Reports from the 2006 Midwest Social Forum

During the weekend of July 6 through July 9, Media Mouse attended the Midwest Social Forum held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and has dedicated the past week of news updates to reports from the Forum as means of encouraging ongoing organizing in Grand Rapids.

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During the weekend of July 6 through July 9, Media Mouse attended the Midwest Social Forum held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Forum—an outgrowth of RadFest—featured an extensive array of panels, workshops, plenary sessions, and films under the banner “Another World is Possible.” Media Mouse has dedicated the past week of featured stories to reports from the Midwest Social Forum as means of publishing a series of pieces pertaining to organizing for radical social change, as encouraging such organizing is the ongoing impetus behind Media Mouse. While we make every effort to cover the issues being ignored by the corporate media, our goal remains to challenge the prevailing social structures and to foster movements for radical social change that work towards the liberation of all people and the protection of the earth and to encourage our readers involvement in such movements.

To that end, many of the articles posted over the past week offer insights that may be of use to individuals and groups participating in a variety of efforts for social change in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The articles cover issues such as antiwar organizing, the immigrant rights movement, the fight against water privatization, and more:

With coverage of the Midwest Social Forum complete we will move forward with our regular coverage and as the famed Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti said, we will “carry a new world in our hearts.”

Repression, Rights, and Resistance—Fighting Brutality, Violence, and Racial Oppression in our Communities: Midwest Social Forum

At the final plenary session of the Midwest Social Forum, three youth organizing discussed how their work fighting brutality, violence, and racial oppression in their communities and shared strategies that could be used elsewhere.

The final plenary session of the 2006 Midwest Social Forum was held last Saturday in Milwaukee and was titled “Repression, Rights, and Resistance: Fighting Brutality, Violence, and Racial Oppression” in our communities. In a wide-ranging discussion moderated by Adrienne Maree Brown of the Ruckus Society, Brown encouraged the panelists—Camille Griffin of the American Friends Service Committee, Biko Baker of Campaign against Violence, and David Crowley of Urban Underground–to discuss the success of their organizing against military recruiting, community violence, and police brutality. While focusing on the successes, Brown did admit that there are several challenges to combating violence especially with regard to a lack of resources in communities as a cause of violence, a lack of alternatives to violence for economic sustainability, organizers getting stuck in tunnel vision and focusing just on one issue and consequently missing opportunities for collaboration with other organizations, and the importance of resisting organizers’ instinct to always be in “critical mode” and simply reacting instead of offering alternatives.

The panel began with Camille Griffin of the American Friends Service Committee talking about her work countering military recruiters with youth of color. Griffin began by explaining the reality that in communities of color there is a lack of resources and as such the military—with its money for colleges, housing, jobs, travel, and even fancy cars such as Hummers driven by recruiters—seems like one of the more attractive options despite the existence of other alternatives. Griffin explained how her group has done presentations in schools across Chicago, has gone to places where youth congregate, and has also encouraged the audience to make use of the internet and MySpace as a means of reaching youth. The importance of reaching youth and getting them involved in counter-recruiting work should be obvious, but as Griffin pointed out, it is primarily older folks leading the movement and doing the work. She explained how youth need to be brought into the movement by explaining to them the realities of military service, helping them find alternatives to military service, and providing them with the organizing skills to do the work. Among the alternatives she cited were Pell Grants and other scholarships for education (while admitting that the process of obtaining loans and scholarships is not as easy as the “all-in-one” package that the military gives, cooperatives in Chicago that offer housing, neighborhood organizations that teach job skills that are actually useful (compared to training in the military on how to repair tank engines), and alternatives to travel through programs such as the Peace Corps.

The next panelist to speak was David Crowley, a youth organizer with the group Urban Underground in Milwaukee. Crowley explained his work in a cop watch program where youth follow police with video cameras in “cop watch cars” and inform people having interactions with the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) of their rights and responsibility. Crowley said that this work is “giving freedom back to people” by both informing them of their rights and educating them that the police—setting aside structural issues—work just as much for them as anyone else. He asserted that police will not beat people if everyone knows their rights and if the police know they are being watched and explained how even something as simple as asserting your right to know a police officer’s badge number can change the power dynamic in an interaction with the police. Among the successes of his group’s work was the defeat of a draconian law that would have criminalized groups of police standing in a crowd of more than three people as a “gang” and the fact that Urban Underground has done some training for the MPD on how to improve relations with youth in the inner city. Crowley encouraged people to expand communication across generations and races as a means of addressing violence in cities.

