When Willie Baptist recently received the Educating for Justice Award from the Bread and Roses Community Fund, he talked about the different forces shaping who he is today:
“I am a member of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. It is a powerful, multi-racial organization of poor and homeless families including the working poor. It is based in Kensington, North Philly which is the poorest community in the entire state of Pennsylvania. The KWRU has over the years done some magnificent things with no money. None of its leaders and staff receive salaries. Some may think that this is crazy. But we think this is commitment under the present circumstances of our organization. There is no in between.
“I am 53 years old and I am a product of the largest Upheaval since the American Civil War against slavery, that is, the massive urban uprisings of poor blacks during the 1960s. At 17 years of age I participated in the uprising in Watts, California. On August 11, 1965, 60,000 to 100,000 poor people hit the streets turning over police cars and burning buildings in loud protest against inhumane economic conditions and extreme police repression. This protest was heard around the world.
“I am a product of the national organizing drive of the National Union of the Homeless during the last half of the 1980s and early 1990s. It was the first of its kind. We organized over 16 chapters thru out the country. In the founding of the New York Chapter, we organized in all the major shelters in the city’s burroughs. We assembled over 1,200 homeless delegates. I remembered when after the founding convention 400 delegates had no way of getting back to their shelters before losing their bed and dinner. We all decided to march down with our protest signs to the nearest Subway station and all 400 of us jump the turn styles to board the train. The police and security guards were stunned as homeless people vanished into the night. The Homeless Union also spearheaded nationwide housing takeover operations (that was captured by Skylight Pictures’ Documentary, TAKEOVER).”
Hans Bennett: Please tell us about August’s march.
Willie Baptist: Aug. 2-30 we are going to have a march starting in Mississippi. We will continue through the southern states and finish in Washington DC where we will have a one-week tent city. We will bring attention to the growing crises of health care, housing, and access to food & other life necessities here in the world’s richest country. We are commemorating the 35th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign launched by Martin Luther King in 1968. We refuse to be disappeared. Those of us that have been impoverished insist on having a voice and saying that poverty is a life and death issue. Lacking of housing and health care is terrorism. The issue of poverty is now a concern to increasing numbers of both the US and global populations.
HB: Why is King’s last year so important for us today?
WB: He asked some crucial questions that remained unanswered since his assassination. His last 3 years are the least discussed and understood in terms of what he has come to represent in mainstream history. Every year they celebrate his birthday and leave out the last 3 years. In those 3 years, King recognized the limitation of changing race relationships without dealing with the economic base of those issues.
Today with poverty and homelessness growing rapidly and the polarity between wealth and poverty deepening, (where a few people have everything and increasingly more people having nothing) economic inequality is the issue that shapes every other issue such as gender or race. These other issues are heavily influenced by this increasing concentration of power and wealth into fewer hands which gives the powerful the means to confine the other issues (instead of them being seen as part of a larger struggle) and therefore block any real solution.
We are trying to expose the effects of globalization and economic exploitation, as well as the increasing war economy which create billions of dollars for fewer and fewer people while the increasing majority of people in the US and the rest of the world are without housing, healthcare, education, and other basic necessities. Some 3 billion people live on less than 2 dollars/day at the same time that some individuals have personal incomes the size of some nations’ GNPs. This discrepancy is a reflection of certain structural priorities that need to be changed. We want to bring attention to the problems that are a result of these misplaced priorities and therefore why we urgently need to begin building a movement to change those priorities. We want human rights to be the first priority on the agenda instead of money and power.
HB: Why are you using the Tent City tactic?
WB: KWRU was initially one of the groups that spearheaded the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, which now consists of more than 50 different poor and homeless organizations (rural and urban). We’ve used tent cities all of our existence. The mainstream media works to hide the fact that homelessness and poverty are the result of the economic structure; ceasing any truthful discussion of the issue. Corporate media censorship assists anti-homeless legislation like the many urban laws that have been passed to push this issue under the rug. There is an ordinance in Philadelphia that says you can’t be anywhere standing in the downtown Philadelphia area for more than 30 seconds. These are efforts to push homelessness out of sight and out of mind, yet the issue grows even more. A way to fight the media blackout, Tent Cities put the issue of homelessness in front of the public eye.
Tent Cities raise issues of economic injustice and needs around an issue that is particularly important to the people and the US psyche. Most believe that everyone should have a home and they see this as an indicator of prosperity and stability. Tent Cities bring attention to the fact that increasing Americans do not have homes or if they have a home, it’s being taken away from them. Everyone should be concerned about this. One of KWRU’s main symbols is the Tent City and can be seen on many of our shirts.
They dramatize the problem of economic depravation very effectively as we’ve found from the many who’ve responded. We’ve chosen to continue the tactic.
HB: Have you chosen a place in DC for the Tent City?
WB: We are still figuring out the best spot. We are working with the local affiliates of the PPEHRC to find the best target. We will target a location that has symbolic value so as to underscore the message we are sending.
HB: Is there anything else you would like to add?
WB: In terms of finding a true solution to poverty, King challenged the “Salvation Army”/ “charity” type approach. The Salvation Army approach is one of pity and charity, which serves to continue the problem’s very existence. Instead of ending poverty, it only proposes to manage it. He argued for a multi-racial nonviolent army of the poor where the people who are in the predicament move to change things and provide leadership for changing the country’s priorities. King wanted to know how the people suffering from the problem could awaken society to resolve it at its root and abolish poverty. He raised that question before his assassination. He also pointed out that poverty doesn’t discriminate and that it was gripping communities of all colors & educational backgrounds in the world’s richest nation. Thus, this notion of the unity of the poor was born. We in the PPEHRC realize that we have to be united and make our small voices (no matter what color, age, gender, and more) into one that’s large and powerful enough to awaken this sleeping giant of the American people so that we can decide the future of this country.
For more information, please contact KWRU: po box 50678, Philadelphia, PA 19132 (215) 203-1945, www.kwru.org.
Hans Bennett is an anarchist and independent journalist whose writing and photos have appeared in such publications as Z Magazine, Alternative Press Review, INSUBORDINATION, AWOL, and the San Jose Mercury News. He can be contacted at po box 30770 Philadelphia, PA 19104 or via email: [email protected]