Caracas, Venezuela — Under the elevated lines in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union has been waging a battle against poverty that has taken them to center stage of the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela. Led by Cheri Honkala, a formerly homeless mother, the KWRU began by building encampments for the homeless in 1990 by taking over abandoned houses that were not only heated but also plentiful throughout Philadelphia. “The fact is,” Honkala explains, “there are more abandoned houses that the government pays, takes on, and heats than there are homeless people . . . so why can’t these people be housed . . . if they won’t house them, we will.” Like many inner city neighborhoods in the United States, Kensington has been plagued by an economic downturn that has lasted for over two decades. Kensington’s fall began when longstanding textile and brewery jobs left the city, pushing tens of thousands of the city’s working families and poor deeper into misery. According to Galen Tyler, chair of the KWRU’s Organizing Committee, “Welfare and drugs are the two biggest sources of incomes in Kensington.”
Breaking into abandoned buildings to provide shelter for the homeless created a movement born out of survival, but it was only the first step in what became a larger campaign. Honkala, who has been arrested over 80 times for her non-violent work on behalf of the poor and homeless, sees the KWRU’s work as continuing the legacy of Martin Luther King’s ill-fated Poor People’s Campaign, which met with tremendous resistance during the last years of his life. “We wanted to pick up where King left off,” Honkala explained, “While freedom and democracy are celebrated today, the poor still live in terror, with no right to healthcare, food, affordable housing, or a job at a living wage. They are trying to drown out our voices.” No one could imagine how important the KWRU would become as a voice for the poor.
The organization was on the frontlines in the fight for economic justice throughout the 1990s, intensifying their efforts when Bill Clinton enacted the Welfare Reform Act in 1996. It became clear to the KWRU that they needed to take their struggle to the next level. They attacked “welfare reform,” which essentially removed the safety net for the poor that had been in place for over 60 years, as a human rights violation. Through a relentless national campaign that included marches, national tours, and encampments, the KWRU was able to link with over 100 poor organizations across the US. The result of this effort was the founding of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. The ambitious PPEHRC looked to not only expose the human rights violations caused by the welfare reform and poverty as well as lack of housing, healthcare, and jobs in the US but aimed to build an international network amongst poverty and economic justice groups. The goal was to establish a living, breathing global poor people’s movement. If the target of the World Social Forum is globalization of capital, then the PPEHRC’s aim would be to flip that very concept by globalizing hope and justice.
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Our involvement began when we found ourselves part of a small group of journalists and filmmakers invited by Honkala to document the PPEHRC delegation assembled to participate in this year’s World Social Forum in Venezuela. In the time between the welfare reform and the PPEHRC’s participation as a key delegation at the 2006 World Social Forum, Clinton has given way to George W. Bush and the toll on the poor has been severe and brutal. However, Honkala, Tyler, and the others have not given in but dug in by spearheading the PPEHRC. The PPEHRC was personally invited to participate in the Forum by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whom Honkala met in 2005. In what seems the most unlikely of circumstances, the PPEHRC was able to bring 100 poor, sick, disabled, and homeless people from all over the US to attend the Forum. Huddled in the very same Hilton Caracas lobby where she met Chavez, Honkala told our group that all she could say about the meeting with Chavez was that “we agreed to tell everyone that we only talked about baseball.”
Yet the conversation obviously dealt with the very difficult challenge the PPEHRC encounters in trying to establish a poor people’s movement within the United States and the need to build international support in order for the PPEHRC to have even a remote chance of success. For her efforts, Front Line, the defenders of human rights defenders, lists Honkala as 14th on the endangered human rights activists lists. “For some reason, many people think we don’t have poor people in the US,” Honkala explained to World Social Forum organizer Joelle Suarez, “maybe our trash cans are sexier to eat out of.” At a press conference for the PPEHRC, members of the international press asked with a wink and a smile: “Are there really poor people in the US?” Honkala, along with thirty members of the delegation, responded to these questions by explaining that the US is great at “exporting the images of the rich and famous . . . creating the illusion” that everyone in the United States is wealthy, well fed, has healthcare, and is living a life of unmitigated luxury. One of the critical elements of the PPEHRC is that their delegation consisted of a broad base of individuals, groups, and organizations that covered the economic justice spectrum. They brought with them farm workers from Florida and California, the uninsured organizing with Health Care Now!, homeless people, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and the Coalition to Protect Public Housing.
