United Workers leadership organizer Luis Larin joined the Poverty Initiative and other leaders in the movement to end poverty on a tour of the Gulf Coast. Check out Luis’ thoughts and reflections on Day 2 & Day 3 as he travels the South connecting with local leaders fighting for life and dignity & wrestles with what it would take to realize a Poor People’s Campaign today.
November 4th, 2014- I started day two feeling sick but fortunately for me the day wasn’t too packed with meetings. After some medicine, rest and food, I was feeling a little bit better and decided to go out to explore the city and be a tourist with Jose Vasquez form Iraqi Veterans Against the War. While touring the city, we spent time talking about our backgrounds and how we ended up here doing the work that we are doing. After a trolley trip, we arrived downtown. I was trying to enjoy the city. However, pretty soon my “organizer hat” started to function. I saw economic development here and there. My brain started to question if it was fair development or just another example of failed development produced by global capital. I decide to go with the second option. I walked around the city, bought some souvenirs and tried some good local food. As I took pictures of places that at one point belonged to Spain (where people spoke Spanish), I began to think about the unfair immigration policies that are being pushed in this country. Even as a tourist I saw signs hidden in plain sight that screamed exploitation, failed development, and poverty.
We went close to the water and it was a feeling of deja-vu of the day. I looked in the water and I saw a very familiar picture. It was just like being in Baltimore. I saw the ships and the vestiges of a once commercial area, now with contaminated water, extreme poverty, and homelessness. We were just few blocks from downtown. I immediately started to think about the political and economic connections that were becoming more and more clear between Baltimore and New Orleans and beyond. One ship was pushing a big container with coal, and thought about the pollution and the fight to stop the incinerator. While the incinerator in Curtis Bay will directly impact Baltimore city, it will also have a larger impact on air pollution throughout other parts of the country.
After taking some pictures, we decided make our way back home to get ready for an exciting meeting. As we were walking back downtown I noticed a bus, very similar to the free circulator in Baltimore. When I looked closer I noticed something else and wondered if it was another deja-vu? No! There was another connection to global capital, the bus was operated by VEOLIA. This company also operates the circulator in Baltimore and is vying for a contract to conduct a water study that could potentially end with the privatization of the water system in Baltimore. Not only that, but this is the same company that has been in court in Guatemala for causing environmental destruction. It became clear in my head that to confront such a well-structured economic and political system would require an organized movement to end poverty like the Poor People’s Campaign.
That evening we met with members of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and Stand with Dignity. The meeting place felt so familiar. I felt another wave of deja-vu. The meeting was in a house in a poor neighborhood. Members were packed into the room forming a circle. It felt just like a United Workers meeting and the house felt like our old office on Highland Avenue, back when I first joined United Workers. I felt like I was back in time and reliving those first emotions of been part of something. The meeting started with setting the agenda. After the updates for the members of STAND with dignity the discussion leaders introduced us. We shared what we are trying to accomplish by working with other organizations in shaping the Poor People’s Campaign. STAND then presented who they are and what they are confronting in New Orleans. For a second time, the deja-vu got so deep that I felt like I was back in the Highland Avenue office and was “recognizing” some of the members and their passion, anger and desire to fight for justice and for human rights. They told us about their struggles and for a moment it was hard for me to know if I was in New Orleans or Baltimore. They shared their problems with economic development and the lack of local hiring for those projects. A common thread that they shared included how new things are being built with public resources, yet the communities can’t find work in those projects. The multiple issues with housing that they are confronting, for example vacant buildings, are affecting homeowners, renters and homeless people. I heard problems surrounding the lack of participation, the lack of accountability and the lack of transparency. It sounded so familiar to what the Fair Development Campaign has been fighting against.
