Power, Not Pity: The Poor Organizing the Poor to Abolish Poverty (Part 1)

By Willie Baptist and Kristin Colangelo

“We are homeless but not helpless…freedom is not free. We only get what we are organized to take!”  

Chris Sprowal, Lead Organizer and First President, National Union of the Homeless                                                                                              

“Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.”

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto

This digital series is an edited version of a draft booklet written to address the question of power, not pity, for the poor. It is dedicated to the many beloved warriors and leaders who gave their lives to the struggle of the class of the propertyless, that is, the poor and dispossessed, to abolish all poverty and human indignity. 

This serious and sacred struggle of the poor and dispossessed is a fight for our lives and self-emancipation; for economic, social, and cultural justice for all. The lives of these warriors and leaders teach us that power for the poor, not pity, is the only path to ending poverty. Their lives teach us how we must each commit ourselves to the path of uniting and organizing the poor and dispossessed as a revolutionary social force. This commitment is the first indispensable step in the path to building political power. 

To understand strategically what this path means for the tasks of leaders and organizers today, we must come to appreciate the commitments made by past generations of leaders, and learn from the lessons of their struggles for justice and human dignity. Today, the struggles of the poor and dispossessed have to build on these previous eras of struggle and undergo a fusion into a united and organized fight of a united and organized class force. Without this fusion of the poor, there is no other way for everyone to attain the universal human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

General Baker, lifelong revolutionary leader and teacher of the poor and dispossessed

Among the many revolutionaries who, as both fighters and thinkers, devoted their lives to the uplifting of humanity, we want to give special acknowledgement to: Beulah Sanders, Johnnie Tillmon, Chris Sprowal, Roxanne Jones, Larry Gibson, Ron Casanova, Peg Franzen, Annie Smart, Vernon Bellencourt, Albert “the Root Doctor” Turner, Bessie Lou Cornett, Diane Bernard, Kathleen Sullivan, Ebon Dooley, Dottie Stevens, Tony Mazzocchi, Nelson Peery, Sue Ying, Chuck Wooten, Nancy Singham and General Baker. 

And the many more, named and unnamed.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the Political Education Committee of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) entered into a period of comparative studies of the Poor People’s Campaign launched in 1967, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense founded in 1966, and the National Union of the Homeless begun in 1985. These studies compared the rise and demise of these efforts to organize the struggles of the impoverished, each of which proved to be, to one degree or another, politically threatening to the capitalist economic status quo and state apparatus of the United States. 

Although they varied in form and approach, each of these political projects were deemed a threat by the state, and then targeted, either destroyed outright or defanged. The unfulfilled promise of the Poor People’s Campaign, the Black Panthers, and the National Union of the Homeless suggests to us that the poor, through sustained unity of action and organization, could become, as Dr. King once posed, a “new and unsettling force in our complacent national life”. The revolutionary possibility that each of these efforts represented, deemed too great a threat, was that through the organizing efforts of the poor not only would the poor themselves become awakened, but so too would the middle strata of the nation. Were that to happen, the main social base of the US economy and state, middle-income family households, could have been undermined and weakened to a place where a thorough transformation of society might actually have been possible.

Therefore, the various agencies and levels of the U.S. state played, and continue to play, a major role in the rise and demise of these national organizing efforts of the poor. Each of these important struggles of the poor and dispossessed rose in direct opposition to the violence of the U.S. state, which in turn played a decisive role in their defeat. In the KWRU studies, this central and destructive role of the state was key. With this in mind, the Political Education Committee of the KWRU also began a study of the network of national policy formulating think tanks, beginning with the old and formidable Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Afterall, it was, and continues to be, from the membership rosters of the CFR and related organizations that wide swaths of corporate and government leadership has been composed over the past 70 to 80 years.

