The organizations that participated in the United States Social Forum (USSF) took very seriously preparations for the Global Day of Action, January 26, 2008. Many of the organizations that made up the USSF National Planning Committee (NPC) of the USSF assisted in the development of GDA events within their organizations, cities, or along particular issues. With regional affiliations developing among groups that were once strangers or worked independent of each other learned of each other and in many cases united, a national self-recognition of the grassroots emerged from the forum in Atlanta. This identity, based in unitary struggle against the tentacles of global capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and gentrification and deeply connected to struggles for justice in communities around the world, moved the Global Day of Actions forward.
Grassroots Global Justice
Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ), a national organization of local and national community grounded organizations that provided the lion’s share of time, energy, and resources for organizing the USSF, promoted the GDA. GGJ served as an information link between the International Committee (IC) of the World Social Forum and the NPC as well connecting groups across the US that were organizing similarly oriented events and actions. GGJ is largely responsible for the unique character of US engagement in the forum process. Grounded in base building organizations and communities of color or African American, Latino/a, Indigenous, Arab, and Asian American poor and working people, GGJ has been able to tackle a history of white middle class organizations dominating the US left’s ideological landscape and public meaning of “activism,” “organizing,” and “social justice.” Tom Goldtooth of Indigenous Environmental Network and member of GGJ explains, “As the base-building groups in the belly of the beast, we are the local voice and struggle against globalization and by taking action on January 26, we are raising the consciousness in our communities to help them understand how to link our struggles with our brothers and sisters in the Global South.”
The social forum process anchored in the daily works of grassroots organizations and activists that engage some of the most poorly paid and politically neglected workers, lead to many GDA events being held in and by these communities. Without a doubt, the continuation of the USSF process represents a strong commitment on the part of US organizations to connect local struggles and campaigns nationally and internationally to make another US possible.
Events Around the US
While the USSF is widely regarded as a success for global justice and for building the national and global connectedness of the US grassroots and social justice movement, the Global Day of Action events demonstrate even further that the US grassroots and their communities have taken the WSF process to heart. Although the limits of the GDA, as Cindy Wiesner of GGJ, reflects, was “that there has not been a centralized demand,” a point also expressed in the IC meeting of the WSF, numerous events grounded in community issues took place in the US during the week of the GDA that were grounded. The actions were as wide and diverse as the US itself. Some of the issues covered and demands made by US organizers include: Boston Jobs with Justice’s teach-in on the Colombia free trade agreement and then a funeral procession to the Colombian Consulate; the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights held a press conference at their national conference in Houston, Texas supporting the SEIU janitors’ struggle; Southwest Workers Union organized a march to the Alamo calling for Human Rights for All highlighting the campaign against the Wall of Death being built on the US-Mexican border in San Antonio, Texas; Portland, Oregon Jobs with Justice presented a street theater in the mall on the Colombia free trade agreement; Vermont Workers Center organized a week of actions demanding “End the War and Bring the Troops Home Now! Healthcare is a Right! Climate Justice!”; Indigenous Environmental Network affiliates are organizing a number of actions for climate justice; Jobs with Justice coalitions are organizing actions for workers’ right to organize and against the vicious atrocities experienced by workers at Smithfields’ hog processing plant in North Carolina, and in the city of the first USSF, the Georgia Citizens Coalition on Hunger and Project South organized a poor people’s caravan through historic sites in Atlanta that ended with a Poor People’s Assembly.
Three events in New York City include Domestic Workers United which launched a state legislative campaign for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights with a press conference and a convening of domestic workers, and two around the issues of land and housing-Community Voices Heard organized an action for housing rights and solidarity with people of the Gulf Coast and Make the Road NY held a powerful action to force city officials to reform regulations regarding tenant protection from asthma triggers. Indeed the right to safe housing and land figured centrally to several GDA events in the US and many of them focused on the crises in New Orleans and the US Gulf Coast. Direct Action for Rights and Equality presented performance art at a flea market in Providence, RI to protest gentrification and express solidarity to stop the demolition of public housing in New Orleans. In San Francisco several groups convened including POWER, St. Peter’s Housing Committee, and Just Cause to hold a vigil at Senator Dianne Feinstein’s home in solidarity with the people of the New Orleans on housing issues. And in the city of New Orleans, the New Orleans Folks and Black Workers for Justice targeted Louisiana Senator David Vitter, the Senate Banking Committee to stop the destruction of public housing and demand passage of the Gulf Coast Recovery Act.
