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Global and local people power unites

March 16, 2011

by Carol Harvey

San Francisco – December 2010 Tunisian civil resistance erupted when a poverty-stricken college grad, Mohamed Bouazizi, unable to find work, harassed by “authorities” while selling fruits and vegetables on the street, set himself ablaze in an act of public protest. On Friday, Jan. 25, 2011, Egypt exploded into 18 days of mass rallies protesting Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of terror, corruption, human rights repression, mass poverty and $40-$80 billion stolen from his people. These two events triggered waves of popular uprisings across North Africa and Middle Eastern countries – Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Pakistan and Libya – where people smolder with decades of repressed rage.

Demonstrators outside the Federal Building listen in the rain to Alma Blackwell of Just Cause/Justa Causa, whose rousing words were translated into Spanish. – Video frame: Carol Harvey
In a not surprising simultaneity, Madison, Wisconsin, burst into mass protests after voters elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who reversed his promises to create jobs, blamed falsified budget problems on public employee unions and attempted to strip them of collective bargaining rights.

“Do the Revolutions Sweeping the Arab World Reflect a Tectonic Shift in the Global Balance of People Power?” asks an Al Jazeera headline. Were Americans emboldened by the 18-day Egyptian grassroots leaderless revolution that succeeded in ousting Hosni Mubarak?

Did these revolutions inspire the people of Wisconsin to re-engage with “Fighting Bob” La Follette’s powerful progressive spirit and flood Madison with thousands of protestors? According to Politico, “In an act of intercontinental solidarity,” an Egyptian honored Wisconsin protestors with pizza via Twitter. More free pizzas arrived from Turkey, Korea, Finland, China and Australia.

As Ohio and Indiana Republican governors replicate Scott Walker’s assaults on unions, American unrest is building. Our grievances mirror those of Middle Eastern populations: Loss of homes and jobs, increasing poverty, unemployment, growing political repression.

On Saturday, Feb. 26, Moveon.org organized nationwide emergency protests at statehouses in 50 states “To Save the American Dream.” These rallies strengthen solidarity with Wisconsin and other states protesting cuts to education, police, emergency response, vital human services and Republican tax breaks for corporations and the rich.

On Monday, Feb. 14, San Francisco activist groups launched two Valentine’s Day theme protests in solidarity with each other and groups in cities nationwide.

San Francisco Planning for Elders’ Interim Executive Director James Chionsini’s Healthcare Action Team (HAT) timed its noon City Hall rally, entitled, “Tell the Mayor and Supervisors: Don’t Break Our Hearts With Budget Cuts,” to immediately precede a 2 p.m. Bay Area tenant protest march from City Hall to a Federal Building rally called “Tenants Send Valentine’s Day Message to Congress, ‘Have A Heart, Save Our Homes.’”

San Francisco’s Planning for Elders Healthcare Action Team (HAT) of seniors and disabled adults confronted city supervisors regarding urgent San Francisco social service needs.

Local cuts are staggering.

Approximately 120,000 seniors and more than 90,000 disabled people face a tsunami-like surge in population with an immediate plunge into a bleak future living far below the federal poverty line without income for food, housing or medical care. They’re slammed by a double whammy – Govs. Schwarzenegger’s and Brown’s responses to California’s budget crisis: a $12 billion reduction in state spending on health and social services coupled with San Francisco’s heartbreaking fiscal crisis.

An estimated 45,000 low-income elderly, blind and disabled San Francisco Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients suffered successive cuts over the 2010-11 fiscal year, including no cost-of-living allowance for three years. This jeopardizes their ability to stay housed.

Seniors, disabled adults and the poor sustained massive Medi-Cal reductions and a 12 percent reduction in in-home support services. Over 20,000 elderly and disabled San Franciscans rely for survival on home care through IHSS. Nutrition programs were drastically slashed.

Fifty to 75 seniors and disabled adults’ singing voices reverberated through marble halls and inside city supervisors’ offices. They collected previously-delivered signed pledges to protect social services, affordable supportive housing, community-based programs, accessible transportation, language and cultural program access, and nutrition programs.

