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Human Rights on Wheels.


It was pretty much the same everywhere, all month long. A bus stopped in a housing project/barrio/shut-down downtown/coal-mining county/postindustrial brownfield and disgorged about fifty riders into the June air. The people blinking in the sunlight wore gray-and-white camouflage pants and a T-shirt advertising "Economic Human Rights Campaign: New Freedom Bus Tour." If you squinted, you could also read its call to "JOIN POOR AND HOMELESS PEOPLE IN THIS HISTORIC TOUR TO DOCUMENT AND PROTEST THE HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS CAUSED BY WELFARE REFORM."

Backed up by a posse of hyperenergetic college students and recent graduates, the core of the bus-riding crew consisted of three dozen adults, teenagers and kids: some homeless, some just the other side of homelessness, some born not so long ago into the economic margins, and all but the very youngest angry enough to commit themselves to changing the conditions that have kept them there. They had put aside their personal problems to spend a month traveling around the country in a crowded bus, clothes stowed in garbage bags and children running up and down the sticky aisle, holding their nose on the days when the toilet was clogged.

They are members of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), and the tour was the most ambitious project of the organization's yearlong campaign coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When the UN commemorated the official milestone on December 10, there were high-level bows to political and civil rights, but among US congratulators, virtual silence on economic rights. For years human fights activists have aimed to correct this imbalance, and KWRU has joined them. An eight-year-old Philadelphia organization that's gained notoriety for its gutsy, sometimes illegal actions fighting the political abandonment of the poor, KWRU is working to redefine poverty from an issue of personal misfortune to one of social injustice. On the road this summer, it was doing what human rights workers always do: documenting abuse.

One by one, over and over at each stop, poor people and human rights advocates walked to the front of church basements, government office buildings and open-air podiums to tell wrenching stories: about the Milwaukee woman whose disabled son was scalded to death in the bath while she was working at Pizza Hut; the El Paso woman who was almost deported to Mexico for using her dead husband's food stamps without state permission; the young Idaho mother who was dropped from the rolls, like 77 percent of Idaho's recipients, and now depends on food banks. KWRU gathered hundreds of such testimonials.

Turning up the volume and the visibility of poor people has been one of KWRU's tactics from its inception. In 1995 it set up a homeless encampment that transformed a Philadelphia lot into an open sore on the public conscience. The campers moved into an abandoned church for winter and also participated in a mass takeover of vacant HUD buildings; then they marched from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, where they slept in the Statehouse rotunda for six weeks to protest cuts in assistance for childless adults. Currently, KWRU claims roughly 200 committed members, who pay $5 in yearly dues, and some thirty core activists. In its outreach, consisting largely of handing out fliers and offering advice at welfare offices, KWRU pitches the value of collective action to prospective members. "Together, we can get educated about welfare reform and about our fights," says one piece of literature. "When you join a union, there's more chances for your needs to be met. There are more people looking out for you, and you can contribute by looking out for other people."

When it became clear that guaranteed aid to the poor would soon be a memory and organized opposition was nowhere to be found, KWRU saw an opportunity for channeling pain and isolation into just such collective action. Its founder, Cheri Honkala--a sometime welfare recipient who might be described as a social worker gone renegade--picked up the language of human rights as a way of casting the fight in a familiar and powerful idiom.

As KWRU's education director, Willie Baptist, observes, "If you look at historic movements of poor people, they were about more than the question of satisfying people's immediate needs. Just as important was a sense of legitimacy and moral credibility of what they were doing. With antislavery, with civil rights organizing, you eventually had claims of moral legitimacy made all the way to the federal government. What we find today is that the very same forces that once gave a sense of justice to this movement have actually spearheaded the attack against poor people."

Under the banner of human rights, a poor people's movement galvanized by welfare reform now has a countersalvo, declaring that governments and corporations have a responsibility to human beings, not the other way around; and that simply because they are members of the species, people have inalienable rights.

As human rights advocates never fail to point out, all rights are interdependent; deprive an individual of one, and the others collapse like a Malibu house. A person with no home cannot exercise his right to enjoy life, liberty and security, while someone discriminated against on the basis of sex won't enjoy equal rights in marriage, and could Well be denied her right to freedom of speech and association, among much else.

Drafted after World War II, the Universal Declaration was intended to set minimum standards for the treatment of individuals everywhere in the world. The United States demanded civil and political rights; the Soviet Union sought guarantees of economic and social security. Because of the impasse, two separate treaties emerged to set the Declaration's principles into law: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Unlike 136 other national governments, the US Congress has never ratified the latter, and most Americans have never even heard of the Universal Declaration, much less been taught about it in school.

KWRU's tour served as a human rights school on wheels, focusing on three of the Declaration's provisions: Article 23, which calls for "remuneration ensuring ... an existence worthy of human dignity" for all laborers and equal pay for equal work; Article 25, insuring an adequate standard of living, including food, housing, clothing, medical care and social services, as well as special protection for mothers and children; and Article 26, which affirms the right to an education.

