Below is an interview with Willie Baptist, our coordinator for Poverty Scholarship and Leadership Development. Willie is a veteran of 50 years of poor people’s struggles for dignity and survival, from the Watts uprising to the National Union of the Homeless to the Welfare Rights Movement. In this time of uncertainty and fear, we ask him about the effects of this election and the possible roads ahead.
Dan Jones: What do you think the effects of this election are likely to be?
Willie Baptist: I think the election is indicative of the fact that in this next period we’re going to be going into difficult times. But I think we should look beneath the surface of events and see that there’s dangers there, that some of the more long-standing hate groups and racist groups are going to feel like they can assert themselves much more. But there’s also tremendous opportunities.
The same crisis that basically elected Obama, the prolonged character of it elected Trump. Pennsylvania went to Obama last time, and now it went to Trump, and it was for basically the same reason both times, for a good core of people. And despite what the media say, it’s not strictly a Black and white and race issue. Underneath it, people were voting against the status quo, against the economic situation that they’re in. And there’s no way that Trump can deliver anything to the growing masses of the poor and dispossessed. In Pennsylvania, in Ohio, anywhere in the country, because of the nature of this crisis.
The ruling class and those forces that are in power, embrace a lot more than the presidency. Any president that comes into office has to deal with the fact that they are not in power. They’re going to have to operate in the interests of global capital. And the crisis is such that they cannot deliver for the increasing masses of people.
DJ: And what does that mean for the opportunities and the dangers you talked about?
WB: That means that the people that voted for Trump are going to be pissed off about that, and that’s going to give us an opportunity to really agitate and educate and organize around their issues. What we have in common is this economic crisis: The fact that we’re hurting, our families need housing, decent jobs, healthcare. That’s where our defense lies. When you’re fighting a powerful and dangerous foe, you’ve got to locate their weak point. And this election has revealed that the weak point is the economic crisis.
It’s the vulnerability not just of Trump or Hillary, but of the ruling class. It’s interesting that all the major media, which is under the control of global capital, – that is the Financial Times, the New York Times, Washington Post, and all the other media that follows what they say – all the major institutions and big companies supported Hillary. She was able to raise more than half a billion dollars for the election, and Trump wasn’t able to raise even half as much. And yet he won. He won because a lot of people voted with their feet: They didn’t vote, especially the poor, poor whites included. Or they voted against Clinton because they were voting against the economic status quo and the crisis. Her position was that everything is getting better, but things are not getting better. And things will not get better under Trump.
So I think that beneath the dangers we should see the opportunity. Historically dangers have always come with opportunities. Because of the opportunities, that’s why there’s dangers. The powers that be, the only way that they can respond – because they can’t guarantee the homeless a house, or people health care, and they can’t guarantee an education to our kids – the only thing they have is this racial politics. And the way that they play this racial politics is to attack and isolate one section and then turn sections against each other. That’s how they play it. But they can’t eliminate the crisis, that’s their problem, and the crisis is what we have in common.
DJ: How do you think we can fight against that racial politics of the powerful?
WB: A lot of Clinton’s vote, and a lot of Trump’s vote, came from the middle strata. The needs of the poor weren’t talked about in the presidential campaign, and neither are they going to be addressed in the current presidency. And I think we’re going to have to take those kinds of issues, these economic survival issues, and agitate and educate and organize around them: Really elevate them and identify the leaders who are emerging out of those fights, which are going to continue to emerge and increase as the crisis continues.
And so I think that the Poor People’s Campaign and the efforts along those lines of uniting the poor and dispossessed around the issues they have in common is what we ought to do. It’s the only real defense of any sector of the population: The struggle for our unity and our organization. In difficult times we’ve got to close ranks. Closing ranks means organizing, organizing, organizing, and building community, and building support for each other.
I think uniting the leaders and identifying leaders, as a step toward uniting the poor and dispossessed, is our task. I think we’re got to focus much more, we’ve got to throw more energy into that. We’ve got to take leaders like those coming out of Put People First! PA and others and give them all the support they need in terms of education and development and support. We’ve got to develop collectivity, collectives around our leaders so as to support them in these very difficult times. The idea of superman and superwoman and us going alone is playing into the dangers that are out there. But building community and building collectivity based on a process of political education about what we’re up against, that’s taking the opportunities.
Let’s understand very clearly: What are the opportunities? And then let’s throw everything we can at those opportunities. Where are the leaders like the ones coming through Put People First! PA? Recently I went to their annual Membership Assembly meeting, and that meeting said a lot about the opportunities. There was community at that meeting. There was a high spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood and family in that meeting: Of poor people across the color line, across the urban-rural divide, citizens and undocumented immigrants.
