DETROIT - Twenty thousand people attending the second U.S. Social Forum here this week have staged a peaceful takeover of a city in crisis. Leaders of people's movements, together with thousands from across the nation and this city, are in charge of the streets, where they are staging colorful marches and rallies that give voice to movements for jobs, health, education, the environment and respect for human rights.
"There's a tale of two cities going on right now," said Karlos Gauna Schmieder, communications chair for the Social Forum, as he talked about this event that has temporarily transformed the downtown section of the nation's biggest rustbelt city into a neighborhood teeming with people full of ideas.
"There's another city that has brought together, not this kind of crowd, but international leaders - many of whom are isolated from their people, to discuss free market solutions to the current free market crisis," Schmieder said, "and you can see the difference in the streets of these two cities.".
He was referring to Toronto where, at a gathering of leaders of the G-20 nations, a reported $1 billion has been spent on security and police out of fear of demonstrators opposed to measures being enacted there to deal with the world economic crisis.
Here in Detroit, right-wing commentators in some of the local press had warned that the thousands of "assorted leftists" arriving for the Social Forum could disrupt life in Detroit. One claimed that the attendees would provide no benefit to the local economy and that "Obama would be among them as a community organizer were he not in the White House."
The reality is far different. One of the few policemen visible anywhere Thursday was directing traffic in and out of a downtown garage to allow marchers to pass. "We're glad everyone's here," he said, "having a good time and helping boost the economy."
Demonstrators in Toronto, including labor leaders who have also gathered in that city, are concerned about what global leaders will do regarding bank taxes, trade balances, budget cuts and austerity measures.The heavy police presence in Toronto has already been visible at dozens of protests there against what the protesters see as policies that make the rich wealthier at the expense of women, children and working class people around the world.
Here, many of the participants in U.S. Social Forum opening march Tuesday carried banners and signs echoing the concerns of the Toronto marchers. The message was that what happens in Detroit, the "ground zero" of a failed economy in the U.S., is connected to what happens around the world.
Alejandro Villamar, a Mexican participant at the Social Forum, said, "The G-20's empty promises have exhausted their credibility and moral authority before the people of the world. The global crisis requires real, just and timely solutions. Their rhetoric does not stop the climate crisis, it does not stop the voracity of financial speculators, and it does not stop the hunger of millions of people. Instead, we need immediate solutions that meet our demands for social justice."
"Our fight in Mexico is part of the same fight you have here in Detroit," he said.
The thousands gathered here are struggling to hammer out some of the immediate solutions Villamar said are needed.
There are over 1,000 workshops, 50 People's Movements Assemblies, art galleries and a youth space full of young people grappling with the business of transforming the world.
Participation from the labor movement is much greater than at the first U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta in 2007. "This is important," Schmeider said, "because labor and the groups represented here are natural allies - we succeed if we work together." The AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers, the Steelworkers, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and others are here in an official capacity.
Among the huge variety of organizations present are the Communist Party USA and the Young Communist League, both of which held several public events and maintained one of the hundreds of tables set up by different organizations.
At a workshop run by the party, Sam Webb, its national chair, discussed the importance of all groups coming together to fight the extreme right and he discussed the need to strengthen and build upon the coalition that elected President Obama. For the long range, Webb said, socialism is in the cards and is necessary for the building of the new world sought by the thousands gathered in Detroit.
Photo: The U.S. Social Forum opening march, Detroit, June 22. (PW/Libero Della Piana)