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In the summer of 1995, when I was 18, I started visiting Tent City, a temporary encampment in an abandoned lot in northeast Philadelphia. About 40 families had taken up residence in tents, shacks, and other makeshift structures. Among them were people of various races, ages, and sexual orientations, all homeless and fighting for the right to live.
Tent City was set up by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), a grassroots organization of poor and homeless people and a chapter of the National Welfare Rights Union. As in so many other areas of the country, homelessness in Philadelphia, a city battered by decades of deindustrialization, job loss, and affordable housing cuts, had become endemic. Although they were still living in what had once been the center of the northeast industrial corridor, many in Philly, especially the residents of Kensington, had been reduced to two main sources of income: welfare and drugs. A teenager might have stood better odds of going to jail or being shot than graduating from Kensington High. More than 40% of the population in the area had to break the law simply to survive. Police brutality was rampant.
Federal and municipal welfare systems were being stripped of funds being funneled into the private sector. City officials assured those of us who protested that there was simply too much need and not enough resources. Even the local paper accused us of engaging in “homeless hype” — being too disruptive in our public demonstrations and acts of mutual solidarity — when the people of Kensington really needed peace and quiet, law and order. At that time, however, there were an estimated 27,000 homeless people in the city and 39,000 abandoned houses.
In that small Tent City lot, poor people were exposing the city’s claim of scarcity as a myth. Families who moved there with close to nothing were quick to discover American abundance. Residents shared their food stamps, while individuals, community groups, and religious congregations all made donations. Soon, the abundance was such that hundreds of hungry families started turning out every week to be fed with the surplus food.
Tent City became more than another encampment on the margins of American life. It was a center of political life for Philadelphia’s poor, as well as a strategic organizing base for sustenance and protest. In the winter, as rats the size of cats arrived, the encampment moved to an abandoned Catholic church, a project the KWRU labeled “the new Underground Railroad.” Just as enslaved people once had to break the law to bust out of the system of slavery, poor and homeless people needed a growing civil disobedience movement to survive.
I think about Tent City often in these pandemic days of spiraling poverty and inequality, as protesters in cities across the country question the legitimacy of a system that devalues life, especially black lives, native lives, immigrant lives, and the lives of the poor. Unemployment is now at 41 million and so at Great Depression levels; the shantytowns that spread across the country in the worst years of the 1930s should remind us that mass homelessness exists just on the other side of mass unemployment.
Last week, for instance, Covid-19 moratoriums on eviction began to expire and, in my childhood hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, upward of 40,000 eviction notices are poised to be sent out. Meanwhile, the government has blundered through a string of “relief” packages that have injected trillions of dollars into Wall Street while excluding millions of people from even the most basic stop-gap protections. In the midst of federal incompetence and outright abandonment, staggering numbers of Americans, children included, are desperate for support and real relief.
This society has long suffered from a kind of Stockholm syndrome: we look to the rich for answers to the very problems they are often responsible for creating and from which they benefit. The wreckage of this pandemic moment is a bitter reminder of this affliction, as well as a signpost suggesting how we must emerge from this crisis a just and more equitable nation. With a possible depression ahead and more social unrest on the rise, isn’t it time to stop vindicating the wealthiest people in this country and look instead to leadership from those who were living in a depression before Covid-19 even hit and already organizing and protesting?
The Poor Organizing the Poor
Here’s a story from a long-ago moment that’s still relevant. Two months before his assassination in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., travelled to Chicago, to enlist the women of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) — the predecessor to the National Union of my day — into the Poor People’s Campaign. As he walked into a conference room at a downtown Chicago YMCA, Dr. King encountered more than 30 welfare rights leaders seated strategically on the other side of an exceedingly large table. One of his advisers later noted that the women’s reception of the southern civil rights leader was a “grand piece of psychological warfare.”
