ATLANTA - Under the banner, "If another world is possible, another U.S. is necessary," 10,000 civil society activists gathered in Atlanta, Georgia Wednesday for the beginning of the first U.S. Social Forum.
A spin-off of the annual World Social Forum, the USSF aims to "send a message to other people's movements around the world that there is an active movement in the U.S. opposing U.S. policies at home and abroad", according to organizers.
During the first plenary session on the ongoing impacts of Hurricane Katrina, held in a large auditorium at Atlanta's Civic Center Thursday, Jerome Scott of Project South said, "The whole question of the [U.S.] Gulf Coast and the response the government had... pulled the covers on all the evil things that exist in this country."
A few thousand people attended the first plenary, and at one point several hundred Hurricane Katrina victims stood up to show their presence.
"We thought this was one of the most important issues we could have here at the first U.S. Social Forum," said Scott, whose group educates and trains community leaders.
"They've got the media saying Gulf Coast recovery is slow. It's not slow. It's a massive privatization scheme," added Monique Harden of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.
"The only people locked out of homes not damaged were public housing residents," Harden said of New Orleans, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, killing at least 1,836 people and causing more than 81 billion dollars in damages.
"We have to understand our history," stressed Mwalimu Johnson, 70, of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana.
Johnson spoke of the influential economist from the U.S. Revolutionary War era, Adam Smith, who said "Civil government is instituted as protection for the rich against the poor," in his book, "Wealth of Nations".
"That's important because... the areas I was dealing with, how could the government allow this to occur? The idea is, the government is responsible to the elite. You don't have to wonder why the government allowed it to happen," Johnson told IPS.
"They systematically performed genocide behind the guise of a disaster," Johnson said.
"The hurt that I feel for New Orleans, point blank murder," Sharon Harshaw of the Mississippi group Coastal Women for Change said at the meeting.
Speakers and audience members emphasized that Hurricane Katrina is also symbolic of so many other problems people face in the U.S. and around the world, day to day.
"If you're working in criminal justice, you're talking about Katrina. If you're talking about health care, you're talking about Katrina. If you're talking about housing, you're talking about Katrina. We're living in a nightmare called Katrina. The source is a backwards, capitalist, racist system," one audience member said in public remarks.
The first day of the USSF began with a massive parade throughout downtown Atlanta under a scorching hot sun.
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Hundreds of organizations were represented in the march, and equally, hundreds of issues cropped up on banners and signs, including workers rights, sexual orientation equality, peace, impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, compassion for immigrants, and preserving public housing, just to name a few. Large street puppets also made appearances.
The march route was changed just weeks before the Forum, when the City of Atlanta and police denied the requested permit. USSF organizers and the city came to an agreement which kept the protesters marching on downtown's visible Peachtree Street, but gave in to the city's wish to not go by City Hall.
A hundred public housing residents and advocates from Atlanta and Chicago still held a rally, however, at City Hall, one hour prior to the USSF parade. Just yards away, thousands of USSF attendees stood around during that hour, oblivious to the public housing residents -- only a short block away -- who were pleading to save their homes.
Despite removing the City Hall action from the original USSF march route, USSF organizers made little effort to publicize the public housing issue being addressed only meters away.
The march kicked off with several speeches, including by civil rights movement veteran Joseph Lowery of Atlanta.
"Our national dilemma today is not technical retardation but moral deficiency. We have a moral deficiency in establishing priorities when putting our technological advances to work for the common good," said Rev. Lowery.
"We continue as a nation to put corporate greed above social needs and we insist on relying on militaristic solutions to political and moral challenges," Lowery said.
"We have sacrificed the ideals that could make us great, on the altar of our ambition that can make us big; but big is not the same as great," Lowery said.
"We have sown the wind of mean-spiritedness toward the poor, and lack of humaneness toward the stranger at our door. There is something terribly wrong with our system of economics and values when we have disparities, when any handful of people have more than they'll ever need while millions have less than they will always need," Lowery said.
"We are torn asunder by the erosion of our civil liberties," he added. "We are damaged by the misconception that might makes right and that we can resolve every conflict by sending smart bombs on dumb missions."
Several marchers told IPS they were excited about the Social Forum, which runs through Jul. 1.
"I've never seen any diversity like this [at any other event]. It's not just white folks. I want to see groups like this keep coming together and growing. The diversity in this crowd is like nothing I've seen in another march. The more mixing the better," said Randy Aronov, an Atlanta area activist.
However, diversity of agendas also presents some challenges to having concrete gains come out of the USSF.
"It's a difficult thing to get these people, very passionate about specific issues, to organize around a single focus. It would be good... [to have some goals with a] smaller focus," said Rev. Lauren Cogswell of Atlanta's Open Door Community.
"It can bring hope, you're not alone. Especially in the South, in the city of Atlanta. It's [usually] that same 40 people that show up to every protest," Cogswell said.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service