“One Nation, Indivisible,” features excerpts from The Sun’s archives that speak to the current political moment.
I have nothing to say about the politics of poverty, what causes it and what it causes and how to make it go away. I can only tell you what poverty does to a person. It gets inside you, nestles into your bones, and gives you a chill that you cannot shake. Poverty becomes you — it shapes what you see and taste and dream — till there is no telling where you stop and poverty begins. To be poor is to live in denial — not the denial of professional counselors and self-help books, which is an avoidance of some truth too painful to admit, but denial in its most literal sense: you must say no to yourself constantly. Being poor means stripping down to the essentials, and there’s not much a person really needs to survive — bread, cheese, blankets, a little black-and-white TV, some toothpaste, soap, pencils, a library card. In and of itself, it isn’t bad not to have things, and if all of us lived this way, there would hardly be anything wrong with it at all. To be poor is one thing; to know that you are poor is another thing altogether.
“The Gifted Classes,” Frances Lefkowitz, January 2003
The American political system and the revered and celebrated Constitution of the United States do not grant any economic rights to the American people. We very often forget that the Constitution gives political rights but not economic rights. If you are not wealthy, then your political rights are limited, even though they are guaranteed on paper in the Constitution. The freedom of speech is granted there, but how much free speech you have depends on how much money and what access to resources you have. The Declaration of Independence talks about the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But how can you have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if you don’t have food, housing, and healthcare?
Working people throughout history have had to organize, struggle, go on strike, declare boycotts, and face the police and the army. They have had to do it themselves, against the opposition of government.
“Stories Hollywood Never Tells,” Howard Zinn, July 2004
I remember a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a friend who told me New Orleans was one of the most hauntingly beautiful cities in America: vivid, earthy, sultry. Don’t miss it, he said. It’s unforgettable. And now [in the wake of Hurricane Katrina], instead of picture-postcard memories of a romantic weekend in New Orleans, all I have is a postcard from hell: shameful, sickening images of people stranded with no food or water, waiting day after interminable day for a sign that they haven’t been left to die.
I wonder, though: If I had visited New Orleans back when I had the chance, how far would I have ventured from my comfortable hotel? How much would I have seen of a city in which one in four people lived in poverty in rotting tenements and shotgun shacks; a city in which health clinics were understaffed and crime was endemic and the public schools were among the worst in the country? Entranced by the exotic street scene in the French Quarter, by the unforgettable music and unforgettable food, what would I have seen of the New Orleans where poor black people struggled every day to find high ground amid the rising waters of their lives?
Sy Safransky’s Notebook, October 2005
We lived in the West Dallas Housing Projects, about three thousand units squeezed onto a small piece of land. Made of bricks, they looked as if someone had taken a few old chimneys, molded them together, then cut out windows. They were fronted by small patches of dirt. Occasionally, there was grass. Most of the units had an upstairs and a downstairs. There wasn’t any carpet on the floor, just hard . . . tile, like that in a warehouse. All the walls were white — dirty, old, and crusted. Roaches and rats roamed throughout the night — in your icebox, your closets, your beds. Spider webs were in every corner. We had heat but no air conditioning. On long, hot Texas nights we usually tossed, turned, and sweated, waiting on an occasional breeze. If it was hot, and the cool breeze passed you by, you were in for a long night. Then the heat would wake you early in the morning.
I remember small neighborhoods of houses on either side of the projects. Families who were able to scrape up a little extra money moved from the projects into these houses. Most of them were old and ragged — holes in the walls and roofs, bad plumbing, no insulation.
There were also gambling shacks where people lost thousands of dollars. A lot of the old-time gangsters kept the card and domino games rolling through the night. Some of them, who used to be in the drug business, had established soul-food or barbecue restaurants. They served plates until one or two in the morning.
A white family ran a small grocery five minutes from the projects. They charged high prices and wore guns. The father was gunned down in a robbery.
The endless rows of cramped units were designed to house the maximum number of people in the . . . most underdeveloped side of town. Most families were black. There were only two categories — the poor but not yet without hope, and the poor without any hope.
“Poor and Poorer,” Jerrold Ladd, August 1992
We all must remember one thing: that civil movements create change. We need to be involved in these movements, whether they be environmental, anticorporate, animal rights, or any other progressive cause. In this way we have managed many times to create change: women’s right to vote, civil rights, saving endangered species, cleaning up polluted rivers — the list is impressive. It is important, as well, to remember that the American Revolution was started and sustained by people meeting in taverns, organizing the Boston Tea Party, reading the Declaration of Independence and Tom Paine’s Common Sense to one another. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were traitors to the British Crown. Had the British won, they would have been hanged as terrorists.
“An Offer They Can’t Refuse,” John Perkins, interviewed by Pat MacEnulty, September 2005
The owner of the sports bar knows I sleep in the parking lot on weeknights. He doesn’t seem to mind. I’m a curiosity — the homeless professor. He thinks I must be one of a kind, but I’m not so sure. Anyway, I’m not even a professor. More like an adjunct instructor. I’d move closer to work, but I could never afford to live in Martinsburg [West Virginia] now that it’s becoming a D.C. bedroom community. And sleeping four nights a week in my van saves time, as well, because I don’t have to drive an hour and a half back “home” to sleep in my bed in Cumberland [Maryland], with the little girl upstairs skipping rope.
“Time is money,” says Ben Franklin. “Time is life,” Thoreau says, and it cannot be wasted without injuring eternity.
Plus I like sleeping in my van. I see it as a form of camping, of getting closer to nature. I have to keep a concerned eye on the weather, for example. This past winter it got down to ten degrees, and I had to be ready: long johns, two layers of clothes, a sleeping bag, a comforter, and a couple of blankets on top of that. Then I was as cozy as a bunny until about 4 AM, which is about time for me to start my day anyway. My face can get pretty red when the temperature drops toward the single digits: like the face of a homeless person, I noticed one morning, brushing my teeth in front of the restroom mirror at the Waffle House.
I’ve heard it said that the homeless often grow to like that life, and I can understand why. Mahavira, founder of the Jain tradition, chose to go naked; Buddha, to beg. There’s a young woman in Cumberland who sleeps on the street every night, even in the depths of winter. People are always trying to rescue her, but she doesn’t want to be saved. Think of Jesus: the foxes had their holes and the birds their nests, but he had no pillow on which to lay his head. It’s a good thing to be homeless, he seems to have been saying. Too much comfort and safety can be anathema to seekers. The closer to the streets and the stars one lives, the less safe one is. And the less safe one is, the more alert. And the more alert, the more one learns.
“Confessions from a Conversion Van,” Jim Ralston, October 2009
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless, but we need to remember that all of these [economic] systems rest on the compliance of millions of ordinary people like you and me. If we withdraw our consent, if we stop feeling isolated and helpless and start reaching out to friends and neighbors who feel the same way, then we have enormous power.
One of the key ways these institutions take away our power is by making us think our voices are small and worthless. It’s an important political and spiritual act to say, “My voice is worth something.” We have to take civic responsibility and not be stopped by fear or a sense of powerlessness. Democracy is like a horse: you can’t keep it healthy when it’s locked in the barn; you have to exercise it regularly.
“Louder than Words,” Starhawk, interviewed by April Thompson, March 2003