Six of 11 supervisors signed pledges promising to:

  1. Slice administrative waste before cutting programs.
  2. Draw down federal matching funds; research alternate methods to secure revenue.
  3. Identify revenue sources and eliminate corporate loopholes preventing the wealthy from paying their fair share in taxes.

Though the pledges had been pre-delivered on Feb. 2, Groundhog Day, Supervisor Malia Cohen seemed unprepared. District 10 voters are encouraged to call and ask where she stands on this issue. Will Supervisor Cohen stand up for her Bayview constituents – poor, disabled and elders?

Federal cuts are equally savage. The national “Have a Heart, Save Our Homes” rallies were coordinated across 19 cities: Portland, Maine; Boston; Newark; Staten Island, N.Y.; Washington, D.C.; Raleigh, N.C.; Dallas; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Chicago; Seattle; Portland; and several cities in California, Louisiana and Florida.

Led by (WRAP) Western Region Advocacy Project’s Paul Boden, a large Bay Area coalition of groups marched in a driving rain from City Hall to the San Francisco Federal Building – Causa Justa/Just Cause, San Francisco Housing Rights Committee, San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, POOR Magazine/Prensa POBRE, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), Community Housing Partnership (CHP), Mission Neighborhood Resource Center (MNRC).

Paul Boden described the state’s plan: It creates “800,000 jail cells, jobs for homeland security, the military, the prison industrial complex. Then it turns around and says, ‘We want to cut taxes, so we don’t have any money.’” We’re going to eliminate income support for families, seniors and disabled people; access to health care. We’ll build more jails; hire more state police; support business improvement districts in privatizing security on our public streets. We’ll close our public parks and arrest people that go there to sleep because they don’t have a freakin’ house.

We have a plan, Boden said: Nineteen cities today – next, 50 cities repeating the message: “We demand to be treated like human beings! We’re sick of this! We’re not going to take it any more!”

Our brothers and sisters from Planning for Elders and Senior Action Network should not have to ask, “Do not cut our support services and programs.” Local government should stand up and fight for the communities. They should be marching on the Federal Building. “If they’re not, we will. Let’s go!”

Reaching the Federal Building, Just Cause/Causa Justa’s Alma Blackwell spoke, and Robbie Clarke called out low income families suffering the House Appropriation Committee’s $100 billion in HUD rental program cuts.

“Poor People are under attack! What do we do? Stand up! Fight back!”

In San Francisco, over 30,000 households wait for 6,000 unavailable public housing units, while 14,000 languish on the closed Section 8 list.

Public housing and Section 8 households average $13,000 to $15,000 annually. San Francisco’s market rate rents average $1,750 monthly or $21,120 a year, beyond 56 percent of San Francisco renters’ reach. “Cost burdened” low income San Franciscans pay over 30 percent of their incomes for rent, leaving little for food and other basic necessities.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition documents a 24,198-unit deficit in affordable units for extremely low-income San Franciscans with 30 percent of area median income.

In Oakland and the East Bay during a January 2011 five-day open period, 55,000 households applied to Section 8 wait lists, with 23,000 applying on the first day alone. Fair market rate of $1,377 a month is out of reach of 53 percent of Oakland renters.

In Berkeley, 37,000 households hunker on the Housing Authority’s wait list with a 27,482-unit extremely low income household affordable housing deficit.

In the Oakland-Fremont metro area, 79 percent of low income households suffer severe cost burdens, paying over 30 percent of their income on housing.

WRAP statistics indicate Republican majority leader John Boehners’ $100 billion budget cut proposals will reduce HUD housing program funding by 21 percent, including a cut to public housing of $1.6 billion below the FY 2010 level; cuts to Section 8 vouchers of $1.47 billion below the president’s FY 2011 request; a $2.9 billion cut to Community Development Block Grants – two thirds of the program; $760 million cut from elderly and disabled housing and more.

Federal cuts leading to loss of housing subsidies combined with Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco’s perfect storm of affordable housing shortages and high market rate rents could render homeless masses of low-income Bay Area renters.

WRAP statistics and charts render transparent where the money goes.