The final panelist was Biko Baker of the Campaign against Violence who talked about his work “serving the community” and addressing violence in the community as a human issue and not simple a “youth issue.” Baker explained that his work was motivated by the fact that he always thought he would be killed on the streets of Milwaukee and explained the positive role that spoken word and hip-hop had on his life. While structural issues such as poverty and a poor educational system have roles in perpetuating violence, Baker explained that these issues can only be addressed once people acknowledge them and come together to as a group to address the issue. For Baker, much of the problem with violence stems from the failures of the educational system and Baker expressed the importance of challenging the privatization of schools and the need to get rid of the No Child Left Behind Act. Within the schools, Baker said that hip-hop curriculum and culturally sensitive curriculum can help reach people who are identified as “unreachable” by the school system and aid them in making positive improvements in their lives. He explained that the message that kids are worthless—a message perpetuated by all forms of media—needs to be countered and kids need to be empowered with the sense that their lives matter if there is to be an end to violence.

Freedom of Speech at Risk—How to Challenge the Establishment to get Media Justice: Midwest Social Forum

Last weekend at the Midwest Social Forum, a workshop was held on the issue of media justice and the ways in which progressives can work towards a movement for racial justice in the media.

In light of the fact that five corporations determine the content of most broadcast and print media, Karen Bond of the National Black Coalition for Media Justice and Chicago Media Action along with Salim Muwakki of In These Times conducted a workshop at the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee last Sunday focusing on the issue of media justice and ways in which it can be worked towards. The workshop offered an overview of how white progressives and the “media reform” movements often fail to understand the need for media justice, with Karen Bond explaining that it is difficult for white people to understand how institutions such as the media work against the aspirations of people of color. Media justice was framed as an issue that cuts across all issues and the two panelists urged people to incorporate media justice work into their organizing.

Salim Muwakki began the workshop by explaining how the number one issue of media justice is the question of addressing slavery’s racial legacy. He explained how people of color have been systematically excluded from the media and that they remain the most oppressed sector of United States’ society and as such, the status of people of color can be seen as an indicator of how democratic media is in the United States. Poverty, education, and incarceration—all issues which have tremendous effects on people of color and how they are portrayed in the media—are never examined by the corporate media as part of a racist system, with many in the corporate media having “race fatigue” that sees racism as “old news.” While some media outlets have report on prisons and how high incarceration rates threaten the viability of the African-American community, the coverage has been inadequate compared to the scope of the problem due to the exclusion of African-Americans from the media. Muwakki reminded the audience that the movement for media reform, which has grown over the past few years and gained considerable support in white progressive circles, has often not incorporated justice and has often viewed white supremacy as the status quo and has not offered much opportunity for people of color. As such, Muwakki expressed the opinion that media justice has to have a distinct part separated from the movement for media democracy and explained that media activists need to reach out and facilitate a dialog with people of color. Muwakki advocated for a two-tiered approach for achieving media justice that not only seeks better coverage and representation in the corporate media but also includes building racially just independent media outlets.

Karen Bond expanded this discussion by describing how recent media policy has continued to exclude people of color from the media and encouraged racist beliefs through the media’s negative portrayals of people of color. She explained that with only five corporations owning the majority of the media that it is easy for such racist portrayals to be seen as the status quo and that it is essential for folks to continue to challenge this. She cited the 1996 Telecommunications Act as being partially responsible for these portrayals, describing it as “a major media power grab” that has since limited the diversity of voices in the media. She explained to the audience how many corporations spread stories written by one reporter across a variety of media outlets, thereby limiting voices and perspectives that the public hears. As an example, she cited Clear Channel and their massive radio that which includes the ownership of many stations in communities of color and the effect that Clear Channel’s ownership has had on limiting free speech. The audience was encouraged to consider the fact that journalism is protected in the United States constitution as a government watchdog and explained that people need to realize that once journalism is no longer protected that freedom and democracy will essentially be gone as well. In this vein, she urged people to work against media monopolies and to monitor media ownership by people of color and to work to ensure more ownership of media outlets by people of color in order to prevent the limiting of voices.

Karen Bond offered a variety of suggestions on how to incorporate media justice work into the everyday organizing work being done by progressive groups. She encouraged the audience to incorporate media justice work into their organizing as a key component of organizing and urged every group to dedicate people to working on this issue, as she argued that it is impossible to succeed without accurate media coverage. She also encouraged organizers to develop better relationships with the media as a means of generating better coverage. As a means of securing better coverage, she asked the audience to get involved in the fight to save public access and to get involved in advocacy work dealing with media policy. The importance of “localism” was stressed and expanded to not just encompass local content but also local ownership, with Bond arguing that local ownership is key if people are going to have success in holding the media accountable. She also urged the audience to exploit the mainstream media whenever given the chance as its reach is unmatched by the independent media.

