At the evening plenary on the opening day of the Midwest Social Forum, four organizers discussed the ways in which activists can work to build a multi-racial movement for social justice. The panelists—Azusena Olaguez with the Southwest Youth Collaborative, Baye Camara of Companions on the Journey, Carlos Rios of the Iowa Immigrant Rights Network—addressed a variety of issues pertaining to progressive movements for social change and race including incarceration rates and its effects on building multi-racial movements, the role of white progressives, coalition building across races, the United States’ legacy of racism and its ramifications for organizing, and the necessities of building a multiracial movement.
The panel offered a number of suggestions for white progressives and radicals on how they can contribute to the building a multiracial movement. One theme that came up throughout the discussion was that white radicals need to come to an understanding that an acknowledgement of the United State’s history of racism and imperialism must be central to organizing efforts. Azusena Olaguez explained that the primarily Latino youth that she works with have been able to recognize that there is 350 year history of slavery and racism on which the United States is based and that the youth she works with have sought out African-Americans to ask them how best to address this reality, something that white progressives never do. On a similar note, Karen Bond suggested that white progressives need to go to majority people of color organizations, sit through meetings, and feel intimidated in order to come to a partial understanding of what people of color have to go through. Baye Camara observed that white progressives have a tendency to show up once they think there is a problem and saying that they help but frequently ignore the fact that the problem may have stemmed from their failure to be there in the first place. One audience member reminded folks the underlying issue is not racism but rather white supremacy and that white radicals need to stop asking people of color in what they should do and instead talk to each other about what white folks are going to do to stop racism. Along similar lines, Karen Bond recommended that white progressives read the essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (http://www.mwsocialforum.org/node/878)” by Peggy McIntosh to better understand the role of white privilege in United States society. She also reminded white organizers to address racism from the beginning and to acknowledge that while it is not possible to solve the problems of racism immediately, it is imperative that they be addressed.
The panel also discussed the question of whether or not a multiracial movement is truly possible and debated its necessity. Bond asserted that she “doesn’t think multiracial organizing is always a necessary part of the process” and explained that while white progressives often gasp at this comment, the reality is that while they cannot organize for the most oppressed (largely people of color in society), African-Americans could organize around any issue and succeed because in order to survive in society they have to have an understanding of how what white people want. Bond also reminded the audience—made up of largely white progressives—that there remains a lot of organizing to be done in white communities with respect to their own racism. Moderator Salim Muwakkil of In These Times offered his opinion that in light of the high rates of incarceration of people of color in the United States that this might be an issue on which blacks and browns can unite, largely in response to questions about why there has not been a strong black-brown movement in the United States. Karen Bond argued that the fact that this coalition has not been formed stems in part from the interest of the majority white culture to keep the races separate and the internalization by people of color of the views of the majority culture. Baye Camara explained that his approach is essentially one through which he understands race and its relationship to his prison organizing, but that at this point he and prisoners who are currently incarcerated welcome whatever help they can get, or as he phrased it, “if we are drowning, we are not too particular about who is saving me.” He expanded this point later stating that the question probably should not be one of “buddying up” to people of color but building a movement that can empower people to meet their basic needs and tear down imperialism. Azusena Oleguez also made the statement that while it is important to focus on building multi-racial movements and organizations, it is also important to recognize the differences.
The panelists, specifically Karen Bond, also examined the ways in which people of color are marginalized by the corporate media, and in many cases, the independent media. Bond’s organization, the National Black Coalition for Media Justice, is addressing the issue of black representation in the media by a twofold approach of working to claim African-Americans rightful place in the corporate media and creating their own media to address the inadequacies of the dominant culture’s media system. Bond expressed that it is important to work within the corporate media because for every radical created through the independent media several racists are created by the corporate media. She also addressed the fact that the media reform movement in the United States is dominated by white progressives, which Bond argues is largely due to the fact that the privileged white activists often have the most time to work on the issue. However, with that privilege, comes a responsibility to be proactive in getting people of color involved in the movement as people of color are the most affected by the media’s racism, pointing out that “if whites have a sniffle, blacks have a fatal disease.” The media reform movement has exasperated this situation by taking the majority of the funding available for media reform organizing while increasing corporate consolidation has increased sexism and racism in the media and in some cases, such as Clear Channel’s owning of all black radio stations in Chicago, make it difficult for the African-American community to organize direct boycotts of media organizations in order to make them better serve the community. Carlos Rios also explained that the immigrant rights movement has had difficulties gaining media coverage of the immigration, as the media has only been interested in covering large events.
The panel also address the racial make-up of the Midwest Social Forum itself, responding in part to criticisms from organizations who charged that the Midwest Social Forum has failed to adequately approach organizations of color and was not organized in a way that valued the contributions of organizations of color and respected their contributions to the movement for social change. Among the allegations in a letter circulated on the Milwaukee Independent Media Center website were that:
The Midwest/Radfest Social Forum will take place July 2006 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but it is not about building a movement for a more just Milwaukee. A Social Forum should make a commitment to the struggles of the local area where the event is held. Last year, the Midwest Social Forum was named RadFest and held in posh Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. RadFest historically has been a retreat for white activists to examine and discuss social movements, and prospects for white student and white activist collaboration. The current incarnation of the “Forum” did not grow collectively out of the social forum movement, it was just renamed the Midwest Social Forum.
This year, it was decided that RadFest’s name be changed and the location be moved to a “more accessible” place such as UW-Milwaukee, ironically, one of the most inaccessible institutions in the City for Black and Brown folk. Radfest Social Forum Colonizers believed that if the retreat was held in an “urban” setting, more people of color and poor people would attend.
In addition to moderate attempts to recruit more people of color, the language of the retreat was changed to create the illusion that it would be truly multiracial and more closely aligned to a social forum. But rather than learn from work that is already being done in Milwaukee’s communities, organizers imposed their vision of what their urbanized retreat would look like, then invited people of color to join in. Sounds familiar, right?
The Radfest Social Forum is again illustration of the kinds of struggles people of color deal with when confronting white supremacy. Rather than move toward discussion before claiming the Midwest Social Forum, Radfest proceeded to bypass a process of mutual respect and dialogue between our communities of social justice advocates.
The Midwest/Radfest Social Forum used a tired dynamic that we as people of color know well: wealthy white people who have no investment in our communities came in, drew the blueprints, gathered the materials, and then invited us to do the work so it’s done right and benefits them.
Azusena Olaguez stated that he was disappointed at the turnout of people of color at the Forum and emphasized that more work needed to be done to bring them to the table as part of the effort. Similarly, Baye Comara explained that many people of color no doubt feel shut out by the process and that the only way to get them involved is to go into the communities and get people to the Forum.