Report: The Poor People’s Campaign, 50 Years Later

In 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders launched a Poor People’s Campaign to organize towards transformative actions to end poverty, racism, and militarism in America.

While this effort was undercut by King’s assassination, two prominent faith leaders — the Rev. Liz Theoharis and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II — are launching a new multi-issue, multi-racial Poor People’s Campaign to recapture the spirit of that 1968 campaign.

To support this modern-day Poor People’s Campaign, the Institute for Policy Studies has produced an analysis of the campaign’s four core issues: racism, poverty, the war economy/militarism, and ecological destruction. The report finds that by many measures, these problems are worse today than they were five decades ago.  

For example, the report documents the increased number of Americans below the poverty line; the acceleration of economic inequality; the emergence of new forms of voter suppression laws and mass incarceration that further entrench systemic racism in America; the growing imbalance in federal discretionary spending on the military relative to social programs; and the intensification of racial and income disparities in access to clean air and water and exposure to environmental hazards.

This report is a preliminary analysis for release at the launch of the new Poor People’s Campaign on December 4, 2017. A more in-depth “audit” of these issues, including testimonials from many of the leading activists and thinkers of the past 50 years, will be released in 2018.

Key initial findings:

  • Compared to 1968, 60% more Americans are living below the official poverty line today — a total of 41 million people. And while the percentage of families in poverty has merely inched up and down, the top 1 percent’s share of national income has nearly doubled.
  • More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, people of color still face a broad range of barriers to democracy. According to the Brennan Center, 23 states have adopted voter suppression laws since 2010.
  • The criminalization of poverty and racially biased sentencing and policing practices have driven the number of prison inmates up eightfold since 1968, with the share who are people of color increasing from less than half to 66%. Federal spending on prisons has increased tenfold in real terms since 1976.
  • Spending trends also reflect increased scapegoating of immigrants. Between 1976 and 2015, federal expenditures on border control and immigration enforcement rose eightfold while the number of deportees grew tenfold.
  • The gap between our government’s discretionary spending on the military versus anti-poverty programs has grown from two-to-one at the height of the Vietnam War to four-to-one today. In the meantime, millions of lives have been lost in wars that have made us no safer, while “real security” in the form of good jobs, health care, and quality education remains beyond the reach of millions of Americans.
  • Since 1968, the environment has become less polluted, but the poor and people of color are bearing the brunt of climate change and suffering the most from environmental hazards. According to the CDC, for example, at least four million families with children are being exposed to high levels of lead, with low-income and people of color at greatest risk. And low-income families and people of color tend to be more likely to have living conditions and jobs that increase the health risks of extreme heat.

Find the full preliminary analysis here [PDF].

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Our people’s resistance has risen

Facing down some of the greatest threats to our country and to the world in perhaps a generation, our people’s resistance has risen to pull off some pretty impressive victories — won by protests in the streets, civil disobedience blocking efforts to deport our friends and neighbors, and challenges to voter suppression efforts.

Meanwhile, lively combinations of cross-movement organizers are meeting to hash out intersectional strategies to reveal, resist, and replace the policies of white supremacy and oppression flooding out of Washington.

Roscoe Myrick / Flickr

The women’s marches showed the world just how powerful our resistance could be. And then we flooded U.S. airports and surrounded the White House to derail both versions of the Muslim ban. Brave judges were empowered to see that tens of thousands of people across the country had their backs. Those actions set the stage for further rallies to hasten the collapse of the Republicans’ vicious health care bill, as their first big legislative effort dissolved into internal right-wing bickering.

But despite all the good, we remain in crisis — and standing back or resting on our temporary victories isn’t an option.

Every day we’re whip-sawed with new outrages and horrors — with raw racism, escalating militarism, and false populism all on parade in and around the White House. I talked about some of that with Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara on The Real News here and here. And in Foreign Policy in Focus, I wrote about the threats of escalating U.S. involvement in the wars already raging in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and beyond.

Here at home those White House threats inspire angry movements rooted in racist, misogynist, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic lies. Violence and threats against whole communities are on the rise — targeting refugees, Muslims, immigrants, Arabs and South Asians, Latinos, African-Americans, LGBTQ folks, Jews, and more.

