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Reflections on the US Social Forum: Three Cautions for the Future of the Left

by Sally Kohn

A few weeks ago, I attended the first-ever United States Social Forum, June 27 to July 1, 2007 in Atlanta, Georgia. It was an awe-inspiring event, bringing together over 15,000 grassroots activists from every issue area and every corner of the United States. And while the conferences I'm used to anyway are populated by slick white men in suits who work for glossy advocacy organizations in Washington, the Social Forum was dominated by members of community-based organizations who more often wore colorful matching t-shirts detailing their group's origins and their proud participation in Atlanta. And as far as I could tell, most of the participants were people of color, again a far cry from the elite and exclusive gatherings that often claim to represent "the left".

Without question, we need a profound, broad-based movement for cultural, political and economic transformation of the United States - and we need it soon. And being at the US Social Forum prickled my skin with the inexplicable but tangible sense that a social justice movement in the United States is really possible. Like static electricity hanging pregnant in the air, there is an exciting potential for movement to spark.

But in addition to displaying the many parts of our social justice infrastructure up to the task --- grassroots organizing groups and popular education work and strong, community leaders humming all around us like charged particles --- the US Social Forum also revealed some of the worst of our field. Sectarian bad habits kept us fighting among ourselves and scrutinizing our own navels rather than using the historic gathering space of the forum to actually challenge ourselves and each other, articulate a bold vision for the future and develop a shared strategy for action. If we're ever to build a truly powerful, multi-issue movement for economic, political and social justice, we must overcome the following barriers that loomed large at the US Social Forum - which I attribute to dangerous patterns across the left more so than the particular organizers of the Forum, many of whom raised the same concerns.

1. We must be allies, not enemies!

At the US Social Forum, one group of immigrant-led organizations nastily attacked another because of disagreements over pursuing immigration reform strategy. A Jewish woman who tried to make a statement sympathetic with Palestinians was publicly attacked as anti-Arab and anti-Islam. One peace activist was attacked with a pie was thrown in her face by others calling her a sell-out.

As someone once said, "With friends like these, who needs enemies?" Is that really where to best concentrate our energy, on attacking those who are slightly to the left or right of us on any given issue but generally otherwise in agreement? Don't we have more important things to do?

At one point, I left the Social Forum to visit the museum dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King, who was heartily evoked throughout the forum, preached non-violence and compassion for our opponents. He also was attacked by many on the far-left as a sell-out in his day, for working with the federal government to pass imperfect yet necessary civil rights legislation. Are the immigrant rights groups who pushed for reform legislation any different? Would King have had a pie thrown in his face at the US Social Forum today?

History has taught us that successful social movements have involved a spectrum of ideologies. Malcolm X and the Black Panthers made King and others' demands seem "reasonable" and thus politically acceptable to center-right elites. Social movements that rely on totalitarian dogmatism fail. See, e.g., communism everywhere. Before the US Social Forum, I thought the American left had learned this lesson and believed in compassion and respect for differences. Now I'm not so sure. The US Social Forum was a hot bed of ugly and disrespectful sectarian attacks lobbed by the self-righteous far-left against the merely left-of-center-left. Is it possible that we could appreciate the need for diversity and difference of opinion within the left and cultivate a new habit of respectful yet robust debate - rather than pie throwing?

2. Identity does not equal politics

Political correctness and identity politics have been much maligned on the left and right. At their best, these notions challenge us to remedy past habits of exclusion and elitism, include the full spectrum of human diversity in our movement building and society in general, and give voice to multiple perspectives and not just those that generally dominate. But identity politics fails us when we treat racial, ethnic and sexual diversity as a proxy for political and ideological diversity. They're not necessarily interchangeable.

On each plenary at the US Social Forum, for instance, there were as many as eight speakers who were extremely diverse in terms of identity but barely so in terms of politics. Speakers who looked different from one another nonetheless repeated the same rhetoric over and over again. Much of it was identity-based shout-outs, how we have to connect this issue or that with the GLBT community or we can't ignore the plight of women in one situation or another. That's all important --- the whole point to identity politics is to include in the political conversation and process those who have been horribly excluded for so long. But we can't stop at the politics of recognition. If we don't go any deeper --- to not just talk about why we have to connect our issues but have the challenging conversations about how we make these connections in practice, to not just care about who is on stage but also what they have to say --- otherwise, aren't we the self-imposed victims of the tokenism we say we reject?

And if at a gathering of 15,000 left-wing social justice activists who in their daily work and struggle are trying to bring voice and power to those most often left behind, our main internal priority is still the main fight to be fought internally, see point #1 above. Sure, some of the straight folks at the forum could use more analysis around issues of homophobia and gender identity. And sure, the non-Native folks there probably need to learn much more about Native history and struggles. But frankly just trotting out a diverse set of faces and giving rhetorical lip service to these issues isn't much progress in that direction. Rather than saying simply, "We have to respect and include Native communities," followed by a show of solidarity in the form of applause, what if we were really engaged and challenged to think about why Native communities and issues are often last on our laundry list of progressive causes, or what it means for American activists who so often despise the nation-state to nonetheless champion Native sovereignty? What if our solidarity came in the form of rigorous thinking, rather than ceremonial clapping?

The point of identity politics isn't to rank the issues or perspectives of one community as more important than another but, rather, to use the often intense experiences of inequality and discrimination faced by some communities as a lens for better understanding the injustice faced by all of us. In other words, diversity and inclusion are vital but we can't just stop there.

3. We need positive alternatives, not just critique

Along the same lines, we have to do more than just complain about the problems in society. Analysis and critique are very important. We need to understand structural racism, how it's perpetuated in society's political and cultural crevices and the polluting impact it has in our communities. We need to understand economic inequality, how the economy is designed to produce injustice, how that injustice is manifest. But cathartic though it might be, it's not enough to just complain and critique. If we believe another world is possible and are about building power in communities to achieve that alternative future, then we have to set about the task of actually describing what that future should be.

That's hard. We know what we're against, but we're not entirely sure what we're for. And to the point above, it's much easier to prove you belong in the progressive club by throwing down some fierce analysis of war and militarism and the connection to the prison industrial complex. But what's your alternative solution? Is war necessary and sometimes just? If we can't prevent all crimes, do we think prison is sometimes okay or what's our alternative? At the level of critique and analysis, we're damn good at exchanging rhetorical hi-fives. But what if you and I disagree at the level of vision? Or worse, what if I don't even have a vision at all? It's a much more vulnerable position to be in.

At a meeting I was at recently, a grassroots activist said, "We wouldn't know what to do with power if we got it. We haven't had that meeting yet!" Power, of course, isn't a end but a means to and end. What will the world look like when we, the people, have the power to change it? Critique and analysis are important but not enough. Part of building power is planning for power. And we must build our future vision along the way. From the worker-owned cooperative businesses to models of participatory democracy, examples are springing up across the country of an alternative vision in action. Our power comes not only from critiquing what is but envisioning what will be and inspiring millions with the vivid reality that another world is possible. At social justice gatherings going forward, we should do more than dwell on the many problems in society and talk about how we need alternatives. We should discuss what those alternatives actually are.

Comments or critiques of this article are welcome and invited. Please send them to skohn@communitychange.org . Pies? I prefer banana cream. Sally Kohn is the director of the Movement Vision Lab at the Center for Community Change, supporting grassroots leaders across the United States to explore and debate visionary ideas for the future.

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