‘Interview about the Poor People’s Campaign: “Half of the US Population is Poor”’

‘Interview about the Poor People’s Campaign: “Half of the US Population is Poor”’

By: María Torrellas for The Dawn News — September 30, 2016

This interview was originally posted to The Dawn: International Newsletter of Popular Struggles.

In the framework of the International Seminar of the Crisis of Capitalism in Sao Paulo, Brazil, The Dawn News interviewed Liz Theoharis and Willie Baptist from the Poor People’s Campaign, which is an effort of the poor in the United States. This movement is based on the campaign with the same name that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. announced on December 4, 1967.

What’s the reason for this campaign and how was it created?

Liz Theoharis: In the last couple of years, the poor of the United States —from people fighting around homelessness to people fighting for healthcare, to fighting the privatization of and pollution of water —all the different issues that impact people have been coming together saying “we need to unite and we need to form a campaign of the poor and dispossessed people who can come up with a program and a platform for real structural change”. And we know that this Poor People’s Campaign in the United States needs to connect with poor people, poor people’s organizations and social movements worldwide because we live in global capitalism and so for the poor of the United States to just fight something themselves in isolation we will never win and so we need to unite with the poor in the rest of the world and from there figure out how we get done what we need to get done.

In how many states are you working?

T.: At this point, different grassroots organizations are working in 30 to 35 different states of the United States. Many of the organizations that are part of the poor people’s campaign are particularly in the mid-West of the country, the South, where the largest contiguous poverty of the United States exists and in the North-East, but we’ve made lots of connections and there are organizations and efforts in the West coast and in the border states and in native-American territories as well, that have connected up and said “we need to unite, we need to fight this common fight together”.


Willie Baptist and João Pedro Stédile of the Landless Workers' Movement at the Florestan Fernandes National School in Brazil.

Willie Baptist and João Pedro Stédile of the Landless Workers’ Movement at the Florestan Fernandes National School in Brazil.

In your presentation, you recounted that this fight had originated in places like Detroit —where water was privatized, people were homeless and you occupied abandoned houses.

T.: There’s actually a long history of people organizing in the United States that we come out of. The most recent history is from the 1980s and 1990s when the creation of economic, structural homelessness and structural poverty really comes more to the scene. So, because of neoliberalism and globalization, because of various policies but then also just the structure of capitalism, tens of thousands, millions of people in the United States have ended up homeless, they were taken straight to poverty and have been left out of the healthcare system.

And so in the mid-1980s to the late 1980s and the early 1990s we were part of the effort of the National Union of the Homeless, to organize homeless people across the country. We were organized in 25 to 30 different states across United States and the thing that we did together in a politicized and organized way was something that poor people were doing themselves, individually before that, and that was to move back into the houses that we were being evicted from. And so what the Homeless Union did was politicize and organize those actions and so at one point we did a campaign, a simultaneous action where in 73 cities across the United States we had homeless people moving into abandoned houses and raising the question of why do we have more abandoned houses in the United States than homeless people and yet we have growing homelessness and misery.

This happened in 73 cities at the same time?

T.: Yes, they were coordinated. People, thousands and the tens of thousands, moved into abandoned buildings and occupied them.

And how did the police react?

Willie Baptist: There were arrests in certain places, you know, but it was a pre-planned effort on the part of the homeless folks, anticipating that they would get arrested, because of civil disobedience. And some did get arrested in the process but we had a legal strategy, everything set up to deal with every aspect of it. But this were homeless folks, man and women, organizing themselves, this is something that didn’t get out to the world because the whole image of the United States is that it’s the promised land and everything is perfect, but the fact is that there are two Americas.

Even in a place like Detroit, auto jobs used to be middle-income, comfortable jobs. We organized ex-auto workers who were homeless, because they had been evicted from their jobs, they had computers and robots doing their jobs and this has worsened during the years. But the history of struggle in the United States of the poor and dispossessed is a long history and it’s not spoken, because a lot of people, the NGOs and some well-meaning academics who come in have no contact with what’s going on and the struggle is growing —the struggle around water, the struggle around the homeless. We invigorated a national organizing driven by homeless folks right now.

