The Poor People’s Campaign is organizing a ten-day tour of the Midwest from May 17-26. Leaders of struggles from across the Gulf Coast, Mid-Atlantic, and West Coast will travel to the Midwest Industrial Belt and meet with grassroots community, labor, and religious leaders. Tim Shenk interviewed John Wessel-McCoy, a Poor People’s Campaign Program Organizer for the Kairos Center, and Willie Baptist, Poverty Initiative Scholar-in-Residence and Co-Coordinator of Poverty Scholarship and Leadership Development for the Kairos Center, about the strategic importance of the Midwest in building a movement to end poverty.
Tim Shenk: John, you and I are Midwesterners. I’m very interested in why you’re working to bring leaders from all over the country on a Poor People’s Campaign tour to the Midwest.
John Wessel-McCoy: When I think about the Midwest, I think about these terms we use to describe the region — Middle America, the Heartland — which is how a lot of people there describe themselves. It’s also how the rest of the country describes the Midwest. It has been viewed historically as a center of stability. It’s a place where people are even-tempered and even-minded. From an economic standpoint, when we talk about class in this country, it’s a place where people who are really working class tend to consider themselves middle class.
But all of that is changing now. I grew up in Central Illinois just outside of Decatur. If you drive around and look at my town, you’ll see it’s hollowing out. It reflects a lot of the same dynamics you see in Detroit and Saginaw and Erie, Pennsylvania and all of these places where the economy has been moving downhill. Poverty has been intensified and the so-called middle class has been in freefall because the good jobs are gone and they aren’t coming back. A lot of people think the jobs went to Mexico, or they went to China. That’s not really true anymore. Automation is what has really decimated manufacturing jobs.
The purpose of this Midwest tour of the Poor People’s Campaign is to identify and meet with people who are emerging, people who are waking up and fighting. They’re fighting around a lot of different things, around waste dumps in their backyard, or around education, or police violence, or their water being poisoned or privatized. These are things emerging that you don’t hear about in the media. Or if you do, the story isn’t told from the point of the view of people struggling on the grassroots level. All you hear about is the polarization. The point of this tour is to put people together so they can start to think together. People need to be able to take what they care about and put that in relationship to other people’s struggles.
TS: Willie, you’re an experienced organizer, and you could be putting your energy anywhere. Why focus on the Midwest?
Willie Baptist: The Midwest needs to be seen from a strategic point of view. The auto industry, steel, glass, rubber and assembly have been the foundation of the American economy. These contribute also to the construction industry. Historically, these industries come out of the Midwest. Stabilizing the workforce that produces these things has been foremost in the minds of big capital. The Midwest contains a large bulk of the so-called “middle class,” or in other words, the middle income strata. This middle strata is the social base of the political power of big capital and its control of the country. In this sense, whoever wins Middle America, or the Midwest, wins the country and wins policy. Most of the Left doesn’t think like this, but we have to start thinking like this.
The media shows some of the plight of the Midwest, but we don’t see any of the fight that’s coming up. In that way the media influences the leaders who are emerging in different struggles. They don’t see each other. They don’t hear about each other.
The Left has tended to mostly dismiss the Midwestern industrial labor force because of the perception that this labor force is mostly white, that they’re racist, that they’re Trump people and that’s who we’re told we have to fight. It’s set up that way so we don’t unite the dispossessed. We need to understand that the Midwest is very critical to that process.
TS: John, you mentioned the hollowing out of Decatur where you grew up. Can you describe your town and what has been happening there?
JWM: Decatur, Illinois is a small city surrounded by an agricultural landscape. For a long time the base in Decatur has been industrial. It’s a factory town. When I was growing up there, the big four factories were ADM, a global agribusiness corporation; Staley, which is a corn processing plant owned by Tate & Lyle; Caterpillar, which produces earth movers used in mining operations; and a Bridgestone-Firestone tire factory. Bridgestone shut down over a decade ago.
In a place like Decatur, for several generations you could get a high school degree, get a job at one of these factories and have a reasonable expectation to earn enough money to buy a house, get a car or truck and maybe even a bass boat, and have some enjoyment of life. It didn’t mean the work you did was terribly fulfilling, and it was hard work. And it wasn’t always very safe work. But at the end of the day, that lifestyle was true for a lot of people in Decatur.
That was possible in large part because of the unions. There were different unions representing the workers there, so there were higher wages and it was possible for working-class people to enter into these middle strata.
