Five Minutes in Detroit

July 6, 2010 at 10:56 am (Events, Places) (, , , , , , , )

The USSF opening march in Detroit as it arrived at Cobo Hall

At the end of June, I traveled, with thousands of others, to Detroit, Michigan for the second U.S. Social Forum. When I talk to people who weren’t involved about what the goal of the forum was, I say that in the US, so many community organizers and social justice activists are focused on specific issues (immigration, the environment, labor, etc) that the USSF is like an opportunity for everyone to look at the bigger picture, to see where those issues intersect and interact and to focus on opportunities. While the organizers haven’t posted any summary yet (or at least I couldn’t find one on the site), I’ve heard estimates that there were between 18 and 25,000 people registered throughout the week. That’s a lot of opportunities for cross-pollination.

Back in January, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to or could afford to attend the Forum. I wrote in my journal that two things which I thought could possibly come out of the Forum would be (1) a critique of capitalism – in the current economic crisis, this is a moment when more and more people are questioning the status quo – how can we take advantage of that? and (2) a critique of Obama.

Now, after attending the forum, I think that US movements are a long way off from developing those kind of unified messages, but that providing the space for US movements to co-mingle is a necessary step in the direction of building a more unified voice. I’ve had a couple of conversations over the last few days about how the left generally and anarchists specifically have failed to focus on where we agree with each other, choosing instead to focus on where we disagree. Maybe the US Social Forum is one step in the long road to correcting that? And this is not a new criticism. I clearly remember this same criticism, for example, from the beginning of George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of An Elephant.”

At the very least, an event like the USSF is movement-strengthening because for those who attend, it’s a visual reminder that we are not alone, that there is strength in numbers. When you think about all the hundreds of thousands of people who are doing similar work but couldn’t or didn’t want to attend the USSF, that number is even larger. I’d like to see and hear people talking about what is next after Detroit – is there momentum now? How can it be harnessed and or built on? Because the cynical part of me says that if there are all of these amazing people doing amazing things, why aren’t more amazing and liberating things happening in the US right now aside from on a super small scale?

Here are a few random thoughts:

  • Logistics – I’ve organized a lot of conferences, and I am really opinionated about how to make them easier and better for attendees. In the case of the USSF, there are definitely choices I would have made differently, but on the whole they handled the logistical challenge of 20,000+ people (and 100 simultaneous workshop sessions) really well and they should be proud of that. One of the things that I would have made more clear was the distinction between workshop/discussion and People’s Movement Assemblies – which I thought were an interesting step toward organizing larger numbers of people around specific issues that could have been executed  a lot better. But again, a step in the right direction. And unless I’m on a future organizing committee I don’t necessarily think it’s helpful for me to point out here all of the things I would have done differently – a lot of it is a matter of opinion, too.
  • Five minutes – Being at the USSF was like being with 200 of my favorite people 24 hours a day. I’d been to the USSF in 2007 in Atlanta and knew that I’d really have like 5 minutes with some of the people I love, respect, and admire the most. This was both good and bad. On the one hand, in my daily life when I find someone so awesome I tend to want to cling to them (in a metaphoric way, obviously) and having only five minutes can be frustrating. But by being present and focused, those five minutes were often enough (for now). I mean, five minutes is long enough to tell someone how much you appreciate them and their work, to affirm a connection or a friendship, to find out what is important right now, to make a plan for later.
  • FOMO – OK, more on being present and focused. My friend Mahfam stopped by while I was tabling for Hesperian and we had one of those five minute conversations that was super short but really great. She said that being at the Forum for her is about confronting her FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out. SO TRUE. It’s easy to be caught up in wondering what’s going on somewhere else, in some other room, with some other people, all the while not being present with where you are and who is in front of you. The Forum is like an extreme example of that. I’ve really suffered from this in the past and had anticipated it this year – and by reminding myself that there would be so many awesome people there that no matter who I was with I would be having a great conversation – and that really helped me (1) not be stressed out and (2) have hundreds of meaningful interactions.
  • A New World from Below – A bunch of anarchists got together and organized their own space at a church near(ish) the conference center. There were so many people in attendance at the Forum that I really appreciated when groups took the initiative to publicize their work or otherwise self-organize. The groups at the church provided free dinner for people, had evening workshops and social events. I attended quite a few things there including a book release event for half a dozen new books as well as a strategy discussion facilitated by Cindy Milstein and Chris Dixon, two smarty-pants activists whose work I’ve followed for a while. I just bought Cindy’s new book, “Anarchism and Its Aspirations.”
    They used a particular discussion format that I’ve seen Cindy use before where two (or more) people make statements addressing a specific point and then the discussion is opened to everyone – not to address questions to the presenters, but to make their own statements/comments about the same points, and the facilitators are really there just to call on people in order (“keep stack”) so that everyone has their say an no one talks over each other.
    I have to say that my reaction to this format is that it’s really unproductive. There’s no guidance, there’s no keeping people on point, there’s no progress or coming to any kind of consensus or conclusion. But, maybe I’m too stuck on productivity and efficiency? I can see another goal which is to brainstorm, introduce ideas, and get people’s minds churning – but I wonder why that was the goal here. It was a really fascinating discussion about what is keeping the US/North American anarchist movement from making plans/moving forward – and if I have time I’ll post more about it later.
  • Detroit – I was born in Dearborn and lived in Detroit as a child, and both of my parents grew up there. This 2007 article in Harpers by Rebecca Solnit, “Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the Post-American Landscape” talks about the kind of post-industrialism that is so present in the Rust Belt, including places like Toledo, where I used to live. I find the romanticization of Detroit uncomfortable. I wonder at the choice to hold the USSF there, to bring people to a place and show them around like it is a spectacle. Real people live there, and it’s weird for outsiders (from not that far away) to come and gawk at the abandoned buildings and homes. At the same time, Detroit could be the future of a lot of cities, and it is the present of a lot of places that aren’t on the coasts, and it’s important for people who have never lived outside of Los Angeles or New York City to know what is going on in the rest of the country, to see it. I mean, really *see* it. But can that be done in a way that isn’t a kind of absurd tourism? Still wrestling with this question.
  • Protests: On Saturday I participated in a march opposing an incinerator in Detroit – actually right in a neighborhood. It’s the largest incinerator in the U.S.  For more information visit here, and you can find some great photos here.

