind people alternatively describing an elephant as a tree trunk, a wall, or a snake is a common analogy to explain how an observer’s position can influence perceptions of the event.


Latin American solidarity activists held a minor but impressive presence in Detroit. The Latin American Solidarity Coalition (LASC) pulled together an impressive listings of events at the meeting. Together with other groups such as the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) and a variety of Venezuelan and Cuban groups, solidarity activists had a notable presence at the literature tables. At the same time as the forum met in Detroit, the SOAW organized a parallel meeting of Latin American activists in Venezuela to strategize on shutting down United States training of repressive Latin American militaries. The two events set up a video link to share their common concerns between the two meetings on the two continents.

Participants at the forum were also fortunate to be able to take advantage of a special preview screening of Oliver Stone’s new documentary “South of the Border” in which he examines the recent left-ward shift in Latin American politics. Participants jammed the theater to almost triple of its capacity. Most of the film focused on Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and the Wayuu Indigenous activist David Hernández and a Venezuelan representative from the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) participated in a question and answer session after the film.


The Cuban Working Group of the Black Left Unity Network (BLUN) presented a fascinating workshop on African Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution. Efia Nwangaza from the Afrikan American Institute framed the conversation with the observation that Cuba was an ally of African people on the continent as well as in the US. “We as African people have a long standing debt to Cuba,” she stated. Nwangaza read a March 10 statement that they presented in honor International Women’s Day to the Cuban Women’s Federation that declared that the revolution “remains a hopeful beacon in the western hemisphere that humane societies can be constructed that provide the basis for the elimination of all forms of discrimination, exploitation, and oppression.”

Tony “Menelik” VanDermeer from U-Mass Boston described a trip to Cuba that he took in March on a replica of the Amistad, the famous slave ship. In contrast to a recent trip to Nigeria, VanDermeer said that Cuba is much better organized, and that if Africa was 25 percent as organized as Cuba it would be a power house. Saladin Muhammad from Black Workers for Justice presented a thank-you Cuba campaign that they had initiated to highlight Cuba’s role in a struggle against racism. They want people to express their thanks to Cuba by signing postcards, holding events, and organizing other actions.

A common theme throughout the panel was how important it was that people need to travel to Cuba themselves to witness firsthand the advances in the revolution. What is happening in Cuba that the United States does not want us to see, panelists asked? An African-American woman in the audience said “it’s hard to find the language, something that you’ve never felt before in your own country” as she urged people to travel to Cuba “if you want to know what freedom feels like.” She pointed to her time in Cuba as a life changing experience, as a validation that she never felt or saw in the United States. Another audience member observed that the same people who maintain us in poverty in the United States also want to maintain Cuba in poverty. The only way we can make a revolution is to break that oppression, he said.


In the aftermath of the January earthquake, Haiti also became a common theme at the forum. The Haiti Action Network, for example, organized a “Dialogue with Activists from the Haitian Popular Movement” that brought together a variety of leaders as well as the widow of CLR James, the famous author of The Black Jacobins. Panelists repeatedly complained that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were making money off of the crisis in Haiti. One participant related that donated aid for the hurricane several years ago is still sitting unused on the loading docks. A main demand for those on the panel was a return of the former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Walter Riley from the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund noted that every U.S. president including Obama have opposed the forceful symbol of an independent Haiti. The session approved a final document “Support the Call of Haiti’s Grassroots for the Return of Aristide and the end of the UN Mission.”

Indigenous peoples

Despite their demographically small presence in the United States, amounting to about 1 percent of the population, Indigenous peoples had a notable presence at the forum. Indigenous representatives led the opening march, and a drum group and dancers initiated the opening ceremonies. George Martin from the Ojibwa nation invited participants to the native lands of Detroit.

Beyond rituals and ceremonies, however, Indigenous representatives held a significant presence in discussions at the forum, particularly members of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN). In a final plenary session on alternatives and solutions, Jihan Gearon from IEN noted how native peoples are often excluded and forgotten. She framed her comments in a global context, in particular mentioning the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth that was held in Cochabamba, Bolivia in April of this year.

The IEN also took a lead role in organizing the Indigenous Peoples Movement Assembly. Tom Goldtooth, IEN leader and a member of the National Planning Committee (NPC) related that when he travels to Latin America activists there ask him what they are doing in the US to address ongoing problems with imperialism. Goldtooth, however, noted that Indigenous peoples represent the south that is located in the north, that they are also oppressed communities. He emphasized an urgent need to develop political connections with the global south to solve common problems.

Visiting from Peru, Miguel Palacín, the leader of the Coordinating Body of Andean Indigenous Organizations (CAOI), spoke about the move in Latin America from Indigenous peoples resisting oppression to making concrete actions and proposals. He described two key proposals that call for the establishment of plurinational states and the sumak kawsay or buen vivir, to live not better but to live well. The demand for plurinational states, Palacín explained, is to recognize the diversity that is in their countries, to make democracy more horizontal and to develop more equilibrium in relations. This goal has been codified into the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador, but still a lot of work remains to be done.

In explaining the second proposal of the sumak kawsay, Palacín noted how western states have destroyed the mother earth through an irrational exploitation of resources. People are responsible for the climatic crisis, he said, but Indigenous peoples live with this resulting reality that puts their lives in danger. Living well means harmony, being in equilibrium with our own selves, and realizing a full life with other beings in nature. The point is not just to accumulate riches, but to redistribute these resources for the betterment of humanity, he said. We have to “caminar la palabra,” to weave harmony with all of society, Palacín concluded.

