Aug 3, 2017

Our Activism Must Be Focused on Serving the People

Our organizing can't just speak to the everyday crises of people's lives under capitalism. It has to intervene in them.
By R.L. Stephens /
Our Activism Must Be Focused on Serving the People

Housing is an intimate need. Having a home offers a basic possibility of stability, a space to retreat to safety and recharge to fight another day; it’s not only a human right but a necessity for resistance. The consequences of a lack of stable housing are often tragic, destroying lives in its wake.

Take Allen Bullock, the Baltimore teenager who famously smashed police car windows with an orange safety cone in the riots following Freddie Gray’s murder. Last week, the Baltimore Sun reported that Allen was sentenced to four years in prison for a parole violation stemming from his conviction after the riots.

Like Freddie, Allen grew up in poverty. He was a foster kid. Allen’s biological mother Bobbi had been convicted for sex work in 2003, and the state removed Allen from the home. Bobbi fought to regain custody of Allen later — no small feat. Yet housing remained a persistent problem for him throughout his childhood. At the time of the riots, Allen was living at a cousin’s house rather than his mother’s.

As he stood atop the police car the day of the riots, cone in hand and glancing over his shoulder, a journalist snapped a photo. The image would become an iconic moment of the protests.

Allen was initially sentenced to eleven and a half years in prison for his actions, with all but six months suspended. It was his first offense as an adult. Allen left prison with years of probation ahead of him, but he immediately found himself back in poverty. As had been the norm in his life, housing was precarious.

“Since my mother put me out, I was just coming from the system so I ain’t really have no transportation, no family, no way to call or nothing,” Bullock explained to the judge at his summer 2017 probation violation hearing. He had moved in with his child’s mother but had not reported his move to his probation officer. He also missed at least two court appointments.

As a result, the judge sentenced him to four years in prison — four more, of course, than the officers who killed Freddie Gray, who were all acquitted.

“This for you I miss you already … I’m in here crying shit ain’t going to stop I don’t care about that locked up shit,” Allen wrote as a tribute to Freddie when he posted the iconic photo of him smashing the cop car on social media the day before turning himself in. The image was especially popular on the Left, often in meme form with “support our troops” emblazoned across it.

But what would it really mean for the Left to support Allen’s resistance? The stakes for figuring out how to show real solidarity, beyond the sharing of a meme, are high — the difference between life and death. To take up politics is to struggle on those terms, beyond simply cheering for resistance.

Allen’s bail was set at an outrageous $500,000. His bail was higher than the bail for any of the officers charged with killing Freddie Gray. He was eventually bonded out of jail after his mother put up $15,000 in cash, nearly $9,000 of which had come from donations. She also pledged to pay an additional $35,000 in seventy monthly installments of $500.

Baltimore’s cash bail system is notoriously oppressive for poor people. While the cash donations for Allen’s bond helped free him temporarily, Allen’s housing instability left him vulnerable to the state’s attempts to make an example of him. Decades of racist housing discrimination, combined with the more recent rash of predatory lending and foreclosure, ensure that many of Baltimore’s black residents struggle with inadequate and dilapidated housing options.

I lived in Washington, DC, when Freddie Gray died. The riots erupted days before I was set to move away. When I saw that Baltimore schools were canceled, I realized that there were kids who wouldn’t eat that day. I knew what it was like to go hungry. So I jumped in my car and drove to Baltimore.

I met up with a group of residents at a church in West Baltimore, the neighborhood where Freddie was killed. We packed lunches for the community. As I walked the streets of Freddie’s neighborhood, handing out food to strangers, I saw a poverty so deep, it almost seemed designed to break residents’ spirits.

Most houses were boarded up. The streets had no greenery. There were no grocery stores. People lived here. People died here too — a lot. Baltimore tracks what city authorities term “avertable deaths,” meaning “the percentage of deaths that could have been avoided if a particular neighborhood had the same death rates as the five highest-income neighborhoods.” 51 percent of deaths in Freddie Gray’s West Baltimore neighborhood were officially considered “avertable.”

Though the riots had brought excitement and national attention to the neighborhood, the brutal realities of everyday life were the primary concern of any resident I met. These were the conditions of Allen’s life, which endured past his single burst of resistance at the riots, eventually crushing him. The question remains, how are poor people to sustainably resist if they cannot survive?

The same question is central to thinking about the life of Delano Wingfield. Delano was an organizer — a courageous one. His organizing catalyzed a campaign that moved a president. But it wasn’t enough to save him. Like Allen Bullock, unstable housing was a key element in the tragedy of Delano’s life.

Delano made $9 an hour as a food service worker at DC’s Union Station, cooking and washing dishes and struggling to get by. In 2013, Delano organized his coworkers to fight for better wages and a better life. When his manager discovered his organizing, Delano said his hours were cut.

