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

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Yves here. The poor keep getting ground further down as income inequality widens. It used to be that even well off people were grounded in communities and therefore would have some exposure to them. Now the wealthy and even the upper middle class live at such a remove from the lower orders that it’s easier in the past to take no interest in them and view them as having gotten what they deserve.

Liz Theoharis argues for more bottoms-up approaches rather than begging for crumbs from the tables of the wealthy. And as the ranks of the poor are about to include growing numbers of the recently middle class, both the raw numbers and organizing dynamics are changing.

By Liz Theoharis, a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist.  Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. She teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Originally published at TomDispatch

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.”

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.

Such projects, however, were beachheads meant to rally the larger society, as the ranks of the poor grew around us, to create lasting change for them. Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that this novel pandemic has already galvanized bold collective action on the part of the poor and the precarious. For every sparsely attended reopen protest at a state capital by armed members of Donald Trump’s base, hundreds of new mutual-aid networks, ad-hoc tenant associations, and wildcat strike funds have been organized for those at the base of this society. Meanwhile, thousands of protestors have taken over streets in cities all across the country resisting racism and inequality.

Entire communities that are out of work and losing income are taking life-saving action that is also at times, and by necessity, in contradiction to the law. Despite recent media images of vandalism, today’s protest movement features countless acts that add up to projects for survival.

In April and May, millions did not pay rent, echoing that most basic of economic principles: those who can’t pay won’t pay. Indeed, such rent strikes and other protests speak to an essential demand for temporary relief in the midst of a crisis of unparalleled proportions, but they also signal potential new directions for millions of people who, if offered a political home that articulates their desperate needs and demands, might, against great odds, begin to find common cause.

The Rich Organizing the Rich

If this crisis is opening up new possibilities for organizing among the poor, however, the same is true for the rich. Since mid-March, the fortunes of the 600-plus billionaires in the United States have jumped by $434 billion, or 15%. In the CARES Act that Congress passed, legislators slipped in a tax break of $135 billion for 43,000 of the country’s wealthiest business owners. (And, of course, you need to add this to the unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the poor to the very rich that happened via the $1.5 trillion Trump tax cut of 2017.)

This pandemic has already been very profitable for a very few. It should be seen as one benefit from a long-term organizing campaign of the rich that has included crushing the labor movement, consolidating industry, financializing the economy, and what one historian has dubbed a decades-long “tax strike.” By now, of course, the story of widening inequality in this country has become a familiar one, but that doesn’t make it any less shocking. In 1983, median household wealth in the United States was $84,000. Thirty-seven years of growing inequality later, it sits at $82,000. Meanwhile, as a point of comparison, the total wealth of the Forbes 400 was $92 billion in 1982. Now, it’s $2.89 trillion.

Behind this staggering and rapid accumulation of wealth rests a deep and abiding belief in recent decades that the rich are the engine of the American economy and so the deepest source of societal wellbeing. In this Covid-19 crisis, evidence abounds that such a faith, which emerged fullblown during the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, remains, for now, bipartisan and largely unshaken. The CARES Act caught its spirit exactly, managing to direct most of its money to Wall Street and hundreds of millions more to the police, while leaving millions of workers lacking paid sick leave and the uninsured, the homeless, undocumented immigrants, and many more in the lurch.

While the HEROES Act, recently passed by the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, offers improvements on this, many of which are guaranteed not to make it through the Senate, there are once again striking windfalls for the rich embedded in the bill. Within its 2,000 pages is funding for lobbyists, mortgage servicers, and private insurance companies. It does nothing to prohibit the corporate mergers that have produced bigger and more powerful monopolies in other moments of crisis in the recent past. It extends COBRA, a federal program that enables workers to temporarily keep health coverage on their own dime after their employment ends, and again directs vast sums of money to the private insurance industry, instead of expanding Medicaid and guaranteeing healthcare during the most devastating public health crisis in a century.

Meanwhile, at the state and local level, politicians on both sides of the aisle have refused to touch the wealth of the rich, even as they have decried their budget shortfalls, while managing this crisis largely via the playbook of austerity and readying themselves for social unrest. New York State, for instance, passed a budget that will cut $300 million from public hospitals but increase funding for the police. Likewise, the Washington State legislature has been lauded for the bipartisanship it demonstrated recently in putting through deep budget cuts. In no case have legislators chosen to tax their wealthiest residents, nor let up on policing and other forms of control. And Washington is home to Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, at present the two richest people on the face of the Earth.

Of course, the workers who are actually keeping the nation afloat will suffer the most from such cuts. They may now be called “essential,” but they continue, as ever, to be treated as expendable appendages of the economy.

