Three Reasons Im Going to the Social Forum

Why should you plan to head to Atlanta in the middle of the summer? Not for the cool breezes, that’s for sure. But if you go between June 27 and July 1, you’ll find a few thousand reasons all gathered – along with you, I hope – at the first ever U.S. Social Forum.

Thousands of activists from local church groups to progressive think tanks and everything in between will be converging for the first ever U.S. Social Forum (USSF). For this event, the organizers have taken the familiar slogan of the World Social Forum (WSF), “Another World Is Possible,” and added to it “Another U.S. is Necessary.” This sums up the appeals that have been made by the Brazilians who founded the WSF in 2001; they devoted a lot of effort, almost from the start, to get their friends in the United States to organize their own event. Their reasoning was that for lasting, deep, positive change in the world, significant effort and significant change would be necessary in the United States, the world’s most powerful country.

It took six years between that first World Social Forum and this summer’s first U.S. Social Forum, partly because the organizers wanted to ensure that the USSF would be led by grassroots-oriented groups rather than Washington-based elites. It will be worth coming to Atlanta just to take part in this landmark experiment: what will happen when grassroots, community-based groups come together en masse, and invite their progressive friends from the big groups with big budgets to participate in their event? And that event will be the first time in recent history that progressive forces around the country are uniting under a large tent. For those of us who have been frustrated about the lack of a coherent “left” in the U.S., this could be the moment we’ve been waiting for.

The Time is Right

While the 2006 elections were a tangible rejection of the Bush administration’s agenda, business as usual – electoral politics and pushing for minor changes to dubious legislation – is not working. If we need proof of that, we need only look at the ongoing betrayal of the Democratic party on funding for the Iraq war and on standing up to Bush’s “my way or the highway” approach to trade agreements.

We who live in the United States cannot wait for the Democratic party to grow a backbone. The situation is too dire.

The hyper-capitalist system in which we live, where CEOs make hundreds of millions of dollars while 25% of workers earn less than a living wage, is toxic. It sucks wealth up to the top and leaves the vast majority behind. Because both political parties must please the mega-rich (or be one of the mega-rich) in order to finance their campaigns, the system also makes a mockery of democracy. The governing principle of U.S. politics is not democracy; it is rather a dollar-ocracy where those with money make the rules.

Maximizing profit for a few has become the driving force of our economy and our society. The impacts of this on communities, working people and the environment are devastating. Because short-term profit is enshrined as the only possible good, moral perversions abound, the most obvious being that the U.S. economy is doing well largely because of huge government investment in unending war.

We Need To Strengthen Our Resistance

While history books are written by the victors, there is a rich history of resistance in the United States. The arrival of Europeans on North American soil 500 years ago began an ugly chapter of aggression, oppression, enslavement and genocide. From the moment that Columbus arrived and wrote home of “slaves and gold for the taking”, the indigenous tribes of the Americas resisted. Later, people were forcibly removed from the African continent to work as slaves on plantations that were providing the basis for the U.S. to become one of the world’s richest economies, riches to this day not seen by those African slaves or their descendants. The Jim Crow system of apartheid, which relegated African Americans to the status of second-class citizens (though formally illegal), is still visible in our school systems, homeless shelters and prisons. Added to this underclass are increasing numbers of migrants, who flee the impacts of U.S.-backed military and economic occupations in their home countries only to face terrible working conditions, low wages, unemployment and the criminalization of their very existence in the U.S. itself.

None of these travesties of justice has taken place without a struggle. From the resistance of Sitting Bull and the American Indian Movement, to the Black Panther Party and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, to the ongoing declaration of Latino and other immigrant communities that “No one is illegal”, our resistance has been diverse and strong, though not always successful and sometimes violently eliminated. Our communities are diverse and that diversity must be recognized and celebrated. At the same time, we are united by the fact that we are all neighbors on this North American continent and by our shared experience of exploitation. The powers that hold up that system of exploitation are not diverse; they are the same patriarchal, euro-centric, profit-above-all forces that make the economic and political decisions that affect all of our lives. The U.S. Social Forum is one way of reclaiming those decisions. We are the majority, and we must demand democracy. In this 21st century, the world should no longer be run by kings and businessmen, and it’s up to all of us to take that power back.

We Owe It to the World

While our dreams have yet to be realized because of domination and exploitation throughout our communities, we must recognize that many of us who live in the United States live a life of relative privilege. In part this is because our movements have been able to win some demands on labor standards, unionization, rights for women, and rights for Lesbian, Gay and Transgender people. When other societies come close to realizing some of these demands, they face bitter and violent opposition, often through overt or covert operations by the U.S. government. To give one of many examples, when Chile in 1973 decided to implement some more egalitarian policies including a free milk program for children, the United States overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende and installed the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled the country for 17 years. In this case, our lack of democratic process, our inability to stand up to then-president Richard Nixon or his advisor Henry Kissinger (who, we later learned, ordered the operation), and our inability to organize in solidarity with the Chilean people condemned thousands to death, torture and misery. And Chile is far from the only example of the United States interfering in democratic processes around the world: Vietnam, Cuba, Indonesia, East Timor, Angola, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iraq, and the list goes on. And the list would end up including nearly every country in the world if we add those which have been pressured by U.S.-dominated institutions like the IMF and World Bank to adopt an economic system favoring multinational corporations over their own people, where a small percentage of the population controls the vast majority of the wealth while the poor must endure “market discipline” meaning no money for schools, hospitals and life saving medicines.

We must be honest and say that the U.S. government has played a terrible role in undermining efforts toward meaningful democracy and equality. If we who live in the United States do not stand up to this force that has been so powerful around the world, who will? We owe it to those in the Global South and around the world to come together and demand another United States, one based on principles of solidarity and democracy, and with it another world altogether, where systems and institutions are built by the people and remain responsive to human rights and human interests.

Sameer Dossani is the director of the 50 Years Is Enough Network and a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.