When you move forward into my childhood, and I went to high school in the early ’90s, something very significant happened in Decatur, which had implications for the rest of the country as far as organized labor was concerned. In three of the big factories, the workers went out on strike at the same time. These companies were the top of their industry. Caterpillar, Staley, and Bridgestone-Firestone were all transnational corporations. And there was something that changed at that moment in the ’90s where the old contracts, the old social agreements, were no longer desirable — perhaps even possible — for the corporations. Now they were competing across the globe against companies that were hiring much cheaper labor. So they had an obligation to play hard ball, sink or swim.
In the case of the Staley corn processing plant, the workers ended up locked out for three years. It wasn’t just that they were on strike — they were locked out. And when you see something like that in your hometown, which wasn’t a terribly big community, it impacted just about everyone. Three years of being locked out of work resulted in a lot of things: home foreclosures and families that broke up under the stress. There were suicides. This came down like a ton of bricks in our community.
There was a lot of militant struggle on the side of the unions that inspired me, which is why I’m in this work today. I saw the heroism and the genius of workers fighting back in unions that had been pretty complacent for a long time. There was a real rank-and-file activation of people who brought into focus political and class-based actions.
We’ve been working with people all over the country on reigniting the Poor People’s Campaign, but the reality of my hometown is where my consciousness comes from. Decatur is what I care about and what I always think about ultimately when I think about the liberation and the change that this society needs. It comes back home, to my family, and to the people I grew up with.
TS: A connection to home and to our people is what brings real urgency and meaning to this work. The Midwest is home to a lot of good, hard-working, deeply spiritual people. I’m sure Decatur is no exception.
JWM: I grew up Catholic. My family is a mix of poor Southern whites coming up North, with German, Austrian, and Czech. One of the things that happened when things broke out with the labor struggles in Decatur is that there was a priest, Fr. Martin Mangan, in town, and a nun, Sr. Glenda Bourgeois, who really brought to life the social teachings of the Catholic Church. They ultimately sided with the workers, and they committed acts of civil disobedience. Father Mangan was also a pastor to the locked-out workers. His parish was very blue collar. That was very inspiring to me. To see him out there getting arrested alongside the strikers really raised questions for me. There was something that resonated with me in terms of the teachings of the Bible I had grown up with.
TS: What’s it like for your community now, twenty years later?
JWM: Since the labor struggles and the “renegotiation,” as they have called it, between the companies and the workers, the companies used the strikes as an opportunity to make big changes in the factories. More automation, for one. There are fewer people working in those factories now. And also contracting. They’ve figured out how to contract out more and more of what happens on the shop floor. There are still unions, but the companies are just waiting for these older guys to die off. My brother has worked at every single one of those plants in Decatur, and he has never had a union job. He has always worked for a contractor.
TS: I have the sense that this isn’t an isolated story. Willie, you’ve worked on the shop floor and you’ve been watching this sea change coming for a long time. What’s your perspective on the underlying forces at play in the Midwest?
WB: First of all, it’s very important to take into account the strategic minds of big capital, which have recruited some of the most experienced political strategists coming out of the military and the National Security Council, for example. These people are gathering in formations called think tanks, from the Council on Foreign Relations to the Rand Corporation to the Brookings Institute. They are paid big-time money to figure out how to control, contain the struggles of the masses of the people and direct the interests of big capital.
At every stage in the history of this country, the biggest section of capital has been able to gather the resources to elevate itself to power. At one time it was slave capital, based on cotton wealth. Then industrial capital emerged, connected to the big banks, which came out of the Civil War and into the 1930s. Of late, we should look at big capital in terms of the unprecedented technological revolution that has enabled globalization. Today, big capital is global capital. It’s very important to understand the forces that control the country. Their reaction to the ebb and flow of the economy and society really dictate policy, because they’re the most organized and they’re in power. We have to constantly proceed from there.
Part of the Midwest Tour is to challenge the prevailing notions of a bland and shallow populism that understands that a 1 percent exists but doesn’t understand why they’re the 1 percent and why we’re the 99 percent. If we don’t know why, we can’t get to a solution. Because of our pragmatic culture, we tend to be satisfied with the most superficial glance and find real solutions counter-intuitive. The powers that be have think tanks to think. We don’t have that — we just do. We’re essentially fire brigades, constantly reacting to each crisis situation as it comes up, not proactively and strategically anticipating.
I’ve made a whole lot of mistakes in my life, based on shallow thinking and impatience. We feel we don’t have time to think. We don’t organize our schedules to think.
Big capital is globalized today and is having an impact on dictating all policies. This is a moment of confusion for them — there is a lot of debate going on in those upper ranks. But they do take lessons from history. Especially since the global crisis of 1997, they have been quoting Aristotle, who said that “where the middle class is large, there are least likely to be factions and dissension.” There was a whole body of strategists and analysts who concluded that if they were going to survive the global crisis, there had to be some consolidation of the middle class. The larger the middle class, the more ability you have to govern.