Even here the ties to U.S. militarism are unmistakable. What a surprise! The seven Muslim-majority countries originally singled out for special punishment in the first Muslim ban all happen to be countries where the U.S. is either dropping bombs, levying sanctions, or stationing U.S. troops and bases. (And it turns out there’s another unmentioned factoid in the Muslim ban: None of the seven targeted countries have any known Trump hotels or other investments — just a coincidence?)

While the Muslim bans were rejected by the courts, the effort to keep Muslims out of our country is still underway. Recently we heard about a new memo from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to consulate staff around the world, requiring them to extensively increase scrutiny of anyone seeking a U.S. visa. It was, as the New York Times described it, “the first evidence of the ‘extreme vetting’ Mr. Trump promised.” Stay tuned for Muslim Ban 3.0.

And despite the scandals that should have brought down the administration months ago, it continues to issue orders that put whole communities — indeed, whole countries — directly in their line of fire.

Meanwhile, the White House proposal for a new budget presents an unambiguous plan to privilege guns over butter. The Pentagon currently swallows 54 cents of every discretionary dollar in the U.S. budget — and now Trump wants to raise that another 10 percent, to add $ 54 billion more taxpayer dollars to the already bloated budget.

To pay for it, he wants Congress to slash critical programs that protect human needs, the environment, and diplomatic alternatives to war. The extra money for the military would be taken from the EPA, slashing 31 percent of its funding and gutting its ability to protect our endangered environment; from the State Department, scheduled to lose 29 percent of its funds to guarantee the triumph of war over diplomacy; and from foreign aid appropriations, essentially gutting all of our humanitarian programs, proving to an already skeptical world that the U.S. government really doesn’t care about starving children or women dying in childbirth.

In response, leaders from a broad array of movements convened at IPS last month to begin discussions of a statement of principles challenging the $ 54 billion military escalation. The statement was linked both to the 50th anniversary commemorations of Martin Luther King’s urgent 1967 Riverside Church speech (which linked opposition to racism, materialism, and militarism) and to the mobilization underway for the April 29 People’s Climate March. Stephen Miles from Win Without War and I wrote about it in The Nation.

As Congress gets ready to return to Washington, the White House is already running into trouble on their proposed budget, including from their own party. The Republican military hawks like his proposed military increase, but they want to pay for it by cutting entitlements. The deficit hawks love the cuts to EPA and health care, but are mad that his budget doesn’t cut enough entitlements, and some of them aren’t so sure about his military budget increases. And lots of Republicans looking at re-election are worried that Trump’s proposed cuts are attacking programs popular in their districts.

Some Democrats have challenged the military escalation, but they haven’t yet been strong enough in challenging the military budget overall — they need to be reminded that most people in this country don’t want to raise military spending. So, this is simultaneously a huge challenge and opportunity. We’ve got a lot of work ahead.

…And the Wars

Right now, the administration is intensifying existing U.S. wars and carrying out provocative actions that threaten new ones. In Common Dreams I described the current array of Washington’s global escalations and reckless threats — all designed, according to the White House, to “send a message.”

In North Korea, that means provocative threats, including deploying U.S. naval, and potentially nuclear, armadas towards the nuclear-armed state, calling on UN ambassadors to press for harsher sanctions, and summoning the entire Senate for a classified briefing on North Korea with top military leaders. In Iraq, that includes the massive U.S. assault on Mosul that left hundreds of civilians dead. In Afghanistan, it meant dropping the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat — the 21,000 pound “Mother of all Bombs.”

Then there was the U.S. strike on a Syrian military base — supposedly in retaliation for a horrifying chemical weapons attack (of which, regardless of the White House’s allegations, we still don’t have any definitive proof about who carried it out). The Syria strike generated an unusual level of press coverage, along with public and some congressional opposition — perhaps because it was often described as being the first time the U.S. had bombed the country.

But that’s not true — the U.S. has been bombing Syria since 2014. The difference here was that the attack was explicitly directed at the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, rather than supposedly targeting ISIS or al-Qaeda. But like other attacks, it was carried out in direct violation of both U.S. and international law. I discussed and wrote about the attack on Democracy Now, MSNBC, AlterNet, and NPR’s Indivisible and 1A.