  • 1980 and 2005, 80 percent income gains to the richest 1 percent currently explode upward after bank bailout thefts.
  • Current costs of federal corporate bailouts soar above $1 trillion.
  • 500 largest U.S. Corporations, while making $391 billion in 2009 profits, cut 821,000 jobs.
  • Afghanistan and Iraq wars cost $1 trillion plus.
  • $144 billion in homeowner tax breaks in 2008 – 75 percent benefit those making more than $100,000 a year.

In part, WRAP demands that the government:

End wasteful overseas military engagement and fight the war on poverty here. Afghan and Iraq wars get $1 trillion; public housing gets approximately 1 percent of the defense budget, 6 percent of the war on terror budget.

Redistribute federal dollars toward shelter and job creation and away from greedy financial institutions and the wealthy. Eliminate tax deductions for luxury and second homes.

Preserve and restore public housing. Transform the Rental Assistance Act, which is currently exposing public housing to debt financing and private ownership. Increase capital funds to remove backlogs. Stop demolition and restore public housing to 1994 levels.

Preserve project-based Section 8 by extending contracts to 20-year periods.

Overturn housing finance deregulations in the 1998 Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act and QHWRA’s Declaration of Policy, which states: “The Federal Government cannot through its direct action alone provide for the housing of every American citizen, or even a majority of its citizens; Explicitly recognize the human right to housing.”

No one demonstration can produce the desired “ask,” observed Bob Offer-Westort, Coalition on Homelessness community organizer. But, taken together, a series of unified protest actions by large coordinated coalitions – like the “Have A Heart, Save Our Homes” Bay Area group – represent an indomitable force.

Egyptian demonstrations toppled a dictator with the combined the might of desperate youth communities, general populations with nothing to lose and functionally organized unions. Rolling Middle East demonstrations reverberated their inspirational power across the globe, igniting firestorms as distant as Wisconsin and San Francisco.

Bob noted that union actions function differently from popular and community protests. Unions have clout through group strength and the threat to deny employers services.

Populations, like poor people, elders and disabled adults and communities of color, though they generally cannot withhold services, derive power from collective action, intelligent strategy and moral authority. Not only can clever use of moral authority bring issues to an ignorant public, it can expose to public conscience the hidden agenda of a power-abuser like Hosni Mubarak and his Western supporters.

Smart implementation of moral authority can flush power brokers into the spotlight where, if they say “No,” they appear unreasonable. By insisting city supervisors sign a pledge to support senior services, James Chionsini’s Healthcare Action Team achieved exactly that.

James remarked, “Now we know who our allies are. We (went) there with seniors and people with disabilities to assess who our outspoken allies are.” Who’ll “sing and stand with us?” or “give us a political run-around?”

David Campos should “be given props,” he said, for being “the only supervisor to come out, stand with us and meet the seniors.”

James described Malia Cohen’s hesitation “to come out of the office and talk to us. Maybe she’s a freshman supervisor who doesn’t know” or was “worried … because it was so raucous. We are giving her the benefit of the doubt.”

James urged District 10’s low income residents “to call her office post-haste. People have a right to know where she stands” on critical issues of affordable housing and redevelopment.

Chionsini, past Bayview resident, moved back in July 2010. “I’m seeing fewer African-American people, poor people – more people like me showing up, not longtime Bay View residents.” He predicted “a massive wave” of “people paying market rate” “about to wash out people that are poor or don’t own their homes. C’mon. Get some regular people in there that are going to be part of the community” and not just “a bunch of wealthy white yuppies.”

“Is she (Supervisor Cohen) going to fight for Lennar?” “Is it market rate or food on the plate?” he asked.

“We’ll be back,” chanted the HAT team.

A longtime Bay Area activist summed up the protests: “We are building a movement to actually take back what is rightfully ours as human beings. We have a government, a system that is owned by the corporations. We can vote, but they can buy the elections, and they are doing it in their own interest, which is to profit.

“It’s a war on the poor, and people aren’t going to take that passively. So we’re building a movement here. We demand a system where housing is a right not just something we beg for. This is putting this into action. That’s not just begging.”

Carol Harvey is a San Francisco writer whose work is published by many Bay Area periodicals. Email her at carolharveysf@yahoo.com.

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