20,000 march in Detroit as Social Forum opens

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DETROIT - Opening the U.S. Social Forum in this city hit hard by the economic crisis, 20,000 from around the nation marched Tuesday calling for jobs, economic and social justice and equality.

They range from conservatively dressed professionals and workers from all sorts of backgrounds to young people lugging backpacks and sleeping bags. They are a rainbow - Black, white, Latino, Asian Pacific and Native American. It amounts to a peaceful takeover of the Motor City for the first week of summer, by union members, community activists, civil rights supporters, environmentalists and many more.

"The labor movement in this capital of organized labor welcomes all of you to this city," declared Sandra Williams, president of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO, at an opening gathering attended by thousands.

"When unions grow stronger good things happen for all workers, union and non-union," she said to the cheers of the throng. "The labor movement needs to get to know all of you and to help in your struggles. You need to get to know the labor movement and support workers in all of their struggles - particularly the fight to organize. That way, we will all go forward together," she said, to more cheers.

Marian Kramer  of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization was in the crowd. "Detroit is ground zero for the failed economy," she said, "with almost 30 percent unemployment and severe environmental threats to our air and water.

"This Social Forum shows we are not just a city of problems, but we are also a city of solutions," she said.

She said her organization has been able to slow down utility shutoffs in the area. And the East Michigan Environmental Council says it has helped win recent strengthening of regulations on water quality here.

Native Americans and their struggles occupy a prominent position at this U.S. Social Forum.

The forum opened with a ceremony and songs by the First Nation Dancers and Drummers, who are from the Anishinabe nation, which is indigenous to the state of Michigan.

Anishinabe leaders told the crowd that the protection of their ceremonies and cultural practices was a serious concern for them. The Anishinabe, who have been in the Detroit area for many generations, face problems of assimilation, they said. They see preserving their culture and history as having been made difficult by those in power and they said that if they can pursue their own traditions freely they will be able to make a bigger contribution to the broader progressive movements.

The Communist Party USA and the Young Communist League are among the many organizations participating in the Social Forum. The two groups marched in the parade yesterday and the YCL is sponsoring a workshop entitled "Jobs and Education, not War" on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Sam Webb, chair of the Communist Party, will lead a discussion entitled "From reform to revolution: Working class politics in the age of President Obama."

The party and YCL will sponsor a "meet and greet" with refreshments Thursday night at the downtown Swords into Plowshares Peace Center.

The U.S. Social Forum traces its roots back to the World Social Forum in Brazil in 2001 - the people's alternative to the the World Economic Forum, the annual gathering of big capitalists at Davos, Switzerland. The first U.S. Social Forum was held in Atlanta in 2007.

Photo: PW/Libero Della Piana