These US GDA events and others indicate a lively front of grassroots activism on a host of political and economic issues facing the nation. The global connections are being made by grassroots organizations between their particular struggles and the larger socio-economic context of global capitalism. Nowhere are these linkages more visible than in the struggle for land and housing.
Housing is a Human Right
In the so called land of rich and plenty, housing in terms of affordable and safe homes but also in terms of community and neighborhood control over development is at unprecedented low. The struggle for ownership and control of land is certainly the struggle of late capitalism, as the marginalized and poor experience the neo-liberal round of enclosures throughout the world, urban dwellers in the US are fighting for their basic right to housing.
One place that captures the convergence of hotbed issues in the US including migration, housing, and land rights is Miami, Florida. In the last decade several grassroots groups including Take Back the Land, the Miami Workers Center, and Power U Center for Social Change sprouted and are responding to the gentrification of neighborhoods and the removal of families and communities, primarily African American and Latino, from their homes to make way for large corporate development. Organized by Power U, the GDA in Miami, attended by these organizations as well as South Florida’s Jobs With Justice, was a celebratory event. After three years in struggle, Power U, won its battle against city commissioners and Crosswinds, a development group, that had planned to build up-scale condominiums on a large sector of land in Overtown, a historic African American community in Miami.
Overtown, like many lively and historic black communities in the US, such as the Treme in New Orleans and Westside in Chatanooga, had suffered greatly with the large interstate highways that “incidentally” divided thriving black neighborhoods. A black neighborhood formed during the era of segregation during which African Americans were pulled and pushed to Miami to work on the construction of the railroad, Overtown is well know for the hosting the African American entertainers that would play in the elite hotels of Miami Beach.
The Global Meaning of Resistance in Miami
The GDA celebration of Power U’s victory was a multi-media, poetic, and spiritual affair. The plot of land that has been forcibly returned to the community by the city and corporate developers significantly was renamed Sankofa, an African term meaning “reclaim our past so we can move forward,” that captures the very special history of Miami’s rich neighborhood of Overtown.
The global connectedness of Miami is hard to miss-a majority migrant population, the nexus for financial transactions between North and Latin America, and a center of struggle over Cuba. As Denise Perry, Power U’s co-founder and director states, “Miami is a unique place politically around race, class, and global perspectives.” The city government’s current eagerness to expand Miami’s global reach and define it as “world class global city” or a center of neo-liberalism is destroying the lives and homes of low-income people and workers and neighborhoods like Overtown. City leaders took on the worst of architectural practices, constructing tall monotonous structures that give no consideration to street life, community facilities, and the cultural vitality of its neighborhoods. Housing prices are spiraling downwards across the US and faster in Florida than in any other state. Miami itself has been facing an affordable housing crisis, housing prices grew twenty percent higher than wages between 2002 and 2006.
Located near downtown Miami, Sankofa represents a direct challenge to the Miami’s global power interests. Power U’s successful grassroots effort to control the land is a great victory in a city who’s poor and low-income were willfully surviving the desolation of neo-liberal urban development. Denise Perry noticed how beleaguered Miami’s neighborhoods were when she arrived in 2001. After being relocated to Miami as a union organizer and fired along with others for unionizing the staff. Perry began at the grassroots, knocking on neighborhood doors, inviting neighbors to come to a meeting and talk about their concerns and quickly engage in organizing for their community needs.
Power U in Struggle
The victory over the city of Miami and Crosswinds, was not Power U’s first. It’s first win was forcing the city of Miami to place sound barriers around the US’s largest interstate that bisected the neighborhood decades ago-a typical history of false promises to black neighborhoods that are only kept with force. Other victories include gaining government funds for improvements in community schools that were sorely neglected and halting toxic waste dumping in Ovetown. Another victory was resistance to an interstate ramp that would directly drop highway traffic into a school zone. Only the logic of neo-liberalism combined with racial neglect would perpetuate deafening noise to communities and support threat to children crossing streets.
