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Indian activist Anna Pinto speaking at the Sept. 19 People's Summit - CHRIS POTTER
  • Chris Potter
  • Indian activist Anna Pinto speaking at the Sept. 19 People's Summit

People's Summit organizer Paul LeBlanc wanted to make one thing very clear from the outset of the Sept. 19 gathering. 

"This is not a protest activity," LeBlanc told a morning crowd of activists at Oakland's Twentieth Century Club. "What we want here is a discussion of the [world's] problems and possible solutions."

Indeed, the day-long event carried a full schedule of lectures and workshops concerning global issues -- war, climate change, immigration. Roughly 200 local and international activists attended. 

"We wanted to have these issues discussed before the demonstrations," LeBlanc told City Paper. "This can help deepen people's understanding of the issues."

But while the day's events encouraged dialogue, activists also strongly emphasized the need for protest. 

The summit, which continued with evening events on Sept. 21 and 22, was jump-started by state Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Highland Park), who roused early-morning attendees by decrying the actions committed by world leaders. Calling G-20 leaders' handling of the economy "secretive and undemocratic," he urged the audience to take a stand. 

"There are issues that we must grapple with as this G-20 commences," charged Ferlo. He cited the United States' increasingly weak manufacturing base and its lack of affordable health care for all. "It's now more than ever that people should be in the streets," said Ferlo. 

Among the speakers was historian Howard Zinn, who appeared via video projection. Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States, offered a strong rebuke to the policies and practices of our world leaders. 

"When the bigwigs take charge," he said, "it means they're taking charge for their own benefit."

Zinn told the audience that letter-writing campaigns and other forms of protest would not be enough to change global economic policies. "People are going to have to ... utilize direct action," he said, citing as an example the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, in which Pittsburgh-area farmers took up arms against a tax on whiskey. "We need a globalization of protest."

Visiting from Washington, D.C., activist Chris Morrow was pleased that the People's Summit kicked off the G-20 week by engaging in the issues. 

"It's absolutely essential to have discussions like this," he said, after an hour-long workshop concerning immigration policy. "This is a really good way to learn about the issues."

Still, Morrow agreed with Zinn that education must be followed by action. "We need to take matters into our own hands," he said. "Sometimes, more than talk is needed."

In addition to Zinn, speakers included Anna Pinto, an environmental activist from India, and Anthony Arnove, author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal. Meanwhile, workshops covered everything from environmental justice to the role of women in the global economy.

"Is the G-20 process a process in which people can be engaged? The answer is no," said Sameer Dossani, campaign director for Amnesty International. "It's a discussion among elites. Why should the elites of 20 countries get to make decisions that affect the entire world?"

Wearing a T-shirt reading, "Health Care is a Human Right," Dossani helped lead an afternoon panel discussion about American health-care reform. Participants bashed the policy proposals currently being discussed in Washington, while stressing the advantages of a single-payer plan, in which a government plan would offer insurance to everyone. The system would operate much like the Medicare program currently available to seniors.

"We can change the health-care apartheid that is based on the haves and have-nots," single-payer advocate Dr. Mary Pat Donegan told a workshop of roughly 20. With a single-payer plan, Donegan argued, "The public can have a system that works."

It remains to be seen whether such progressive arguments are ever heard, or considered, by world leaders. Either way, LeBlanc said, the G-20 kickoff will help people answer the question, "What are these people protesting about?"

"[The summit] will help create more awareness," he told CP as the day's workshops wound to an end. "I'm a better-educated person because of this."

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