The Rainbow Coalition

Fifty years ago, in a Methodist church in Chicago, an organization who called themselves the Young Patriots spoke alongside leaders from the Black Panthers. The Young Patriots called themselves an organization by and for hillbillies — the many young white people who had moved to Chicago from Appalachia in the decades following the Second World War. Both groups, along with the Puerto Rican Young Lords and others, were facing police violence and horrific living conditions in impoverished Chicago. The Young Patriots got advice from the Black Panthers and they slowly, and with difficulty, built an alliance between poor black and poor white communities. Bobby Lee said, “We asked the Patriots if they could work with the Panthers and they said yes … It wasn’t easy to build an alliance. I advised them on how to set up ‘serve the people’ programs — free breakfasts, people’s health clinics, all that.”

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Chaplains on the Harbor Black Panthers
Chaplains on the Harbor at the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panthers (Seattle, WA).

It is one of the most referenced examples of times when white and black communities discarded the narrative we’ve inherited around race and joined forces to fight against the violence and hunger and want that continues to stalk poor communities all over the U.S. It was also deeply contested in its time.

Fifty years later, Seattle’s Langston Hughes’ Performing Arts Institute held a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panthers. The leaders of Chicago’s Young Patriots were also there, as part of the event, and we were asked to present with them. I was there, with a cadre of our own young organizers, all white, all actively working to build “serve the people programs” in their own community.

One of those organizers, Mashyla Buckmaster, has explained our work this way, while speaking at a Poor People’s Campaign event in Washington, D.C.:

I live in a tiny town where it’s easier to get loaded than it is to find food or shelter. The town is so small it only has one stoplight, so it’s small, but the people seem so far away from each other. The ‘better off’ act like all my friends are better off dead. They act like the church I work at, where we love everyone no matter what, is a disgrace to the human race. Because we feed the homeless and addicted, they look at us like scum.1From a speech delivered at the June 23, 2018 Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival Mass Rally & Moral Revival in Washington, D.C. by Mashyla Buckmaster.

Not a lot has changed in terms of living conditions for poor people in the United States over the last fifty years. Indeed, there are far more poor people struggling to survive than there were in the post-war era, both in terms of numbers and the percentage of the population. For five years, I have worked as a pastor and organizer in rural Grays Harbor County, Washington State, a majority white community. And, every year, the example of the Rainbow Coalition seems more and more relevant.

A white boy is shot

In 2016, Dylan Noble was shot by police in Fresno, CA. He was 19. He was white. He was unarmed. The police story went as usual: a traffic stop gone wrong, police thought he was reaching for a gun, police shot him again as he lay bleeding on the ground. He was from the outskirts of Fresno, from Clovis, a country kid from the California Central Valley, just like my dad.

His family and friends and neighbors were outraged. Like the countless families of black and brown kids around the country, they took to the streets. Most of them, including his family, called for police accountability because, as usual, no charges were filed against the officers who killed him. No one has even released the officers’ names.

At that first protest, that’s when things got dicey. The lack of organizing among poor whites for the last hundred years became abundantly clear. A group started chanting “white lives matter” and several guys flew confederate flags. His friends insisted they were not trying to be racist: Dylan liked hip hop and believed that everyone’s lives mattered, but this was just part of their culture.

Over the past several years, his family has held regular protests. They hired a lawyer and are suing the city, citing the recent shooting of another young man, this time Latino, in the same city. The message has been honed a bit — biker pastors praying for justice, signs calling for police accountability and memorializing Dylan, his crying mom speaking in front of the city. People gather in front of the police station calling for justice.

As a white pastor who grew up working class, working in a majority white, very poor community, in the Western United States, I wonder what this moment represents. I remember, just months after Noble’s murder, sitting at another funeral, a funeral for a young white man who had run from the police in my own community, and drowned in a nearby river. I sat with his friends, also all white, as one young man got up, his whole body shaking, and said; “It just really sucks that he died like this.” This was the only public protest for this young man, in part because his death was more complicated, but also because the young people who were his friends were also routine victims of police violence. The young man I sat next to would be beat down during an arrest by police not long after.

