Empowerment for the Poor is a Political Reform Issue

On the Saturday a week before Mother’s Day, I participated in the 34th Annual Harlem Mother’s Day Parade. I was there on behalf of the Committee for Independent Community Action (CICA), founded by Dr. Lenora Fulani.

The CICA consists of public housing residents, citywide activists, community organizers, and grassroots leaders fighting to protect public housing in New York City from the privatization that threatens to displace hundreds of thousands of public housing residents from their homes.

Such displacement has occurred in cities such as St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco, and others across the country.

Dr. Lenora Fulani — who twice ran for president as an independent and candidate for the New Alliance Party, and in 1988 became the first woman and African American to achieve ballot status as a presidential candidate in all 50 states — is a leader and activist for the political independence and social development of the Black community and for all of America.

She works daily in the inspired tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dedicated to ending poverty and injustice.

In a 1967 speech at the National Conference for a New Politic in Chicago, Dr. King spoke about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Operation Breadbasket’s experience of Democratic Party machine control stifling innovative programs for the poor:

“Our own experience here in Chicago is especially painfully present. After an enthusiastic approval…SCLC began an adult literacy project to aid 1,000 young men and women who have been pushed out of overcrowded ghetto schools, in obtaining basic [literary] skills prerequisite to receiving jobs. We had an agreement with A&P stores for 750 jobs through SCLC’s job program, Operation Breadbasket and had recruited over 500 pupils the first week. At that point Congressmen Pacinski and the Daley machine intervened and demanded that Washington cut off our funds or channel them through the machine controlled poverty program in Chicago. Now we have no problem with administrative supervision, but we do have a desire to be independent of machine control and the Democratic Party patronage network. For this desire for a politically independent approach to the needs of our brothers, our funds are being stopped as of September 15th and a very meaningful program discontinued.”

Democratic Party machine control, not opportunity for the young people, was the priority of the elected officials in Chicago. This warped politicization of urban policy and both parties abandonment of the poor has only become more entrenched since the 1960s.

We have a situation today in which many Democratic Party elected officials of cities and states across the country are not only willing to allow the residents of public housing to be evicted, displaced and pushed out of the cities, they preside over the displacement and advance their political careers in this status quo.

When public housing was first built during the depression, it was segregated and since then it has been continually underfunded and mismanaged.

From an NPR interview of author Richard Rothstein discussing his book, “The Color of Law. A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America”:

“In 1933, faced with a housing shortage, the federal government began a program explicitly designed to increase — and segregate — America’s housing stock. Author Richard Rothstein says the housing programs begun under the New Deal were tantamount to a “state-sponsored system of segregation. The government’s efforts were “primarily designed to provide housing to white, middle-class, lower-middle-class families,” he says. African-Americans and other people of color were left out of the new suburban communities — and pushed instead into urban housing projects.”

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which was established in 1934, refused to ensure mortgages in or near African-American neighborhoods. The FHA subsidized “builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites – with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans.”

People of color were forced to live in inner city neighborhoods with sub-standard housing. The housing developments, known as the projects, were allowed to deteriorate, maintenance and repairs were not kept up. Poverty increased and the projects were fully abandoned.

The conditions created by segregation and discrimination were then used to justify the destruction of public housing.

In 1972, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing towers in St. Louis were destroyed and the implosion was televised. In the 1990s, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor Homes started to be destroyed and the residents displaced.

The conditions created by segregation and discrimination were then used to justify the destruction of public housing.
Dr. Jessie Fields, Spokesperson for Open Primaries

Mayor Richard M. Daley, the son of the Chicago mayor of the “Daley machine” that Dr. King spoke about, presided over the destruction of public housing in Chicago, promising the residents that they would be relocated to better housing in the same area — a promise that was broken.

Many residents were instead relocated to other communities of color which many believe caused the increase in violence that has engulfed neighborhoods in Chicago.

During his administration, President Bill Clinton cut the welfare system and instituted the policy of “One Strike and You’re Out,” which under the New York City Housing Authority means anyone with a criminal charge, even if found innocent, and anyone with a criminal record can be permanently excluded from public housing and the entire family can be evicted if the person is found visiting.

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) houses well over 400,000 people and is the largest municipal public housing system in the country. The mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio’s public housing policy includes leasing public housing playgrounds, parking lots, and open spaces within the projects to private developers to build privately-owned, market-rate housing that is not accessible to the current residents of public housing and would cause their displacement.

The residents of public housing overwhelmingly do not support this policy and to the extent that the general public learns about it there is wide opposition to it, but political party control continues to block the ability of ordinary people to shape housing and other public policy.

The common scenario for Democratic Party domination of America’s cities and communities of color is low voter turnout in the Democratic Party-controlled primary, in which independents are barred from participating, and token opposition in the general election.

Winning the Democratic primary in these communities is tantamount to winning the election.

For example, in the closed New York City Democratic Party mayoral primary last year, only 14% of eligible voters participated. Mayor Bill de Blasio won the primary and he faced only token Republican Party competition in the general election.

Closed party primaries, party-controlled ballot access, gerrymandered districts, and restrictions on voting disempower communities and insulate elected officials from being held accountable.

Primary reform and opening up our elections is essential for communities to be able to collectively participate in developing and implementing innovations in housing and other policies that so closely affect their lives.

Closed party primaries, party-controlled ballot access, gerrymandered districts, and restrictions on voting disempower communities and insulate elected officials from being held accountable.
Dr. Jessie Fields, Spokesperson for Open Primaries

The message I tried to convey when I spoke from the stage after the Harlem Mother’s Day Parade and to which the audience responded is that housing is a fundamentally human issue and maintaining and supporting something so fundamental to human life and health ought to be at the center of our democracy, instead of pushed to the sidelines as the poor are pushed out of the cities.

The question is, can “we, the people” turn around the reactionary tide through which the political parties, both political parties, shut out the participation, shut out the voice, shut out the power of the poor and of ordinary people?

The key is to see how deeply tied the fight for quality public housing is to the fight for democracy, for social development, and political empowerment. That is why it is the independent Dr. Lenora Fulani and the Committee for Independent Community Action that is leading this fight.

And we are going to continue onward!

Photo Credit: Committee for Independent Community Action