Day one of the US Social Forum began with a thunderous demonstration through the streets of Detroit. Around 35,000 people representing social movements from throughout the country marched through the Downtown area. There was no united demand from the crowd other than the general sentiment that the system is failing them and grassroots organizing offers a way out.
A smaller feeder march started at the headquarters of Detroit Energy (DTE), the provider of gas and electric to the city of Detroit. DTE has a policy of shutting off gas and electric for those unable to pay their bills, even in the dead of winter. This has resulted in many deaths and particularly puts children, the elderly and the disabled at risk.
The demonstration was organized by welfare rights groups from around the country. The 750 demonstrators were made up of a mix of locals and activists attending the USSF. The crowed chanted “Gas and Lights are Human Rights” as they picketed the building, a large glass and steel structure with a manicured lawn and fountain that stands out among the empty buildings and open space that litters downtown Detroit. The speakers spoke passionately of the dangers of utilities shut-off and made connections with the larger problems facing residents of the city – poverty, unemployment and urban decay.
After a painfully long wait penned in on the sidewalk by Detroit police, the feeder march linked up with a massive march organized to open the USSF. A line of children chanting slogans against poverty led the group into the march and spirits soared as participants looked back and viewed a sea of humanity. A spirited march up to the site of the forum, Cobo Hall, led the crowd into opening ceremonies.
Detroit seems an ideal place to cultivate the energy expressed during the opening demonstration. We marched through Downtown past the smashed windows of businesses long departed and over roads littered with potholes. One stop along the route was the Leland Hotel, a 50s style palace now reduced to a decaying hulk of concrete whose outer appearance is as depressing at the hard-luck patrons who inhabit it. At night, the Downtown that demonstrators had transformed into a festival of resistance turns into something akin to a scene from a zombie movie as hundreds of junkies move onto the streets oblivious to the oncoming traffic.
Clearly, capitalism has done its dirty deed in Detroit. After decades of corporate paternalism and union-management collaboration, the capital is gone, leaving behind excess people, predominantly African-American, with no prospect for work or a future. The actions of privatized utilities such as DTE are merely the latest indignity imposed by the market system. The Forum’s message that “Another US is Necessary, Another Detroit is Happening!” could find fertile ground here.
Tomorrow begins three days stacked with panels dealing with nearly every political topic imaginable. In truth, the panelists at the USSF represent a strange mishmash of strategies and organizations. Orthodox Maoists share program space with the Ford Foundation and an unusual group of communalists from Southeast Asia are located next to the Progressive Democrats of America. Just another illustration that there is no singular strategy out of the mess that capitalism has left humanity in. Perhaps a week of dialogue can at least develop some common ground for action.