How to Revive American Society

I recently wrote a piece with the subtitle “How to Destroy American Society from the Top Down.” The answer remains painfully simple: this country courts destruction as long as the rich are allowed to organize society around their lives and needs.

From my first moments working at Tent City through my 25 years of grassroots organizing, I’ve come to see that inverting that subtitle in a positive fashion is crucial to our survival as a nation. Any true revival of American society depends on collective action by those most impacted by injustice and by the willingness of the rest of society to follow their lead. From the abolitionism of the pre-Civil War era to the labor movement of the 1930s and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and beyond, people on the receiving end of injustice have done best when they didn’t wait to be saved but, born out of necessity, took heroic action themselves.

When the Kensington Welfare Rights Union declared that we were building a “new Underground Railroad” in Philadelphia in the 1990s, we were doing more than just invoking a powerful chapter in the history of the abolition of slavery. We were implicitly challenging the dominant notion of who the agents of change in our society should be. We recognized, even then, that in the lessons Americans were taught about that history, enslaved people were often conspicuously missing in action from the story of abolition. We saw in that Underground Railroad a way for slaves to escape the grips of the system that was oppressing them, something far larger than just a physical pathway to freedom. We imagined it as a significant political project of the past exactly because it was one way the poor and enslaved of another era struck the first blows against a brutal and inhumane system.

Today, there is a freedom railroad rumbling underground, all around us. It has stops in the Amazon warehouses and the fast-food restaurants where low-wage workers are organizing for better wages and conditions; in immigrant communities that are protecting themselves against ICE raids in the midst of stay-at-home orders; in cities where people are winning moratoriums on water and utility shut-offs; in housing developments and hospitals where thousands are insisting that housing and healthcare are human rights.

You can hear it in the recent slogan — “stay in place, stay alive, organize, and don’t believe the lies” — of the Poor People’s Campaign that I co-chair, which has called for noncooperation with decisions to recklessly reopen states for business, putting the poor and sick most directly in harm’s way. You can see it in the tens of thousands of people protesting across the country, refusing to be subdued by years of racism and police violence, people who are demanding full justice and the right for all of us, but especially repressed black lives, to survive and thrive.

In a moment from hell, there is only one meaningful way to revive American society: from the bottom up.

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  1. Colonel Smithers

    A big thank you, Yves, for this post and Benno Ndulu’s on Africa. They are not unrelated.

    The above applies to the UK, whence I am writing.

    The rich are certainly organising or, as the song goes, “doing it for themselves”. Some eye watering sums, contracts and property have been transferred under the cover of fighting Covid. Contracts for tracing, making protective equipment, transporting crucial supplies etc. have been handed out without tenders to the well connected. The well connected, e.g. Baroness Dido Harding, get the plum jobs without having the necessary competence. Pharma Starmer, who as chief prosecutor left the rich and powerful alone, can’t or won’t say anything as some of his owners, aka donors, are beneficiaries of that largesse.

    “It used to be that even well off people were grounded in communities and therefore would have some exposure to them. Now the wealthy and even the upper middle class live at such a remove from the lower orders that it’s easier in the past to take no interest in them and view them as having gotten what they deserve.” The growth of dormitory towns and post-Covid working from home, if one’s job has not been exported to Asia, lead to further atomisation, making divide and rule easier. Having worked in private banking at Coutts and then investment banking at HSBC, I don’t think the public has any idea of just how far removed the upper classes are. From annual surveys like the Sunday Times rich list, I reckon that the numbers are for some, if not most, in the survey are underestimated by a quarter to a third. There’s a lot of discrete wealth in the UK.

    1. Synoia

      It used to be that even well off people were grounded in communities and therefore would have some exposure to them.

      Umm, no. Not in my experience in the UK (Class Accents, Public Schools, Oxbridge), South Africa (Apartheid and Private Schools) and the US (Private Schools and Legacy University Entrance), all coupled together with “It’s not What you know, it’s Who you know that matters.”

      It’s the same the whole world over
      It the rich wot gets the pleasure
      It’s the poor what gets the blame!

      1. JBird4049

        It is the degree of separation that has changed. The destruction of local industry across the entire country that eliminated much of the working and middle class as well as a chunk of the upper middle and lower upper classes outside of the innermost Blue coastal areas. The continuity and diffusion of the wealth among the classes as well as the much smaller gap between the top and bottom made the social connections linking people across the classes possible.

        I think that started to die in the 70s as it all started to go away. All the siphoning of the wealth also shattered the social continuum. Unbelievable poverty and unimaginable wealth sandwiching a vanishing middle makes strangers of us all, but especially between the 1% and everyone else.

