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Globalizing the USSF: A Conversation between Louis Head and Cindy Wiesner

Cindy Wiesner
Date Published: 
June 1, 2010

On the eve of traveling to Detroit, National Planning Committee members Louis Head of SouthWest Organizing Project and Co-Chair of the International Solidarity Team, and Cindy Wiesner of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and Co-Chair of the NPC Outreach Working Group discuss the USSF and its international context.

When our organizations and movements converge in Detroit in June, we will be joined by hundreds of international guests and participants, who just like us, represent organizations that are struggling to resist, survive and transform our world. A key objective of the US Social Forum (USSF) 2010 is indeed to take a giant leap forward towards globalizing what we are doing in our communities and workplaces inside the United States by both placing our work within a broader international context and by building relationships with our counterparts abroad that strengthen practical joint efforts and strategies.

USSF organizers expect participation by representatives of grassroots social justice movement organizations and NGOs from occupied Palestine, Senegal—host of the next World Social Forum—indigenous leaders from throughout the Americas, representatives of the ALBA countries—Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia—delegates from Mexican unions—including the electrical workers fighting government repression there.

LH: This second US Social Forum is partly about redefining “solidarity.” We cannot allow ourselves to simply laud one another from afar, or merely claim inspiration from what we see others doing. Rather, we must engage in the more challenging process of learning from one another’s concrete experiences, and together develop strategies, common objectives and fronts of struggle against capitalism and neoliberalism. We must demand and seize our rights and political space so that we may guarantee our survival, feed, educate, and raise our children, and reverse the hell-bent rush to destruction that is guaranteed by the course being taken by those who presently exercise power on our planet.

CW: I totally agree with you, I think we have been part of a generational shift of a solidarity model that was based on one-way support for self-determination and charitable practices. Outside the country, we see international compañeros searching for counterparts in the United States, who for a long time identified either white and middle class or left intellectuals and authors as leaders of the US movement.

The GGJ alliance got formed because we were all these mostly people of color and indigenous organizations or networks doing our work within our own struggles or communities, and committed to movement and base building, but did not have a common political articulation or common vision. GGJ member organizations and leaders have given a different face to the movement in the US internationally. As part of this paradigm shift, we want to bring a joint struggle practice and mutual solidarity frame.

LH: I think that the solidarity model that you speak of actually limited the perceptions of people in the Global South about social justice organizing and movement building in the United States. The folks involved in that work had little or no organic ties to what was happening here. They tended to look abroad for political activity that fit their criteria. The effect of this was to create a political subculture that did not advance relationships between poor and working class people across political and regional boundaries, and I believe added to perceptions in the South that there was nothing happening here.

Yet at the same time, internationalism was very much a vision of a lot of social justice organizations and organizers that led up to the formation of organizations such as GGJ and COMPA, that have worked to link north and south. The movements that arose during the 1960s made contact with revolutionary movements and governments throughout the Global South—Cuba, China, Vietnam, the Philippines come to mind, plus many in Africa. Our organizations have taken shape in waves since the early 1980s and are the offspring of those earlier movements. Most of us were outward looking, eager to establish relationships with others with similar ideas and efforts throughout the United States, and most of us took it for granted that our work would necessarily have an international framework. These perspectives were sharpened by practice, especially when it brought us into contact with southern counterparts. They were also strengthened by the growing demands for rights and equality of immigrants to the US, as well as by ties that developed gradually between Indigenous people in the US with their counterparts throughout the Americas and elsewhere.

There were specific key moments beginning in the late 1980s that occurred such as the development of the grassroots environmental justice movement, that brought together Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Pacific Islanders and—very significantly in terms of international relationships—Indigenous people who were strengthening their continental ties during that time. The fight against NAFTA brought together a variety of forces, including organized labor, from Canada, Mexico and the United States, as well as a variety of sectors from communities along both sides of the US-Mexico border. That work in fact was made possible by the Southwest Network for Environmental & Economic Justice which deliberately organized itself as a bi-national alliance. Once NAFTA was implemented, the process just accelerated into full-blown neoliberalism—capital flight from the north, land loss in the south, privatization of public services in order to make them profitable businesses, and then in contradiction the prevention of labor migration. We were ripe for a new paradigm at the time of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, and a broad array of forces both from the US and from abroad was able to shut that meeting down, setting the stage for the advent of the World Social Forum process.

CW: In this new century, I think folks also realize in their practice that we were reaching limits by just talking about our issues from a local perspective. I would say that many of our demands remain US-centric, understanding that we all have different conditions in terms of peoples, language, local politics, historical context, level of infrastructure, etc. But there has been this accumulation of crises—economic, ecological, political and cultural. What we witnessed in September 2008 was a financial crisis with the housing market plummeting, but this is happening because of the fundamental nature of the crisis of production and the impacts of technological change. And in response to this there is an increasing sense of universality in terms of how this impacts peoples’ daily lives, access to basic necessities such as shelter, water, food and a living wage job, right to land and living space, to live free from repression and oppression, and the list goes on.