Media justice was also discussed extensively last year at the National Conference on Media Reform held in St. Louis.

Justice on the Border—Minutemen, Militarization, and Deaths on the Migrant Trail: Midwest Social Forum

In a panel discussion last week at the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee, activists discussed organizing efforts along the United States-Mexico border focused on armed vigilante groups, the militarization of the border, and the deaths of immigrants crossing the border.

In the ongoing debate over immigration, there has been considerable focus on the Minutemen, an armed vigilante group that has taken upon itself the task of patrolling portions of the United States-Mexico border to make up for what it sees as the failings of the United States Border Patrol. The Minutemen have deserved this attention, being perhaps the most extreme manifestation of racism in the immigration debate with their willingness to shoot immigrants and their ties to white supremacist groups. However, confronting vigilante groups is just one aspect of border organizing being done in the southwestern United States with activists also working to combat the increased militarization of the border as well as stopping the deaths of immigrants attempting to cross the border. These border organizing efforts were the subject of a panel discussion titled “Justice on the Border: Minutemen, Militarization, and Deaths on the Migrant Trail” at the Midwest Social Forum held last Saturday in Milwaukee. The panel feature two organizers, Ray Ybarra of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Alexis Mazon of the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos and Immigrant Defense Task Force in Tucson.

The panel began with Ray Ybarra discussing how he came up with the idea of coordinating legal observers to monitor the Minutemen and other vigilante groups as a means of pressuring them to stop and to protect the lives of immigrants. He explained that the vigilantes along the border are motivated by “fear and a misunderstanding of people of color” that has led them to advocate—and in many cases participate in—violence towards immigrants. He cited Roger Barnett, a rancher and vigilante who claims to have “caught” 2,000 immigrants and was cited in a civil rights lawsuit (http://www.borderaction.org/campaigns2.php?articleID=56) for his detention of a group of immigrants who he held captive using an assault rifle and dogs as an example of the racism and violence that exists along the border. Vigilantes such as Barnett have both diverted attention from the real issues that motivate immigration (neoliberal trade policy and corporate policy) and pushed anti-immigrant sentiment further to the right. As proof of this, Ybarra cited the Minutemen’s connections to white supremacist groups and the increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric found in white supremacist publications and on white supremacist websites, some of which goes to the level of actually encouraging people to kill “illegals.” His research on vigilante groups led him to request information from the United States government via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that assisted him in coordinating non-violent legal observations of the groups which rather than focusing on the militant confrontation that some anti-racist groups have used, have approached vigilantes simply by putting them under video surveillance. Ybarra said that this approach has had success in that there has been no violence when observers have been around. However, with continued media attention, vigilantes and racist groups have been successful in getting law enforcement officials in border states to increase their repression of immigrants through measures such as checkpoints to check for papers and increased deployments under the guise of “homeland security.” For Ybarra, allies of immigrants have to consider the important question of how they can use their privilege to confront these groups as a part of the larger immigrant rights movement.

Alexis Mazon expanded upon Ybarra’s comments by explaining that it is not just vigilante groups that are attacking immigrants on the border but also the United States government and other local law enforcement units. She explained that the militarization of the border—begun in 1994 under former President Bill Clinton—has increased deaths along the border both due to violence as well as the increased environmental danger for immigrants who have to cross in increasingly remote locations. Since 1994, some 4,000 immigrants have died attempting to cross the border, often due to the gruesome and agonizing process of dying by dehydration or hypothermia. These 4,000 deaths are only those that have been found, yet even then it equates to at least one death per day. Many of these deaths have also been caused by the actions of the United States Border Patrol, an agency that has a long history of abusing immigrants through violence including the recent killing of a Mexican teenager who was run down by a Border Patrol SUV when attempting to cross with her father. Such deaths are an example of what she termed the “decriminalization of state violence” where violence has increased and disciplinary action has decreased. Not only has militarization brought the physical threat of violence to a new high, but it has also increased legislative attacks with legislation in Arizona requiring proof of insurance to be shown when pulled over when driving or otherwise the vehicle is confiscated (to get it back individuals must show proof of United States citizenship), aggravated sentencing whereby judges can arbitrarily add years when sentencing an undocumented immigrant, banning funding to day labor centers, and requiring proof of citizenship to gain access to healthcare. Such legislation has also drawn the support of white supremacist groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Council of Conservative Citizens, both of which have been active locally here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mazon also reminded the audience that many of these measures have gained the support of Democrats and that any bill that increases or maintains the current level of militarization is unacceptable, including the ideas of so-called “advocates” of the immigrant rights movement who are willing to accept the notion of a “smart border” with cameras, satellites, biometrics, and unmanned flying vehicles.