Representing more than 30,000 welfare-receiving, dues-paying members, they had not come to passively listen to the famed leader. They wanted to know his position on the recent passage of anti-welfare legislation and quickly made that clear, pelting him with questions. Dr. King felt out of his element. Eventually, Johnnie Tillmon, the national chairwoman of the NWRO, stepped in. “You know, Dr. King,” she said, “if you don’t know about these questions, you should just say you don’t know and then we could go on with this meeting.”
To this, Dr. King replied, “We don’t know anything about welfare. We are here to learn.”
That day, Dr. King would learn much about the long struggle those women had waged for dignity in the workplace and the home. They taught him that programs of social uplift should be a permanent right and that the welfare system of the mid-twentieth century, much like our own, was structured as a public charity that callously differentiated between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. They introduced him to policy proposals that were generations ahead of their time, including a demand for a Guaranteed Adequate Annual Income, or what many now call a Universal Basic Income (UBI).
Four months into the Covid-19 crisis, with this country already afloat on a sea of inequality that would have been unimaginable even to those women in 1968, a sea change in public opinion may be underway when it comes to what’s necessary and possible. Ideas that only a few years ago would have been considered unimaginable like universal healthcare, guaranteed affordable housing, and debt relief are now breaking into the mainstream. Don’t think, however, that such policy positions, like the idea of a UBI, have materialized on Capitol Hill and in beltway think tanks out of thin air. They are, at least in part, the result of long-term agitating, educating, and organizing led by the poor themselves.
Those of us in the welfare rights movement always saw our work as the kindling for a wildfire of organizing by the poor and dispossessed. Our projects of survival, like Tent City, were not just about housing and feeding people. They were also about securing the lives of those committed to building the kind of movement necessary to transform society. Projects organized around immediate needs also became bases of operation for policy analysis and future plans.
Such projects, however, were beachheads meant to rally the larger society, as the ranks of the poor grew around us, to create lasting change for them. Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that this novel pandemic has already galvanized bold collective action on the part of the poor and the precarious. For every sparsely attended reopen protest at a state capital by armed members of Donald Trump’s base, hundreds of new mutual-aid networks, ad-hoc tenant associations, and wildcat strike funds have been organized for those at the base of this society. Meanwhile, thousands of protestors have taken over streets in cities all across the country resisting racism and inequality.
Entire communities that are out of work and losing income are taking life-saving action that is also at times, and by necessity, in contradiction to the law. Despite recent media images of vandalism, today’s protest movement features countless acts that add up to projects for survival.
In April and May, millions did not pay rent, echoing that most basic of economic principles: those who can’t pay won’t pay. Indeed, such rent strikes and other protests speak to an essential demand for temporary relief in the midst of a crisis of unparalleled proportions, but they also signal potential new directions for millions of people who, if offered a political home that articulates their desperate needs and demands, might, against great odds, begin to find common cause.
The Rich Organizing the Rich
If this crisis is opening up new possibilities for organizing among the poor, however, the same is true for the rich. Since mid-March, the fortunes of the 600-plus billionaires in the United States have jumped by $434 billion, or 15%. In the CARES Act that Congress passed, legislators slipped in a tax break of $135 billion for 43,000 of the country’s wealthiest business owners. (And, of course, you need to add this to the unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the poor to the very rich that happened via the $1.5 trillion Trump tax cut of 2017.)
This pandemic has already been very profitable for a very few. It should be seen as one benefit from a long-term organizing campaign of the rich that has included crushing the labor movement, consolidating industry, financializing the economy, and what one historian has dubbed a decades-long “tax strike.” By now, of course, the story of widening inequality in this country has become a familiar one, but that doesn’t make it any less shocking. In 1983, median household wealth in the United States was $84,000. Thirty-seven years of growing inequality later, it sits at $82,000. Meanwhile, as a point of comparison, the total wealth of the Forbes 400 was $92 billion in 1982. Now, it’s $2.89 trillion.
