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Cobarrubias and Casas, "On the Road to the US Social Forum"

Translocales writes:

"On the Road to the US Social Forum:
Thinking from the Movements"
Translocal Productions: Sebastian Cobarrubias + Maribel Casas

With the USSF less than a month away, we thought now was a good time to let rip a couple of general reflections on our experiences in US social movements. Supposedly, despite the many and often justifiable critiques, the Social Forum processes are times to reflect on where we have been collectively as social movements, share tools and analyses, and start to beat paths into the uncertain future.

What follows then are a few things we noticed time and time again in US-based social movements but which we rarely hear discussed, other than as side comments among a few companions. While we have heard excellent critiques and ways to deal with things such as- privilege and supremacy issues within movements, exclusionary forms of activism, linking local community struggles to global questions (war, capitalism), what follows are a few things that we rarely see discussed but which we believe could be something useful for some organizations, collectives and activists to dig their teeth into.We’re not big shots — we’re not movement figureheads, we’re not vets from the 60’s & 70’s with lots of wisdom to impart. We’re pretty young for the most part (and now with our first child!) and though we were active for quite some time before the mythical “Seattle”, in some sense the public emergence of global resistance movements in the North is what helped us come into our own as activists and organizers. Here is a sum up of some of our experiences and thinking on US social movements in three points each based on narrating an experience or two as a way to illustrate it:

1. History & Theory Anyone?: The Immigrant General Strike of 2006

2. Death to the Middle Class! (Or Long Live the Middle Class?)

3. In the face of Structural Adjustment- Structural Resistance!


In March 2006, in Chicago, we were able to participate in the largest mobilization in the city since the Original MayDay. Even though there was no civil disobedience or blockading planned, the march was so huge that the downtown (or the Loop) was collapsed. We saw there some of the first calls for a “Huelga General” and later on for the “Great American Boycott”. Later on March 25th an even larger march takes LA; on Aril 10th marches throughout the country; and on May 1st probably the most impressive mobilizations seen in the US in decades. We don’t need to retell what happened there, the school walk-outs, strikes, pickets, marches, etc. With the possible exceptions of events like the FREEZE campaign and the 1992 rebellions beginning in LA, we couldn’t think of anything since the student strikes of ’71 (that resulted in the Jackson State and Kent State shootings) that could compare in both magnitude and public impact. This was the first time we had seen a prime-time presidential address on a political situation as a result of civil resistance (non-violent at that) instead of the lead up to some sort of war or bombing campaign.

Yet despite this incredible feat, even in the midst what seemed like a downturn for most other movements and mobilizations in the middle of the George W. dynasty, there’s been very little reflection on what in the world happened. Questions, analysis, etc.; sure there was some but given the scale of what had happened- on websites, journals, email- lists, blogs, radio shows, social movements seemed to have little to say. Most of what we heard were either action report-backs (matter-of-fact stuff like numbers, speakers, type of action, etc.) or statements on the general situation of repression of immigrants. That’s all well and good, but how do we figure out how to move forward? How to link different movements that took part in the actions but are normally marginal to immigrant rights struggles? It was also a very complex and even contradictory mobilizations: how as social movement activists do we deal with and engage things such as: the role played by commercial latino radio? The fact that many bosses association (like agribusiness in particular) that would normally be lukewarm or opposed to migrant mobilizations, were now encouraging employees to strike?! How do we react to moves by corporations threatened with an immigrant boycott that react by providing funding for groups organizing mobilizations? What about all the fissures that appeared within the political class over this issue? How about the fact that a few years ago, in 2000, 2001, 2002, at immigrant rights marches the slogan we would most often hear was “Amnesty for all” or “Drop Third World debt”, and this time around it was “U-S-A”, do we know how to navigate that without compromising nor marginalizing ourselves?

Though probably many of us thought about these questions, we saw very little public discussion about it among movements. We’re sure there was, we’re not trying to throw blame on every single collective, participating person or organization, etc., but given what occurred, do any of us think that there was really a serious attempt among movements in general to engage what had just happened?