The Impact of NAFTA and Globalization on Immigration: Midwest Social Forum

On Saturday, a panel discussion was held at the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee to examine the oft-forgotten ways in which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and globalization provide a necessary context for understanding the debate over immigrant rights.

On Saturday, a panel discussion was held at the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee to examine the oft-forgotten ways in which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and globalization provide a necessary context for understanding the debate over immigrant rights. The discussion featured three panelists—Leila Pine, a labor and immigrant rights activist; Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Voces de la Frontera; and Leone Bicchieri an organizer with the SIEU’s Justice for Janitors campaign. The panel explored how NAFTA has affected Mexico and spurred immigration, NAFTA’s continuation of a legacy of colonialism towards Mexico, and how organized labor—as one of the most vocal opponents of NAFTA—can support the movement for immigrant rights.

The panel began with Wisconsin activist Leila Pine sharing a slideshow of photos that she took of Mexico on a recent delegation to the country. The photos were shared as a means of setting the stage from which to talk about NAFTA, with the photos clearly showing a harsh economic reality for much of the Mexican population, particularly for those living in rural communities where agriculture has been devastated and where low-wage workers—often displaced due to NAFTA—work in maquiladoras. This economic reality has been brought about in part due to the combined removal of access barriers for United States agribusiness under NAFTA, the elimination of the Mexican Ejidos system of communally owned land as mandated by NAFTA, and United States corn subsidies that have resulted in the flooding of the Mexican market. Christine Neumann-Ortiz asserted that NAFTA has brought nothing more than “unemployment and exploitation” both in the United States and in Mexico. Neumann-Ortiz explained that while Mexico has become the United States’ second largest trading partner, more jobs have been lost since the passage of NAFTA than have been gained. Her statistics, from the years 1994 to 2002, documented that 500,000 factory jobs have been gained due to NAFTA but that 1.3 million have been lost in Mexico while wages for these jobs have also fallen. In the United States, one million jobs have been lost and new jobs obtained by workers displaced by NAFTA pay 13% less and are in the service industry. This has created a situation where workers on both sides of the border are being exploited and set against each other using a “divide and conquer” strategy that prevents strong union organizing.

Both Leila Pine and Christine Neumann-Ortiz placed the discussion of NAFTA in the larger context of colonialism in the Americas. Early on in the discussion, Pine reminded the audience that globalization was not the beginning of United States’ domination through trade but that rather it is a continuation of colonialism. While NAFTA has rightfully garnered considerable attention, it is only the latest in a long line of economic policies that institutionalize colonialism. Neumann-Ortiz expanded on this by explaining that there has always been an uneven economic relationship between the United States and Mexico—formed during the era of colonialism—and continuing to this day through institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Contemporary neoliberal trade agreements with their opening of borders for capital but closing them for people were described as being “essential” to understanding immigration. It was also mentioned that these trade agreements, by virtue of their affects on both immigrants and workers within the United States, could function as a basis for bringing disparate movements such as the immigrant, labor, and environmental movements together.

The final panelist, Leone Bicchieri of the SEIU, shared a number of insights into why the labor movement has failed to get involved in the struggle for immigrant rights despite the fact that the struggle of immigrants and labor are often “one in the same.” He explained that this coalition has failed to materialize for a number of historical reasons including the narrow view that unions are only pursuing membership, that labor leaders have historically failed to act in solidarity with black and brown communities, and a failure on the part of unions in the United States to engage in (or even talk about) class struggle. He apologized for the fact that the labor movement in the United States has been historically racist, but argued that now the immigrant and labor movements need to come together to act collectively. To do this, organized labor is going to need to give up the idea that the goal is simply to elect better politicians and instead needs to start “catering to the needs of the people.” He explained how in Madison on May 1 the labor and immigrant movements were able to come together over mutual interest in a unionization campaign and explained that the September Labor Day demonstrations for immigrant rights will be another opportunity to work together. Bicchieri went on to state that unions need to actively participate in the immigrant rights struggle and not simply “join” it by going to events and attempting to get people involved in labor’s issues.

Exploring the History and Myths of US Immigration—Setting the Record Straight: Midwest Social Forum

As part of a series of workshops and discussions held on the issue of immigration and the prospects for continued organizing efforts on the part of the immigrant rights movement, a workshop titled “Exploring the History and Myths of US Immigration: Setting the Record Straight” was held this past Saturday in Milwaukee as part of the 2006 Midwest Social Forum.

