Point Austin: The Struggle Continues
The Poor People’s Campaign renews the long-term fight
"Everybody's got a right to live."
That was one refrain sung by several dozen demonstrators Monday afternoon in front of the Capitol gates, the latest in a series of nationally linked public actions organized by the Poor People's Campaign, reinvigorated by the Rev. William Barber from North Carolina. The campaign (www.poorpeoplescampaign.org) is in the midst of its initial 40-day organizing effort, hoping to build momentum over the next couple of years for a renewed national focus on poverty, inequality, and basic human rights.
This week's Austin action was largely educational – focused on "work and education," said Louis Malfaro, president of the state American Federation of Teachers, one of the unions partnering in the campaign. "Our country has really gotten out of balance," Malfaro said – citing income inequality, school segregation, and the wealthy now explicitly proclaiming that they "don't want to pay for other people's education or health care."
"We're a nation that's losing its middle class," Malfaro said, and summarized a range of potential policy decisions that could address the decline: supporting child care, protecting schools from privatization, the "Fight for $15" – a livable wage for all workers. (Quite a few demonstrators, from around the state, were wearing Fight for $15 T-shirts.)
Some of the national demonstrations have been marked by civil disobedience – Barber was among nearly 150 people arrested in D.C. last month for blocking the Capitol. Monday's demo held no such plans, but during the previous week's protest at the Railroad Commission offices, activists blocked doors and seven people were arrested. One was PPC organizer Sema Hernandez, who said that under the themes of "ecological devastation" and health care, demonstrators were making the connection between the RRC's permitting of pollution and the consequent effects on public health.
"This is phase one of the campaign," Hernandez said Monday of the networking effort that will enter phase two next month. "We are building local chapters" – Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso – "under the principle of 'moral revival' that began in North Carolina. This will be a multi-year effort."
The Poor People's Campaign is a conscious effort to revive Martin Luther King Jr.'s similar effort in the late Sixties, a move that marked a shift away from civil rights agitation alone to broader targets of human rights, inequality, and lifting up those left behind in an otherwise prosperous America. The conventional narrative is that "war on poverty" programs failed; in fact, social welfare programs created in that period dramatically reduced the national poverty rate – but the struggle for equity continues. According to a PPC report prepared by the Institute for Policy Studies, about 47% of the people in Texas are living in poverty or are low-income – roughly 12.8 million residents. That pattern has coincided with growing inequality: from 1972 to 2012, the income in Texas for the top 1% grew by 149%, while the income for the bottom 99% grew by only 2%.
Last month, the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, issued his report on the U.S. to the U.N. Human Rights Council. His findings, about the self-defined wealthiest country in the world, were stark: "About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty."
A Time for Solidarity
The U.N. report is worth a close read, but a few details are worth highlighting – in addition to the sheer scale of poverty in an otherwise wealthy nation, inequality is growing. "The United States," the report notes, "has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries," a division recently exacerbated by the massive Trump administration tax cuts. "There is ... a dramatic contrast between the immense wealth of the few and the squalor and deprivation in which vast numbers of Americans exist."
Amid the recent Trumpist media spectacles of insulting U.S. allies, blowing up trade and weapons agreements, and embracing longtime enemies, the step-by-step building of the Poor People's Campaign might well seem too old-school and grassroots to have much effect on the national and world political stage – today's politics are all about cable-TV ranting and viral social media campaigns. On Monday, watching 60 or so folks engage in public, lyrical solidarity – "before this campaign fails, we'll all go down to jail" – certainly had a quixotic aspect, a sense that perhaps the forces arrayed against social justice have finally amassed too much power and wealth to be eventually overcome.
Maybe so. But I would still bet that long after Donald Trump and his brand, and his enablers and sycophants, have scuttled off the media stage in disgrace, the name of Martin Luther King Jr. will continue to be honored around the world as a voice for peace and justice. In this next era of his continuing influence, may the new Poor People's Campaign carry his fight onward.