“It takes roots to change the system” was the leading mantra of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ) as they loaded a bus with over 45 grassroots organizers from across the country last week, joined by a delegation from COPINH, an indigenous rights organization from Honduras. The GGJ’s argument is that reactionary forces are on the rise across America, and there’s no time to wait around for the machinery of elected officials to get into gear: their political terrain isn’t Washington combat but civil society itself.
They’d plotted a course across the Rust Belt, the northeasternmost pocket of the United States where half the nation’s wealth is concentrated but also where the ruin of deindustrialization is most harshly felt. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Philadelphia, all former jewels of a steel industry that has been ripped out and shipped abroad bit by bit thanks to a series of trade deals made since the 1960s. Employment in the Rust Belt fell by almost a third between 1970 and 2000, leaving entire cities decimated.
By the time the job economy restored, the racial inequality of deindustrialization was stark
The region’s job market eventually recouped a large swathe of this loss as the USA transitioned to a financial services economy, while the surviving manufacturers in the area (particularly automobile giants) adapted to profit models geared towards financialization. But both the initial collapse and the subsequent recovery were felt very differently depending on who you were. The relative prosperity of people of color – especially women – that was tentatively on the rise in these former industrial hubs was strangled at the root, and by the time the job economy was restored, the racial inequality of deindustrialization was stark.
GGJ organizer Toby Fatzinger traveled with the People’s Caravan to see the cracks that poor ethnic minority communities fell into up close. “Food deserts, lack of work, giant companies imposing their infrastructure,” he tells me, and he could be describing Pittsburgh or Flint or Youngstown, any of them. “And we don’t grow economically because of it. We don’t find jobs. Our quality of life goes down.”
The ‘it takes roots’ approach of the People’s Caravan puts “policy over party, people over candidates, people over politicians”
When he says ‘we’, Fatzinger isn’t talking about the much pandered-to middle class of Democrat and Republican campaign maps, but about the poor and working class neighborhoods whose decline has been regarded as necessary collateral damage by a political elite that doesn’t think it needs their votes. The first time I saw Detroit up close, I saw the impact of that logic in its starkest form. Flying overhead, a gorgeous half-wheel structure of roads and buildings with a sheer scale and unity of purpose that I, a European, had never even considered possible; but on the ground, entire blocks of blocks with blighted houses and no infrastructure, shells of neighborhoods living after an apocalypse. There’s politics in these ruined urban landscapes, but the decisions are made way over the heads of the people who live there.
And this is why the GGJ picked not just Cleveland at the time of the Republican National Convention and Philadelphia at the time of the Democrat National Convention, but also Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Leveller has published a lot of material about Baltimore over the past 15 months and so, curious, I asked him why the People’s Caravan chose to peel away from the glamor of the presidential campaign to look at the places we’ve been looking at. “Obviously being at the conventions plays a strategic role,” he tells me, but explained that the ‘it takes roots’ approach of this bus ride through the real America puts “policy over party, people over candidates, people over politicians.”
The relationship between the candidates and the people is famously and sorely disconnected in Baltimore. The death of Freddie Gray brought to the surface strains in the city’s black neighborhoods that have existed for a long time, and it was compounded last week when Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby was forced to drop charges on the remaining officers on trial for Gray’s death.
Recovery from forty years of deindustrialisation is yet to be granted to the Rust Belt’s ethnic minorities
Fatzinger describes the impact of the policing and prison system, with observations from the dialogues had there with the People’s Caravan and from a years-long personal relationship with West Baltimore (though he now lives in Kentucky). “The only ones we met who hadn’t been directly affected by the school to prison pipeline were small children,” he says. “They call it ‘coming off the porch’ – they come off the porch and cops are there waiting for them.”
The impunity of cops accused of routinely terrorizing African Americans in Baltimore is well-documented and depicted not only in news but also in culture, from HBO’s The Wire to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me. That Mosby was made to back down, and that the acquitted cops are now suing her, demonstrates starkly how little confidence Baltimore residents – and victims of police brutality in deindustrialized areas across America – feel they ought to have in the power of their vote to keep them safe. “You can see why we don’t support candidates over policy.”
COPINH’s most urgent struggle relates to the 2014 assassination of indigenous environmental activist Berta Caceres
The connection between Baltimore’s violently racist policing and its entrenched economic inequality that the People’s Caravan identifies (and which its political system is clearly geared to preserve) is one that is reflected in this week’s release of Black Lives Matter policy agenda. BLM’s policy demands are not merely for police to end practices that kill and brutalize black people, but to grant the kind of economic and political liberation that springs from free healthcare, community control of laws, divestment from prisons, and so on. Even putting aside racist violence, the recovery from forty years of deindustrialization is yet to be granted to the Rust Belt’s ethnic minorities.
I ask about the Honduras connection of the People’s Caravan. What led to the alliance of COPINH? “Their struggle is not much different from struggles here in the US across the country. They’ve joined us to advocate some resolve towards their environmentalism, and they’re being torn apart by financialization overseas and by the US.”
COPINH’s most urgent struggle relates to the 2016 assassination of indigenous environmental activist Berta Caceres, allegedly by government forces, following the 2009 coup which Hillary Clinton facilitated. Caceres was heavily involved in resisting the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam, which is tabled to displace a large number of indigenous people whose consent was not sought, and whose fight for self-determination has led to brutal repression far more widespread than only Caceres’s murder.
Blackmailing people into voting for the lesser evil is a decades-old Democrat trick, and in 2016 the game is up
“They’re getting this dam whether they like it or not,” says Fatzinger darkly, and instantly relates it to where he is phoning me from in Philadelphia: “as we speak we’re at a refinery where they’re dumping chemicals.” He feels that there’s something peculiarly American about this process of trampling an embedded working class down in the name of extravagantly huge capital investments. “In America we already have this culture, we grow up with it. You take it to wild indigenous areas and it’s a whole culture that’s being imposed.”
And so by bringing the issues of Caceres’s murder and dam construction to both the Republican and Democrat conventions, and by uniting them with the related struggles of marginalized people in the United States, the People’s Caravan weaved itself into the presidential news cycle in order to pull it apart.
It isn’t an anti-voting argument: “politicians need people to keep them in check. I’m gonna vote for whoever I have the most chance of holding accountable.” There is so much moralizing by liberals towards progressives who can’t bring themselves to support Hillary Clinton, that they should vote because if Trump wins it will be their fault and not, apparently, Clinton’s. But blackmailing people into voting for the lesser evil has been the Democrats’ trick for decades, and in 2016 the game is up.
“My vote doesn’t absolve them of a policy,” says Fatzinger. It’s instead a question of choosing the hill you want to fight on. Noam Chomsky recently said in an interview that “if it can be used, the energy and enthusiasm that’s been organized and mobilized [to vote Democrat] can be used to develop an ongoing popular movement, which will be a powerful force, no matter who’s in office.” The work of the People’s Caravan, then, doesn’t want to be used to win an election. It wants to create, through sustained pressure, something worth voting for.
This article was proposed by Leveller patron Aimee Pohl.
Image: Brian Debus