Meeting adversity with resistance

Activist, artist and filmmaker Mara Ahmed describes how the Rochester Poor People's Campaign is challenging poverty and militarism.

ON APRIL 19, I had one of the most powerful and moving experiences. I was invited to be a commissioner at a truth commission organized by the Rochester Poor People's Campaign, where we were privileged to listen to testimonies detailing stories of adversity and pain, but also of courage and resilience.

Some that hit me the hardest were:

-- Courtney's story of having a bachelor's degree yet being unable to find work, of moving 17 times in five years in order to find employment, of being crushed by student loans while making $11 an hour and being unable to afford health care.

-- Patrick from the Tenants and Homeless Rights Union, who articulated the hurt and shame of being homeless, and the desire to be heard and not only seen as a disembodied stereotype.

-- Dorian's story of having played in a contaminated brownfield as a kid while the city of Rochester kept that information secret, of gentrification taking over neighborhood after neighborhood, but local organizations coming together and pushing back by getting the developer to sign an agreement with the community, a first in Rochester's history.

-- Chris' summary of the work being done by Enough Is Enough in order to enforce independent civilian review of complaints against Rochester police and disrupt a long history of unchecked, systemic brutality.

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-- Juan's story of being thrown out of his home by his mother at the age of 15, of living in trains, parks and makeshift cardboard box shelters, until years later, he found his way to the House of Mercy, here in Rochester, New York.

-- Ismael from Alianza Agricola who talked about working in freezing cold weather on a dairy farm for 78 hours a week and getting only one day off every two weeks. He gets no overtime. He pays into Social Security but will never be able to access any benefits. He does this arduous, underpaid work in order to support his mother and four siblings in Mexico.

-- Ricardo who spoke about being incarcerated and the lifelong damage caused by the school to prison pipeline, a somewhat empty phrase that masks the violence it's built on.

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THE POOR People's Campaign is a continuation of Dr. Martin Luther King's Campaign of 1967-68 that sought economic justice for the poor and highlighted the need for solidarity.

The Campaign has now been revived in 41 states. It focuses on racism, poverty, militarism and environmental degradation, with the understanding that these systems are inextricably intertwined.

For me, the theme that ran through all the stories we heard that night is the dehumanization of people, the stripping away of their dignity. It reminded me of Edward Said's work on Orientalism and how exploitative, colonial structures necessitate a hegemonic narrative about the other.

American imperialism continues to destroy humans and the environment in far-away countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, but the same kind of toxic colonialism can also be found here at home, where the lives of the poor and people of color are methodically othered and minimized.

As a Muslim from the Global South, I often feel invisibilized when America's imperial war machine and its devastating impact on people of color outside the U.S., are separated from local issues of racial and economic marginalization.

It's clear as a bell that as long as Black and Brown bodies in the world's hinterlands are freely tortured, famished and incinerated, there is no chance of uprooting racism or poverty inside the American empire.

Once dehumanization is activated and a war declared on the racially and economically colonized, it's bound to cross borders and impact all of us.

This process of othering is closely tied to capitalism--its ruthlessly extractive nature and its need for a serf class.

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IN HIS article "Are We Entering an Era of Postmodern Serfdom?" David Rosen describes the idea of the "postmodern serf, an ever-growing number of citizens (and non-citizens) doomed to perpetual economic and social poverty--people stuck in a life of misery."

He ascribes the creation of this class to America's fraying global hegemony, the slipping away of the American Dream, the erosion of democracy on account of big money and voter suppression and the increasing militarization of law enforcement.

In fact, the connection between capitalism and poverty goes deeper. In his article, "Poverty is not a failure of capitalism, but its backbone," John Bird explains how

poverty has often been seen, or put, or understood, as an aberrant piece of collateral damage wrought by an otherwise buoyant marketplace that all of us feed off and work in. Therefore it is seen as a bit of wobble in the system, and if we can only get Labour or Tory, Republican or Democrat, governments to look at it closely they will come up with policies that will ameliorate, or even eradicate much of its downside...The nasty reality is that we all need poverty to keep our costs down. Poverty is the backbone of contemporary capitalism, as it was in earlier versions of its form."

Thankfully, as always, there's hope and this is what the Poor People's Campaign aims to galvanize.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, author of What If Latin America Ruled the World? points out how poverty "starts with plunder; it is man-made; it is a political issue. Poverty is not a complex economic issue best left to so-called experts with alleged bullet-proof policy solutions. History in fact shows time and again that poverty begins to end the moment poor people organize themselves and act politically to better their situation."

In short, we can take down oppressive systems if we understand their common genesis and resist them together. Learn more and become a part of the Poor People's Campaign.