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  October 28, 2009

Organizing for the poor

Williams: For over two decades poor people in the US have been criminalized and vilified
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Steve Williams is co-director and co-founder of POWER. Steve cut his teeth as an organizer with the Philadelphia Union of the Homeless and the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, organizing welfare recipients and homeless people during a period of intense local attacks on lo-income people. He spearheads POWER's movement building and leadership development work. In 2006, Steve co-authored Towards Land, Work & Power- a primer on political economy for organizers and grassroots activists. He is active in several local and national efforts to build a powerful movement from the bottom up, including Grassroots Global Justice, the US Social Forum and the May 1st Alliance.

Paul Jay speaks with Steve Williams about community organizing in San Francisco.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay, and joining us now is Steve Williams. He's co-executive director of POWER, People Organized to Win Employment Rights. Thanks for joining us, Steve.


JAY: We heard a lot from President Obama about the middle class during the election campaign, and to some extent since, but we don't hear much about the fact that if you've got a middle, it means you probably have a lower and an upper. We certainly don't hear much conversation about the upper, but we also don't hear much about the lower, which many people who were in the lower class are heading to rather quickly in the United States right now.

WILLIAMS: That's right.

JAY: So tell us a bit about what POWER does, 'cause I understand you organize amongst the poor in San Francisco.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. POWER is a membership organization of working class and low-income African Americans and Latina immigrants. And since 1997, we've been working to build the collective power of low-income people to be able to impact the decisions that affect their lives, because exactly what you're saying: there's been a dynamic in the United States for more than the past two decades where low-income people, working-class people, have been criminalized and villainized. If you go back to Ronald Reagan at a national level talking about welfare queens, or here in San Francisco, where Gavin Newsom has made a career of criminalizing low-income people, you see time and time again—.

JAY: Gavin Newsom is who, for people who aren't from San Francisco?

WILLIAMS: Gavin Newsom is the current mayor of San Francisco, and in his continual attempts to attack low-income people is now trying to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger as the governor of California. But time and time again you see more and more attempts to vilify low-income people. And, I mean, it's clear that there's not a lot of reason behind that. But a lot of what we're seeing right now in the health-care debate makes it clear that reason and rationality doesn't always play a central role in American politics. But it is critical that we begin looking at this question of class and the low working class, because as 46 million people in the United States are right now without health insurance, more than 30 million people are either unemployed or underemployed, you're exactly right: there's more and more people who are going to be falling out of what was traditionally referred to as the middle-class. And it's important that we actually begin pushing for policies that are going to improve the lives of low-income and working-class people.

JAY: And to what extent are low-income, working-class people getting organized? There seems to be very little signs of a national movement, in spite of the rising unemployment rates—real unemployment probably around 20 percent, youth and unemployment we are told could be as high as 50 percent, African-American unemployment somewhere between 20 and 50 percent. But we don't see much of a movement in response to this. Why is that?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think a lot of the organizing that's happening right now isn't receiving a lot of attention. So aside from shows like Real News and other reports, there are very few opportunities for low-income people who are organizing to be able to project their message out to the rest of the country, to the rest of the world. But I think, you know, it's important to remember that as we look at history, oftentimes it takes a little while for movements to reach the scale that they do begin to demand the level of attention that they deserve. So at the height of the Great Depression, even though the stock market crashed in '29, it wasn't really until four or five years later that the workers movements really began to reach a scale where they were able to put direct pressure on the presidential administration. And I think what you're seeing right now is really the beginnings of a massive movement that's really going to shape the way that policy and politics are talked about in the United States in the years to come.

JAY: What is breaking through the media is this sort of libertarian economic movement. They've been calling it the teabaggers and that, and of course they have Fox News to help drive it. But give us a picture of what is going on across the country in terms of organizing amongst the poor and working class.

WILLIAMS: It's interesting. Over the last 15 to 20 years, there has been more and more organizing in working-class communities across the country. In San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, you're beginning to see the development of community-based organizations that are rooted in working-class communities of color, but that are also guided by a strategic vision of really trying to address the fundamental root causes of poverty and oppression in our communities and in the country. And in a lot of respects many of those organizations, many of those movements really came to the national forefront at the US Social Form which took place in Atlanta in 2007. And at the US Social Forum you had the formation of national alliances like the Right to the City Network, which is a network of organizations across the country that have been fighting against gentrification and displacement. You also had the formation of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which has been organizing household workers across the country. I think now you're beginning to see the consolidation of much of—what had been local organizing now is beginning to really establish a national vehicle that hopefully will be able to facilitate low-income working-class people to be able to put their desires, expectations, and aspirations on the national table.

JAY: There's been a lot of talk about organizing the poor and community organizing. Of course, Fox and some of the Republicans have tried to make community organizing a bad word as they talk about Obama's past. But there's been a specific controversy over this organization called ACORN, which does a lot of community organizing, certainly one of the best-known at the very least. What do you make of the ACORN controversy? And for people that are outside the United States that may not have followed this, if I understand it correctly, ACORN is a big organization that has gotten quite a bit of money in federal government grants and other kinds of donations. They do voter registration, community organizing. They've been accused of some forms of corruption in terms of voter registration issues. They've been accused recently in a video about giving advice to some people that they were getting set up by the people videoing. They wound up giving, supposedly, advice to someone posing as a prostitute and a pimp how to avoid paying taxes. So what do you make of the ACORN controversy?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it's important for us in the progressive community to stand by organizations that are trying to build the democratic power of low-income and working-class people across the country. What we've seen since the election of Obama is an incredible emergence of a racist populist movement that has really been trying to attack the institutions that are trying to consolidate the voice and perspective of low-income and working-class people across the country. I think it's critical, then, for progressives to stand and defend against these right-wing attacks that are happening on ACORN, but then have also been happening with other sectors that are connected to the Obama administration.

JAY: But go back to the ACORN situation, though. I mean, there was the videotape. These ACORN workers did apparently—you can see on tape—give advice to someone posing as a pimp and a prostitute, which seemed kind of ridiculous advice. There have been some incidents during the voter registration drive where people were registering either the same people more than once or dead people. I mean, there are some real things that have happened. So what do you make of those issues?

WILLIAMS: [snip] for us in the progressive and left movements to really be looking honestly at the accountability that we have to the communities and to the principles that we stand on. [snip] What we have to organize on is our trust in the accountability that we have to those communities. And I think that ACORN should be looking seriously at its practices. They should be calling for a thorough investigation of how it is that they're doing their work. They should also be looking to how is it that they're building relationships with other organizations across the progressive spectrum. So I think that there are real questions that progressives and ACORN should be asking of itself. However, I think that it's important for us in the progressive community to distinguish between the right-wing attacks that are being launched by Fox News and other right-wing, fanatical pundits, but then also to acknowledge that there is a real importance for us in the progressive and left movements to really be looking honestly at the accountability that we have to the communities and to the principles that we stand on.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let's talk a little bit more about what this organizing in communities looks like. But let's extend that a little bit further in what's happening amongst the urban poor and workers who have been making a pretty good living the last few years and are about to lose their job. Please join us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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