Systemic racism, poverty, militarism and ecological devastation cannot be defeated separately
‘Poor’ is not an insult, because poverty is not our fault. It is the great shame and immorality of the system we’re living in, that it can’t provide for the majority of us under its current rules.
Manolo de los Santos, pictured below, visited Elmira and Ithaca, NY on March 22-23 as part of the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival in the region.
Below is an edited transcript of his Ithaca presentation, where more than 100 gathered to share stories and build relationships to confront the “four evils” of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and ecological devastation.
In addition to de los Santos, participants from the Multicultural Resource Center, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier and Warrior Writers / Combat Paper shared lived experiences and art that represented their struggles against systemic injustices. The event was supported by a Cornell Engaged Opportunity Grant.
Manolo de los Santos
Edited transcript of his presentation at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, NY on March 23.
I’m not terribly surprised to see so many people here today, but it really does feel good to know that we’re not alone.
Coming here today makes you part of a bigger movement, bigger than what we’ve been able to imagine in our lifetimes.
One thing we were talking about earlier today is the fact that we’ve been robbed. Not only of our land and labor, but of our shared sense of human dignity. These folks think they’re very smart because they have spent the last 500 years trying to keep us apart. They decided first that some of us were subhuman because of the color of our skin. And because of that, they decided we could work for nothing. And some people felt that was an infallible system that could never be broken down. They continued to divide us over our gender, or over, on what boat did you get here? And the lines of division continue. Every other day they come up with a new way of keeping us apart.
So to change society, we’ve got to stand together. Of course we’ve got to stand together! Didn’t we learn that in kindergarten?
Yet in the history of this nation, that has not worked very well. Look at what happened to Martin Luther King, Jr. when he tried to bring people together. I’m talking about when Dr. King said we have to shift from being a civil rights movement to a human rights movement. He said, it cost this government nothing to integrate lunch counters. But it costs a whole lot to give, not just Black people, but all poor people in this country some human dignity. That cannot be resolved with the stroke of a pen. Dr. King projected that it would cost billions of dollars.
When he was trying to get people together, they killed him. He got killed for supporting striking workers in Memphis, Tennessee, who were striking for decent wages.
The lesson there is, if you come together, there’s trouble. But I say, I like some trouble! It seems like a lot of people in this room like trouble because you all came here today.
And some of this trouble builds on a legacy of many people. When I talk to young people about why we’re building the Poor People’s Campaign today, I tell them, back in the South, there was this group of people called the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Anyone ever heard of these crazy people?
They were crazy. These sharecroppers were fighting for the right to land, to farm, to feed their families, to not live on starvation wages. They decided something unimaginable in the 1930s. They decided to organize Black and white farmers together. They were so crazy that people accused them of being Communist.
But this is not a question of who might be Communist or who is a Democrat or who is a Republican. It’s a question of, which side of history are you on? Are you for life, and for the right of everyone to live?
In the 1960s, in Chicago, there was another crazy group of people: the Black Panthers. They realized they could organize Black people day and night, but it wasn’t going to change systemic racism. So they actually started organizing with Appalachian immigrants, white folks from the mountains of West Virginia, who had come looking for work. The Panthers were organizing poor white folk, poor Latino folk, poor Asian folk, poor Black folk. This original Rainbow Coalition scared the hell out of the U.S. power structure. And before you know it, our brother Fred Hampton was assassinated by the FBI.
They’ve tried to kill this dream so many times before. I say this not to scare you or to depress you, but to remind you of the real potential of the unity of the poor, that is, building the unity of the people at the bottom. Our opponents are very creative. The way they oppress Black men is not the same way they oppress white women, or the same they oppress young queer people or poor whites. We all get oppressed in different ways. But that means that we live in a system in which we are all getting oppressed.
It was through the Poor People’s Campaign that I discovered poverty has a lot of faces. Sometimes it is very convenient for the power structure to say that poverty is only a Black and Latino problem. It’s convenient for them to talk to one group and point the finger at another group and say, those people are the problem. Yet when you go around this country and study the statistics, the majority of poor people in this country are white. I grew up thinking that all white people were rich, and then I came up to Elmira and Ithaca and I learned something.
If you think you can fight by yourself, I admire you. If you think you’re going to topple oppression by yourself, amen! That’s amazing. I don’t have that kind of energy. I’d rather believe that we’re living in a moment in which the unity of the people in this room has the capacity and the power to transform the world. And I’m not talking about, let’s all get together and vote and elect a new government. If that happens, great. But I’m more interested in building a movement.
I do not expect us to walk out of this room holding hands. This is not a Kumbaya moment, my brothers and sisters. We cannot expect to forget what divides us. I do not recommend that you ever forget that. Because we’re forced to forget, and people are made invisible. But when you are in a burning house, are you going to question who’s going to be the person to take you out of the fire? I don’t have the luxury of that. I’m counting on each and every one of you to get us out of this burning house, which is America.
This country is an a deep moral crisis. It didn’t start with Trump in the White House — this crisis has its roots a long time even before the United States was a nation. From the time of colonial establishment, something is going on wrong in this place.
We have the opportunity to change it. The only way we’re going to do it is through the unity of the bottom. I am proud to be part of the bottom along with you. How are we going to unite? Only by coming together and fighting. Struggle is the only place where we will actually come together. Struggle is the only place where we began to see that despite the differences, there is one big thing that brings us together.
It’s the story of pain that we all know, the pain that our children don’t have the right to quality education, the pain that some of our children go hungry sometimes, the fear that our brothers and sisters will get deported, the pain of knowing that there are 4 million households in this country who do not have clean water at home. We have the pain of still hearing stories about people who are basically condemned to die because they went to public school built on a contaminated Superfund site. The pain of men and women who are kicked out of their homes and made homeless because circumstances beyond their control. Raise your hand if you have felt this pain. This is the pain that unites us.
I am not going to lie to you and say that as a young Afro-Latino man living in New York City that I am not afraid every day of my life, even up here in Ithaca, which some people think is a racial paradise.
I wake up every day thinking it might be my last. But I have also learned that the violence that is produced by these police departments is the same violence that keeps me hungry and that denies my access to healthcare.
There are many ways to kill people, and the system is good at it. We can never forget the different ways this violence affects us. Where we are trying to go requires us to do this together, and I need to know if y’all are with me. Are people with me?
Our right to humanity and dignity is not just a lofty ideal. It is real. It is as real as all of our own personal stories. I want to live in a world where kids who live in the South Bronx like me, don’t have to go to bed thinking about whether the police is going to come to the building and kill people, or wake up thinking, what are we going to eat today? Or not see their parents because they are working two or three jobs.
I grew up in the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the United States, and yet I never heard anyone admit to being poor. Most of the kids I grew up with in the South Bronx used to say they were middle class. People thought that when you talked about poverty, you were calling them a bad name.
Poor is not an insult, because poverty is not our fault. It’s not our failing. It’s a position in an unequal society that we’ve been put in — we’re busting our tails, but we can’t make ends meet. We can’t get ahead. We are the poor! There’s no shame in admitting that.
It is the great shame and immorality of the system we’re living in, that it can’t provide for the majority of us under its current rules. The system can’t recognize our worth as human beings, so we have to realize our own worth, our own value, and the possibility of one day that value being used for the benefit of everyone. I know this is a crazy thought, but I believe in fighting for a world in which everybody’s got a right to live. Thank you.
Manolo de los Santos is part of the Popular Education Project (PEP) and is the executive director of The People’s Forum, a new social movement incubator space in New York City.