A story that organizers often hear when they fist start working to influence Federal politics involves a meeting of civil rights leaders with LBJ in the oval office. Those were the days before the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the civil rights leaders argued that this bill was a moral obligation—no matter the fierce of opposition of Southern Democrats. LBJ agreed—or so the story goes—and then said: “Make me do it. Go organize your communities so that I have no choice but to do what’s right.”
Replace Southern Democrats with Blue Dog Democrats and it’s the same situation we find ourselves in today: We almost assuredly do have a President who will support our agenda, but we also most assuredly know that we are the only ones who can make our agenda a reality in the financially corrupt and morally bankrupt corridors of Washington D.C.
January 20, 2010 will mark the one-year anniversary of the Obama administration. While a year can feel very brief, the first year in office pretty much can set the tone for everything that will follow. In Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, he cut funding for existing public housing by more than half, and for new public housing by more than three quarters. Public housing has never recovered, and our country’s poorest and most vulnerable communities have been torn apart by homelessness.
The one-year mark, then, will be a very important indicator of the direction and the capacity for change of President Obama’s administration. We need to all come together and do some serious evaluation of the pluses, minuses, and absences of what has happened thus far, and plan for the fact that whatever we might have expected or hoped, anything we hope to accomplish can only come through the sheer determination, skills, and energy of no-bullshit, hard-core, locally-based community organizing.
We must come together because we can no longer stay separated by geography, language, income levels, skin color, sex, age, or immigration status and idly watch as our communities are torn apart by neglect, greed, and gentrification. Because it’s not an array of distinct problems—neglect in LA, greed in Portland, gentrification in San Francisco—but a universal pattern of oppression: from anti-homeless loitering and sleeping laws to Business Improvement Districts in low-income neighborhoods to immigration checks at health programs and public schools to arrest histories in public housing, all low-income, poor, and homeless people are finding themselves being squeezed out of their communities, being squeezed out of society, and being squeezed into jail.
Twenty years of Street Sheets testify that what we are saying here is nothing new: Communities of poor people pitted against each other for attention and/or crumbs from the table of bureaucrats, politicians, foundations, and the mainstream media is as old as the “War on Poverty” and as pointless as a 35 person 20 minute meeting with a mayor, a governor, or a police chief. Our attempts to appeal to the spiritual, moral, human side of those entities that are controlling our lives, that are demonizing and displacing us from our communities, have been smacked down by the reality that the only church of any real substance in corporate and political (a redundant statement today) circles these days is the church of the ATM. Regardless of the moral aspirations of any particular administration, the voracious maw of moneyed interests is so powerful that any real, meaningful change can only come through tremendous organized power from below.
None of this is new. But a new day is dawning in organizing.
No longer will we stick with the what’s-in-it-for-my-‘hood approach to organizing. This has proven to be as ineffective as trying to convince businesses that it will help their profit margin to stop being the ruthless capitalists that they inherently are, or trying to convince a politician that if she or he shows compassion and speaks of the humanity of poor people they will surely get elected.
If a corporation wants to gentrify a neighborhood, or establish a Business Improvement District, a meeting on that corporation’s turf to search for a soul, or the two minutes of polite testimony that we are each allotted at a local city council meeting has proven time and time again to do us way more harm than good. On top of being purposely incredibly boring!
If we don’t recognize that each of our individual communities will improve only in proportion to the lives of every community, then to hell with us. Focusing only on we-us-ours organizing in order to build our membership base is a waste of the very valuable time we are quickly running out of.
Why? Because the harassment on poor people in LA’s skid row under Chief Bratton are an attack on the same people hounded in Portland under that city’s recently overturned Sit-Lie ordinance. Assaults on poor people at the US-Mexico border by Sheriff Arpaio are part of the same campaign of criminalization as San Francisco’s “zoned” policing, gang injunctions, and the desanctification of Sanctuary.
It’s a new day. From now on, we will make up our own set of rules for community organizing. We will come to the party with the strength that only hardcore, fearless, cross-community protest can give us.
And when we recognize that our interests lie across community borders, that our problems are bigger than any one city hall or police department, the bigger goal becomes clear: US poverty is a national problem, and we need a national solution. President Obama may want to deliver us that solution, but he will be frustrated by the Church of the ATM unless our communities unite so forcefully that what we all want is his only choice.
On January 20, 2010, come join us at the Federal Building in San Francisco. Organizers from up and down the west coast will be coming together to create a new set of rules for community organizing and to plan for America’s next great social justice revolution and party.
If you can’t join us in San Francisco, go to the Federal Building in your community and we’ll figure out a way to all hook up. The only thing that matters is to get together, celebrate our beauty, and create a plan, so that all of us can combine our resources, talents, skills, and intelligence to bring about the day when the word “entitlement” isn’t considered a curse when spoken by poor people, but when housing, education, healthcare, and a living income are entitlements for us all.
The rally at the San Francisco Federal Building is being organized by the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP)—a West Coast alliance of homeless people’s grassroots organizations, of which the Coalition on Homelessness is a founding member. To get involved in San Francisco, contact Jenny or Bob at the Coalition on Homelessness at 415.346.3740, or visit us at 468 Turk Street (between Hyde and Larkin). If you’re living elsewhere, contact the Western Regional Advocacy Project at 415.621.2533. Learn more about WRAP’s work at http://www.wraphome.org.