By Richard Muhammad
ATLANTA -- Thousands of people marched through streets here as the U.S. Social Forum, billed as one of the largest gatherings of progressive groups and activists, kicked off. The march, complete with stilt walkers, giant-headed puppets, drummers, bikers, and everyone from anti-war activists to anti-computer waste advocates finding in a place in a multi-racial throng that started out from the state Capitol Building.
Chants, whistles and shouts punctuated the air as enthusiastic men, women, and children, young and old, Black, White, Latino and Asian, gay and straight offered their picture of democracy to the world. The July 27 march went peacefully, winding past government buildings, Georgia State University facilities and Marta stations before ending at the Atlanta Civic Center, ground zero for the conference. The conference closes July 1.
Local police, office workers and everyday Atlantans watched as the lively wave of people flowed down boulevards in the "city too busy to hate."
Conference organizers said Atlanta was a logical and specific choice for the first U.S. Social Forum, modeled after World Social Forums that have grown from 15,000 to more than 150,000 people since the first meeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 2001.
Speaking after longtime civil rights leader Joseph Lowery laid a wreath at the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the late Coretta Scott King, organizers of the U.S. Social Forum talked about King's role and Atlanta's historic place in the struggle for civil and human rights. Other activists felt Atlanta was the right place because of the South's historic struggle for social change and its continued battles against injustice. The wreath laying was the first official conference event.
"The South has seen lots of repression and lots of resistance," said Jerome Scott, a member of the forum's National Planning Committee. Event included a variety of trainings from organizing to anti-racism to media making at the Civic Center, hotels and other venues. There were also entertainment and social activities, like a women’s soccer tournament.
Part of the forum's purpose is to inspire greater activism and to challenge U.S. hegemony and corporate dominance nationally and internationally. The gathering is also about collaboration where activists look for places where serious issues -- like racism, poverty, violence, corporate wrongdoing, and environmental abuses -- intersect and places where groups can combine efforts to challenge these problems.
"Another World is Possible; Another U.S. is Necessary" was the conference theme.
"I don’t think this generation has had the space to come together as a movement and really show that we’re not just a bunch of separate issues around, but that we’re a movement together that can build towards something better," said Karlos Schmieder, of the Youth Media Council, based in Oakland. He also worked on media for the conference.
The Forum shows the world that there is a progressive faction in America, he added.
With the 2008 presidential elections on the horizon, some activists see an opportunity to make significant change. Schmieder heard lots of rumbling among groups that were part of a bus convoy that rolled into town.
During the Peoples’ Freedom Caravan, organizations joined the fleet as it rolled southward from the West Coast. Discussions on buses often centered on the 2008 election and how to get presidential candidates to talk about important issues, he said.
Activists from New Mexico, for example, talked about getting Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson to make Katrina recovery a major issue, Schmieder noted.
"The cool thing is about how people come together and kind of build strategies in these spaces. That’s what they were somewhat looking at, trying to figure out, how can we get these candidates to really bring up our issues from the grassroots that they are not talking about now," he observed.
There were also those who want the progressive movement to look inward and outward at where change needs to take place.
"We’ve all grown up in oppressive societies. No matter how hard we fought against being hurt by them, being misinformed by the oppressions, it got in there. Those hurts and misinformation is sitting in our heads and it impacts everything that we do," said Apryl Walker, of United To End Racism, an organization that provides anti-racism trainings.
Greater awareness about of how racism divides communities, and keeps people from moving in progressive directions is needed, said Walker. "Everyone acknowledges that institutional change has to happen in order for racism to be eliminated, but part of what gets in to way of that change happening is also internalized racism," she added.
"The more we heal from racism as individuals, the better we are at making sure that we’re including people of color, in a real way, in our organizations. As white people, for those who are white activists, that (they) are thinking clearly and not letting racism get in the way of the kind of policy decisions that we are making," said Walker, who is a Black woman.
In the end, the U.S. Social Forum hopes to inspire less progressive talk and more action. "An interesting thing happens with these social forums around the world. You see it in South America, in Africa, in Asia. A wave of change and grassroots political engagement follows," said Alice Lovelace, a USSF national lead organizer.
Forum organizers hope to see a similar wave of engagement in the home of the world's greatest democracy.