The Immigrant General Strike/Day without an Immigrant/Great American Boycott is just a blaring example of an unhealthy practice found quite often in US social movements which can be quite harmful in the long run to movement successes. The problem we’ve seen (and at times participated in) is a lack of trying to reflect on what has been done (actions, campaigns, movements, etc.), learn lessons, share those lessons and tools with others, and in a more long-term way recuperate genealogies of movements’ struggles (whether this be by writing reports and reflections, archiving materials or what have you) . In a sense we don’t know how to learn from our history- how to keep it alive- or even how to produce and share or own history with others. This isn’t the typical criticism of anti-intellectualism in US movements (something as authors we’d probably agree with, but that’s another story), rather it’s a question of how do we avoid having to invent the wheel all the time?! How do we learn and build on our successes and failures in order advance our causes? How to share those with others? Often, even simple things like keeping track of a collective’s activities, being able to share its history with others, are left by the wayside in the grind of daily activist work or organizing response actions.

Groups that are fighting against the same exact targets don’t know what people three or four years did, what worked and what didn’t. Some times it’s a question of a lack of historical memory- not only of what movements did a 100 or 70 years ago but of what they did 10 & 20 years ago. At times it’s a lack of awareness and record keeping of what’s going on now — in other parts of the country or in other movements. These practices are related to the broader question of knowledge-making by US social movements. While in other countries there is an explosion of experiments trying to encourage explicit knowledge production initiative within activism (from the initiatives on militant research to the proliferation of autonomous universities), US social movements are moving a bit slower on this. Often in our experience there has been a lack of care or attention towards practices conducive to the production and distribution of knowledge: the textual production by and about movements is low or oriented to quick and dirty report-back activities; the amount of more formal venues for paused reflections such as conferences, publications, is far from other countries such as Argentina or Italy. One way then to improve our tactics and grow effectivity might be recuperating our history and realizing that what movements do –from poster making to elaborated speeches to creative direct actions- is produce “insurgent knowledge”.

2) Death to the Middles Class!

What do we mean by that..? Well obviously we’re not talking about killing anybody. Rather, that we may have to kill or drop that concept insofar as we’ve been using it until now. It’s a confusing and muddled notion and it’s not always clear that it tells us much of anything. It seems to be used in the US generally to designate almost anyone above homelessness and below the Rockefellers. In US based movements we often use this term as a way to almost dismiss a group, strategy, or even a person entirely. It has been an important achievement on the one hand, to acknowledge privilege or to root-it-out where it exists. US social movements seem to be quite unique in this: working on the question of priviledge, as to how your class, race, sexual orientation, ethnic background, etc. actually carry certain kinds of ‘unwritten’ rights or lack thereof. This work –through workshops, meetings process, and shared ethics in general- is part of creating and strengthening grass-roots movements and a non-elitist, anti-authoritarian culture. On the other hand though, it has become a means of also handicapping lots of potential social movements’ activity or dismissing some that already exists. We’ve often found real people with real problems who are consistently categorized as middle class because of a particular status they have, education, racial category, etc.; and therefore for many activists their only genuine way of being involved in activism is to fight for ‘others’ rather than starting from their own conditions. If not they have to justify to the world that they are really really part of the “oppressed” in order to be accepted. It is worthwhile to mention here how movements elsewhere do not always work with such pre-defined categories (“priviledged” vs. “oppressed”) and some are actively trying to articulate more flexible identities of struggle, more prone to finding affinities amongst each other and thus facilitating alliances. This is the case of many movements working on “precarity” in the European Union. A “precarious” person would be the one who is dealing with living conditions associated with current economic measures such as temporary contracts, less labor protections, day-labor by undocumented workforce; as well as neoliberal approaches to social services and housing . Under this broad category then, domestic workers, TAs and immigrant families are finding a niche. Despite the differences and sometimes big asymmetries among the populations, certain common experiences are being identified, allowing them to start coming together in struggles and mobilizations, each person or group departing from their own singularity- but meeting in that common shared struggle.