Leaders with the National Welfare Rights Union organizing with the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign

This time of comparative studies encompassed a period from the founding of the Annie Smart Leadership Development Institute at Dignity Housing of Philadelphia through the demise of the National Union of the Homeless in the mid-1990s and all the way up to the founding of the University of the Poor in 2000. With the establishment of the Poverty Initiative in 2004, we added to these studies the beginnings of a historical analysis of the theological, moral, and economic underpinnings of the “Jesus Movement” in the ancient Roman Empire. For these studies and others, we derived specific lessons and concrete considerations for the mass political organizing of the poor and dispossessed into a united revolutionary class force. 

These comparative studies all circulated around and were informed by the unprecedented national organizing drive of the National Union of the Homeless in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, the overall approach of these studies was also influenced by a general survey and specific study of the lessons to be drawn from major social and political movements of the poor and propertyless across time. Those lessons include specific insights and inspirations drawn from the anti-slavery struggles of enslaved Blacks and poor whites, followed by Social Reconstruction after the Civil War. Drawn from these studies were two pivotal conclusions: the first economically defining and the second politically strategic. 

Firstly, owing to the unprecedented and global microelectronics technological revolution, certain qualitatively new economic shifts have begun to take place. These shifts define our present times. In particular, they are producing a class of the poor today that is unlike the poor of yesterday, just as the poor of industrial capitalism and national imperialisms were unlike the ancient and feudal poor. The poor and dispossessed today is the most economically exploited and excluded section of the newly globalized working class. Its increasingly de-industrialized and superfluous socioeconomic position makes it objectively the most revolutionary class force; potentially “a new and unsettling force” compelled to kill the system that is directly killing it. 

Secondly, the politically strategic conclusions drawn from our studies are that a mass organizing drive to unite the poor and dispossessed must include two important and indispensable operations: 

  • A network of political leaders with a revolutionary resolve and strategic outlook must be built to ensure the overall coordination of a mass organizing drive of the poor and dispossessed as politically independent from the rich and ruling class. This organizational network of revolutionaries must be organic, inseparably tied to the struggles of poor and dispossessed people. For this to happen, efforts such as the University of the Poor, which is committed to the education, training, and formation of this core of political leaders, is needed.
  • Continuous major operations like the 1967-1968 Poor People’s Campaign need to be launched and conducted so as to develop a fusion class unity of the poor, along with the identification and unification of emerging leaders across all lines of division in the direction of abolishing poverty.

These two conclusions on the mass political organizing of the poor as a class are in stark contrast to the prevailing notions of organizing and organization today. These notions are generally only designed and directed against the “leaves and branches”, rather then the roots, of society’s problems, the causes of poverty and homelessness and the state apparatuses that uphold and protect these social ills.

The conventional notions of what constitutes organizing have been drawn mostly from the organizational principles of narrow trade unionism, whose adversary is the single employer or local governmental authority, and not the capitalist profit-making and poverty-producing system (and the state that protects it). Consequently, unlike political organizing, which is necessarily centered around contesting state power and deepening an approach to political education, these prevailing notions of organizing have been historically utilized to win some concessions for the poor, but to still preempt and prevent the uniting and organization of the poor (“the bottom”) as a powerfully influential class force. Some of the most notable examples of these prevailing notions come out of “pure and simple” trade unionism, Saul Alinsky’s model of “community organizing”, and Francis Fox Piven’s concept of non-organizing “disruptive” actions (or protest mobilizations) of the poor.

The comparative studies that laid the ground for this series were done during a period when the KWRU, an organization of homeless and poor families, was one of the most active chapters of the National Welfare Rights Union. We want to acknowledge again that the analyses, conclusions, and principles put forth here draw heavily from earlier generations of fighters and thinkers. In the following sections of this series, we will draw further on these and other experiences to help us develop a working concept of what it will take to move beyond pity for the poor and toward the actual power-building of the poor to transform our own miserable conditions.

1 Comment

  1. I would like to find a little bit more about the Alliance of the homeless. I have experienced such a state and it has not been too bad in the summer but rough in the Winter. Eventually, I found some people that provided training in the field of AG (Agriculture) I am now a happier person because I was able to recoup my family, and all thanks to people that cared. But then I had to make myself available and get my mind ready for such a change.

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