Meanwhile Trump continues to ratchet up his reckless rhetoric about going after Iran. And while I don’t think a direct military attack on Iran is on the White House agenda, at least for now, I do fear that a major U.S. escalation in Yemen is likely. And if it happens it’ll be justified as a “message” to Iran. I wrote about this danger in The Nation a few weeks ago, noting that the U.S. is already a major player in Yemen’s civil war, backing Saudi Arabia and the UAE with arms and participating directly in their bombing campaign, which has killed numerous Yemeni civilians.

None of these attacks are linked to a strategy or policy beyond the assertion of raw power, none will end the wars now killing hundreds of thousands and forcing millions to become refugees, and none will keep people in the U.S. — let alone in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Yemen — safe. “America First,” in Trump’s America, means “Military First.” Anyone who thought Trump’s hints of isolationism included the military had better think again.

Is Yemen Washington’s Next Full-Scale War?

The result of the U.S.-backed Saudi air war is that Yemen, already the poorest country in the Arab world, is now on the verge of famine. Large numbers of Yemenis don’t know where they’ll find food in the next 24 hours.

The Saudis have blockaded Yemen’s main port. It’s a humanitarian catastrophe, and the U.S. is making it worse. And don’t forget the new war budget that slashes our already paltry foreign aid contributions. I talked about all this on MSNBC.

With an escalation already underway in the U.S. counter-terrorism bombing raids supposedly targeting Yemen’s al-Qaeda branch, a further escalation in the civil war is looking all too likely. In fact, a recent Washington Post headline read “U.S. Weighs Deeper Involvement in the Yemen War” — including a request from Secretary of Defense “Mad Dog” Mattis to remove the Obama administration’s modest restrictions that were designed (however insufficiently) to reduce civilian casualties.

And since Iran has provided some economic and military support to the Houthi rebels who are longtime domestic opponents of the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, the White House is likely to justify such an assault with the false claim that the Houthis are somehow a proxy of Iran. The result will be a serious rise in U.S.-Iran tensions — and more importantly, a serious increase in the number of dead Yemenis.

We should note that Congress has never authorized any U.S. military involvement in Yemen’s civil war. Cutting funding for the U.S. role in the war and demanding that Saudi Arabia end the blockade of the Hodeidah port is one of so many demands we should be making to our representatives and senators right now.

Trump’s Emerging “Foreign Policy” That Isn’t

In the meantime, U.S. troop deployments in Syria and Iraq are already on the rise.

A recent little-noticed announcement mentioned that 500 more soldiers have been sent to Syria — supposedly to join the attack against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. Other reports indicate that hundreds, or maybe a thousand or more, will follow soon. That bodes ill for the up to 400,000 people still living under ISIS’ brutal rule in Raqqa. They will soon face the “we had to destroy the city in order to save it” air assault that devastated Mosul and its people in Iraq.

There is no indication that the Trump administration has a plan for how to manage Washington’s hostile and competing proxies all eager to fight each other in order to occupy these cities when ISIS is routed. And there is no clarity about what the U.S. will do after ISIS has been militarily vanquished in any of these towns, when its militants have likely fled to other hideouts, leaving behind destroyed ruins of once historic cities and devastated populations of hundreds of thousands of half-starved, homeless, traumatized survivors.

Our government remains, as Dr. King identified it 50 years ago, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

Here at home, I’m thrilled to announce we’ve just hired our first Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow to join my project here at IPS. Maha Hilal, an experienced organizer and activist, will be spending a year here working on anti-Islamophobia and anti-war mobilization, local campaigns linking protection of refugees with opposition to the wars that create refugees, Palestinian rights, supporting diplomacy over war, and more.

For those of you who don’t know his life and legacy, Michael Ratner was the long-term president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and among the greats of the legal activists of our movements. Michael sued in U.S. courts to implement the decision of the International Court of Justice holding the United States liable for bombing Nicaragua. He defended inmates charged in the Attica prison uprising. He worked to get protesters out of jail, among them Central American activists and Palestinian human rights defenders. And he was among the first to say that detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison, held without charge or trial in the so-called “global war on terror,” deserved lawyers, legal rights, and a challenge to their illegal detention. Michael was also a consummate internationalist, committed to international law as well as global activism on Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti, Palestine, and beyond. He died almost a year ago — and Maha’s work will help build on his legacy.

