By Toby Chow
Reposted from The People’s Lobby with permission.
The reasons for riots, then and now
We’re seeing a lot of uncertainty about how to respond to recent events in Ferguson. Mainstream politicians and pundits are especially flustered about what might be done in response to the riots (it’s usually questionable whether they’re equally concerned about police violence). There have been calls for studies and conversations about race which will predictably lead to very little action. For example, Nicholas Kristof in the NYT has called for “soul-searching”, and suggested that we hold televized hearings led by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Oprah Winfrey.
But we should have moved beyond studies and conversations and hearings long ago. As Merlin Chowkwanyun notes in a Washington Post article in August, there were plenty of hearings and studies in response to the Watts riots and other outbreaks of racial unrest in the 60’s. These resulted in reports which identified the underlying issues, and they produced similar findings, over and over again.
Most obviously, police brutality and the abuse of police power is a problem. But this is just one piece of much larger picture. Chowkwanyun summarizes:
Commissions meticulously identified many dimensions of racial exclusion. One panel in Cleveland, where the Hough neighborhood had erupted a year after Watts, listed “inadequate and sub-standard housing,” “charging of exorbitant rents by absentee landlords,” “non-enforcement of the housing code,” “sub-standard educational facilities as a consequence of long neglect,” “excessive food prices,” and “denial of equal economic opportunities.” The report on Watts had similarly highlighted chronic unemployment, education, and health care resources.
These grievances have to do with nearly every aspect of life. Against this backdrop, “police brutality was a final intolerable insult in a larger cycle of everyday deprivation and denial of basic needs and resources.”
What was true then is true now of Ferguson and many other low income minority communities, including here in Chicago. These communities have been consistently excluded and brutalized. Given these conditions, I would say that the really difficult question is not “Why did they riot?” but rather “Why aren’t there more riots?”
So what is to be done? In 1968, the Kerner report came to the obvious conclusion: there is a need for new government programs to address all aspects of racial exclusion, and these programs would need—wait for it—“unprecedented levels of funding.”
So here is the problem: we already know a lot about what to do in response to Ferguson, but our political elites don’t want to do it. They are unwilling to contemplate “unprecedented” government funding for anything—with the possible exception of the military and the militarization of the police. And this has been true of both Democrats and Republicans.
The bipartisan effort to make things worse
In fact, over the course of the past few decades both Democrats and Republicans have been pursuing policies that have made these matters steadily worse. As is now common knowledge, they have pursued policies focused on the interests of large corporations and the wealthy few. The cost has been the loss of the middle class and rising inequality. And the effect on racial inequality has been stark. Once upon a time, when the middle class was strong, the US was actually able to make real progress in offering large numbers of poor African Americans a path out of poverty. But the African American poverty rate has been stagnant, and still outrageously high, for decades. In other words, our political elites have pursued policies that ensure the continued existence of a racialized underclass excluded from mainstream social and economic life.
In urban areas in particular, politicians have focused on making cities as appealing and as comfortable as possible for the relatively wealthy. Meanwhile, poor minority neighborhoods are abandoned: starved of public and private investment, isolated from government services, and left to languish in poverty and unemployment levels much higher than that of the general population. Resources get taken out of neighborhoods that need it most and redirected to already privileged areas (consider, for example, how TIF districts have been used in the Chicago neighborhood of Englewood). And, again, the policies of the past few decades have made things worse. Here is a look at rising inequality in Chicago during this period, and the emergence of an excluded underclass on the predominantly minority South and West Sides:
Even worse, the people who live in these areas, especially young black men, are considered a threat to the city’s priorities. The city feels a need to discipline them in order to prevent them from interfering with the peace of mind of the relatively wealthy. To this end, the use of force becomes routine. So, for example, a weekend of “disturbances” on the Magnificent Mile is met with a rapid, uncompromising response from the police and city officials. It receives much more attention than many weekends of murders in low income minority neighborhoods, or the daily grind of poverty and social exclusion. This is an inevitable result of the city’s priorities.
A city built for the 1% has little to offer its racialized underclass—apart from state violence at the hands of an increasingly militarized police force. We need to connect these dots. Adolph Reed, Jr. comments on Ferguson:
To the extent that public officials—whatever their color, Democrat or Republican—share in this understanding that the purpose of politics and of public policy is to protect the wealthy, then styles of policing like this, that draw so much from the occupation of Iraq and elsewhere, are going to be the problem in American cities.