As part of a series of workshops and discussions held on the issue of immigration and the prospects for continued organizing efforts on the part of the immigrant rights movement, a workshop titled “Exploring the History and Myths of US Immigration: Setting the Record Straight” was held this past Saturday in Milwaukee as part of the 2006 Midwest Social Forum. The workshop was designed to review the history of United States immigration policy, to address the various myths that circulate in the media and in the discussion about immigration, and to give an overview the proposed legislation that has come out of the United States House of Representatives and the Senate. The workshop consisted of three panelists active in the immigrant rights movement and invested in the success of long-term organizing efforts in immigrant communities—Salvador Carranza of Latinos United for Change and Advancement (LUChA), Alfonso Zepeda-Capistran of Latinos United for Change and Advancement (LUChA), and Alexis Mazon of the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos and Immigrant Defense Task Force in Tucson, Arizona.

The workshop began with Alexis Mazon giving and overview of the current legislation in Congress—the House’s bill HR 4437 and the Senate’s bill S 26.11 (often called the Hegel-Martinez bill), both of which she described as “very frightening” and expressed frustration that the two bills are now seen by many in Congress and the United States as the only possibilities for immigrants. As would be expected, Mazon rejected the approach of criminalization of immigrants offered by Wisconsin Representative F. James Sensenbrenner in HR 4437 and outlined how the bill would build more walls along the border, make “existence” within the United States without documents a felony subject to detention, deportation, and a lifetime ban from entering the United States, and would make it a crime for individuals and organizations within the United States to aid undocumented immigrants. However, Mazon’s criticism of the Senate’s bill—seen by some as a compromise in light of the draconian House bill—was a departure from much of the dominant discussion within progressive movements and set the stage for a real discussion of how the movement should respond to a “compromise” bill that fails to address even the most minimal aspirations of the movement. Mazon called the Senate bill a “report to deport” measure and explained that the bill’s “legalization” provisions were offered in exchange for leaving the United States and registration with the government with no guarantees that workers would be allowed back into the United States once they left as one of the preconditions for the guest worker program. Aside from criticizing the guest worker program as an inadequate solution to address immigration caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other economic and structural reasons for immigration, Mazon outlined other “criminalization” aspects of the Senate legislation. These included the provisions making it a crime potentially subject to deportation to have ever used a false security number to obtain employment, the creation of a “continuing crime offense” where immigrants who admit to crossing the border without doing so legally are considered to have committed a “continuing crime” that is subject to up to twenty years in prison, indefinite detention provisions for immigrants, increased cooperation between local police and the border patrol, the expansion of detention facilities (which will be done by companies such as Halliburton, Bechtel, and Wackenhutt), and the extension of a wall along the United States-Mexico border. Panelist Alfonso Zepeda-Capistran echoed Mazon’s objections to the Senate bill and also pointed out that while the media has emphasized the “amnesty” component of the bill—a provision that does not even exist in any substantive form within the bill—there has been no discussion of its actual provisions including the lack of guarantees for admission into the guest worker program once immigrants have left the United States, the requirement for citizens to learn and demonstrate proficiency in English, and the limits placed on due process rights for immigrants.

Following Mazon’s discussion of current legislation, Salvador Carranza examined several common myths in the immigration debate. He began by discussing how militarizing the border is not a deterrent to undocumented immigration and indeed more people have enter the country via extra-legal means due to the process of criminalization and restricting the number of visas allowed. Carranza asserted that the militarization of the border or the “security approach” has cost millions of dollars as the Border Patrol increased its patrol time by a multiple of eight, its budget by ten, and increased its officers threefold since 1994. He addressed the myth that the guest worker program being offered by the Senate bill and the notion that immigrants take jobs by explaining how immigrants are working simply to secure their existence and that the primary responsibility for job lost lies with corporations and neoliberal trade policies. According to Carranza, a guest worker program would create a second class of citizens that will depress the wages of all workers. The myth that undocumented immigrants cost money was countered by the facts that the $10.1 million spent nationally to provide immigrants with servers often goes unclaimed as immigrants use half the services over their lifetime that they are eligible for, that the Social Security system has made $420 billion from immigrants according to 2004 statistics (a full 10% of its revenue, that undocumented men have a 96% labor participation rate, and that with the United States projected to lose 85 million workers in the next 15 years with only 60 million being replaced, immigrants could fill that void and provide even more money for the Social Security system. Alfonso Zepeda-Capistran also explained that one of the frequent questions in the debate—why immigrants do not come legally—is largely mute as it is, for the most part, impossible due to limits placed on entry via family sponsorship, corporate sponsorship/employment, or special country designations. As examples, he explained that only 38,000 visas are given out annually for spouses, that employment visas are hard to get unless one has training in a field with high demand, and that to enter under the corporate/employment designation as an investor one must invest at least $500,000 and create ten jobs. Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights one of the many groups present at the Midwest Social Forum has a number of fact sheets dealing with immigration myths and the process of immigrating to the United States.