Let’s close ranks and build on what we’ve accomplished at that Assembly meeting, and various other places throughout the country where there’s other families like in Put People First. It’s very important at this time that we strengthen those relationships and we expand those relationships. And they can be expanded based on the fact that this crisis that we’re facing is forcing us to come together and fight against the injustices that this crisis exhibiting.
I think the more we put at the forefront the development of leaders and uniting leaders around the poor and dispossessed – that is, the people who are most hurting from the crisis – the more the crisis can be used as a basis of really striking a blow at the arguments of the forces that we’re up against. They’d like to make it a racial thing, and an anti-immigrant thing, and an anti-Muslim thing, to evade that common hurt and pain that we all feel. And I think the opportunities lie in us uncovering that and bringing it out into the open, so that everyone that’s hurting can come together and not be thrown into a fight against each other.
The danger is that we fight each other, the opportunity is that we have a basis to unite, on the basis of health care and all the things that are hurting every one one of us, I don’t care what color we are.
DJ: A lot of us are deeply afraid after this election, for the safety of ourselves and our loved ones. What’s it going to take to protect ourselves?
WB: We have to take action when the brothers and sisters of color and other vulnerable groups are attacked, but the way we’re really going to defend them is to unite those questions with the problems of the economy.
Our safety lies in uniting the poor and dispossessed. That is the only safety we’ve got. And the first step in that is uniting their leaders. We’ve got to make an analysis to be sure we don’t cover up, don’t miss the opportunities in our mourning about the situation. We can make a sober analysis of what are the opportunities: What are the weak points of the enemy, and how can we throw a blow at that weak point? That’s how you win a fight. Trump, as well as global capital, they’re strong on the race question. That isn’t a weak point for them, but our concept of what’s going on is strictly in racial terms, and that’s the way the discussion is going.
But very few are discussing the point of vulnerability of this system, and that’s the prolonged economic crisis. Homelessness is still growing by leaps and bounds, people are still dying from the lack of health care. Walmart and all these companies are planning on replacing more and more of their workers with robots.
You’re talking about those companies having to compete, and to compete today means you have to computerize and robot-ize. And if you still need labor-intensive activity, you’ve got to drive down the wages of those workers, because there’s no other way you can compete under these circumstances of this economic system and this crisis right now. So we’ll see more people thrown out of their jobs, and more people working lower-wage jobs, no matter what Trump promises.
Our strength is only in our numbers. They have strengths in money and their control of organized violence in the form of the police and prisons, military, national guard, all that stuff, and in their control of the major media. But our strength lies in us uniting ourselves on those issues that happen to be the point of vulnerability of the enemy: that’s the economic crisis. That’s the weak-point of the enemy. When you’re in a fight, you identify your enemy’s weak points, and this is his weak point. And that’s what the election showed.
DJ: Anything else you want to add?
WB: The American people are very religious people. And to win them, historically, those movements for reform and those movements for revolution, were able to win the American people because they won the battle for the Bible. They were able to speak in those terms and really deeply believed in the fact that we’re all God’s children and that we all have dignity, we all deserve a decent life.
I think even a lot of the people who voted for Trump believe that as well, they just hate Clinton, and they hate the economic and political situation. A good segment of them.
I watched this interview that Van Jones did. He went to Gettysburg and took supporters of Trump, Hillary, and Bernie Sanders. And he focused on the Trump person. If you listen to that kid, you can’t help but say: “I can unite with that kid!” He’s a decent kid. He goes to church, he helps out the people. He thinks that the Blacks should get what they need, but that Hillary is a crook. There’s a lot that we can unite on: Hillary is a crook. Things are messed up in this country.
I guarantee you that some of the people who voted for Trump, they’re just people who are afraid. A good number of them. I think our protection of the immigrants, our protection of the vulnerable sections that have been under attack, is by breaking their isolation. By organizing among other sections who are hurting, particularly poor whites — and they are hurting. And they are going to hurt even more, and we can reach them around issues like health care.
Now you’ve got the fringe, the Klan, and all these kinds of horrible people that we’ve got to protect ourselves from. But the only way we’re going to protect ourselves is building organization and building community, and being there in support of each other, and really thinking through this problem in terms of both the dangers and the opportunities.
As the situation unfolds, Trump can’t deliver. He ain’t going to be able to deliver. And that’s when he’s going to get raggedy and these people that voted for him, they’re going to be looking for answers. If we have leaders that can provide those answers, we’re going to build the kind of movement that we need to build.