The Deadly Cost of Being Poor

Financial Justice Personal Writings

St. Petersburg – We are over the top in New Orleans now.  We are at the point where the level of grief, frustration, and helplessness boils over everywhere.  Headlines in Tampa and St. Petersburg simply said “Chaos” and “Anarchy.”  This is now a case of total government failure, and a national disgrace.  This is a collapse of the national will even while demonstrating the strength of the human spirit.

Helene O’Brien, ACORN’s National Field Director, called me in the afternoon weeping about the TV film of people dying in the Convention Center and yelling that we had to do something, because our people were dying. What could we do?  What works? 

So, we put out a call on the email alerts and to all of our members to all their Congressperson and demand that the poor of New Orleans and the victims of this disaster get immediate help.  Some of our offices are calling for sit-ins in the offices of their representatives until they know there is help.

Is this a decision or a cop-out?  It’s a nothing, but it simply a way to allow everyone to do something in a situation where there is almost nothing we can do at the depth of our powerlessness. 

My daughter, now a real organizer, talked to me at mid-night from the Tampa office where she and other young organizers had been making calls and running off flyers because they wanted to do something, so they were doing what they knew how to do.  It was hard to tell her that there was no way to move 100 people at the Site Fighters Conference to a Congressional office.  There were no busses.   There was no gas.  Maybe at the end of the conference we could have everyone made a cell phone call to the 800 number for Congress at the same time, so that they could do something.

 There was silence.
 She said it was lame.
 It is lame. 

I’m ashamed that we have worked so hard for so many years to organize so many thousands of lower income families and built so much power in so many areas and absolutely in New Orleans, but it turns out simply to not mean much when the price of being poor is reduced to dollars and cents in a disaster and converted to life and death. 

She thought the government was killing people.  She felt that she was watching genocide in her hometown, because people were largely black and all completely poor. 

I thought it was not genocide, but a breakdown, an implosion, a level of incompetence at an extreme level. 

But, thinking now this becomes simply a distinction without a difference.  Either way it is inarguable that if this was not happening in the poorest city in America, we would not have so quickly recreated the conditions of global south in our own deep south.  Either way one is shocked to see so clearly and to know so fully that if this were not happening to people so poor and largely African American, this would not be happening.

At the bottom line as an organizer one learns that sometimes it is not a question of doing the right thing or the wrong thing, but at least of doing something, allowing people to act in some way, to have a voice and to speak strongly with that voice.

 Even as it turns out, that no one is willing to listen.
 Or act.
 Please help us and do something.