Our international compass helps us to better understand how the consequences of 30 years of neoliberalism have caught up with people in the US. While the World Social Forum has helped us to reflect on our condition as manifested outside the United States, the US Social Forum allows us space to raise up the root causes of the issues we face here at home. I believe that this year, much more than was possible in Atlanta, we have the opportunity to engage our sisters and brothers around the world as participants in these same dialogues and debates. As such, this USSF will be a space for us to challenge neoliberalism and its political manifestations.

And along with the process that has taken place over the years, we also have the moment and the fact that conditions have changed dramatically in the US in the three years since Atlanta. The election of President Obama certainly reflected deep desires in the US for a reversal of policies that have characterized the past 30 years, but what we have seen in the past year and a half has been that he has responded to the people and institutions that got us into this mess.  His practice and policy was to guarantee that his first priority would be to rescue capitalism. By most of the corporate media accounts, the crisis is over and we are on our way to recovery. Yet we know from what we see in our communities and around the world—permanent unemployment and underemployment, the continuing criminalization of youth, an irresponsible oil spill leading to ecological disaster, the US blessing of a right wing takeover by an illegal coup in Honduras, the propagation of a supposed “war on drugs” in Colombia, which is really about control over energy resources and establishment of US military bases, the legalization of racial profiling in Arizona—that we are still in a political, economic and, cultural crisis. They are trying to put their fingers in the leaks of the dam. What they don’t understand is that the flood is here.

LH: The US movement needs to be having these conversations with each other and there are a lot of points of departure. For example, Detroiters were inspired by the successful fight in Bolivia against the privatization of water services. How do we identify common strategies and objectives in order to globalize that fight and sustain it over time? Indigenous people throughout the western hemisphere are fighting for sovereignty and to curtail the disastrous impacts of extraction economies on their lands. What does it mean to have what is in essence an indigenous government in power in Bolivia? What is the relationship between alternative economic development and food sovereignty efforts and the political space afforded such alternatives? How can communities engage in exercising power and building alternatives in places where to one degree or another capitalism is the economic model, and is serviced by the state? How can we come to better understand the use of community-controlled alternative media and learn how to reassert control over media outlets that are at least nominally public? And within all of this, how to we defend the space that we are able to take against a resurgent right, that uses racism and militarism as brazenly as ever to not only attack immigrants in the US, but to stake claims on resources that belong to others throughout the world?

Detroit is the perfect place to have this conversation. Conditions there reflect the impacts of neoliberalism not only within the US, but internationally as well. Detroit is the urban center in the United States most devastated by the housing crisis, and most devastated by the international order proscribed by the US, the G-8, and the most powerful institutions in the world. Detroit’s economic crisis is directly related to the North American Free Trade Agreement, more than any other city in the country. The oppression of Arabs and Muslims there is directly related to the so-called war on terror and continued US support for Israel. The inability of local and state government to address the situation is directly related to the fiscal crisis of the federal government. Now, Detroit also has a long history of struggle, and those who count that history as their own will be hosting us in June.

CW: We are in a crisis of humanity and the future of our planet is at stake. The USSF must be a place not only of convergence but also of strategic engagement to better align one another. We may have many roads towards that vision, but we can no longer wait for the solutions to come from the governments, institutions, Wall Street, nor large NGOs. The rallying cry of international social movements is that the only viable exits to the crises will come from below, from the movements and organizations that have the solutions. So our huge challenge here in the US, is how do we begin to articulate an alternative to capitalism that is grounded at the base but also wider than just ourselves. On the second day of programming the overall theme is US and International Social Movement Responses to Global Crises. That and other plenary sessions, workshops and the People’s Movement Assemblies will help to globalize this conversation that is a part of creating dialogue and processes that encompass global paradigms that we adapt to our local and national conditions.

International participants will also be participating in the People's Freedom Caravans that will be making their way to Detroit from many different parts of the country, visiting local communities, and learning about conditions facing people throughout the country.

In spite of the depths of the crisis, there is a lot to reflect on. The struggle against climate change and for climate justice encompasses many of the issues with which we have been dealing for many years. The statement by the Bolivians and others that we have a choice between Mother Earth and Capitalism encapsulates this new paradigm. We have concrete examples of international struggle to consider, including those directly resulting from the World Social Forum such as the international mobilization against the US invasion in Iraq that took place in February of 2003. So the slogan of Via Campesina comes to mind, “Let us Globalize the struggle, Let us Globalize Hope.” Opening up the US Social Forum to our counterparts throughout the world and their integration into the process can provide hope to the world, and also lay the groundwork for much more profound and concrete relationships for the future.

Cindy Wiesner, is a queer working class Latina. She is the political coordinator for Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ). She represents GGJ on the National Planning Committee of the US Social Forum and also on the Hemispheric Council of the Americas Social Forum and the International Council of the World Social Forum. Louis Head represents the New Mexico-based SouthWest Organizing Project on the National Planning Committee of the US Social Forum, and is Co-Chair of the International Solidarity Team of the NPC.