The Kairos Center is one of a growing number of organizations calling for a New Poor People’s Campaign for Today. Because poverty is an economic and social condition and because our economy and society are now global, we understand that such a campaign must also be global; and, because of the unique place that the U.S. plays in the world – economically, militarily and culturally – we also see a particular need to catalyze this movement here in the U.S.
Towards this end, the Kairos Center recently co-hosted the fourth assembly of the Social Movement Working Group (SMWG) of the International Network on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-net). This meeting brought leaders from social movements in Africa, Asia, South and Central America together with leaders from the U.S. who are confronting the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the BP Oil Spill/DeepWater Horizon Disaster. For five days, we gathered in Biloxi, Mississippi, to discuss current conditions facing poor people around the world and emerging possibilities for working together to realize our economic, social and cultural rights.
It was important that this meeting was held in the Gulf Coast on the 10th anniversary of Katrina and the 5th anniversary of the BP spill. The Gulf waters and their abundant natural resources are the bedrock of the regional economy and culture and they have yet to recover from these disasters.
Cherri Foytlin from Bridge the Gulf recalled cautioning a young boy who was fishing in oil slick covered waters near her home in Louisiana. He looked at her and responded, “but I’m hungry,” and went back to his task. Sharing this reality with movement leaders from Brazil, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, South Africa, India and the Philippines was a step towards building the global unity of the poor, foremost by breaking through the misconception of poverty (or the absence thereof) in the U.S.
Indeed, the obscuring of the poverty that exists in the U.S. is one of the most entrenched barriers to building this global unity. This not only isolates the emerging struggles of the poor in the U.S. from those in the rest of the world, but also limits the engagement of the poor here to charitable solidarity measures with the global poor. Both of these contribute towards misunderstanding the causes and effects of our current conditions. When, however, the conditions of poverty in the U.S. are brought into the discussion, the entire framework of the conversation changes. Leaders from Sri Lanka and the Philippines – which were hit by the tsunamis in 2004 and typhoon in 2013 respectively – saw their own communities in the struggles of Phoenix, Louisiana, which was one of the first-hit towns by both Gulf disasters; a leader from Nigeria shared his experience dealing with the health impacts of benzene from oil spills in their air and water, the same chemical that is now poisoning Phoenix and other Gulf communities; and all of this came together in the recognition that BP was acting in the same way – using a similar “play book” – as other industries and aligned forces in Guatemala, Nigeria, India, South Africa and Brazil.
Part of this dialogue was also the acknowledgement that the man-made disasters facing these communities were of a qualitatively different nature than even the worst natural disasters in their recent history. Kindra Arnesen, one of the leaders from Plaquemines Parish, LA, and a commercial fisher woman who grew up on the water, shared that her favorite thing in the world was sitting up on her boat and watching schools of fish of all kinds and colors in the Gulf waters. “I love the water,” she said,” second to my God, my Jesus. The salt water is in my veins. And I can’t hand this down to my children.”
As the fish disappear, these communities have little else to fall back on. Families are leaving, entire communities are being moved, a whole history and culture are coming to an end. And this is happening the world over, whether in land grabs, armed conflict, mineral and resource extraction or development and tourism projects.
It also became clear that these conditions are giving rise to their own solution. Because this devastation is universal, it is compelling the social movement of the poor around the world. And the possibility exists today to connect these movements so as to learn from each other and prevent these evils from traveling across borders as they have been for decades. What this means, however, is reconceptualizing the basis of the global unity of the poor. Simple notions of solidarity – where I support your struggle and you support mine – are necessary, but insufficient; we also need, as Herman Kumara from the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement from Sri Lanka offered, collaborative and deep analysis of the current moment and connected and conscientious leadership that can move the wider masses in a common direction. This might be around, as Legborsi Saro Pyagbara from the Movement of the Survival of the Ogoni People in Nigeria suggested, an effort to shift the narrative on our economy from valorizing the pursuit and realization of profit to demonizing it as one common source of suffering in the world.
This implies also reconceptualizing human rights, which have been narrowed into securing individual liberties, achievable “goals” or, at most, charitable concessions for a segment of our global population to enjoy some subset of civil, economic, social or cultural rights. These interpretations come nowhere near the fullness of either the promise of human rights or the possibility of their realization today. We can feed, educate, and house everybody; therefore we must. This means connecting our struggles for housing, water, livelihood and more towards realizing all of these rights for us all. Land rights in Brazil are not rights unless we also achieve the right to health and livelihood on the Gulf Coast, the right to decent jobs in the Philippines and the right to housing in South Africa. Any less than the full and complete realization of these rights is an abrogation of them all. We must, in other words, understand our struggles themselves as interconnected and interdependent. We share our victories and defeats. And we cannot be liberated until we are all free.
This was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign: to unite the poor across racial lines to end the triple evils of poverty, militarism and racism that plagued the country. In Biloxi and around the world, a new and global Poor People’s Campaign – bridging borders, languages, issues and more – is breaking through. Guided by the leadership of those impacted by today’s evils of poverty, militarism, racism and ecological devastation wrought by an economic system that prioritizes profits at the expense of life, this “new and unsettling force” is emerging and, with it, a new and living politic that cherishes and respects life.
We invite you to join us – you can learn more about how at poorpeoplescampaign.org.