The Triple Evils: Poor People’s Campaign Needed Now More Than Ever
By Michael McPhearson, Executive Director of Veterans for Peace and a field artillery officer in the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division during Desert Shield/Desert Storm, also known as Gulf War I.
Last summer I attended a historic gathering of activists to talk about poverty with the intent of moving forward with the Poor People’s Campaign. There has been a long-standing need to restart the Poor People’s Campaign, which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took up before he was killed in 1968.
Today Donald Trump’s presidency, won on a framework of hate and xenophobia and now led by interests who support the rich and powerful, adds urgency for an effort to bring together poor people of all colors. Unfortunately, Trump’s election success gave great momentum to the cause of white supremacy and undermines work to forge the multicolor alliances we need to create a fair and just system for all of us.
I was asked to comment on a panel about what we face and how we might move forward. These are my comments, slightly revised.
The goals of the Poor People’s Campaign are central to the transformation we need of U.S. and global society because it attempts to do two things that must be done for a just and sustainable transformation to occur. We seek to bridge the racial divide – a divide that is key to maintaining the current depraved system – by demanding economic justice for groups of people who are deeply socially and politically divided, but have basic economic common interest. But to figure out how to move forward the campaign, we should ask what we are facing and what are our prospects.
There are three points I want to make. First I will address what we face using the framework of Martin Luther King’s triple evils of poverty, militarism and racism – most quoted from his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech. I will also include climate change.
Poverty, militarism, racism, and ecological devastation
Let us first look at poverty, which I also interpret as unchecked consumerism or depraved capitalism. We have a thing-centered society rather than people-centered. I think the simplest yet accurate term to use is greed. Today greed seems to reign supreme. We can easily see this in the current unprecedented concentration of wealth. The Occupy movement brought greed into everyday consciousness by popularizing the idea of the 1% vs the 99%. Recent reports by Oxfam and others bring the concentration into sharp clarity. Let me quickly illustrate how bad it is.
In 2010, the number of people whose wealth was equal to that of the poorest half of the world’s population was 388. That is outrageous in and of itself considering this means that 388 individuals’ wealth was equal to 3.5 billion people. But it gets worse. In 2011, it was 177. In 2012, it was 159. In 2013, it was 92, in 2014, it was 80 and in 2015, 62 people owned as much as the bottom half of the world’s population. The source for these numbers are Forbes and Credit Suisse Global Wealth Data-book. As I see it, this hoarding and greed is to a great extent the reason we do not have enough resources to meet human needs and why we have such increases in social and political unrest and manifestations of hate and wars.
Today the U.S. has unprecedented levels of militarism. Depending on how you count them, there are 196 nations in the world. Per a September 2011 CNN article, the U.S. has active duty military troops stationed in 150 countries.
The U.S. continues to be the greatest purveyor of violence around the globe as stated by Dr. King in 1967. The U.S. is the number-1 arms exporter in the world. The U.S. has been conducting a global war for 15 years and has been at war in Iraq for 25 years. By accepting it, our government and the nation’s people continue to march towards spiritual death by having a federal budget that prioritizes killing over sustaining life. More than half of U.S. federal discretionary spending goes to war and preparing for war. That number is $599 billion dollars. In contrast, $70 billion of our tax dollars go to education, $63 billion to housing, $66 billion to Medicare and health, and $39 billion to energy and environment. And our new president plans to increase spending on death by $54 billion while cutting programs that improve and maintain life.
But do we spend so much because we must to keep pace with the rest of the world? The U.S. outpaces all other nations in military expenditures. World military spending totaled more than $1.6 trillion in 2015. The U.S. accounted for 37 percent of the total. U.S. military expenditures are roughly the size of the next seven largest military budgets around the world, combined.
Perhaps most ominous is the fact that the U.S. is conducting global endless warfare in such a manner that few people here at home think about how it impacts us domestically. These wars and threat of war enforce a global system that continues to concentrate wealth and sow global and domestic seeds of hate, some of which have sprouted as acts of terror in our cities and towns. Many of the men and women who fight these wars return home physically and mentally broken to a healthcare and social safety system that is starved for resources and an economy in need of investment for job creation.
Further, the weapon systems and equipment used to wage war in foreign lands is brought back home to militarize the police and clamp down on and intimidate domestic dissent and advocacy for change. War is also used as an excuse to curtail civil liberties in the name of national security which includes speech and actions demanding justice.