You’re right, this is not known outside the US. Do you have contact with the Black Lives Matter movement?

B.: The thing about the poor, and in particular the homeless, which is the most impoverished of the poor, is that they are connected to all movements. We’re black, we’re white, we’re women, we’re everything. So every issue we’re affected by. It’s not just that we don’t have a home, but people that don’t have a home usually have a messed up job that doesn’t pay adequately, or don’t have a job at all, they have the worst health care system, the women are pushed under… And so any issue, such as Black Lives Matter, and police attacks, we’re involved in it, and we’re part of those efforts.

Speaking about women, is the housing issue worse for them? They often are the homemakers and they are the main caretakers of their children but they often lack resources. How do you deal with this issue?

B.: The only alternative we have is to organize ourselves and to build community among ourselves. And I’ve been fortunate that most of the leadership of our organization are women. Because they’re doubly or triply as oppressed as men. They’re the backbone. And so I’ve been fortunate to come up in the organization with women in leadership. So the question of women and equality has been very clear. But among the poor, everything is there. They’re oppressed as women, they’re oppressed as homeless, they’re oppressed as workers, they’re oppressed because of their race —all that is tied. I mean, you have movements that come from the campuses that separate these issues. But the movement coming from the bottom, the poor, they all connect the issues, you can’t separate them. You can’t deal with a homeless mother as a woman and not deal with their homelessness, with their lack of jobs, and the school situation of the kids.

You mentioned that an eighth of the population of the United States is homeless

T.: Even if we use the standards that the State has set, which are different from our standards, one in two Americans are poor or low income. Which is, I think, a staggering statistic, and something that people have no idea about. And so, connected to that, when we’re talking about the issue of homelessness, the average age of a homeless person in the United States is 9 years old. So it’s families with their children who are homeless. That’s the profile of who is homeless and who is poor. In cities and rural areas across the country, 1 in 4 kids are poor —living in dire poverty now, not enough food in their house, no access to healthcare, no access to dental care. Education is being privatized, so the US had an educational system to support industrialization, so now that de-industrialization has taken effect and the social programs are gone, what’s happening in rural areas and in big cities across the US is a wholesale attack on education.

How do you manege to put all the struggles together?

T.: Our job is to link the struggles. When folks have their water shut off, they rise up, when folks have their water poisoned, they rise up. When folks are evicted in mass from their homes they rise up. But we want to coalesce that into something more than a reaction. There’s a chant in the United States that we use: “They say cut back, we say fight back”. So instead of just being reactionary, our role in terms of building this new people’s campaign is to turn those reactive fights into a proactive, larger network and battle, and coalition particularly focused on political education, on leadership development… Because we know that we’re up against a very formidable, very powerful force, whether that’s the United States or global capitalism. But that’s what we’re up against. So we have to be sophisticated. And so much of our work is to help folks organize and sustain their organizations but then to link them up on a higher level so that we can actually start formulating a program and a platform for how we’re going to get out of this situation and not just react to it.

Do you have a popular education program?

T.: We have a variety of different educational efforts. Back when we were organizing with the Homeless Union we had a leadership institute which was called the Annie Smart Leadership Development Institute and it was named after a poor, black mom whose name was Smart and she would always introduce herself as “my name is Annie Smart, not Annie Dumb”, and she would say “we need to understand the forces that we’re up against, and we need to educate ourselves around them”. And so always in our processes of the poor and dispossessed organizing in the United States we’ve had education as a central issue. There’s a number of different entities in the Poor People’s Campaign, but a major sector of it is about political, popular education, because we won’t win if we just do more. We have to be smarter about how we do it.

Do you work with volunteers?