I’ve been on the road an awful lot in the last couple of months — in Syracuse, Ithaca, New Hampshire, New York, Albany, Detroit, Williamsburg, and Chicago for the Jewish Voice for Peace convention. And soon I think we’ll be seeing Maha speaking at universities and convening strategy discussions around the country, too. We have a lot of work to do — and Maha will be a huge part of making it happen.


The People’s Budget: Pushing Us Toward a Peace Economy

(Image: Flickr / Philip Chapman-Bell)

(Image: Flickr / Philip Chapman-Bell)

The Obama administration’s budget proposal for 2017 would jack up military spending higher than it’s been since World War II.  The Republican leadership in Congress wants to jack it up higher than that.  Fortunately these aren’t our only choices.  The Congressional Progressive Caucus has mapped out a saner alternative in what it is calling the People’s Budget.  The CPC’s budget proposal would, for one thing, end the Pentagon tactic of having a war budget—separate, and on top of, “regular” Pentagon spending—that has become an all-purpose slush fund for the military’s wish list projects, many of which have nothing to do with the wars we are fighting.

The challenge in reining in the impulses of public officials to throw ever more money at the military is that the economies of communities all across the country have become dependent on it.  Hundreds of thousands of jobs are now tied to the fortunes of Pentagon spending.  But luckily the People’s Budget has embedded in it the means to overcome this Pentagon dependency.

The first and most important way of dislodging an entrenched military economy is to replace the money that fuels it with other spending, on things we actually need.  Here the People’s Budget is especially strong.  Its first and biggest idea is a $ 1 trillion investment in our country’s infrastructure, paid for by military cuts and a fairer tax code.  These investments would begin to take care of the decades of neglect to our bridges and water systems.

They would also begin to fund the new infrastructure of a future based on clean energy and transport.  The Budget allots $ 150 billion to upgrade the electrical grid to make it suitable for renewable energy sources.  It funds high-speed rail projects, solar installations and bus and rail car manufacturing—all the kinds of big projects well-suited to absorb the skilled workforce of defense manufacturing.

And the kicker is, studies have shown repeatedly that there are more well-paying jobs to be had in these lines of work than in manufacturing for the military.

But there’s still the question of how to get from here to there. Moving the center of budgetary gravity toward civilian investments gets you a long way, but not all the way, to a peace economy.  Defense-dependent communities need help thinking through ways to ease the transition from one economic base to another.

The People’s Budget has answers there too.   It increases funding for a Pentagon agency called the Office of Economic Adjustment, whose reason for being is to give planning grants and technical assistance to communities that are trying to plan an orderly transition to a more diversified jobs base.  Also potentially useful in connecting these communities to the emerging green economy is funding in the People’s Budget for job training and economic development to ease the transition from fossil fuels.

In the midst of the worst political dysfunction in memory, comes this reminder of what a budget that gives priority to real national needs in general, and a peace economy in particular, could look like.  I’m grateful.

The post The People’s Budget: Pushing Us Toward a Peace Economy appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Miriam Pemberton directs the Peace Economy Transitions project at the Institute for Policy Studies.


Robin Hood Tax rally to kick off People’s Climate March

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) will join community, health, labor, student and environmental groups to kick start the People’s Climate March and United Nations Climate Summit 2014 with a rally hailing a Robin Hood Tax — a tax on Wall Street also known as a financial transaction tax — as a key solution to addressing the climate crisis. The rally will be held at 10 a.m. on Sunday, September 21 at the corner of W. 58th and Broadway in New York City.

Representative Ellison said, “A financial transaction tax would raise funds to help communities deal with the devastating effects of a rapidly changing climate and curb harmful high frequency trading.”

Jean Ross, RN, Co-president of National Nurses United said, “In my 40 years as a registered nurse, I’ve witnessed the devastating effects of environmental injustice on my patients.  The climate crisis is the number one threat to human health.  It’s time to implement real solutions.  The Robin Hood Tax is one of the most powerful ways to fund those solutions.”

The Robin Hood Tax is a tiny tax on trades of stocks, bonds and other financial instruments and would generate hundreds of billions of dollars of new revenue. Representative Ellison has introduced legislation to establish a Robin Hood Tax, the Inclusive Prosperity Act, H.R. 1579.

Robert Tolbert, board member of VOCAL-NY, said, “Nobel Prize-winning economists and billionaire businessmen are for it. The Pope is for it. But to move the idea past slick Wall Street lobbyists in Congress, we must show that the people are for it. That’s what the Robin Hood Tax contingent at the People’s Climate March will do.”