Big capital has drawn on the middle strata to manage the commanding heights of the economy. The officer corps of your civic bureaucracy on the federal, state, and local levels, as well as the military and police forces — their families are middle income. They’ve tended to be stable. Yet now that stability is being dismantled because increasing sections of the middle income strata are being thrown into poverty, and the 2008 crisis and its aftermath is throwing them into a real bind. So this middle strata that has been the social base of political power and the social base for stability in the economy has started to crumble.
We don’t think about the hurt and pain this system is causing to increasing segments of the population. I want to be clear about this point, that the interests that are contributing to our suffering, and to the world’s suffering, are a globalized big capital, owing to an unprecedented technological revolution. They have to secure a middle class that is being dismantled by the technological revolution. In the Midwest, we’re watching the industrial belt turn into a rust belt largely because of the deindustrialization caused by technological innovation. And there is a lot of hurt and pain.
TS: As I understand it, then, the New Poor People’s Campaign for Today attempts to address that hurt that our communities are feeling, and put forward that it’s not just each individual’s burden to bear by ourselves. Do you see opportunities for this campaign gaining traction in the Midwest?
WB: The constraints on the Poor People’s Campaign of the 1960s are beginning to break down. Back then you had a growing middle class. The Midwest was where you had the bulk of middle-income workers in these industrial plants. It was very difficult to create a movement of the poor that would impact the masses of the American people when you had an economy that was expanding with a growing middle income strata. Today, those limitations are falling away. Today a Poor People’s Campaign to unite the poor and dispossessed is potentially the only social force that can unsettle the thinking and win most of the middle strata. This is ultimately because of their common dispossession or lack of ownership and control of the economy, employment, and wages.
JWM: There are so many issues that people are facing today that are putting their families at risk. There is increasing homelessness and water shutoffs. We also need to speak frankly about the way militarism works. In my town we send a lot of our sons and daughters off to the military because they see few other options. It’s an economic draft. We need to raise the ecological and health-related ramifications of being in such an industrialized place. It’s true now more than ever — the Poor People’s Campaign is what is needed for Decatur.
This sounds counter-intuitive, right? In this year of Trump, where supposedly the lines of division are stronger, Dr. King’s diagnosis and his way forward with the Poor People’s Campaign make more sense now even than when he proposed it 50 years ago. We need to be able to show these things, about what’s happening in Flint, what’s happening in Decatur, about how poverty is visiting more and more people and impacting them, and the role that racism plays in not only oppressing and exploiting Black people and other poor people of color, but also controlling the poor whites on the bottom.
Let’s be clear. We’re not saying racial oppression is experienced the same or equally across color lines. People of color historically and currently bare the brunt of violence, discrimination, and overall suffering at the hands of racial oppression. But, when it comes to talking about poor whites, we are talking about questions of political and social control.
WB: These conditions are objectively linking struggles around the country, particularly with the South. The Midwest is becoming the up south down south. The Right to Work legislation that has characterized the South has now come to the Midwest, but we don’t hear anything about it. The so called “Left” and the human rights activists aren’t touching this. They’re just leaving the poor white communities to the more fascist and right-wing elements, all under the guise that they’re concerned about people of color. That’s a set-up, man! If you don’t unite the poor Blacks and poor Latinos with the poor whites, you’re setting up not only people of color but the working class as a whole. You’re participating in their dismemberment.
TS: That’s a perspective we don’t hear very much these days. What have you seen in your lifetime that has brought you to that conviction?
WB: The experience that has left the most indelible impression on me has been the Watts Uprising that took place just south of downtown Los Angeles in 1965. I look at the conditions that gave rise to Watts in the ’60s and the conditions today. Around the time of Watts, you had upwards of 300 ghettos, mainly of Black populations but some Hispanic ghettos rose up during that time as well. The enemy moved their generals and political strategists to contain those ghetto uprisings by expanding the welfare state and also to create an all-white backlash.
Watts erupted, and places like Watts all around the country erupted, because of the economic conditions these communities were facing. The reaction of the white workers, which has been totally eliminated from the history of this period, is something that has to be understood. The enemy understood it, and that’s why they erased any kind of reference to it.
I have a friend from years ago from San Pedro in LA who is a longshoreman, a white worker. When the Watts Uprising took place, he went around in his white working-class community and gathered food to take to the people in Watts. It was very difficult for him to get into Watts because the police had cordoned it off and blocked the roads trying to keep this sort of unity from happening. You don’t hear anything about that! He knew about it because he did it.