Racism and all forms of bigotry arise when people feel economically vulnerable and physically insecure. Leaders use this fear for their personal ambitions and political gain. Hate is used in U.S. foreign policy and by those who have been designated as our enemies. To be certain, ISIL is a cult of hate and death. But many have taken a real threat in ISIL and al Qaeda to paint Islam as the new communism to be feared and hated. This hatred obviously impacts our Muslim brothers and sisters and those perceived as Muslim here at home. This xenophobia is playing itself out most clearly today as represented by the Trump movement and visceral resistance to Hispanic immigrants, Musilms, and the Movement for Black Lives. Finally, but not least, are our Native American sisters and brothers who are the survivors of the U.S.’s first and longest sustained wars and co-target of long standing hate and oppression with Black people, continue to struggle for control of their lands and self-determination.
On climate, I have little to say. Only that Pentagon officials, Thomas E. Donilon, former National Security Advisor to President Obama, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, scientists and activists around the world all agree that global climate change is one of the greatest threats if not the greatest threat to U.S. national security and global security. You should also know that the U.S. military has the largest single organizational carbon footprint in the world. For example, between 2003-2007, the Iraq War generated at least 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), more each year of the war than 139 of the world’s countries release annually. In 2006, the U.S. spent more on the war in Iraq than the entire world spent on renewable energy investment. By 2008, the Bush administration had spent 97 times more on the military than on responding to climate change.
My second point is that I am optimistic because for the past 21 years I have seen vibrant movements ebb, flow and continue today. I am sure I will miss a few, but the Million Man March in 1995 was my first street action after getting out of the military. The movement against a neoliberal version of globalization as epitomized by the 1999 protest in Seattle. Do you remember the March for Women’s Lives in the summer of 2001? The peace movement in reaction to U.S. military response to the September 11, 2001 horrors brought out the largest global demonstration on February 15, 2003. In 2006 and 2007 millions of immigrants hit the streets demanding recognition as human beings and equality. That movement is alive and moving today. The 2011 Occupy movement which helped frame much of the Left’s political discourse today and, along with the peace movement, radicalized many activists currently working in a spectrum of movements.
Dynamic movements of today include the Movement for Black Lives which cuts at the core of our failed system. The Climate change movement which has grown in power and influence. The Indigenous Peoples’ movement epitomized by the protest at Standing Rock. An upsurge in the women’s movement symbolized by the incredible Women’s March the next day after Trump’s inauguration. And the Bernie Saunders and Trump movements which are both reactions to the concentration of wealth and greed that ignores human needs and treats people as commodities whose labor is to be bought as cheaply as possible, not caring if the workers can make ends meet or maintain a viable home. The Sanders movement was folded into the Democrat race for the White House, but is not dead as an independent political force. Bernie activists are organizing in various ways for a renewed push for change. Meanwhile, the Trump movement is following the lead of a misogynist and xenophobe.
The anger and intensity felt by the Bernie and Trump followers is appropriate. The difference in these two movements is that one has turned to U.S. America’s tradition of scapegoating and hate to address the failures of our system. The other has turned to U.S. America’s tradition of inclusion and pursuit of justice.
My third and final point is to address what to do. I think in part we must look to the past. Today we find ourselves at war and in domestic turmoil. It could be 1966, but with iPads, smartphones and more relative freedoms. All the issues of the 60’s plus a few confront us. We should learn from the successes and failures of the movements of that time. One of the lessons we must learn is that all the challenges before us are intertwined and that we must have a strategy that keeps this understanding in the forefront. A great example is the work Fred Hampton was doing in Chicago, uniting a broad movement of poor white, Black and Latino people.
Movements will not be able to achieve their goals without working together. We are all being crushed by the same forces, thus we must work together to transform our world, for this is a global struggle. I think this panel and work I have seen in the Movement for Black Lives, the Women’s March and other places is working towards uncovering these connections and exposing the intersectionality. I believe this work to bring together these groups is why Fred was killed just as the King’s work resisting war and efforts to unite poor Blacks and whites got him killed.
Veterans For Peace frames much of our work in the context of “Peace at Home Peace Abroad.” This is the answer to the wars abroad and the warlike state we face here at home. Peace is a community and global pursuit. We cannot truly have one without the other.
We have incredible opportunity before us as it is clear people know, like Neo in the Matrix, that something is terribly wrong. People can feel it in their bones. The vibrant movements of today tell us that people are ready to act. We as leaders as we are doing today, must continue to come together, talk, move outside our comfort zones and help people build a vision radically different from the one put before us by our current international leaders. A vision that includes the needs of all of us.
I love a sign I saw at St. John’s last night that said, “…worshipping a radically inclusive God.” For me that says it all.