No one much cares what happens to poor people in this country, including poor white people. While it is true that a greater proportion of black and brown people are affected by police violence and incarceration, these realities have hit poor white communities hard as well. In my community, we incarcerate juveniles for non-criminal offenses (paving the way for their extensive adult incarceration) at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country. In the past two years, I have regularly witnessed the results of police violence and our community has experienced at least two deaths at the hands of police, both white.

No one much cares what happens to poor people in this country, including poor white people.

When the radical labor movements lost their momentum during the Second World War, the left’s effort to organize among poor and working class whites also faltered. White middle class liberals eagerly joined the civil rights movement, but they also largely ignored the call of the black community for them to organize white communities. Instead, they were often openly hostile to it. When the Young Patriots spoke with the Panthers in that Methodist church, it was the liberal white audience that was most hostile to the upstart hillbilly organizers. They “treated the Panthers with curiosity, but expressed open hostility toward the Patriots.” This continues to be a roadblock in organizing in poor white communities.

And we in poor white communities rarely have the language to articulate our own pain and our own suffering. We have “don’t tread on me” slogans and we have the “rebel” confederate flag and we have pent up rage and anger, but we don’t generally have a strong analysis of why we are poor or why we are victims of things like police violence. For so long, we have bought the lie of white supremacy, for so long we have believed that if we just worked hard enough, we would make it. We have, in the words of Will Campbell (one of the few veterans of the civil rights movement who did go back and organize among his own people — poor white Southerners) the “freedom to flounder, to drift, to wander westward in a frustrating search of what had been promised but never delivered — a secure life in a land of plenty.”2Will Campbell, “Elvis Presley as Redneck,” First Elvis Presley Symposium, University of Mississippi, August 7, 1995.

The black community and other communities of color know exactly what they are up against. They have centuries of, not just suffering, but of organizing, of analysis, of resistance. Slavery and genocide, in which even poor whites were complicit, left no question in anyone’s mind as to what non-white people were up against. Those of us who fled Europe often came from resistance movements there, but we failed to create a coherent resistance in the promised New World for precisely that reason: because we were made promises and we believed them. We did the dirty work for empire and expected a reward we rarely received.

Instead, we are left puzzled in a world that is increasingly poor, increasingly bereft of basic resources, increasingly victimized by state violence. While the white middle class still precariously live the dream, even their numbers are shrinking and the promises of American capitalism and greed are exposed as a lie.

Poor whites are left isolated, told over and over that their suffering or poverty or death is their own fault. Pundits — including their better-off neighbors — say what they have always said in America about poor people: they should just die. Homeless camps are spilling over every riverbank, the prisons are so full they can’t fill the demand of the justice system, addiction stalks every poor community. An aging white woman told me recently, as we stood at the deathbed of her son; “No one cares if people are dying, unless they are middle class white people.”

Poor whites are left isolated, told over and over that their suffering or poverty or death is their own fault.

When some of Dylan’s friends or neighbors chanted “white lives matter,” in some ways at least, they were voicing the concerns of poor and working class white people, whose lives have been devalued, especially now that their labor is largely no longer needed in a post-industrial economy.

Black Lives Matter meets my community

Recently, I read Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ book When They Call You a Terrorist. It’s part memoir, part history: the story of how the Black Lives Matter movement started. It unapologetically centers black lives and black experience in a stunning story of resistance, police violence, prison violence, and love. In an interview, she points out that her centering of black lives is intentional and intentionally subverts the white tendency to center white supremacy. This happens even in liberal circles, where people too often see themselves as the white saviors and allies of black and brown people.

The root of ignoring poor white people comes from the same source. White supremacy — the air we breathe as white people — teaches that white people are superior, and is pervasive even in liberal ideology. Which means that poor whites are unforgivable. Whites who don’t “make it” fundamentally challenge the ideology that built this country.

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Grays Harbor County WA
Grays Harbor County, WA, home of Chaplains on the Harbor.