The GDA sponsored by Power U celebrated its most recent win of a property that stood idle and empty in the midst of a community for more than two decades. Speakers at the event reminisced on the rich history of Overtown, locating for us the buildings, day cares, and entertainment venues that once stood in the empty lot that had created a vacuum and a dead zone in the community. The glory of Sankofa is, that with the commitment of the county, it will develop into an affordable low-income rental housing. Designed by the community rather than for the community by distant urban planners who continue to have very little knowledge of the communities and know-how for creating livable affordable structures.
Miami’s officials’ greed for global centrality, provoked several occasions in which the global connection of Power U struggles to the rest of the world were made vivid. Towners, as members of Overtown refer to themselves, were immersed in global struggles when the Ministerial meetings of the FTAA came to town in November 2003. Working together with two other major grassroots organizations in the South Florida region, the Coalition of Immokolee Workers (CIW) and Miami Workers Center, they came together as RootCause to lead the FTAA fight in Miami. Perry sees this event as “a critical moment and opportunity” for poor and low income African Americans to build the connections to a global justice movement. Not only did it reorient how they understood the struggles they face in Miami but organizing for and participating in the FTAA protests helped them to appreciate themselves as a movement among movements as they hosted the national and international groups and organizations that arrived to Miami to join in the protests. The People’s Tribunal, that put the FTAA to trial with numerous international guests attesting to the intensification of poverty and injustices it would render in each of their nations and communities, was a particularly internationalizing experience for Power U. In addition, both the 34 mile march completed by RootCause to represent the 34 countries that would have been subject to trade agreements and the community impact report collectively produced by groups, effectively supported a global political education of and for the community.
A second turning point for Power U and the grassroots organizations of Miami was the United States Social Forum, Perry explains,
The USSF was the first time we participate in the social forum, it was a huge eye opening for our staff, humbling and inspiring, and caused us to reflect on how we can be more apart of making another world possible. Meeting other organizations and looking at our work, how do we move into the space of being more deliberate around our youth organizing and member political education?
The GDA in Miami: A Turning Point
With local drummers setting the rhythm the event initiated ceremonially, participants gathered in a large circle and offered libations to ancestors and called out their names. Long time Overtown resident and Power U member, Reginald Munnings who was the MC of the event stated, “that we will use our African traditions and develop new traditions . . there is no stopping us now. ” Power U members, Bea Gilbert and Howard Watts also spoke, “Three years of doing this fighting, making sure our land stays our land.” Much significance was given to having and controlling land. Max Rameau, with Take Back the Land, an organization that reclaims empty lots and public land for the unhoused, summed up the land struggles across the globe stating “land is the basis of all revolution.”
Marc A K Reid one poets of day recited his poem, “The Threat of Youth,” which all applauded for the commitment and energy of the young people in the movement. The youth of Overtown are actively fighting for their community and for justice in the school systems that give unfair treatment to students of color. Power U and other grassroots organizations in Miami emphasize intergenerational activism and highlight the importance having young people lead.
Serena Cruz, from South Florida’s Jobs With Justice, called out for “getting rid of the idea of displacing poor people to bring in rich people.” That rich lives or middle class communities somehow deserve greater support and hold greater value than others certainly captures the neo-liberal logic that dictated the gentrification bonanza of US cities. During the day South Florida’s Jobs With Justice hosted a Chiva, a traditional Latin American bus that drove around the Orange Bowl, with calls of jobs for the community in Miami’s deconstruction and reconstruction.
Graciously hung up along the chain link fences that has long guarded the now community controlled property was a thoughtful and provocative photo essay exhibit created by Power U members. One photo, “Another Dirty Treatment of My Community” was of a telephone pole that had been spliced leaving a precarious piece of it hanging on by telephone wires. Yet these photos that do the important job of giving witness to the neglect of capital and government were met with with another exhibit-Overtowners visions of “development that works” reflected in flags that members constructed during the day and strung together during the program to display that in Sankofa their will be community control over land.
A community action in a big city by some of its poorest members could be perceived as only a symbolic act. But Power U’s victorious land claim in Miami was neither lost on city officials who sent forth police to stalk the event nor the members who celebrated their political power. Even more, Power U’s Global Day of Action bolsted alliances with local, national, and international groups that held synchronized events bringing forth a more just world.
* Thanks to Denise Perry, Director of Power U Center for Social Change and Cindy Wiesner of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance for comments and suggestions. Much appreciation is extended to Power U members for hosting Miami’s GDA and to other organizations and members for sharing their thoughts
Marina Karide, USSF Documentation Committee