Unfortunately, while there was little time to address the complete history of immigration policy in the United States, the panelists were able to respond to audience questions about how would be the best way to address the issue of immigration. Alexis Mazon explained to the audience that Texas Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee of the Congressional Black Caucus offered a much more humane immigration bill that would allow for legal permanent residency of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for five years, would double the number of family visas allowed, and would increase the number of work visas awarded to immigrants. Mazon rightly criticized Jackson-Lee’s bill for failing to address NAFTA and other root causes of immigration, but explained it was the best proposal in Congress until Congress realizes that they have a vested interest in developing policies such as living wages, health care, and fair housing as a means of “securing people” instead of “securing” borders. Salvador Carranza offered up the European Union’s policy on immigration as a potential sample policy as well. Of course, as Carranza pointed out, when there are people such as Bill O’Reilly openly admitting that they are fighting immigration legislation as means of maintaining white privilege, it is hard to believe that there could be a legislative or legal path to realize the human rights of immigrants. Mazon argued that aside from being ineffective in light of the current situation and the history of the criminalization of immigrants, electoral strategies “leave out millions” and cannot approach the power of mass mobilizations and community organizing strategies. Mazon declared that current immigration policy where 5,000 have been found dead on the border in the last 12 years is “literally killing” the immigrant community and that immigrants have been sold out by politicians every time whether it has been the Real Id Act, Homeland Security, or Senate bill 26.11.

Another World is Possible: Building Our Multi-Racial Movement: Midwest Social Forum

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 and overcome the racism that often dominates white progressive movements.

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.

The Fight against Water Privatization in Wisconsin, Michigan, and the World: Midwest Social Forum 2006

In a workshop titled “Grassroots Struggle Against Water Privatization: The Fight against Corporate Water Bottling Companies” at the 2006 Midwest Social Forum, four panelists outlined recent struggles against water privatization in the Midwest states of Michigan and Wisconsin, in the United States, and across the world.

In a workshop titled “Grassroots Struggle Against Water Privatization: The Fight against Corporate Water Bottling Companies” at the 2006 Midwest Social Forum, four panelists outlined recent struggles against water privatization in the Midwest states of Michigan and Wisconsin, in the United States, and across the world. The panel consisted of Don Roy of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, Arlene Kanno of Wisconsin-based Concerned Citizens of Newport, Orin Langelle of the Global Justice Ecology Project and Jessica Roach of Food and Water Watch, all of whom have been active in these struggles both in their local communities and within the global context of resistance to the commodification of water.

Arlene Kanno, who is involved with Concerned Citizens of Newport, a group that successfully fought and prevented a bottling operation near the Wisconsin Dells, outlined what has become a fairly typical process through which a large multinational company—in their case Nestlé—comes to an area and seeks to develop the necessary infrastructure for a large bottled water factory. In this case, Nestlé entered an unincorporated area inhabited by many farmers and people who had moved out of Wisconsin’s urban centers of Milwaukee and Madison seeking a more quiet life in the country, and sought to build a 2 mile pipeline for water along with an additional well at the bottling plant as part of a 320 acre development to host the operation (70 acres of which would be paved). Nestlé initially claimed that they would leave the area if the people wanted them to, and once opposition to the project was organized, Nestlé reneged on its promise and stayed in the area despite requests by citizens. The group then went to their state legislator who was unwilling to help them, citing the fact that they were a “freshman” legislator and essentially had no power to do anything if they were to be reelected. In response to the failings of the legislature to deal with Nestlé’s water bottling, the group began an extensive public relations and popular education campaign that emphasized the plant’s threat to prairie restoration efforts, its devastation of wetlands, ruining of the area’s “quiet” way of life, and the taking of the area’s water for private gain. The group also worked extensively to organize sportsmen, nature groups, native groups, poets, artists, and others that had an interest in protecting the area. When it became clear that Nestlé and the state were not going to bow to public pressure, the group filed a lawsuit based on the fact that water is the public trust (although the idea of a “public trust” is not a statue in Wisconsin and has no real power) and that the Wisconsin Environmental Protection Act mandates the government’s protection of water resources (although this seems void if the government wants a harmful development). Following an initial delay, the lawsuit was one by the Concerned Citizens of Newport, although they have continued organizing after stopping the plant because their victory resulted in Nestlé moving its bottling efforts to Michigan.

