This is an open note to my comrades in the struggle to defend the rights of all people to a dignified way of living. This is to those who are deeply committed to the idea of a radical democracy, a democratic society in which democracy is not confined to a narrow political space, such as the casting a vote. This is for those who believe democracy must be practiced in the economic, cultural, and political life of the country. This radical democracy is a practical democracy or a living democracy, in which people have a say in how institutions that govern their lives actually work. But the purpose of this note is not to work on a definition of democracy. My interest is in the issue of freedom and un-freedom.
To speak of injustice and the need for radical democratization may be preaching to the choir. But even adherents of the same faith must have their fighting spirit reinvigorated and their vision re-adjusted to the challenges of our time. I’ve written this note with two purposes in mind: self-clarification and redeeming the emancipatory essence of the struggle for a socially just society. As many of us revolutionaries approach the democratic dream, the dream of free and just society, in different ways. Some are teachers. Others work, as labor organizers. And still some work in retail other non-political jobs, but they are organizing and participating organizations and movements everywhere. But in a struggle that seems to become a steeper climb we have to know who the enemy is.
A few days ago I received a phone call from my cousin, who has been like a brother to me. He called me from prison. And we began to discuss a range of issues. Most of our conversation centered on the subjects of justice, poverty, and freedom. After the call I started to think about these issues in more depth, and within the context of our struggle. It re-grounded me in the concrete reality of oppression. It is very common for Progressives and Radicals, like me to discuss the loss of civil liberties and political prisoners. But we often overlook the most commonly accepted political prisoners: the Poor.
The Poor are condemned to an existence of criminality. The Poor exist in a contradictory space, where having economic security most likely requires behaviors and actions considered to be criminal. Furthermore, to “thrive” in such a condition would almost necessarily require dehumanizing acts and the exploitation of others. The Poor and the conditions they live are looked upon by the broader society as immoral, ugly, animalistic, without value, and the scum of society. Yet, they are cruel reality of our society. They are what’s hidden under the elegant coverings we call freedom, democracy, and the American Community.
When I speak of The Poor I am not, solely, discussing an issue of income or financial wealth. These two things have their place, but I am talking about a more radical, a more profound poverty. I am speaking of the totality of the experience of poverty. I am speaking of the existential and material poverty. I know a lot of “broke” people. I am “broke”. I’ve lived in poor neighborhoods. I was poor, and I am on the side of the Poor. But I would be dishonest if I said I am the Poor. My existence has not been dominated by violence, hunger, inadequate housing, and the fierce brutality of the State, by way of utter social neglect. But don’t get me wrong. I’ve always been a member of the millions of people of the Struggling. But let me return to the conditions of the Poor.
The Poor are those whose general experience is dominated by economic, social, and environmental insecurity. They are the ones for whom hope is more often than not an empty word. The Poor are those who have long lived, not only check-to-check, but day-to-day. The Poor are those who can earn more income in a half hour from selling poison and suffering to each other, than a forty-hour a week job! The Poor are those who look at a mirror and see nothing but ugliness, and a cheapened thing to be sold for money. The Poor are those whose spirits were once pregnant with imagination and dreams to those whose totality of experiences amount to dreams deferred and imaginations aborted.
Being Poor is not a choice, but the product of very limited options built in a system that must have a duality of excessive luxury, and the most egregious poverty. The Poor are talked about, as a mass of individuals who are inherently poor in character, lacking in ambitions, and the victims of self-annihilations. Such people make the following remarks: “If only they would just read books.” If only they would just have a better attitude about life.” “If only they would cease to be poor in judgment and make better decisions, they too might rise out of poverty and be contributors to society!” Making good, and wholesome decisions are important. But keep in mind that decisions are based on options! I am not interesting in excusing acts of hate and dehumanization. But I am also not interested ignoring the conditions that encourage such acts! We can’t make individuals do right. But we can make a society in which the government, economy, legal system, educational system, and a political system do right by everyone. We can create a society, whose culture nurtures, and inspires decency, interdependence, support, and a radical commitment to justice. We can and have to move towards a path of justice, liberty, and opportunity for everybody, and privilege for nobody!
To be Poor is to be un-free. We cannot call this condition of un-freedom slavery, because slavery was very specific institution. But the alienation and deleterious effects on the mind and spirit is just as devastating for many of the Poor. I’ve said before that poverty is not solely the lack of sufficient financial means of existence. Poverty is in the totality of one’s experience. It’s the lack of adequate living conditions, which includes safe and sanitary neighborhoods where children can play outside their homes without being killed by a stray bullet. I’m talking about neighborhoods where people are not in such desperate circumstances that they see each other as a means to get ahead.
Adequate living conditions include neighborhoods where abandoned houses are transformed into usable housing or green spaces for community gathering and community gardens that can provide quality foods for people. It also means decent air quality, and environmental justice in low income neighborhoods. It also means creating a living wage for all people so that no one has to choose between working long hours for poor wages and poor benefits, and the destructive alternatives. I believe poverty is a moral and human crisis. And I am not one to think that a moral or human crisis can be solved with financial, capital, and environmental improvements. But it is undeniable that these are necessary for the improvement of human health, appreciating self-worth, and the possibility of interpersonal reconciliation.
Now, there can be no doubt that many will disagree with my position. I am afraid that my position is a somewhat marginal. Those that disagree almost always return to the wrongness of individual actions. They point to the sad truth that it is a few “evil natured or corrupt” individuals that are selling drugs, and killing people over drug money and possession. They will point to the fact that the Poor have televisions, and telephones. They point to the fact that some have name-brand clothing. But those people aren’t interested dealing with the heart of the problem; to do so they must first recognize they suffer from a problem of the heart. They contradict themselves by criticizing individuals for what they simplistically call a lack in responsibility, as a means to shirk their responsibility to others: their responsibility to justice for all. There are only a few reasons one would adopt this argument: 1. they are naïve 2. They are ignorant of root causes 3. They want to maintain the status quo.
In any case, these folks have a blind spot when it comes to acknowledging the existence of enemies to justice and civil rights in America. They ignore those who dump toxins in neighborhoods where people with low income live. They ignore those who evict people from their houses, because they can’t make ends meet with their income. They ignore the devastating effects of gentrification, when landlords refuse to serve their less affluent tenants of color, in order to push them out in favor of middle income and wealthy tenants. They ignore the fundamental contradiction of a system that promotes investing in neighborhoods for the sake of profit, and not in neighborhoods for the general welfare dignity of people.
There’s a blind spot when it comes to those with large profit margins that refuse to pay a wage of dignity. Something is wrong, when people can so easily and callously accept the implicit notion that some people are not worthy of decent living conditions. Only a sick society accepts the notion that adequate nutrition and living conditions, justice, and human dignity should be linked to one’s bank account. Dignity ought to be the minimum condition for all people. The truth is, the Poor are political prisoners in terms of quality of life. And those poor individuals who are locked up in our prison system are political prisoners. Their actions are a product of rotten system. While the actions of some individuals in Poor neighborhoods contribute to the perpetuation of an environment of terror and un-freedom, they are but the bad produce of a bad tree (Matthew 7:17-20). Removing the produce from a tree doesn’t prevent another from replacing it! Only going to the root of the system that produces injustice can solve this problem.