The way forward: radical political change
We need a radical transformation of political priorities in Ferguson, Chicago, and across the country. We must transition rapidly to a society based on inclusion, rather than exclusion. The goal must be to create a society that works for everyone, not just the wealthy few. (This has broad popular appeal, and as a political platform it could be a winning formula for Democrats.) As we found out in the reports of the 60’s, the government must stop targeting residents of neglected urban areas with police violence, and start targeting them with investment in education, housing, infrastructure, and employment.
And, yes, this will require “unprecedented levels of funding” from the government, as the Kerner Report said. Now, I know: we are told by politicians and the media that we don’t even have the funds to sustain existing government programs, let alone start new ones. But this is a lie! Our society is fabulously wealthy. The problem is that our wealth is currently concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. Corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars of idle cash, and there is over half a trillion dollars of wealth in the hands of just the 20 wealthiest people in the country. They have more money than they can use. All that is missing is the political will to seize these idle resources and put them to work for the common good of all, and especially for the benefit of those who have suffered from economic and social exclusion for so long. This political will does not currently exist—but we can create it. This is the task of organizing for economic justice and racial equality today.
Hope in an Age of Crisis is IIRON’s economic justice presentation. Download this Powerpoint file and show it to your congregation, community group, or friends & family. A suggested narrative/script is included in the “notes” pages.
by Missy Rubio
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in a neighborhood that was built in the 1950s where everyone’s parents worked as laborers, factory workers or were retired military veterans, or both. I watched my parents, a union construction worker and a waitress struggle to pay their bills, feed their children and live a “happy” life on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis. Neither of my parents graduated from high school, so in their eyes, if they worked as hard as they could to keep their children in “good” suburban schools, we would someday make it out of the cycle of poverty through higher education. My parents and teachers told me to just focus on my education and get to college. That was the equation to a better life. If I just went to college, I would achieve what my parents never had the opportunity to achieve, but my story is much different than the story they told.
What my parents did not know then was that my mother would struggle through cancer and lose and that my father would be permanently laid off from building houses as our economy sunk further into the depths of depression as a result of bad lending and risky wall street investment.
My father, alone and stripped of his job, his home and not to mention his dignity fell into a deep depression and left us for his home state of New Mexico after the bank staked the “foreclosed” sign into the neatly trimmed and vibrant green lawn he had prided himself on maintaining. As a second generation Mexican-American my father had, through years of labor in the union, made it out of the grips of poverty and achieved a version of the American dream, only to plummet back into it mid-life. I was 15 and was introduced to the hard reality of the world, but did not lose my will to fight against the tide of injustice and oppression. If anything, these misfortunes only heightened my passion and desire for change. I worked hard both in school and in my two jobs and was able to fulfill my parents’ wishes of attaining a college education.
From the age of 15 until present I have worked full time jobs, as well as part time jobs to provide for myself and to pay for the portion of tuition that my two federal loans and little grants and scholarships did not cover. After 5 years at DePaul I am in $47,000 of student loan debt. This number is frightening. What is more frightening is the fact that the work that I love to do, in the humanities, does not pay even pay a quarter of that amount a year. So the story that my parents, teachers and mentors told me was not true. Hard work in school does not equal security and it is certainly not the path out of poverty.
When I graduate in three months I can either head to graduate school, take out more loans and find myself buried deeper into a pile of student debt, or I can find a job that will pay enough for me to scrape by while I attempt to pay off the pile of debt that I have already accumulated, while it collects interest along the way. Either way, I will be in debt for the best years of my life. This amount of money will impede on my plans to have children and my dream to one day own land. I have been waiting my whole life for that “great job” and, in reality, the American dream. But what I have come to realise is that dream is not available to all of us, it is the dream for the privileged few.
Missy is a senior at Depaul University and a leader with Depaul Students for Justice.
by Amanda Haws
My college journey began at my local community college. I applied for one private loan, which I had no trouble acquiring at the age of 18 in December 2007. Once the market crashed, I could only fill out a FAFSA and hope I was given enough money. Luckily, my tuition costs were so low that I actually got money back after my tuition was paid. Once my two years at community college were over, I decided to pursue a Bachelor’s degree at DePaul University. I filled out the paperwork and assumed that I would be given more money because I was going to a more expensive school. DePaul granted me $11,000, which they said was the most they could give me. A few grants and federal loans later, I was at $22,000. I still needed another $7,000 in order to attend my junior year. My mother ended up taking out 2 Parent PLUS loans for me for the next two years, which she still holds over my head until this day. “Why didn’t I go to a less expensive school?” My question is why can’t I go to whatever school I want if I have the brains to do it? Why is a non-profit university so unaffordable?