Karen Orenstein of Friends of the Earth U.S. said, “Poor countries have done little, and in some cases nothing at all, to cause the climate crisis. Yet they are the ones left footing a very expensive bill to deal with its fallout – a bill paid not only in money, but in lives lost and livelihoods destroyed. A Robin Hood Tax would generate public money that’s desperately needed to help people around the world.”

Eleven European countries, including Germany, are establishing a regional Robin Hood Tax. France, a member of that coalition, already has a Robin Hood Tax that generates revenue used, in part, to help developing countries address climate change.

Janet Redman of the Institute for Policy Studies said, “It’s past time for the U.S. to step up to the plate. Wall Street has made out like a bandit for far too long, and we need Robin Hood to set it right. While we see cuts in education, healthcare and environmental protection – and increases in inequality – Wall Street bankers continue to reap big profits and fat cat bonuses.”

Michael Tikili of Health GAP said, “By making Wall Street pay its fair share, the Robin Hood Tax can help shore up funding for goods and services that keep people and our communities healthy and whole, like providing money to help end the global AIDS pandemic.”

For more information about the Robin Hood Tax rally and the People’s Climate March, see the event Facebook page.

Expert Contact:  Karen Orenstein, Senior international policy analyst, Friends of the Earth U.S., (202)
Communications Contact: Kate Colwell, Communications specialist, Friends of the Earth U.S., (202)

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Lao civil society organizations join the 9th Asia-Europe People’s Forum

For the first time in its history, the Lao government has invited independent civil society organizations (CSOs) to work with it. The opportunity is the organization of the ninth Asia-Europe People’s Forum, held in Vientiane in October 2012.

The forum is a great opportunity for widening the space and increasing the visibility and legitimacy of CSOs in Laos. Oxfam supports this process wholeheartedly.

Laos’ CSOs play a key role in the ninth Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) process. Through them, people at the grass-roots level can raise their voices about those key issues that affect their livelihoods which will be debated during the AEPF later this month.

Lao women organizations can get in contact with women’s organizations from the region and Europe. This is a very important opportunity for them to hear from others how they have managed to create space for women’s voices and what kind of instruments and mechanisms they use to lobby a controlling government.

CSOs have organized provincial consultations with people from various societal (ethnic) groups. To avoid that the AEPF is dominated by international NGOs and CSOs from the capital, a number of people from the provinces have been invited to Vientiane to participate in the workshops.

This participation of Lao CSOs to the AEPF9 is facilitated by the Learning House for Development, a network and physical space for CSOs to come together, to which Oxfam has been giving support since the initiative started.

Create space to voice Lao people’s opinion

Why is it important for Lao CSOs to participate in the AEPF9?

Mr. Vieng Akhone Souriyo from the LaoPHA (Lao Positive Health Association) and one lead facilitator for the consultation process highlighted that “for the first time mass organizations, CSOs and INGOs are working together to conduct an extensive consultations with a broad spectrum of Lao citizens. It is an indication of the new level of openness and confidence of the Lao government at central and local level to work with different actors in order to reach out and give voice to the Lao citizenry.”

Boutsady Khounnouvong, program coordinator of the Gender Development Association (GDA), one of Oxfam’s partners, expects that “this forum will give us the opportunity to empower and strengthen ourselves by sharing experiences and knowledge with other CSOs from Asia and Europe. Lao women organizations will learn from contacts with women organizations from the region or from Europe.”

Women’s rights

Boutsady tells us that for Lao CSOs, important items on the AEPF9 agenda are women’s migration, human trafficking, women with disabilities and land rights for women. “But we are also engaged in organizing a regional women/gender workshop which we might combine with two proposals: ‘Identities, Bodies and Citizenship in Migration’ and ‘Gender and Corporate Social Accountability’.” He expects that the AEPF9 will improve the situation for women in Laos and hopes that in the future the government will be open to the rights of women. “Women’s rights are human rights and should be respected according to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women”.

Related links

Asia-Europe People’s Forum

Lao communities’ land and natural resources are not for sale

Lao communities improve natural disaster preparedness and response

A better future for women in Laos

Laos’ emerging civil society: challenges and opportunities

Farmers cherish biodiversity in Laos

Oxfam’s work in Laos

Other programmes