Of particular interest to residents living in West Michigan was Don Roy’s discussion of the struggle to stop Nestlé from pumping and bottling water in Mecosta County. Roy explained how Nestlé, a large multinational corporation, came into Michigan almost immediately after its defeat in Wisconsin and sought to apply the lessons that it learned there in combating the grassroots movement that formed in Michigan to oppose Nestlé’s bottling operation. Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) was one of the groups to come together opposing the bottling of Michigan’s water, objecting to it based on the potential for environmental impairment and harm with the operation being near streams, lakes, and wetlands; the commodification and privatization for profit of a vital public resource (Nestlé only paid for its permit and pays the state and its residents no additional money for taking its water); and the fact that bottling water is not a sustainable form of economic development. MCWC formed in December of 2000 and has seen its membership grow to 1,800 and recently was successful in obtaining an out of court settlement to a case in Michigan Circuit Court that requires Nestlé to limit how much they are bottling (400 gallons per minute) and to submit data on their operations to a hydro-geologist working with MCWC. The group is currently in the process of petitioning the Michigan Supreme Court in a case that seeks to stop the operation completely and is considering other avenues to pursue the struggle against water privatization in Michigan. Roy cited the Michigan Water Law, passed in early 2006, as an inadequate means of protection with a large loophole for bottled water in that it declares that any bottling operation is not a diversion if it is bottling water in containers that hold less than 5.7 gallons (of course, the average bottling plant in the United States bottles 300 million gallons per year). MCWC is currently considering a constitutional ballot initiative for 2006 that would protect Michigan’s water in light of the failure of the state’s governors and legislature to take adequate measures, is advocating for the extension of the bottle deposit law to include non-carbonated beverages in light of the fact that 90% of water bottles are never recycled, and looking towards increasing coordination with other environmental groups and hosting a possible annual conference on water privatization in Mecosta County.

While companies such as Nestlé can make as much as one million dollars per day in profits from bottling plants such as those in Mecosta County and frequently receive multi-million dollar tax abatements, there have been several successes in the fight against water privatization. Jessica Roach of Food and Water Watch detailed several of these recent victories against water privatization in the United States including New Orleans rejecting a bid by Suez to privatize the cities water due to grassroots organizing, a successful organizing effort in Felton, California that resulted in citizens taxing themselves to buy back their water from RWE Germany, and an ongoing struggle to prevent the privatization of Lexington, Kentucky’s water by RWE Germany. Roach also referenced Food and Water Watch’s “Faulty Pipes” report on the history of water privatization and its failures as a model that provides for human needs. The corporations seeking to bottle and privatize water in the United States are active around the world and have been met with resistance in areas such as Central America where companies such as Suez and Bechtel are being driven from the region by popular resistance and replaced with innovative structures like the cooperatives and review boards being developed to provide democratic models of water management. Panelist Orin Langelle expanded on the international resistance to water privatization and showed the audience a slideshow of photos from the International Forum in Defense of Water held this past March in Mexico. The Forum is held as an alternative to the World Water Forum that is sponsored by entities such as the World Bank and Coca-Cola and designed to commodify water rather than protecting it as a basic right.

Celebrating the Immigrant Rights Movement: Midwest Social Forum Plenary

The opening plenary of the 2006 Midwest Social Forum held this weekend in Milwaukee featured an important discussion of the immigrants rights movement, examining its recent successes and future organizing.

The opening plenary of the 2006 Midwest Social Forum held this past weekend was titled “Celebrating the Immigrant Rights Movement” and featured four organizers involved in the historic protests of March through May in which thousands of immigrants and their supporters took to the streets for immigrant rights in response to the passage of the draconian HR 4437 bill sponsored by Wisconsin Representative F. James Sensenbrenner. The discussion—reflecting the wide-ranging impact of the movement and its potential to reinvigorate grassroots politics in the United States—was framed as a way to both celebrate the successes of the movement as well as to address some of the strategic and tactical questions still facing the movement.

Organizer Roberto Rodriguez, a journalist and filmmaker who has been involved in the struggle for immigrant rights for many years, began by declaring that the catchphrase and central demand of the movement is “No One Is Illegal.” He then went on to state that the Democratic and Republican debate over the question of “legality” and “amnesty” was something of which the two parties should be ashamed. Rodriguez described how it is “beyond degrading” to create a system that has its foundation on the dehumanization of immigrants and then to discuss the “privilege” of making some of them citizens through “amnesty” when they did nothing wrong and were simply attempting to live. For Rodriguez, there is “no need for a category of illegal human being” and the fact that there exists such a category shows that the citizens and government of the United States have forgotten that the origins of the United States are based on imperialism and colonization. While Rodriguez described the debate as “degrading” now, he warned the audience that it “will get uglier in the next six months” as the Republicans will likely use immigration, xenophobia, and racism as a means of campaigning in the upcoming elections. In order to prevent such rhetoric from framing Congressional action on immigration, Rodriguez emphasized the importance of organizing proactively as a movement and suggested that the movement needs to stop reacting to legislative threats and put forth innovative proposals such as the European Nations (EU) program that allows workers to cross freely across borders for work.