Just thinking through one example- higher education. US based university movements seem to be plagued by quite a bit of this thinking (both from within their own ranks, as well as how they are perceived by other movements). Some very impressive and necessary mobilizations have taken place in recent years: anti-war work, anti-sweat-shop activism, local student labor solidarity; but with only a few notable exceptions (such as the work of SLAM in NYC, or the struggle of students at Gallaudet university) there hasn’t been much of a fight to stop things like continuous tuition hikes, rising student debt; federal and state cutbacks in student aid; marketization of student life and campuses (a bit more has been done on this last one). After all, the logic goes, since it’s the ‘middle classes’ going to university, or folks who will become ‘middle class’- and not genuinely ‘grass-roots’ ‘community-based’. ‘working-class’, etc. it’s not worth defending. Many US student movements mobilize from a discourse of privilege. Due to the particular context of the US, just the fact of getting to higher education puts someone out of the ‘real’ people. From that status, your only possibility is to “help” others or show solidarity “for” them, without problematizing how the general socio-economic changes are affecting everybody, including oneself. The downside of this logic of course is that by not defending things like accessible education, low tuition, or more public funds for research, higher education is becoming increasingly stratified and apparently exclusionary.

The notion of being part of the ‘privileged middle class’ that ‘consumes happily until it dies’ blah blah blah,… limits many types of struggles that could be opened. Often the only avenue for folks is to either turn to counter-culture, or to try to justify their positions as genuinely miserable (like in many TA struggles). Maybe in a country where the term ‘middle class’ is so broad, applies to so many kinds of people, and is something so many folks identify with for better or worse, maybe one role of US-based movements is to problematize and radicalize what we mean by middle class (without losing the critique of privilege).

3) In the face of Structural Adjustment- Structural Resistance!

Here what we would like to address it is the overall lack of response to policies that, despite their direct consequences on people living in the US, are not massively contested. With the incredible exception of the migrant uprisings of May 1st 2006 & 7 there seems to be a problem in addressing many current domestic changes. Similarly controversial policies have been carried out in other countries, and interestingly enough they have been the object of critique and target of protest by many in the US. These movements have denounced how in order to carry on the project of the neoliberal globalization, international financial institutions are pressuring governments to engage in radical reforms of their national economies through packages called “structural adjustment plans” (SAPs). The well-known policies associated to these plans (e.g. privatization of public services) though, are taking place in the US itself. The threat to privatize Social Security; the reform of Chapter 11 & the Bankruptcy law (mostly used by folks who don’t have health insurance to protect them from thirsty banks and lenders); funding cuts for education and health; price hikes at the pump; double whammy welfare/workfare ‘de’forms; stolen elections, etc. Items like these have caused massive responses in countries around the world: the Bolivarian process in Venezuela has roots in the revolts against price hikes and austerity measures in ’89; the election in 2006 and the attempts to privatize Social Security in Mexico have both engendered mass protests; - in countries of the global north we see this as well in France in 2006 the rejection of the youth labor law (the CPE); in Spain a general strike in 2002 against labor reforms; and the list goes on.

Though many folks have often made guesses- can anyone figure out why there doesn’t seem to be as much response on the part of inhabitants of the US? Policies that directly attack the stability of a large sector of the so-called ‘middle class’, or put the survival minimums that many live on into risk, are passing without considerable objection or even lively public debate. One could provide arguments about why US civil society does not always engage in politics around foreign questions. However, who can understand the lack of response to domestic affairs that directly and bodily affect the everyday lives of so many Americans? The May 1st migrant movement is truly trend-setting, other than this possibly the only exception is the response of Afro-American/New Afrikan communities to police brutality. But we called this part Structural Adjustment on purpose- in that what we found interesting is how one of the areas where there is least response is to those issues that attack people’s paychecks or pocketbooks. MoveOn has done some of the only regular responding to some of these issues- if nothing else they make it easy to send a protest email. But what else is going on here? Besides what we already talk about with a lack of class awareness, or media that doesn’t cover issues, people often know they are getting gypped to say the least, but can’t figure out how to get past complaining or voting for Pepsi v. Coke/Dems v. Reps, what can be done about this?

Brief Wrapping Up

These three items can seem a bit disjointed but signal some recent general trends that could be addressed in attempting to strengthen movements in the US. They differ from some other critiques already circulating and add other ideas that could change the shape and flavor of some movements. With the occasion of the US Social Forum, it is a good time to reflect on movements’ trajectories and refocus energies again. This small piece intends to be one more addition to the existing and necessary discussions and debates about movement building that will take place in the territories of the US South. See y’all on the road!