All along the bus route the war on the poor was in full force. In Los Angeles, the General Relief program was weeks away from cutting off its first childless adults under new time limits (and, yes, they were working for their $221 a month). When the bus crew marched through a housing project one weekday morning, hands up and down the block reached through barred security doors for literature. An elderly woman whispered, "Beautiful. Beautiful. God bless," while someone else asked if they might be handing out clothes. That afternoon, the bus showed up to support a group of professional advocates who blocked an intersection in front of the LA Board of Supervisors office. Reluctantly, for the simple reason that they couldn't miss even a day of their tight itinerary, the riders got back on the bus instead of into police cars.

In Chicago, residents of the colossal Cabrini-Green housing project greeted the bus with stories of imminent demolition to make way for fixed-income townhouses; the displaced are being given Section 8 housing vouchers and the challenge of finding private landlords who'll accept them. (There were similar fears in Houston's historic Freedman's Town, originally a freed-slave community, which is threatened by a planned expansion of the downtown business district.) In Columbia, Mississippi, the theme was environmental racism--HUD housing on toxic land; in Lorain, Ohio, it was inadequate medical coverage; in Milwaukee, resettled Hmong women forced to work; in New York and Philadelphia, workfare programs that make it impossible for those enrolled to take care of both their children and their own educations; in Texas, institutionalized hell for immigrants, documented or not. And on and on.

With so many troubles and so few answers, people took note when KWRU rolled into town spreading the word that the United Nations itself has proclaimed that America's treatment of the poor violates basic principles of human dignity. "It's one thing to feel like what's happening is not all right," said Sarah Froheck, a welfare recipient and activist from Chico, California. "But to learn that someone wrote this down in a document, you know you have a leg to stand on--you're not just some whiny welfare recipient with no money."

Though it invokes international law, KWRU's campaign is intended to work on the streets, not in the courtroom. Legal action based on international treaties is a near impossibility here: In addition to Congress's failure to ratify the economic rights covenant, longstanding judicial precedents and the State Department's embarrassing refusal at recent UN conferences to agree to a right to food and shelter have effectively conspired against it. Besides, welfare reform itself is more than a law; it's a megamedia campaign, in which stories of welfare-to-work successes have become as common as commercials for the VW Beetle. If welfare opponents are going to advance their case using individual narratives of success, it makes sense for welfare rights agitators to fight stories with stories. So, with the help of advocacy groups who hosted the riders at each stop, KWRU staged mock human rights trials during the tour, culminating in a tribunal at the UN Church Center in New York City.

KWRU member Mariluz Gonzalez says she regularly gets cursed at when she speaks out about her experiences on welfare. "People are scared to talk about reality, so they take their anger out on us. They shout, `Get a job! Don't have so many babies!' But that's why I have to tell my story."

There's a delicate balance to be struck between KWRU's commitment to collective action and the mainstream media's insistence on stories about lone individuals, which the group grudgingly accommodates. Yet the focus on the individual also helps in organizing, because the people speaking in public about their lives realize that what they have to say is of vital importance. "Just in asking people for their story, we are helping break their isolation and empower them," says Honkala, who compares these stories not to their more recent antecedents in the feminist and gay rights movements but to the slave narratives that abolitionists promoted to win over the public to their cause.

For that matter, she compares KWRU's unlawful activities, including housing takeovers, tapping into electric power lines and petty theft of various kinds, to the civil disobedience of the Underground Railroad. "Projects of survival," Honkala calls them, with further credit to the Black Panthers.

"We're advocating that people take an abandoned house as opposed to dying on the streets," says Honkala. "That is highly controversial, but we really believe that we have the moral high ground. And yet we know that that is against the law."

It's easier to attack Honkala's theater than her strategy or principles. Accused by the Philadelphia Inquirer of "homeless hype" and effectively blacked out by the daily papers, KWRU is perpetually caught between trying to create media happenings to make poverty visible and insuring that the people who hook up with the group at welfare offices and rallies stay committed.

At its most inspired, it does both. Union members are a public presence in disfranchised communities and the media alike. During the bus tour, rest-station stops were frequent for more than the usual reasons: Riders would line up to give talk-radio interviews on pay phones. "I'm here to fight for all this because we've been trying to find a home for ourselves and other people like us," says Liz Ortiz, who staked out the back of the bus with her daughter, two teenage sons and their homeless teen friend. "I'm trying to do the same thing they did for me--hand out fliers and let people know there's something they can do." Media actions have been more than a way to speak to power; they've given the group brand-name recognition in low-income communities throughout the Philadelphia area. More than a few members were already familiar with KWRU from the local TV news before they ever met one of its volunteer organizers.

Honkala has set out a staggering project, for, as she noted during a brief repose in El Paso, "We know we can't organize poor and homeless people unless we figure out where they're going to sleep tonight and how they're going to be able to keep their kids"--an especially tough job given the group's catch-as-catch-can funding.

Honkala herself has been on and off welfare for years, between jobs as a teacher and social worker while raising a son alone; and she's been criticized for occasionally moonlighting as an erotic dancer, a job that freed her days for activism. A less driven soul might think her constituency is unorganizable, but members have every reason to join up. Among the bus riders, the Gonzalezes, the Ortiz family, an engaged couple with children and a sturdy grandmother, Miss Betty Washington, have secured places to live. But while the material benefits are a powerful lure, their loyalties have been clinched by something less tangible.