After two years at DePaul, I required only one more quarter to graduate because of how my credits transferred. Because this final quarter happened to be in the next calendar year, I was counted as a part time student and thus, I was still not given enough money to finish college. My mom could not afford to take out another loan on her teacher’s salary. I was stuck. Luckily, DePaul Financial Aid applied for an endowed scholarship for me which helped cover all but $400 of my tuition. I nearly emptied my savings to cover the cost.
All throughout college, I went to school full time and worked full time. My parents did very little to help me. My father gave me $1,000 at one point, but this pretty much only covered my books for one year. My mother took out two loans for me, but all of that went towards my tuition. I have lived on my own since I was 18, so not having a single day off for months on end was my only option. I ended up graduating magna cum laude and was on the dean’s list every quarter. Surely this along with my long resume would land me a job right out of college. I searched for two months without so much as a single interview, email, or phone call. I decided that an internship was the only way to gain the experience needed to land a job. Unfortunately, the majority of internships available are unpaid.
So here I am, one month from having to pay back my loans. I am working two jobs below a living wage along with working an unpaid internship. Why is it that the poor are relegated to community colleges and have much less of a choice concerning their education? Why have I not slept for more than 4 years? Does anyone understand what it’s like to have a “useless” degree? That shiny piece of paper on my wall glares at me every day and reminds me of the $30,000 I owe it. I never thought that I would graduate with honors and begin to regret going to college at all.
Amanda Haws is a recent graduate of Depaul University
The IIRON Student Network is committed to organizing power so that we can can act on the best interest of our communities. This past year, we have seen a rise in home foreclosures. These foreclosures hurt our communities, properties sit vacant while families are left homeless. Meanwhile wealthy bankers continue to turn a profit. These are the same bankers that got bailed out a few years ago.
BANKS GOT BAILED OUT, WE GOT SOLD OUT!
We believe that something must be done to stop these home foreclosures and stop the banks current behavior.
In March of 2012, students from across the IIRON Student Network joined together at North Park University to urge Illinois Attorney General, Lisa Madigan, to provide financial relief for homeowners affected by the housing crisis. Hundreds of students and community members gathered to fight for principal reduction. In true ISN fashion, students raised their voices and their chants were heard echoing through Albany Park where more six homes had been foreclosed on one street alone.
WE ARE THE 99%
The issue of home foreclosure has not been forgotten. Ed DeMarco is currently leading the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Ed DeMarco has continued to block principal reduction and we believe it’s time for DeMarco to go. You can join us in calling the president and telling him to, “Dump DeMarco!”
Anonymous (photo by sarahstarkweather)
As I drew near to the end of my undergraduate degree, I had a clear path in mind for my life. I wanted to work in the field of academia. In order to do this, I knew that it was necessary to continue in school and to earn a PhD. Over the last 11 years I worked to reach this goal of completing a PhD and to become a professor at a university. In doing so I tallied up nearly $200,000 in student loans in order to pay for my education, my books, and to be able to survive.
As I worked toward this goal, faculty and staff encouraged me and suggested that once the degree was done the jobs would be there. However, the reality of the situation is that there are not many open full-time faculty positions available and the number is decreasing rapidly. Many of our institutions of education are foregoing hiring full-time faculty and are instead hiring persons holding PhD’s or PhD candidates as adjuncts to teach one or two classes at a time, paying only around $2,000 a class. The absurdity of this idea is that a college instructor at the adjunct position then makes less than $130 a week per class for a standard 16 week course. It is impossible for a person to live on this sort of money, let alone pay off nearly $200,000 in debt. The American college system is going toward this system of education in order to save money on paying faculty while at the same time requiring the same, if not more, work from them.
While I understood going into this line of work that the competition would be fierce, I was also told that as long as I followed the steps and earned the degrees a job would be there for me. But now I sit on top of a mountain of debt with no job prospects in sight. The field is flooded with many graduates in my same situation and our colleges and universities are decreasing our job opportunities or reducing us to little better than slave labor. How can we continue to educate the future generations properly when we are burdened by working multiple jobs in order to pay our debt? How will an overworked, underpaid faculty member be of any benefit to a group of students to whom they are indebted for their education? When will this country realize that burdening its young people with exorbitant amounts of debt just to achieve their academic goals is a failure on the part of its leaders? What will we do to make a change?