At the final peoples movement assembly on Saturday afternoon, the Indigenous sovereignty group was the first to present their resolutions. They called for respect for their rights, and for a larger presence in next USSF.


A very special treat for those Latin American solidarity activists who remained to the end of the final closing session of the forum was a presentation by Pablo Solon, the ambassador from Bolivia to the United Nations. Manny Pino from the IEN introduced Pino, once again situating their transnational work in the context of the Cochabamba Climate Summit in April. Solon then passionately and eloquently spoke in flawless English and seemingly without notes about the need for an end to neoliberalism. He had just arrived in Detroit from the G-20 meetings in Toronto, and framed his remarks in the context of a long struggle for water and gas rights in Bolivia. His message was that they learned that they could not realize these gains without political organization.


In the aftermath of Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant measures, immigration was naturally a large topic at the forum. Many attendees wore a variety of pro-immigrant t-shirts, including one asking whether the wearer looked “illegal.” Indigenous rights activist José Matos noted that even though they are not immigrants, all the issues that effect immigrants also effect Indigenous peoples, especially those living in the Southwest. These issues include a negative impact of border control efforts including fences on the environment and the destruction of ceremonial sites. Matos called for the United States government to respect the sovereignty and self determination of Indigenous peoples.

The USSF ended with participants promising to take action or stand in solidarity on a variety of local, regional, and global issues. In addition to events such as the upcoming climate summit in Cancun toward the end of the year as a followup to last year’s Copenhagen meetings, the Fourth Americas Social Forum will meet in Asuncion, Paraguay in August. After a two-year break, the WSF will once again gather in a unified meeting next February in Dakar. The Africa meeting will give activists in the United States an opportunity to take their messages from Detroit to a global audience.

Bolivia’s Ambassador at the USSF


Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, spoke at the closing session of the USSF. Video of his presentation should be posted to the website http://organize.ussf2010.org/. What follows is not a transcription but rather quick notes summarizing his comments taken as he talked.

Solon began his comments with a discussion of the water wars that expelled Bechtel from Cochabamba when they tried to privatize the water supplies. This was the beginning of change, because if it was possible to expel Bechtal then anything is possible. From there they began to talk about the nationalization of gas, and they knew it was possible because they had already won the water wars. But they learned that they could not realize these gains without organization, and so they began to build political organizations.

In 2005, for the first time an Indigenous leader Evo Morales won the presidency with 54 percent of the vote, and six months later they nationalized the gas sector. Under Morales, they have improved the lives of the poor because now the resources of the country belong to the people. We can do this two ways, either ask for the people to sacrifice or to cut profits to the large corporations and then we’ll have enough resources for the needs of the people. The example of Bolivia shows that this is possible if we organize from the bottom up and take the needs of the people into consideration.

After last year’s climate change meeting in Copenhagen, we realized that the situation is getting worse and that we need to take action. We need to build a world-wide movement to defend life and the mother earth. We only have one opportunity, and it is now to create a new alternative not only for us but for our children and grandchildren.

What do we want? In the short-term, we want industrial countries to reduce emissions. This is the only way out. The Cochabamba meetings show the path forward, and we hope to achieve this in the followup Cancun meetings at the end of the year. But we can only achieve this with the mobilization of people. But to do this requires changing how to relate to Mother Earth. We’ve treated the earth like a commodity, but now we see the consequences of that. We need to change what BP is doing with the spill in the gulf. In order to guarantee human rights, we need to guarantee the rights of mother earth. We are part of a system; we’re not the owners, but just one part. We have to take responsibility to take care of it. We will present a proposal to the UN that the mother earth also has a right to exist. Both humans and nature, all beings have a right to water.

The challenge of this century is to build a new contract, not only a social contract, but a social and environmental contract. This is key to the building of a new and better world. The G-8 talks about a green economy, and it sounds nice. But it means bringing capitalism to nature, to put a price on nature, to emphasize property rights. Instead of the Washington Consensus it will be the Green Economy Consensus, but this still leads to the commodification of nature. We need to look for the rights of nature, this is why a declaration of the rights of mother earth is so important.

At Cochabamba, we also talked about making a court of climate justice where cases like BP can be tried. We cannot allow these abuses to continue. We need to build from the grassroots. Democracy is being constrained on a world-wide level. What is the message? Large countries drafted the Copenhagen Accord, gave it to small countries at 3am with only 1 hour to read it. But all countries have the same rights, and large countries who think they are the most powerful cannot decide for the rest. We have to end the five permanent members on the UN security council; no one has elected them, but yet they have veto power. Democracy means democracy at a world-wide level as well.

We don’t want to see more military bases in Latin America. In Latin America, we’re worried. Why do we need military bases in Colombia? What has happened in Honduras? We have to stop this process. We need democracy at a global level.

One of the proposals at Cochabamba was to create a world-wide referendum on climate change, to reach six billion people on the planet who are influenced by these policies. People around the world should be consulted on where resources are directed. Our challenge is to build this referendum for next year, because we see that Cancun won’t solve problems. Money needs to go to solve problems of poverty and climate change, not to war. We can only do this if we engage everyone, each one of you. That is why I have come from Toronto. I have heard that this social forum was a great opportunity to organize.

Ten years ago I was a water warrior in Cochabamba, but now I’m a water warrior ambassador. We want to declare in the UN the human right to water and sanitation. In the UN we’ve declared rights to food, education, shelter, but we have yet to declare the right to water. We need to count on your support to campaign for these rights.

Marc Becker is a Latin American historian and activist who attended the USSF with the Latin American Solidarity Coalition (LASC).