That’s enough for now – there’s no possible way for me to highlight all the people and projects and things that I interacted with there, that reminded me about all the good and awesome people in the world, though I’ll be trying to give a few shout-outs over the next few days. But, I want to highlight two other online pieces that I’ve really appreciated:

  • Scenes from the Social Forum,” Curt Guyette The Metro Times – great summary from the Detroit weekly paper. “Taking in the crowd, it also occurred to us that, as this country’s problems mount for what used to be the middle class — as people continue to lose homes and jobs and insurance, and the insecurity accompanying all that spreads — it might be time for a new term to describe all those being pushed aside. Throw in all those kids who look toward the future and don’t see much more than dark clouds in terms of jobs and opportunity, and these people could all become part of a ‘marginalized majority.'”
  • Chris Carlsson wrote this really long and thorough report at his blog, Nowtopian. for example: “We promoted the Nowtopia panel with the tag line “Jobs Don’t Work!” since a major reason I came to Detroit was to push against the insipid demand for jobs that seems to still imprison all too many people’s imaginations. Much to my delight, on my way to Detroit I was reading material from Grace Boggs and Rich Feldman, both from the Boggs Center in Detroit, and they are very much on the same wavelength. They too argue against “jobs” in favor of a more thoroughgoing transformation of how we think about work. They say we should be insisting on a right to do useful work, and that given the Depression that is commencing (and has been in full effect in Detroit for almost three decades), our only sensible path is to reclaim our activity from the suicidal and self-defeating tasks that capitalists (sometimes) pay us to do. I saw Feldman at a Tuesday morning workshop introducing the Boggs Center and its vital work in Detroit, and was quite impressed. He and Shea Howell were very articulate about the three decades of experimentation and work on the ground that have been accomplished while the looting and abandonment of Detroit were going on. Urban agriculture, peace zones, micro-enterprises, and more, were anchoring a real renaissance in the city, albeit one still far from dominant or complete.”

After leaving Detroit I visited Cleveland and Toledo – I lived in the Toledo/Bowling Green area for eight years before moving to California in 2006. I have a whole other blog post in my head about Ohio, old friends, economics, capitalism – that will be next. Well, after one on salted chocolate cupcakes.


  1. My last post was about the life of Will Munro. It’s been almost six weeks, and I still every day think, “how can I carry on as if nothing has changed?”
  2. I’ve been reading Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy and I hope to write more about it later at some point. In short, I couldn’t put them down.


  1. karlos said,

  2. Jen Angel said,

    Hey Karlos – thanks for posting the summary press release from the USSF. It would be great if that could be on the homepage somewhere so people who were looking at it could find it – I eventually found it on the site but it wasn’t intuitive.

  3. MarkDilley said,

    Jen – trying to promote the USSFwiki as a place to organically grow. Check it out and hit me up if you want to chat about it. Peace, Mark

  4. Chris Dixon said,

    Jen, thanks for sharing these really helpful reflections. And, in particular, thanks for offering those thoughtful comments about the strategy discussion that Cindy and I put together at the convergence space.

    My reaction to that format, as well, is that it’s really unproductive. If the circumstances leading up to that discussion had been different, I would have likely tried to work on a different format. Still, I take responsibility for what was, at least for some people who participated, probably not a very useful discussion. In general, I think we need to develop much better models for facilitating smart, focused, and participatory discussions that don’t fall into either a lecture and questions format or an “anything goes” free-wheeling conversation.

    There was another dynamic at work during that discussion too, which I think we need to grapple with more thoughtfully. As I saw it, this was about how to bridge some very, very wide differences in political experience among the 50+ people in the room. I don’t think that people with more experience are necessarily “experts” to whom everyone should defer, but at the same time, I’m interested in creating spaces where we can learn from people who’ve been around longer. Unfortunately, I think many anarchist spaces in the U.S. don’t have adequate language yet for explicitly talking about differences in political experience.

  5. Jen Angel said,

    Hey Chris – you’re so totally right. I’d be interested in talking about what other formats you (and others!) have participated in that you really liked.

    A few things:

    – I think I was calling myself out there for being TOO focused on being efficient and productive. I think that sometimes brainstorming is a totally good and valid goal.

    – I want to talk more about the content of the talking, and I have some notes, and I am hoping that I will post something about it soon (after talking about Oscar Grant and like five other things). Maybe I will bug you & Cindy about getting feedback on that post before I put it up.


  6. Salted Chocolate « Blog Archive « Angel Cakes said,

    […] example. Last week I was in Detroit for the US Social Forum, and ate breakfast almost every day at the great Avalon International […]

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