Geoffrey Millard of Iraq Veterans Against the War was particularly forceful, hammering home the devastation that the war in Iraq has had on America’s poor. “$440 billion have already been spent on this war,” Geoffrey told Antonio Bracho, Venezuela’s representative to the Andean parliament, “this takes desperately needed money away from social programs in my country, furthering and advancing the build-up of the military industrial complex, which is what this war is really about.” Millard, who is from Buffalo, New York, has been in the military for 8 years, nearly two of which he spent in Iraq. He spoke most powerfully against the Bush administration’s “Support our Troops” rhetoric, intended to mask the administration’s actual disregard for Iraq veterans. Millard looked squarely into my camera as if he was talking directly to Bush and all those he has duped into supporting this war and said, “I invite all of you who have a ‘Support Our Troops’ magnet on your car to come with me to the VA hospital in Buffalo. . . . I go there all the time . . . see the conditions they are living in and how they are sleeping on a thin mattress on a piece of plywood, go watch them die of gulf war syndrome . . . and understand that our homeless problem in America consists largely of veterans, 33% according to the department of defense.”
Galen Tyler, a formerly homeless father who spent over a decade on the streets of Philadelphia, drew the loudest ovation from the crowd who gathered to listen to the PPEHRC outline their work. Tyler explained how vital it was for his delegation to bring their issues to an international forum and link with others around the world mobilizing for economic justice. “It lets the world know how serious we are,” Tyler explained, “but it also lets the world know that we are here to learn, work with you, hopefully take what we learn back and effect change in our country.” Willie Fleming of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, a group out of Chicago trying to save Cabrini Greens, public housing that is scheduled to be razed, made clear that poverty in the United States is just as serious as it is abroad. “When you see that the government is willing to spend $300 million on a park in Chicago but only $10 million on public housing,” Fleming continues, “and then they turn around and tell us they are going to knock down the largest public housing in the city because they have no money . . . there is something seriously wrong.”
Overall, the PPEHRC was well received and the delegation left Caracas with much hope for the future. Their presence at the World Social Forum certainly generated a tremendous amount of interest and excitement. As Joelle Suarez told our group, the “PPEHRC’s presence helps broaden this movement and more specifically can help us bring the Forum to United States in 2007 . . . that is our goal.” The Hemispheric Council of the World Social Forum agrees — building solidarity with the US poor was one of the top priorities of this year’s Forum. From the opening day march where the PPEHRC was joined by anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan to the loud ovation they received at the cultural performance where they shared the stage with performers from all over Latin America, the PPEHRC did the most to draw the world’s attention to an issue that here at home goes essentially ignored. Lori Smith, a member of the delegation working with the Tennessee Health Care Campaign who is seriously ill and currently does not have healthcare, summed up this sentiment: “the world got a glimpse of what is really going on in the US during Katrina . . . we’re here to expose the thousands of hidden Katrina’s throughout the US.” Willie Fleming confirmed: “our participation here shows the US and the media that there is no place too far that we won’t go to . . . we will do whatever it takes to tell the world that the US is committing crimes against humanity . . . to let the world know that there is poverty in the US, that people don’t have adequate housing in the US, that they don’t have enough to eat in the US, they don’t have proper healthcare for all in the US . . . our voices will be heard.” Our film, In the Land of Bolivar, hopes to be a small part of ensuring that these voices are heard.
Antonino D’Ambrosio is a writer and filmmaker based in New York. His writing appears in many media outlets including Monthly Review, The Nation, ColorLines, and The Progressive. He is the author most recently of Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer. His next book is Politics in the Drums. D’Ambrosio is currently working on a documentary project with Tim Robbins on music and politics. He is also currently Artist-In-Residence at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus. As founder of La Lutta NMC (www.lalutta.org), D’Ambrosio is the producer/director of many documentaries. In the Land of Bolivar is scheduled for release in Fall 2006.