Hearing the members of the community talking about the need for more unity within the community and with other organizations and seeing that members were fired up and tired of being exploited and lied to makes me think that the conditions for a revolution of ideas is not that far away. They spoke about their upcoming studies, one of which will include the history of labor in the US. It was important to hear this because it highlighted what United Workers stands for—developing leaders that are able to understand the problem, analyze the system and develop plans and strategies that are effective. The meeting ended with a powerful ritual. We recited together three times over, the words of Assata Shakur, former member of the Black Panther Party & Black Liberation Army, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose, but our chains.” With the tour of the city and the encounter with STAND, I’m learned that the struggle is the same whether you’re in Baltimore or New Orleans. This is exactly why the Poor People’s Campaign is making more and more sense.
November 5th, 2014- After we spent some time in New Orleans, we traveled to Mississippi to meet with the Mississippi Center for Justice, an organization that provides legal services to low income residents. They use the law as a way to support poor communities because legal services for low-income communities in Mississippi are limited. Their main campaigns work for access to healthcare, consumer protection, disaster recovery, education, and housing. After Katrina and the BP oil disaster the need for healthcare, disaster recovery and housing was even greater than before. The law center works hard to advance better policies for disaster recovery and partnered with a community organization to start a Community Land Trust. The community organization has 60 properties that were taken from the city and redeveloped by the community and for the community. The intersection between legal strategy and organizing is clear and needed. This relationship made reminded me of the three-year fight that the ESPN Zone Workers had in Baltimore. It was not about the money, it was about the power, as our members said during the lawsuit against Disney. In the thick of lawsuit it was difficult to imagine winning, and yet, we won. It was important for us to understand that a legal strategy without an organizing strategy is an empty action to develop laws that are not connected to the reality.
While at the Center for Justice we also met withCedric McGee from Hope Community Development Agency. Hope has teamed up with the Mississippi Center for Justice to create sustainable communities in Mississippi, mainly after Katrina. This partnership reminded me of the work of the Housing Roundtable in Baltimore which has created a space where lawyers, community organizations and neighbors are thinking about how to create permanent affordable housing. When I shared our vision with the people from the Center for Justice, they said, “If it can be done in Mississippi, it can be done in Baltimore.” They are clear about the historical importance of Mississippi in terms of the fight for human rights, starting with the civil rights movement. They are aware of the challenges that they have because they are in the South and the importance of connecting their work with the Poor People’s Campaign.
After a very inspiring meeting with the Mississippi Center for Justice, Cedric took us to our next meeting withThao Vu, an organizer for the Mississippi Coalition for Vietnamese-American Fisherfolks & Families. The meeting was in East Biloxi, Mississippi. In the same way that Baltimore has been separated by East and West sides, Biloxi has also been separated by the east-west dividing line. It is clear that East Biloxi is a poor area and lacks the investment of public resources. Thao and Cedric spoke about the difference between East Biloxi and West Biloxi. West Biloxi has received more resources than East Biloxi, but why? Economic development segregates and divides communities for the same reason we create super expensive houses in one side of Baltimore to “bring the right people” into the city. Just a few blocks from the restaurant where we ate, Cedric pointed and said, “look at those buildings and all of that development. That is part of East Biloxi, but they don’t call it East Biloxi because it’s closer to downtown and they are redeveloping the area and building very expensive houses.” It sounds very familiar. These community leaders have been uniting with other organizations to fight back against this manifestation of Failed Development. Thao told us about the difficulty for East Biloxi fishermen to find work after Katrina and the BP oil disaster. East Biloxi was one of the hardest hit areas by Katrina. The community has experienced two disasters and yet the government decided to spend resources on casinos and other economic development. Thao is one of two part time organizers. The two part-time organizers have been supported by strong community leadership, which has proved to be key in achieving some advances.
To me this is just too familiar. Baltimore, Biloxi and New Orleans are all reflections of trickle down economics that have created Failed Development. Leaving some communities out of the equation—the destruction of the environment or the exploitation of working people is how the system works. However, for every action you have a reaction. Organizing to build the political power that is needed to change the conversation and change the priorities is also part of the situation. Resistance, unity, thinking, study and understanding the problem are key factors in making sure that the “reaction” adequately takes up the problem that we are confronting.