This talk was presented at One Love in Jamaica to a group of over 100 social justice leaders, independent journalists, cultural workers and others who gathered for a week of seminars on international solidarity and social justice in February 2017. The other panelists included: Vijay Prasad, Indian historian, journalist, commentator and a public intellectual and professor at Trinity College in Connecticut and Irvin Jim, General Secretary of NUMSA, the largest trade union in post-apartheid South Africa.
I bring you greetings from the United States of American poverty. Despite Hollywood and the propaganda that the mainstream media puts out, the glaring reality is that 1 in 2 people living in the United States are poor or low-income. Just this week a study came out that 43% of US children live in families that struggle to feed, clothe and house them. There are 28 million people without health care, more than 10 million homeless people, 3.7 million fast food workers who get paid too little to sustain themselves and their families.
And the majority of the people living in poverty in the US are white. Of course, African-American, indigenous, Latino and other people of color are disproportionately poor, criminalized, and brutalized but the poor in the US are of all races, all genders, all ages, and come from all over – urban and rural, citizen and immigrant.
They are families who have to share medicine to prevent them from having heart attacks, they are families who live 15 people in one or two rooms because they can’t afford anything more, they are families who have kids locked up because there are not jobs in the community and so the government has stopped funding schools and funds prisons to control the poor, there are families who have lost their family burial grounds and right to a livelihood because of mountaintop removal mining and extreme extraction; there are tens of thousands of families whose water has been cut off because they can’t afford to pay for water right near the largest freshwater lakes in the world when Nestle can bottle and sell as much of that same water for $1/year, there are Walmart workers who get trained when they join Walmart as an employee in how to apply for food stamps and social benefits because they know they pay their workers so little they will not have enough food to survive although 5 Walton family members, the owners of Walmart, have as much wealth as 40% of Americans.
The economic shifts that Vijay discussed have meant that the structural adjustment programs that the US has imposed on the rest of the world are now being imposed at home.
Folks may have heard about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. And what’s going on in Flint is happening all across the country. Flint is where the headquarters of General Motors is located. It’s a multi-racial town of whites, Blacks, Latinos, and immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was the home of the 1936-37 Sit Down Strike that impacted labor organizing not just in the US but across the world. The auto industry in Michigan employed hundreds of thousands of people and was iconic of industrial production under liberal capitalism.
But because of globalization, automation, and neoliberalism, most of those jobs have been eliminated and there are communities across Michigan and the whole Rust Belt that have been completely destroyed by deindustrialization and deep impoverishment. Because of the loss of jobs and income and the shrinking tax base, Flint has seen an intense increase in poverty. There are very few public schools left in Flint. High school students only go to school for 3 hours a day 3 days a week because they don’t have the teachers or books or supplies. The illiteracy rate in Flint is over 70%. There is no garbage collection; the libraries and parks have been closed. Our friends in Michigan often introduce themselves as the canary in the mine and say that this kind of devastation is coming to a town near you. Be ready.
Flint was taken over by an Emergency Manager some years ago. This means that the elected politicians no longer get to make the decisions that impact the community. Instead a corporate executive who gets paid hundreds of thousands of dollars got to decide that to save a little money they should switch Flint’s water source from Detroit to the Flint River. The problem with the Flint River, though, was they didn’t treat the water with the chemical it required. So it corroded the water pipes and the entire town was poisoned by lead and other toxins that result in permanent brain damage. People got legionnaires’ disease. There’s an entire generation of children in this community who have been poisoned. And they poisoned this entire community with the people in power completely knowing it all along.
Shortly after they switched the water source to the Flint River, General Motors started complaining that the water was rusting their car parts. So, General Motors was allowed to return to the Detroit water system. But when moms and their kids complained that their hair was falling out and they were getting rashes all over and that the kids were having behavioral problems and there was a increase of violence because people were losing their minds because they were being poisoned, the Emergency Manager said that people and car parts were like comparing apples and oranges and that what was bad for car parts may not be bad for organs and bodies and brains.
So the people organized. This organization took a different form than the Sit Down strike. It was not led by the trade unions. The organized left was not in Flint. It was moms and their kids and others who knew something was wrong, who were compelled by their conditions to organize and march and protest and use social media and to form organization among the poor and dispossessed who were able to bring the Flint Water Crisis to the attention of Michigan, the US and the world. These moms in fact marched to Detroit where they met up with some of the tens of thousands of families whose water has been cut off because the water multi-nationals are trying to privatize water in Detroit. They marched knowing that the women of Cochabamba, Bolivia like Vijay mentioned, marched.
