Baptist, de la Cruz discuss economic crisis, need for Poor People’s Campaign


In March CUSLAR began video-conference calls for members and alumni in our network. This is part of an effort to consolidate and reconstitute CUSLAR as a global network of people concerned about the direction the world is going, with a particular concentration on U.S.-Latin American relations.

On April 20, the CUSLAR network call featured two guests: veteran organizers Willie Baptist, Leadership Development Coordinator at the Kairos Center for Rights, Religions and Social Justice, and Claudia de la Cruz of Rebel Diaz Arts Collective and the Popular Education Project. They spoke to the current sociopolitical landscape and introduced the New Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign is set to launch nationally in 2018 on the 50th anniversary of the efforts of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tim Shenk: Willie, can you start by sharing some thoughts about the current political moment?

Willie Baptist: I’ll start off by saying this: much of the discussion of the very significant global economic crisis of 2007-08 has been that it’s over. In fact, the following year, 2009, the official word was that it’s over. But, for increasing numbers of the people, it continues. The pain is becoming even more excruciating. Even though there has been increased employment, underemployment is growing.

   I think to understand and appreciate the full significance of President Trump’s victory is to appreciate that that victory was a product of this crisis. The whole presidential campaign never addressed the issues of hurt and pain and suffering happening here in America and all throughout the world.

   This is a country that is founded on the notion that we’re all created equal, and that we’re endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among them the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How are you going to pursue life and happiness if you’re homeless or if you don’t have a decent job. What’s available now is SLJs. Have you ever heard of SLJs? Shitty little jobs.

   You’ve got a lot of people working two or three of these SLJs and still can’t make ends meet. In America, the richest country in the world. Upwards of 50 percent of the growing homeless population works, and yet they can’t afford homes or even the basic things.

   This is the reality you just don’t hear in the media, and you certainly didn’t hear in the presidential campaign. It was all about the middle class.

   The Poor People’s Campaign is a counter to that. It’s a way to identify and bring together the struggles of the poor that are beginning to emerge.

   The immorality of poverty needs to be exposed. Some 700 people in this country or more since 2008 have died from freezing to death from being homeless. Many of those deaths occurred right next to a house that was sitting empty. That’s a moral contradiction. How can we deal with that?

   In political strategy, studying the history of conflict and war, the forces that won were the forces that were able to identify the weak points of their adversary. That’s how you fight. You don’t fight whatever you’re up against going at their strengths — you identify their weak points.

   It’s clear from my assessment that the weak point of Trump and the weak point of the ruling class of this country, the people who support the status quo — is this economic crisis.

   And so the Poor People’s Campaign is an effort to focus attention on the fact that in this system that can produce so much, poverty can exist in the midst of plenty. The problem of poverty is not a problem of scarcity.

   The crisis is like a ping pong ball going down a flight of stairs. It bounces up and down, but its general direction is down. More and more people are being displaced by robots and computers. People are graduating into peonage slavery with exorbitant amounts of debt.

   This Poor People’s Campaign represents people who are struggling and realizing that this is unjust, and we need to do something about it. This is not primarily about helping poor people. It’s about realizing that their condition is indicating the direction of this country.

Claudia de la Cruz: I have to echo some of what Willie was saying in terms of the importance of this political time in which we are. You have folks who have experienced being frustrated with a political system that doesn’t work for the majority of people, and understanding that there’s a need for  systemic change to take place.

   Part of the process of the Poor People’s Campaign is political education with leaders and in communities. We’re identifying folks that have been engaged in political education and popular education for several decades, to figure out what type of curriculum we want to be able to implement, to both engage with communities in understanding the reality, but also answering questions that might lead us to strategizing for changing the realities in which we live.

   We need to have spaces for people to strategize together. Historically we have different silos that are based on issues. You have the immigrant community, the LGBTQ community, the women’s movement. We need to see what our common identity is.

TS: What do you see as CUSLAR’s role in contributing to movements for justice today?

WB: Latin America, of all the continents, is the most advanced in terms of critical consciousness. In this global economic crisis, Latin America is exerting the class question. The class question is, you don’t have control of ownership of the institutions or the economy, and therefore you have to go work for other people. That’s not a system failing: that’s how the system works.

   CUSLAR, in its relationship with Latin America, gives us a way to help facilitate relationships that would help increase the class consciousness in this country, and to also help strengthen work and struggles in Latin America.

   We went to Cuba and learned about their tremendous internationalist medical apparatus. They take poor folks from different countries and provide them with free medical education, and they have doctors going all over the world, to help out for free.

   They told a story of when Ebola broke out in Africa. Initially, doctors were dying. The Cuban government made a call for 400 doctors to volunteer to go to Africa. Over a thousand volunteered. I asked one of the leaders of the school, how is it that you have people who are prepared to do that? I know CUSLAR is experienced in bringing together people to learn from this kind of thing.

   I think the class consciousness of Latin America has to be tapped into if we’re going to win. If we’re just gonna be out there and crying the blues about how sad we are, and who’s more oppressed than who, because that’s what we did in the ’60s. We had the Oppression Olympics.

CC: When we talk about capitalism, we’re not talking about a national issue. When we talk about poverty, we’re not talking about a national issue. We’re talking about a system that is a global system, that has impoverished and dispossessed most of the world.

   We’ve been all over, and we’re finding that people are ready to break their isolation. People are ready to build something new. Because, you know, our lives depend on it. The lives of our loved ones depend on it. So it’s a matter of doing it right this time. That’s why I’m excited about the Poor People’s Campaign.


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