POVERTY AND POWER

I wrote this in 1992 shortly after the Rodney King uprising. This essay proposes empowering the urban poor by teaching them organizational skills and nonviolent action techniques. I consider this a radical idea because it attacks the root cause of poverty: powerlessness. Lack of power breeds despair and violence, which results in more poverty.

"Imagine the effect of this empowerment on individuals: increased self-respect that comes from feeling in control of one's life and community."

Anyone who was shocked by the outburst of anger and destruction after the Rodney King verdict has not been paying attention to what is going on in America's cities. Right in the heart of what we proudly refer to as the richest nation on earth, poverty and powerlessness are flourishing. Take a walk down an inner city street if you dare, where the homeless sprawl across sidewalks and children roam the streets like wild dogs, where rape and gunplay are commonplace and despair hangs in the air like a cloud of toxic gas. The signs are unmistakable: the United States of America is in a state of decay.

During the 1960's there was a great deal of optimism about the prospect of eliminating poverty forever. In the last three decades a lot of money has been spent on social programs, but the poor have not disappeared. In the 1990's social programs are out and "free enterprise" is in, an attempt to make poverty profitable for private capital. But both of these approaches have one thing in common—they are designed to fail, while lining the pockets of entrenched bureaucracies and business owners. These programs clamp the lid down on seething inner city discontent (usually) by keeping fragments of hope alive, while requiring the ruling elite to cede none of its power.

All this failure breeds cynicism and resignation. The public begins to believe that there is no solution to poverty—the poor will always be with us and it's something we must learn to live with. So we build more prisons, sacrifice our civil liberties, hire more police and call out the National Guard, when necessary, to protect us from the underclass.

It's all a big lie, of course. We've been brainwashed into thinking there are no answers because the real long-term solution to poverty lies in empowerment of the poor, which threatens the power monopoly of the privileged class. If the people in inner cities had more power, they would not need to rely on the generosity of government or big business for social programs, jobs and education. They could fight for their piece of the American pie on an equal footing with all the other segments of society.

But how can empowerment be achieved? Obviously, power does not come out of the barrel of a gun. The fact that the inner cities are armed to the teeth has not resulted in the election of one more minority Senator or the building of one new school.

Power is a function of organization. The more highly organized a group is, the greater its ability to wield power. And organizational skills can be taught.

Around the country there are a growing number groups that hold workshops to teach community activists how to organize and build more effective organizations. Participants are taught how to start community groups, set goals for social change, develop long-term strategies, choose and use tactics like boycotts, strikes, demonstrations and various other kinds of nonviolent non-cooperation. Skills are developed such as fund raising, using the media and building coalitions. These training programs are currently on the fringes of social acceptance, under-funded and ignored by the media.

What I would like to propose is a massive army of trainers, deployed in the cities to teach organizational skills to small groups. Exactly how people chose to use this training would be up to them, but the effects on urban politics would likely be profound. Imagine neighborhood groups armed with the knowledge of how to wield power to get what they want, whether it's a street light on their block or a better educational system. Imagine the effect of this empowerment on individuals: increased self-respect that comes from feeling in control of one's life and community.

It's unlikely that one powerful organization would emerge to represent the poor. Instead, we might see hundreds of diverse special interest groups, each exerting its influence on the social and political matrix in direct proportion to the amount of support it can muster in its community and the society at large. These independent centers of power would be free to split or merge, to form coalitions or oppose each other, resulting in a complex interplay of interests within a fabric of constantly shifting power relationships.

This new force of social and political organizations, where influence is dispersed and highly decentralized, might be only partially successful, but it's hard to see how a more equitable distribution of power could result in anything but a healthier, more stable society.

How could an army of organizational trainers be funded? We can probably rule out the Federal government. Despite all the political rhetoric about "popular empowerment," the last thing our national leaders want is to share power with the urban underclass. This is just as well because a giant, centralized, regulation-bound bureaucracy would be antithetical to the goal of local control. But perhaps it is not impossible that some enlightened local government, or even a large private foundation, might establish a pilot program in one city. A little bit of money could go a long way. A million dollars (one thousandth the cost of property damage from the Rodney King Rebellion) could train scores of neighborhood groups how to work more effectively in their struggles for neighborhood control.

In an economic period where even traditional social programs are being cut, this may all seem like pie in the sky idealism, and perhaps it is. But one thing is for certain: American cities are disintegrating—economically, socially and physically. And it's going to get worse, much worse. It's time to try some new ideas, or the power elite may find themselves ruling over a nation of ashes.

1992

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