Occupy the Midwest: Detroit Activists Bring USSF Movement-Building Lessons to OWS

Wed, 2012-10-03 11:00

by Bob Glidden

After hosting the 2010 US Social Forum and helping create space for nearly 20,000 activists from around the US to reflect on and develop their ideas and skills in movement-building work, activists in Detroit organized "Occupy the Midwest: Another World is Possible" last month to help connect new activists in the OWS movement with more established activists and ideas. The gathering stressed themes of movement building and presented models of practical organizing solutions addressing the needs of distressed communities. More than 300 activists from Great Lakes states visited the Occupy Detroit Community Center to strategize about self-determination, education, livelihood, sustainability, social equality and community. Like the USSF in 2010, this gathering provided an extension of conversations and plans expressed in the Social Forum process. In fact, comparisons have been made which describe the World Social Forum, including its national and regional offshoots, as precursors to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The USSF organizers have conceptualized these events in Atlanta and Detroit as a "movement building process". But a number of experienced observers have noted that Occupy Wall Street began as more of a moment than a movement (see, for instance, OWS and the USSF: Local and National Perspectives, and A View from Brazil). Frances Fox Piven recently reminded us that the greatest movements of history have lasted for decades. She writes that Occupy (Wall Street and other cities) accomplished the "communicative task" of naming rising and vast economic inequality as the main issue. In her September 17 article in The Guardian, she reveals the more difficult second task that will evolve the Occupy moment into a longer lasting movement that merges with the processes already envisioned and underway at World Social Forums. Such movements must "threaten to exert a distinctive kind of power that results from refusing co-operation in the routines that institutionalized social life requires." Further disruption of the status quo will mean that activists will need to learn how to defend themselves against reactionary forces.

While effective protest strategies are needed, there is also the simultaneous challenge of building alternatives to replace the out-dated institutions. Many of the workshops held during Occupy the Midwest (OtM) pointed toward "new ways of being", while other sessions focused on the fight to confront and eliminate the old ways. Here was another continuation of Detroit 2010 USSF, and it was important that some of the key figures were involved in both events.

One of these persons is Charity Mahouna Hicks, the coordinator of the Detroit Food Justice Task Force, a founding member of the Black Community Food Security Network and a member of the People's Water Board Coalition.  Ms. Hicks was one of 10 Detroit activists who traveled to Dakar, Senegal to attend the 11th World Social Forum. During Occupy the Midwest, she shared information about Neighborhood Resilience Circles, a tool for building supportive communities that are independent of current exploitative structures.

Maureen Taylor, the State Chair of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, served as the Staff Coordinator of the 2010 USSF. In describing the choice of the city as host, she said that "Detroit embodies both the problem and potential for solutions" and that "the Social Forum process will stimulate some hope for the people of Detroit and help the people turn this city around." At the recent Occupy the Midwest gathering, she spoke about the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization's efforts to reclaim abandoned houses and "put the people on the offense." She is a leader in the campaign for economic rights and helping secure property confiscated by banks and government agencies, and has helped connect local struggles with national and international movements.

Other long-time Detroit activists and leaders in the 2010 USSF also presented at the Occupy the Midwest.  Jimmy Johnson helped describe personal accountability in social movements and the dismantling of structural racism. General Baker gave a history lesson about the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the wildcat strike that caught fire among African-American auto workers in 1968. Former Black Panther, Ron Scott discussed trans-formative leadership and radical critiques of power.

Diane Feeley led the Logistics Committee planning for and during the USSF. She continues work with Occupy Detroit and Solidarity and led a walking tour to show OtM participants sites of the 1936 sit-down strikes by workers at Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company. José Franco represents the immigrant rights group One Michigan and helped organize Detroit’s 2012 May Day Rally and March. He was another USSF presenter who also brought a message to the OtM about pathways to college for undocumented students. 

Sarah Coffey and Hans Barbe are other Occupy Detroit activists who were at the USSF and later helped organize Occupy the Midwest. Barbe directs the “Occupy Choir” and on the opening day, led songs for fun and protest. Jerry Goldberg and Vanessa Fluker help lead the Moratorium NOW! At the USSF, Goldberg participated in a panel discussion about efforts to push for a moratorium on foreclosures, evictions, and utility shut-offs in Detroit. On Friday, August 24, during Occupy the Midwest, Moratorium Now! led a demonstration at the McNamara Federal Building and a march to the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center to make this demand of the Federal National Mortgage Association and to repeal Michigan’s “Emergency Manager Law”.  After the march, they led a panel discussion on the role of the banks in the crisis facing the City of Detroit and the disproportionate impact of the economic crisis on African Americans.

World-renowned, Detroit-based philosopher and activist Grace Lee Boggs presented a session entitled Toward a New Self-Governing America. She revealed the following wisdom about the next phase of movement building:  

The mobilization of the people has begun as with Occupy Detroit. What do you do with that mobilization?  That is your challenge. How do you break out of old ways of thinking? How do you do the kind of visionary organizing that will challenge people to see themselves as part of the future? You can't do that by protesting. You can't do that by just being more militant. You can't do that just by challenging the cops. You have to begin doing much more imaginative thinking. You have to re-imagine revolution. You have to re-imagine work. You have to re-imagine education.

We have to replace the old paradigm of the opposition of the Left to the Right with the opposition of the Future to the Past". During her final remarks, she summed up the challenge:  "What I think we have to understand is that protest and demands on the government meant that the government could do something at a time when we had empire... The question is, do we go beyond protest, do we go beyond thinking that someone else is going to do this, and we get thinking of what WE HAVE TO DO!?!

What Occupy the Midwest shows is that if the OWS movement is to succeed in expanding public participation and expressing public outrage at the effects of the global economic system on growing numbers of people, it needs to learn from our movement history. Experience and insights of organizers working in communities like Detroit and in efforts like the US Social Forum and People’s Movement Assembly process have much to teach us. Movement building work can help move us from the moment of Occupy Wall Street to a movement for justice for all.