"It doesn't help me, it helps other people," Miss Betty, wearily curled up in her seat, said of the bus trip. "The important thing is to go to the UN with these stories." Her mind was on the future, anyway, to an upcoming court hearing on whether she will regain custody of her granddaughter, removed from her care after a house fire; Miss Betty didn't have the money to make repairs or to move. Then KWRU came into her life. Now, assisted by experienced activists, she and others have become effective spokes-people for poor people's rights; in turn, they get to experience a sense of their own power. The organization's commitment to education is a vital piece of that development process. On the bus, workshops were held on everything from the original Freedom Riders to the effects of globalization, from the politics of race and immigration to the politics of housing and healthcare.

KWRU, which has no salaried staff, is governed by a "War Council" of eight to ten elected members. But though many members articulate KWRU's human rights agenda at public gatherings--just one sign of the union's determination to develop leaders from the ranks of welfare recipients--Cheri Honkala is unmistakably the Leader. A strikingly charismatic organizer, she immersed herself in every detail of the bus ride, from who showered when to which movies would be watched and discussed (these included Michael Collins, Matewan, Braveheart, Schindler's List, The Full Monty and, much to the college students' indignation, Anastasia for the kids). Like a tour operator, she'd routinely pick up the PA mike and brief her "army" on the upcoming challenges of the day.

Honkala's constant presence on the frontlines does give the group a recognizable public voice, which she's used to build bridges to larger organizations. Through membership in the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, KWRU is affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Labor has good reason to support welfare rights advocacy: The dumping of more than 3 million people onto the lowest end of the labor market can only weaken bargaining power. When about 1,700 healthcare workers lost their jobs at Philadelphia's financially beleaguered Allegheny Hospitals, many of them feared that workfare labor would start taking their place. An alliance with KWRU gave both groups something they needed: for the hospital workers, an organized fight against workfare; for KWRU, the chance to connect with institutional labor. The relationship is one of mutual aid more than material support. Says Baptist, "They block traffic for us, and we block traffic for them."

KWRU is also a member of the Labor Party, and though it stands to gain little politically from the feeble group, that alliance too gives the union the ears of workers whose own vulnerability makes them potentially committed supporters.

KWRU isn't the only organization working to call attention to the hypocrisy of the US government's denunciation of other countries for human rights abuses while it perpetrates its own here at home. Last December 10, Jobs with Justice sponsored protests against the indignities of welfare policy in fifty cities across the country. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee has undertaken a long-term study of human rights violations caused by welfare reform in five states. In New York, the Urban Justice Center is mobilizing churches and nonprofit organizations to join in a Workfare Campaign of Resistance against cooperation with the city's workfare schemes. Food First is leading a coalition of 180 groups to get the Senate to ratify, the economic rights covenant. It has managed to get the San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland City Councils to sign the covenant, meaning, in theory, that they've pledged not to exploit workfarers or exacerbate homelessness. In reality, though, San Francisco continues to employ thousands of welfare recipients at or below minimum wage to do work formerly performed by higher-paid, often unionized, permanent employees.

Unlike the National Welfare Rights Organization of the late sixties, today's nascent movement cannot rely on domestic law or on any significant sector of the Democratic Party. Nor can it draw on the political energy of a larger left, as the NWRO did with the Black Power movement in particular. (Even then, the NWRO fizzled once its members secured measured gains from the system.) With its use of human rights as a grassroots organizing tactic, KWRU aims to build an organization that attends to both the political and material needs of poor people. Although the union has done some voter registration and get-out-the-vote work, it is not expecting elected powers to fight its fight. Instead, it's staking out public consciousness as its first battleground. Already, a poll commissioned by Human Rights USA has found that while only 8 percent of adults can even name the Universal Declaration, 76 percent agree with its basic premise: that individuals have inherent rights. More than half agree that poverty is a human rights problem.

To get from there to a mass reality shift will take a relentless broadening of the movement's base. "We think the majority of people in this country are good people, and that if they only knew or heard about what was really happening instead of having their minds controlled by what they're watching on TV, we could really win this thing," says Honkala. "We're trying to polarize things in churches, labor unions, student organizations, campuses, and begin to have people take a position. To put it like, OK, this is how bad things are right now, and to do nothing is no longer acceptable. We've crossed the line here. We're going to have millions of additional people on the streets of this country and you have a moral responsibility to do something."

A lot of economic human rights talk is just that, a rhetorical tool for articulating mundane experience in terms of the universal. But KWRU and other advocates figure that if a critical mass of people comes to think and speak of poverty as a breach of basic principles of civil order, attitudes about the poor can change--and, with time and pressure, political accountability will follow.

Alyssa Katz, The Nation's TV critic, is a New York-based freelance writer. Research support provided by The Nation Institute's Haywood Burns Fund for Community Activist Journalism.
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Publication:The Nation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 28, 1998
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