They set up water stations for everyone to get water. They translated things the government wouldn’t translate into Spanish so that immigrants living in the community would know about water stations and the poisoning. They would station themselves at water pick up points to be with these immigrants when ICE agents would try to deport undocumented immigrants for coming and getting unpoisoned water for their families. And these families have said we need to build a Poor People’s Campaign to fight for Flint, for the thousands of towns across the US with poisoned water and for all the poor and dispossessed of the US to come together.
This structural adjustment looks like 283 rural hospitals being closed in the interest of making greater profits. When one of these hospitals closed, a mother of two in the community died the next day from a heart attack. And the self-described conservative, white Republican mayor of the town started to organize and fight. He went to the Republican Party and they wouldn’t help. He went to some of the local community organizations and business associations and they wouldn’t help. He went to the Democratic Party and they wouldn’t help. The group who came forward to fight to keep the hospital open was the NAACP, an organization founded as part of the Black Freedom struggle and a multi-racial group of poor people. The Republican mayor has since walked 283 miles, one mile for every rural hospital threatened to close, from Belhaven, NC to Washington DC. He walked alongside leaders from the Black freedom struggle and united poor white, Black, Latino into a powerful coalition of groups calling for health care for all. They are saying that we need to build a Poor People’s Campaign.
This Republican Mayor was the only politician who had the opportunity to speak to the Moral March on Raleigh last February. There were over 100,000 people at the Moral March on Raleigh in North Carolina one week ago. I stood on stage with Rev. Dr. William Barber, the leader of Repairers of the Breach and the Forward Together Moral Mondays Movement, and addressed this politically independent group of people of all races, religions, genders, and issues who are anti-racist, anti-patriarchal and anti-poverty, pro-justice and pro-peace. Rev. Barber is leading a fusion movement in the US. This movement takes on race and class together. When people ask him if it’s race or class, he says: It is. There is a popular movement brewing in the US.
The size and scope of the Moral March was impacted because Donald Trump is President. And here I want to say a few things about Trump and the election that I also think the media leaves out. Trump in no way has a mandate. Fewer people voted for him than for Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate who lost to Barak Obama 4 years ago, 48% of eligible voters did not vote for either candidate, 900 polling places were closed in poor communities, it was the first election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, and millions of voters were disenfranchised.
Although the media has portrayed this as the backlash of white working class voters, the people who voted for Trump had higher incomes than for the other candidates, Trump received more black and Latino votes than Romney, and only a few percentages of whites voted for him. For sure, there are many racist, misogynist people who support Trump but to see him as having a mandate is just not true. Nor to say that he’s the only racist or misogynist who’s ever been in the White House.
And there has been deep resistance before this election and even more since. There were spontaneous protests when Trump put forth the building of the wall with Mexico and the Muslim ban. Many of these were led by leaders and organizations with a long history of struggle in the US. Because there indeed is a long history of struggle in the US.
The Democratic Party and other forces of the loyal opposition try to divert and distract this response. They pour money and drugs and confusion into our communities and try to corral our discontent in particular directions. They buy off leaders who emerge independent of the capitalist system who objectively have a critique of poverty, racism, capitalism.
And this tells us something about what is needed to be done in these times. We have come to see that we need to develop clear, committed, competent, connected leaders, or cadre, so we are ready for the long hall. We need to build consciousness and organization among the poor and dispossessed, among the working class. We need to unite these leaders so as to unite the poor and dispossessed. We need to build a politically independent vehicle that can have ideas and power like Vijay was talking about.
I got involved in this work about 25 years ago when I joined the National Union of the Homeless and National Welfare Rights Union. Homeless people in 73 cities across the US, tens of thousands of poor and homeless people organizing and fighting. In particular, I was politicized by our homeless encampments and housing takeovers. Homeless people moving back into homes we had been evicted from in an organized and politicized way. What we were doing was objectively leftist, objectively socialist – moving into homes we were not going to and couldn’t pay for.
The homeless encampments, or what we called Tent Cities, were spaces of collective living and political education. I am a Christian, a Presbyterian pastor and a biblical scholar and liberation theologian, and would think about Acts 4 – there was no poor person among them because they shared what they had.
These were new forms of organizing. Not just organizing at the point of production but at points of distribution. Not just organizing on the shop floor but on floorless encampments of the poor and homeless. And not just within the nation-state but uniting with the poor across the globe.
The bribe of imperialism is being withdrawn. There are today more possibilities of uniting with the poor from around the world to transform the world. And I’m here to say that we in the US have a lot to learn from movements from around the world. But many of us are ready to learn.
And there are millions of people who, as Rev. Dr. King said 50 years ago, “have very little or even nothing to lose. If they can be helped to take action together they will do so with a freedom and power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.”