Behind this staggering and rapid accumulation of wealth rests a deep and abiding belief in recent decades that the rich are the engine of the American economy and so the deepest source of societal wellbeing. In this Covid-19 crisis, evidence abounds that such a faith, which emerged fullblown during the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, remains, for now, bipartisan and largely unshaken. The CARES Act caught its spirit exactly, managing to direct most of its money to Wall Street and hundreds of millions more to the police, while leaving millions of workers lacking paid sick leave and the uninsured, the homeless, undocumented immigrants, and many more in the lurch.
While the HEROES Act, recently passed by the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, offers improvements on this, many of which are guaranteed not to make it through the Senate, there are once again striking windfalls for the rich embedded in the bill. Within its 2,000 pages is funding for lobbyists, mortgage servicers, and private insurance companies. It does nothing to prohibit the corporate mergers that have produced bigger and more powerful monopolies in other moments of crisis in the recent past. It extends COBRA, a federal program that enables workers to temporarily keep health coverage on their own dime after their employment ends, and again directs vast sums of money to the private insurance industry, instead of expanding Medicaid and guaranteeing healthcare during the most devastating public health crisis in a century.
Meanwhile, at the state and local level, politicians on both sides of the aisle have refused to touch the wealth of the rich, even as they have decried their budget shortfalls, while managing this crisis largely via the playbook of austerity and readying themselves for social unrest. New York State, for instance, passed a budget that will cut $300 million from public hospitals but increase funding for the police. Likewise, the Washington State legislature has been lauded for the bipartisanship it demonstrated recently in putting through deep budget cuts. In no case have legislators chosen to tax their wealthiest residents, nor let up on policing and other forms of control. And Washington is home to Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, at present the two richest people on the face of the Earth.
Of course, the workers who are actually keeping the nation afloat will suffer the most from such cuts. They may now be called “essential,” but they continue, as ever, to be treated as expendable appendages of the economy.
How to Revive American Society
I recently wrote a piece with the subtitle “How to Destroy American Society from the Top Down.” The answer remains painfully simple: this country courts destruction as long as the rich are allowed to organize society around their lives and needs.
From my first moments working at Tent City through my 25 years of grassroots organizing, I’ve come to see that inverting that subtitle in a positive fashion is crucial to our survival as a nation. Any true revival of American society depends on collective action by those most impacted by injustice and by the willingness of the rest of society to follow their lead. From the abolitionism of the pre-Civil War era to the labor movement of the 1930s and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and beyond, people on the receiving end of injustice have done best when they didn’t wait to be saved but, born out of necessity, took heroic action themselves.
When the Kensington Welfare Rights Union declared that we were building a “new Underground Railroad” in Philadelphia in the 1990s, we were doing more than just invoking a powerful chapter in the history of the abolition of slavery. We were implicitly challenging the dominant notion of who the agents of change in our society should be. We recognized, even then, that in the lessons Americans were taught about that history, enslaved people were often conspicuously missing in action from the story of abolition. We saw in that Underground Railroad a way for slaves to escape the grips of the system that was oppressing them, something far larger than just a physical pathway to freedom. We imagined it as a significant political project of the past exactly because it was one way the poor and enslaved of another era struck the first blows against a brutal and inhumane system.
Today, there is a freedom railroad rumbling underground, all around us. It has stops in the Amazon warehouses and the fast-food restaurants where low-wage workers are organizing for better wages and conditions; in immigrant communities that are protecting themselves against ICE raids in the midst of stay-at-home orders; in cities where people are winning moratoriums on water and utility shut-offs; in housing developments and hospitals where thousands are insisting that housing and healthcare are human rights.
You can hear it in the recent slogan — “stay in place, stay alive, organize, and don’t believe the lies” — of the Poor People’s Campaign that I co-chair, which has called for noncooperation with decisions to recklessly reopen states for business, putting the poor and sick most directly in harm’s way. You can see it in the tens of thousands of people protesting across the country, refusing to be subdued by years of racism and police violence, people who are demanding full justice and the right for all of us, but especially repressed black lives, to survive and thrive.
In a moment from hell, there is only one meaningful way to revive American society: from the bottom up.
Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. She teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.