From North Africa to North Oakland, poverty scholars speak on the revolution

by Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia

“I kissed the sky,” said my friend and fellow long-time street vendor, Mohammed K. from Tunisia. He spoke softly as he stood in front of his table of watches for sale, looking side to side nervously for any approaching cops.

After the herstorical revolution unfolded in Egypt, my heart was sparked to dream of poor people-led revolutions, reported and supported by poor people media, all across Pachamama. Yet the only people who were quoted in the media seemed to be culled from academia and the political establishment. So I walked downtown to speak with fellow poverty and worker scholars from Tunis, Algeria, Egypt and Yemen who operate micro-businesses on the streets all across Amerikkka.

“Don’t forget Jordan,” our mutual friend, an Egyptian named Tayeb injected, joining in the discussion while he opened his small card table to reveal an array of multi-colored ties. “It’s all wonderful! Maybe we will have true liberation for all peoples in the world.”

As a person who has lived in deep and unending poverty, struggled with landlessness/houselessness and witnessed my disabled single mama of color deal with racism, joblessness, violence and depression for the majority of my life in this so-called first world, I watched the last weeks’ revolutions in North Africa with a deep feeling of joy and elation.

Maybe we will have true liberation for all peoples in the world.” Taleb, street vendor

It had been four years since I had worked downtown selling art and products made by my mama and me in our underground, criminalized (read: illegal) micro-business, which I had been working in since I was 11, when my mama became too ill to work. Our never-licensed, always criminalized business was the only way we paid for nightly motel rooms, gas, food and the occasional apartment, if we sold enough that day or week or month.

Day after month, month after year, I stood alongside mothers and sons and daughters and uncles and fathers stuck in Amerikkka, lost in the criminalized diaspora of false borders across the globe. From indigenous nations in Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico and Bolivia, to deserts in North, West and East Africa, to the streets of Oklahoma, St. Louis and New Jersey, we stood together – Christians, Muslims, Zapotecas, Tainos, Rastafarias, Mayans, Protestants, Catholics, selling watches, ties, sunglasses, our misery, our bodies and/or our lives, watching, always watching for po’lice or immigration officers, rain or customers, whichever came first.

“But what will change? The same people who hold property, run businesses, will retain the power to be heard?” Tayeb wondered. “My family was always poor in Egypt. We lived on the roof of a building alongside five other families. The conditions for the very poor there will never change,” he declared as he looked down and rearranged his floral print ties.

“Don’t be so pessimistic. We had to start somewhere,” responded Ma’moud from Algeria, another vendor of watches joining the conversation.

“Tayeb is right. That’s why many of us are here. Will these revolutions make real change for very poor people so we could go home?” Mohammed added.

Our conversation continued into the afternoon. The sorrow of our collective loss of family, land, culture, dreams and spirit and most of all hope circled around us like a thick cloud of poisonous smoke.

And then it hit me: The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions weren’t everything, but they were something, and they were done by the people of many parts of society – not all, but many.

So as us po’ folks in the U.S. face the genocide of trillion dollar budget cuts proposed this week by the federal government to thousands of poor people programs like Section 8, public housing and healthcare – the cuts so many of us protested this week in San Francisco – perhaps we should not only take inspiration from the North Africa revolutions, but lessons.

And then it hit me: The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions weren’t everything, but they were something, and they were done by the people of many parts of society – not all, but many.

Lessons in revolutions not dictated by non-profit industrial complex agendas and philanthro-pimps but revolutions guided by angry mamaz, hungry babies, houseless elders, jobless fathers, profiled and criminalized migrants and gang injunctioned youth of color.

Lessons for worker revolutions like the one this week in Wisconsin, where thousands of nurses, teachers and firefighters are marching on their capitol to jam up tea party-esque bills that would break the public employee unions in that state.

Revolutionary lessons for Oakland, Philadelphia, Minnesota, New York, Mexico, El Salvador, The Philipines, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles – revolutions guided by our spirits, our dreams, our hope and our hunger.

Tiny – or Lisa Gray-Garcia – daughter of Dee, is the consummate organizer and co-founder with her mother of POOR Magazine and its many offspring and author of “Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America,” published by City Lights. She can be reached at Visit and