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Tomgram: Liz Theoharis, You Only Get What You're Organized to Take

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Is there an American problem that hasn't been made far worse by the spread of Covid-19 and a "leadership" in Washington that couldn't lead itself out of anywhere whatsoever? Any places that were previously crowded, underfunded, and undertended -- prisons, nursing homes, assisted living centers, homeless shelters, poor hospitals, the poorest neighborhoods (disproportionately filled with Latinos and blacks) -- have found themselves under a coronaviral siege of the first order and without an empathetic Trump tweet in sight. Jobs have gone down the drain; government aid has been siphoned in a striking fashion to large corporations (laying off staggering numbers of people); poor children, no longer even getting their lunches at school, are suffering from a fierce new round of hunger (without significant government aid); and that's just to start down such a list in what still passes (though you'd never know it) for the wealthiest, most powerful nation on the planet.

Meanwhile the president, in a pandemic moment, has decided that it's crucial to withdraw from the World Health Organization and attack Twitter for tagging a couple of his bizarre tweets. The man who's had his knee on the American neck for months now has dealt with a racist police killing in Minneapolis and the reaction to it by tweeting out "when the looting starts, the shooting starts," a phrase created by a racist Miami police chief in 1967 and probably last mouthed by George Wallace, the infamous segregationist candidate for president, in 1968.

We're watching the "birth" (as in birtherism) of a new (which means old) version of America. Under siege and facing a brutal pandemic, in the midst of protests and rioting over George Floyd's killing, this country's forever wars have truly come home in grotesque ways. In that context, anyone capable of imagining a future in which a new and better America might be born is a champ and TomDispatch regular Liz Theoharis qualifies big time. Co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign and author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor in a country that has, in this century, become ever more of the rich, for the rich, and by the rich, she offers us a glimpse of what a future organized by those experiencing the worst of this moment might look like. Tom

Organizing the Rich or the Poor?
Which America Will Be Ours After the Pandemic?
By Liz Theoharis

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."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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