Another example is South Gate, which is just northeast of Watts, is a white working-class community. Most people worked in the auto industry there before it closed down. The mothers collected food when they knew that mothers in Watts didn’t have access to supermarkets any longer. They gathered food for Watts. These were working-class white folks! But all of that was deliberately covered up. The only way I ever heard about that was talking with people who lived through it and told me how they reacted.
The same thing happened in Detroit when the uprising took place. You had a whole section of the white working class that was involved. There were veterans who came in and joined the uprising. They were sniping at the police. They were uniting with the Black workers. But nobody talks about that.
A colleague we’re working closely with who is pursuing a doctorate, Colleen, John’s wife, has been doing some excellent research. She has uncovered the developments around the original Rainbow Coalition. After Fred Hampton’s murder by the police, this multi-racial effort of the poor was co-opted and taken on as a solely Black thing. The original coalition had included Appalachian whites, and their comments about class unity with the poor black and brown communities were very clear.
TS: These are powerful examples from history and from your experience, where unity has happened across racial lines. This is something the organizers are insisting on as the backbone of the Poor People’s Campaign.
WB: Sí se puede — it can be done. Our enemy is not the poor whites. Subliminally, all of us have been brought up with the idea very consistently that the racists are the poor whites. So when you talk about the Poor People’s Campaign you’re talking a much needed effort to unite the poor and dispossessed across color lines. However this is mistakenly understood as not having to do with race. But the Poor People’s Campaign is really the most anti-racist effort you can take on. The basis of racism is an all-white unity. But that all-white unity Is being undermined by today’s worsening economic reality, because there are millions poor whites who are not benefiting from an all-white unity. Many of these poor white folks are in battle, but they’re not on TV. They’re not well connected with other sections of the dispossessed, so you don’t think they exist.
Unfortunately, the image of the poor white as the enemy prevails in a lot of the discussions around the movement for black lives, while certain elements of that movement, the more working class elements, are being attacked and the struggles of the dispossessed are not being as supported or promoted in the same way.
My experience of Watts was that the labeling of the uprising in the ghettos as a “Black riot” and the use of that to organize an all-white law-and-order backlash was a way to contain and redirect the energies of that struggle.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought that uniting energy into the Poor People’s Campaign in 1967, and that’s why he was killed. The 1999 trial in Memphis, Tennessee proved without a doubt that that’s why they killed him. They showed that the poor white guy, James Earl Ray, wasn’t part of it. He was just a proxy. The FBI pointed the finger at James Earl Ray and everybody believed it, because we’re so racialized in our thinking. We had no idea about basic politics and economics in our country, so we fell for it. But the fact of the matter is, the trial proved that Dr. King was killed on the basis of a conspiracy of every level of government — military intelligence, the CIA, the FBI, down to the local Memphis police. All of these guys were in the vicinity when he was killed with one bullet by an expert assassin.
The reason why King was killed was that he was bringing together the bottom. The Poor People’s Campaign, to unite poor whites, poor Blacks, poor Latinos, Asians — everybody who hurts — is the most anti-racist, anti-sexist work you can do. The whole point of racism and sexism is to pre-empt the unity of the bottom and to keep big capital behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz. They don’t want us to see the class realities.
That’s why this Midwest tour is so important, so leaders can meet other leaders who are in these struggles and are getting no media attention, so they can get a more accurate estimate of the problems today, and the necessity of uniting the dispossessed. We’re not going to get that from the media, from academia or from the Left. We have to actually put leaders in relationship to each other so they can see the possibilities for really transforming this society into the society it can be. The development of technology and productivity is such that there’s no reason why we should have homelessness, or have any of our basic necessities unmet.
If all of the people who are hurting can be brought together and raise their voices, their voices will be heard and will become a rallying point for the rest of the country. That’s what the powers that be are afraid of. The only force that can rally the middle is going to be the poor themselves. That’s counter-intuitive, because all of the propaganda we have been getting about the poor is that they’re helpless. They’re either painted as a charity case or a criminal case. There’s no semblance of understanding that the poor might have something to say about the problems that are besetting middle America, including the so-called middle class.
John and I took a 30-state tour a few years back, and we saw a lot of things you never see on TV. We started to put out the idea about a Poor People’s Campaign to unite the dispossessed. All sorts of people — Black, white, Native American — they united around it. At the same time, there are million-dollar studies out there that say “don’t say ‘poor,’ don’t talk about poverty, just talk about the middle class.” That’s bull.
This Midwest tour is about looking reality in the face and talking to the unsung saints who are dealing with that reality. It’s about connecting leaders so we can sustain a battle for the unity of the dispossessed. That’s the only chance we have.