  2. philnc

    Yves: Thanks for reposting this so close to the Poor People’s Campaign June 22 digital event. Rev Theoharis and Rev Barber, along with their crew of volunteers across the country, have been working hard to remind people that “the poor are still with us”, even more relevant now that, as you note, so many more are falling into poverty every day. In a hyper materialistic society where morality continues to be either twisted to justify the status quo or discounted as irrelevant, it’s important to stand up for what’s right now because if we don’t we may not get the chance again.

  3. Michael Hudson

    Liz has put together a good group that has attracted many excellent organizers, for instance at the Kairos Center in midtown where we both have given presentations together. I strongly endorse her efforts.

  4. ambrit

    When elites try to stamp out “insurgencies” like the above mentioned NWRA, they send in their thugs and destroy the organizing entities. The ‘neutralization’ of ‘Occupy’ is one example. Years ago, the activists of those times knew that no movement got anywhere without a credible threat of counter state violence.
    The Black Panthers may not have bought about a poor people’s workers state, but they did lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement successes. Make no mistake about it; if there had been no Black Panther threat waiting in the wings, nothing in the way of Civil Rights would have been enacted. History has shown that, absent a real countervailing force in waiting, no elite ever gives any of it’s power away.
    Thus the principle: Successful reform movements proceed along two parallel tracks, one Civil, and one Militant.

  5. HH

    The missing element is political structure. As the Occupy movement demonstrated, passion is no substitute for organization. The current reform efforts suffer from two serious deficits:

    1) Acute fragmentation: The hundreds of little progressive groups are remarkably resistant to joining forces. Until this obstacle is overcome, they will remain politically impotent.

    2) The education fallacy: that the great and good American people would improve society if only they understood the facts. The American people know the facts, but they are too lazy and demoralized to act on them. An organized progressive movement must provide political leadership to effect change.

    A new kind of coordination and leadership is called for. The conventional great chieftain model is easily defeated by manipulation (Obama) or assassination (MLK), and the grass-roots model is diffuse and directionless (Occupy and the current George Floyd protests). What is needed is organization among the Internet “commentariat,” the invisible army of intelligent and motivated observers of America’s national decline. When a scheme is devised to join these people in an effective political movement, progressive change will come.

    1. Anarcissie

      I think the attraction to bourgeois models might be a mistake. In the past, those relations do not seem to have done the Left a lot of good.

      1. HH

        The bourgeoisie ain’t what it used to be. In the USA, white college graduates are facing steadily dwindling prospects of joining the affluent elite. In any case, successful revolutions are seldom led by proletarians. Che Guevara was a med school graduate and Fidel Castro was a law student. A lot of Marxist theory is bloc obsolete in the modern era. The proletariat has morphed into the precariat – people at many levels of education and income who are facing growing insecurity and declining living standards.

    2. Dan

      I agree wholeheartedly with both points 1 and 2 and the need to transcend them in order to build an effective political movement. At the same time, non-violent guerilla tactics against the current system must be sustained and even increased, imo. Wildcat strikes, jury nullification, etc.

  6. Ignacio

    I am with Col. Smithers: this is a must read. A sad must read. it is very disturbing to realise where the US is heading to. Not only the US, of course, but this country is in the fast track to an increasingly regrettable situation. Please, please, find an alternative way. The only way to feel optimistic is to think on the work of people like Theoharis.

    1. ambrit

      I echo your point, but must observe that conditions now aren’t “there” for the enactment of ‘progressive’ policies.
      For example, back at the turn of the Nineteenth Century there were organizing Unions, Muckraking journalists, sincere ‘Reformers’ like the Settlement House movement in Chicago, and a fairly ‘engaged’ newspaper reading public. Yet, it took crusading members of the elite, in one case, Theodore Roosevelt, to push reforms through the legislature and into enactment.
      Where are today’s crusading members of the power elites?

  7. Ian Ollmann

    All of this is predicated on the assumption that dollars vote and not people. While it is certainly true dollars vote in Congress, people do vote for the congressmen. The bigger the rich poor gap gets, the smaller the pool of rich becomes. They never had a majority and are now an ultra tiny minority. They have no ability to vote in the corrupt class on their own. It happens because the poor are complicit in their own impoverishment.