Following from this context, two organizers focused on the successes of the movement this spring and looked towards the future of actions of the movement. An organizer from Madison, Wisconsin described how she participated in the cities April 10 march under the believe that every human has the right to live and that despite her birth in a county that had a history of oppression, she felt compelled to stand up and protest in support of immigrant rights in the United States. She explained that many children participated in the march because their parents and themselves are working to create a place where they will not feel the need to hide the color of their skin and their language. She also challenged the assumptions of many in this country that believe that immigrants have it “easy” and pointed out that when immigrating people lose their families and live in awful conditions. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, from Voces de la Frontera in Milwuakee, described how marches such as the one in Madison and the 70,000-person May 1 march in Milwaukee—were truly something to celebrate. She cited the fact that the four million people who marched in March through May were the product of sustained national organizing rather than “spontaneous” protest as has occasionally been stated by the corporate media. This organizing grew out of the passage of HR 4437 and opposition to that bill’s criminalization of immigrants and their supporters and that due to this organizing the momentum towards the complete criminalization of immigrants has been stopped and that there is now movement, while not perfect, towards legalization. Neumann-Ortiz also described how national and local organizations, churches, labor unions, the business community opposed to losing its labor force, youth, and the media were all instrumental in the success of the movement.

She also addressed the question of where the movement is going, something that many are wondering now that protests have become less frequent and now that the debate over immigration legislation in Congress has been stalled. Neumann-Ortiz described how there are national marches being planned for the Labor Day weekend (September 4th) around the country as a means of brining the movement back into streets and showing that the demands of the immigrant community have not been met. Several groups have also set a national goal of registering one million Latino voters for the upcoming election both as a means of organizing electoral support and as a way of finding persons eligible for citizenship and helping them through that process. She also explained that there has been some discussion of a national boycott of Kimberly-Clarke as the company responsible for the Sensenbrenner family fortune. She argued that the movement has been an “inspiration” and that it has given the opportunity for building relationships between groups and movements and that now the question facing the movement is “who can out organize who” with Republicans, misinformed sections of the population, and the extreme right-wing blaming economic problems on immigration rather than economic problems brought about by corporate decisions and trade policy. She expressed confidence that the movement could successfully organize the grassroots and consequently move the debate and legislation in the favor of the movement.

The final panelist, Colin Rajah of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, reminded the audience that while the debate is often seen as one involving Mexicans and Latinos, immigration is a human condition and that the plight of immigrants extends beyond those groups and that indeed people have always immigrated as becomes necessary for survivability. He cited statistics showing that cross-border immigration has increased over the past century due both to migration as well as the increase in borders. As this immigration has increased, international laws have largely shifted and now view immigration in an economic context with little respect for human and labor rights. While the World Bank has documented that remittances by immigrants’ to their families in their native countries are significant and consequently contribute to economic growth, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) view immigrants as economic units that can be used to promote trade. Even international bodies such as the United Nations, which has been the site of struggle by the immigrant rights movement to obtain protections, have adopted economic rhetoric and have abandoned their role as allies of the movement. He explained that within the larger social forum network, of which the Midwest Social Forum is a part, a migrant rights caucus has been formed and there has been significant progress towards making immigrant rights an important issue on the left.

One point of contention in the plenary was the question of supporting the Senate’s bill on immigration, S26.11. This issue was raised by an audience member who gave a brief summary of a protest that was held Wednesday night (07/05/06) in the Milwaukee area at a forum sponsored by Representative Sensenbrenner, with the audience member arguing that the bill produced by the Senate, while not as draconian as HR 4437, contains several unacceptable enforcement provisions, fails to “fulfill the aspirations of the movement,” and argued that the actual contents of the bill have not been discussed enough. In response, Roberto Rodriguez agreed that the guest worker program is the wrong way to go due to its creation of a second class of citizens within the United States who will consequently be targets for exploitation and oppression. He further stated that he believed that electoral politics are “the wrong way to go” for a movement that should be able to look and see that electoral politics have historically been unable to protect immigrants. Christine Neumann-Ortiz responded that the We Are America Alliance–a coalition of immigrant rights groups—came to consensus after extended debate that while the Senate bill had unacceptable criminalization components, it had made some achievements that reflected the success of the movement.