Steve Pavey

I grew up working class in a poor, 75% white community. I left my community, made a life, lost that life, went to school, couch surfed and was homeless, and somehow ended up with a master’s degree and ordination in the Episcopal Church, the first in my family to ever attend college and university, the first in my family to ever receive a professional education. I came back to my hometown in Grays Harbor, in rural Washington State and I ended up staying. I built a ministry called Chaplains on the Harbor and in the process of that, I became pastor to hundreds of street kids.

As I read Khan-Cullors’ book, I recognized many of the same things happening to my community, to the young people I love, so many of the experiences I myself have had as I share life with them.

The shakedowns of 12-year-olds by police.

Visiting a loved one in jail only to witness their mental breakdown.

Hearing bits and pieces of the stories of dignity stripped, as young men and women are beaten, groped, stripped, assaulted over and over.

Saying goodbye to the dead in a homeless shelter.

Sitting in flop houses, crying with people who are so ashamed and so lost that they have nowhere left to turn.

I have witnessed and experienced all of these things. And I wonder if the powerful Black Lives Matter movement might pave the way for poor whites to organize in their own communities.

I wonder if the vast number of poor people in the United States might find a way to unite, as poor people across race share experiences of prison and poverty and violence and terror. I wonder if poor white communities can learn how to organize. It is true we have bought the lie of white supremacy — even in our poverty, clinging to a hope that our lives really do matter in a system that beats us down while continuing to promise us uplift if only we are smart enough, work hard enough, take enough personal responsibility. It is important to note: white supremacy is not simply an ideology, it is a material, economic policy that decides who has access to the means of life, and poor white people rarely make the cut.

White supremacy is not simply an ideology, it is a material, economic policy that decides who has access to the means of life, and poor white people rarely make the cut.

This flaw in the system has become more and more obvious to young people in my community. More and more of our young people have lost hope in this promise. It has been beaten out of them on the streets and in prison, it has melted away in a morass of tents and dirty couches, it has faded from view in the angry accusations of their elders who wonder why the kids in the community just can’t work hard like they did. All the systems have failed them. They can fight. They are angry. They are survivors. And they are desperate for an outlet.

It is possible to use stories like Noble’s death to simply re-center white lives, which is what Khan-Cullors calls “the psychosis of whiteness.” It is also possible to mourn his death, as one of many in the city of Fresno, including a recent shooting of a Latino teen, and to build bridges between poor people who have been pitted against each other by race for centuries. In the case of Noble’s death, Black Lives Matter activists showed up in protest at the Fresno Police Department, not only for people of color shot in the region and country, but for the poor white kid as well.

Hope for a future

Poor whites are up against both the broken promises of a failed system and, all too often, the open hostility of white progressives.

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Chaplains on the Harbor in Grays Harbor County, WA.
Chaplains on the Harbor at the People's Revival in Aberdeen, WA (2017).

However, in the five years that I have served as a pastor to young people surviving poverty, brutalized by police and jail, battling addiction, and otherwise attempting to survive post-industrial capitalism, I have seen a deep, abiding hunger for answers, for change, for something worth fighting for. I have seen young white people raised on the streets and by jails educate themselves and speak on a national stage, along with other poor people — white, black, brown — raising their voices for change and hope, eager to join a national movement to end poverty.

When I spoke last year on a panel with Elaine Brown, she pointed out that Chaplains on the Harbor was doing exactly what the Black Panthers had been calling on white people to do for fifty years — organizing in our own communities.

Perhaps, after centuries of poor people pitted against each other for the benefit of those in power, we can break the power of white supremacy among my people — poor white people — and build a world where “every life has a chance.”3Patrisse Khan-Cullors, When They Call You A Terrorist, p. 205. We call on the progressive white community to abandon the subtle but powerful message of white supremacy that teaches white progressives to write off poor whites, and to join us in solidarity.

We call on the progressive white community to abandon the subtle but powerful message of white supremacy that teaches white progressives to write off poor whites, and to join us in solidarity.

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