    Stop voting for them. Stop unthinkingly insisting that socialism is the great enemy. There are a number of natural monopoly cases where voter representation and not private interest are the best way to organize. Demand good government that seeks to have policies that work, not policies that impoverish workers.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Not voting at all is labeled apathy. Voting for one of the candidates on offer may mean having to choose between bad choices. Leaving a vote blank might lodge a no-count vote … or it might give your vote to whoever is counting the ballots. Not all states provide for write-in votes but if yours does there are questions about how and whether write-ins are counted. If there were a way to vote ‘NO’, none-of-the-above — an unlikely possibility — I am not sure it would work quite the way it worked for Chile. If there were a candidate you actually wanted to vote for, what are the chances your vote will actually count in your district? Do you trust the machines and reporting mechanisms? If there were a candidate you actually wanted to vote for and your vote will be counted and your candidate wins — what is the chance that candidate will act on any of the promises made? If the candidate does act on promises made — what is the chance those actions might include unhappy baggage far beyond what the promises appeared to contain. If your candidate wins and does follow through on promises and acts in good faith but those promises tread on the wrong toes what is the chance your candidate might have to contend with personal ‘health issues’.

      “Demand good government that seeks to have policies that work, not policies that impoverish workers.” How do you propose making your demands heard?

      1. ambrit

        An increasingly heard expression of the anger and frustration of the “lower” classes is the one that calls for a replacement of the ruling system. Often ill informed and manipulated for partisan ends, this demographic is there and growing.
        Demanding good government is, so far, not working. The next step is to establish parallel institutions with which to replace the present defective system.

  8. AndrewJ

    Here in Portland, the unthinkable is on the table: defunding of the police, because every day I see more and more bodies marching in the streets. I hope police departments around the country find themselves feeling lucky to have their budgets reduced by a mere 50%. Then we’ll see how secure the rich feel, when a nonviolent resistance movement learns how to counter tear gas, impact munitions and LRADs. Things are changing fast.

  9. John Steinbach

    (And, of course, you need to add this to the unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the poor to the very rich that happened via the $1.5 trillion Trump tax cut of 2017.)

    Actually this tax cut paled in comparison to Obama’s 2008 bailout of the corporations. The issue is the system.

  10. Cripes

    I agree with Andrew here that demands being pushed forward in Portland and other cities are evidence that voting with your feet in defiance of curfews, not impotent once every four year voting is the only democracy we have now

    The chorus of people here calling for voters to be engaged–by voting!–really need to get their heads out of the 1950s voting Rights Movement and deal with the reality that has taken shape in the 60 years since.

    I wonder who exactly you’re voting for that makes such an impact compared to all of us lazy voters electing the wrong people. Do let us know where to vote for people’s candidates when you find them

  11. Tom Stone

    We live in a “Surveillance State”, total information awareness is a reality and we have a heavily militarized police.
    The people in charge are confident that this gives them the ability to control the populace and it certainly gives them the ability to hit any organized effort to change the system with a great big hammer.
    There are the traditional methods, as Craig Murray can attest, there’s “Finding” kiddie Porn on someone’s phone or laptop, there’s always a way.
    “Show me six lines written by any man and I shall hang him”.
    When a government loses legitimacy it can only rely on force, and we are beginning to see that here in the USA.
    If peaceful organized change is impossible, what you get is violence and chaos.
    The stupidity and short sighted behavior of plutocrats is not a new phenomenon.

  12. Tom

    Write all you want, Americans aren’t interested in change. Just look at their primaries voting patterns. If they were there’s no way Biden would have won the primaries. Stop kidding yourself.

    1. tegnost

      If all americans voted you might have a point. The reasons for them not voting vary, some is suppression by making it hard to vote, fewer polling places, accidentally having a faulty voting app, etc, and some is people who think it’s a waste of time and has no real impact on their personal situation, otherwise known as discouraged voters, and there are many other reasons to go along with those. Electronic voting, in the form of ballot marking devices with no paper trail? As lambert has been saying lately the 2020 election has legitimacy crisis written all over it. Not to mention just as a technicality biden has not won the primary, yet.

      1. Massinissa

        “Not to mention just as a technicality biden has not won the primary, yet.”

        He now has all the delegates he needs, as of today, according to the MSM. There were primary’s in the last few days.

      2. Tom

        Sure. But those issues apply to all voters not just Biden ones. And even then he won! It’s about time you guys had a hard look at your fellow countrymen and whether they truly give a toss about you. Hint hint – they don’t. Considering the shape the USA is in, there was absolutely no sane reason to vote for Biden.

        1. cripes


          You imagine a fair and accurate voter count, instead of smoke-filled rooms where the DNC nullifies the voters, candidates that will represent the will of their voters, instead of betray them to Wall St (Obama?), a congress that enacts the clear mandate of elections instead of the 1% agenda, an informed electorate, a news media worthy of the name instead of rank propaganda.

          None of that applies, or has applied in the last 50 years in this looting spree of a nation, if it ever did.

          If voting worked, we would have had M4A 70 years ago, no permanent war, no debt slavery and a living wage.

          In fake democracies, voting fetishism leads uncritical minds to blame the voters.

          Any questions?

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