Saturday, June 06, 2020

Can America's Poor Self-Organize To Survive The Dystopian Now?


tomdispatch |  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?

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.