“It was hard with thirty five hours, and now I don’t know what I’m about to do with the twenty hours they gave me. I’m out here to make myself and everyone else more money,” he told Al Jazeera Americain a 2013 story about the campaign. Delano was one of the earliest workers to walkout and strike in order to (successfully, eventually) pressure President Obama to pass an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract employees like him. But he would not live to see the campaign succeed.

I met him once, at a party at a mutual friend’s house where he had been sleeping on the couch. He eventually wound up moving to an apartment in another DC neighborhood, Shaw. At the time, I also had unstable housing and found myself in the same neighborhood, living on a couch as Delano had. We lived one street apart.

In June 2014, our mutual friend posted to Facebook: Delano had been murdered. His roommate killed him. The murder was gruesome, but quickly faded from the news. While the details of the murder were disputed, one account strongly suggested that a dispute over money was a catalyst.

I felt for him. I mourned. I too lived in Shaw. I too had been on a couch. I too was deeply poor, working for $10 an hour as I struggled to get on my feet. I was shaken by the tragedy. His life — and death — felt so close to my own experience at the time. It could have been me. Two months prior, it nearly was.

I was living with a friend. He had previously stayed with me the year prior after a breakup. When I couldn’t afford my apartment and had to move, I found myself on his couch as he had been on mine. I knew he grew up in a violent household and had beaten an ex-girlfriend. But poverty left me desperate. I didn’t want to go back across the country to my mom’s house. That felt like defeat. I’d take my chances in DC.

He started subtly. He made little insults — his favorite refrain was “kill yourself.” He stole money from me. Then he began efforts at control, including attempts to isolate me from friends and control what I ate. He became physically confrontational. He attacked me more than once.

The last time left me bloodied, with a black eye and bruises across my body. In the moment, I reached for a knife. I wanted to stab him, but another roommate stopped me. Besides, my priority was escape, not vengeance.

For four months I lived on the brink. I was painfully aware of the cycle of domestic violence; I’d written a paper on it in law school less than a year earlier. After each explosion, there’d be a lull full of jokes and camaraderie as if nothing had happened. Yet just under the surface was his feeling of entitlement over me, ready to strike. He once told me, “I won’t hesitate to punch you in the face again.”

It was textbook abuse. I knew I had to get out. I told friends what was happening, but no one helped. I had no money. The whole time I was aware; I knew the stakes and I knew what I needed: a place to live, no small task when housing costs so much and I had so little. Deprivation even tempered my resistance. I couldn’t simply think or debate my way out. I needed help. I needed other people.

It wasn’t until I had a black eye, with blood gushing everywhere, that someone finally answered my call for help: a conservative religious friend of my family. We didn’t share political ideology. We didn’t even share a common faith. In my time of crisis, he stepped up and brought a truck to move my things to his house, providing me a place to stay. Even before the incident, when I didn’t have any food, his church invited me to get groceries from their food shelf.

However, the lifesaving program he offered was completely severed from any semblance of liberatory politics. The task of socialism is to do both.

The Black Panthers understood this — that’s why they had “survival programs pending revolution” like their free breakfast distribution. In the absence of provision of such goods by the state, the Panthers stepped in and provided them, along with a political education program.

In his 1972 book To Die for the People, party cofounder Huey Newton explained the organizing logic of the survival programs. “We recognized that in order to bring the people to the level of consciousness where they would seize the time, it would be necessary to serve their interests in survival by developing programs which would help them to meet their daily needs,” he wrote.

Yet the program was no apolitical social service work. “The Panther Party also envisioned the community programs as introducing socialism in practical and concrete terms,” according to author Paul Alkebulan in his book chronicling Panther history, Survival Pending Revolution.

We shouldn’t be slavishly recreating the Black Panthers’ programs. But we can take inspiration from their successes. Organizing around average people’s necessities not only meets those needs, but can also provide an opening for leaders to get and remain involved, thus making for a sustainable movement.

It’s easy to point to Allen Bullock and say that he should’ve known better than to make a mistake like violating his parole. But it isn’t a lack of knowledge holding poor people like Allen back. I knew the cycle of domestic violence and the imminence of the next attack. Delano, I imagine, knew he was living in a dangerous home. We knew enough. The real question was whether we had enough power to remove ourselves from our situation.

Though housing was the common issue for Allen, Delano, and me, millions of people in this country struggle with all sorts of basic needs. They are and can be movement leaders, but they must be respected and supported. Poor people are not simply waiting around for the truth of socialism to be revealed to them by their presumed social betters; they are busy trying to survive, often by any means available. Transformative movements must meet and sustain them there: at the points of struggle, on the brink of oblivion.

If we want a working-class movement, then our organizing must not just speak to, but intervene in the everyday crises that make for life under oppression. Movements need strong organizing bonds that overcome stigma and alienation, allowing people to disclose their needs without fear of shame. If we’re going to win socialism, our work has to be made practical through organizing anchored in people’s daily lives and needs. The stakes are too high to do anything less

R. L. Stephens is the A. Philip Randolph Fellow at Jacobin.

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