T.: At this point, the Poor People’s Campaign doesn’t have any funding —not from the State nor foundations. It’s basically self-organization. And so some of the different organizations that have come to endorse and call for this Poor People’s Campaign get a little money from here and there but by large folks are working whatever random jobs they can to survive or making a little bit of money here in order to free themselves up to organize and fight in their communities. So basically it’s all a volunteer effort. It’s a volunteer effort on a local level but it’s also a volunteer effort on a national level, to form something bigger, and that’s the purpose of the Poor People’s Campaign, to be one in a series of campaigns where we’re able to form a larger independent political motion in the US, and to be able to actually change those conditions and not just continuing to suffer, isolated from others.

Do you think socialism is possible in the United States?

B.: I think that as long as you have a proletariat that’s growing and beginning to suffer you have to have socialism. It’s a necessity, it’s not an alternative. The only solution to capitalism is socialism. Rural hospitals are being closed in the United States. People need hospitals. So socialism is necessary. And as long as it’s necessary, what we have to do is make people conscious of it. But it has to happen locally, in concert with the struggles of the poor and dispossessed all over the world. That’s why we’re so happy of being here, with other leaders from struggles, because for so long the NGOs and a lot of these academics have covered up these struggles. You don’t know nothing about this going on. Because we don’t talk to each other, because we’ve been disconnected.

I can tell you all kinds of horror stories in the richest country in the world. And they’ve done a hell of a propaganda job, because, most people haven’t even heard of these things. And the fact is that capitalism don’t give two shits about anybody. It’s trying to make money. Now it might try to bribe this segment of the workers so as to get them to carry out their program and fight against each other. So in this country you have the poor fighting the poor. And in order to solve all those problems, socialism is absolutely necessary. And in history, when something is necessary, people bring it about. They’re not going to let their kids starve, they’re not going to let their families go without. Maybe once or twice but not a whole mass of people and now the problem is growing into a massive scale, worldwide. So we’re so happy to be here, where we can talk directly to people and not go to the NGOs. Thanks for interviewing us, thanks for listening.

Oh no, thank you for fighting. Would you like to add anything else?

T.: Well, I was thinking about a couple of other things that I feel people don’t really know about in terms of what the conditions and what the organization of the poor looks like in the U.S. The majority of the poor people in the United States are white. It’s true that there is a legacy of slavery, so a disproportionate amount of black people are poor and there’s a legacy of the genocide of the indigenous peoples so disproportionately, the highest levels of poverty are on native-American reservations. Many of the immigrants that are coming to the United States are fleeing poverty in their own countries and so disproportionately immigrants are poor and oppressed and marginalized but where you can see that the problem isn’t just race or ethnicity or immigration status is that the majority of the poor people of the US are white, and they’re citizens, and they’ve been through some kind of education system, and they’ve been working at a job, but then get laid off and now have to have three jobs and none of them pay enough and they’re homeless and so what’s often characterized in the United States is that the problem of poverty is a problem of the poor, you know that individually these people did something wrong, but you can’t have half of the population and people of all races, of all ages, of all genders, of all religions poor if it’s just that.

It’s clearly a system. And people are saying, in this meeting and in other global meetings I’ve been to is that this is a system where the “American Dream” is being sent out across the world as a supposedly beautiful system but it’s a nightmare and it’s a nightmare for the people of the United States and it’s also therefore a nightmare for the people around the world. Because the lies people are being fed about how great things are in the United States. While people in the United States are experiencing widescale misery. And the same police forces and military forces that are shooting people all over the world are shooting people in the United States.

B.: From a global view, the fight against global capital and global capitalism, the US state is one of the main pillars of global capitalism and it affects every country, it supports every reaction everywhere, in Europe —everywhere. Part of that strategy has to be how do you unite with the poor and dispossessed in the United States, in the belly of the system, and combine our struggles with all the other struggles. To deal with capitalism is so important that people realize that within the US state there’s people who are suffering and if they can lift up that struggle by uniting, then we can be in a better position to defeat global capitalism.