Speech To Be made in Philadelphia During the Democratic National Convention
(At events organized by activists and advocates)
I, Eric Sheptock, will be in Philadelphia, PA during the week of the Democratic national Convention. I've been asked to speak about homelessness. Though I tend to speak off the cuff, here are some thoughts that I'll convey at organized events and elsewhere while in our nation's first capital:
The Black Panther Party which celebrates its 50th anniversary this October was begun in response to police brutality in Oakland, CA in 1966. They created armed resistance to a corrupt police force; but, like Hamas, Hezbollah and Fatah, they transitioned into affording social services to the poor – namely school breakfast to Black children. They also began to teach people about the negative effects of capitalism and racial inequality. In short, they were stopped dead in their tracks by J. Edgar Hoover whose most effective tactic was having the feds to offer school meals without the ideology. The effects of discouraging the poor from doing any critical thinking still linger a half century later. That's why some of us make it a point to participate in social theory study groups and/or to encourage those who are angered by the current state of America and its treatment of the non-wealthy to do so themselves (or at least to think critically – not just emotionally – about various atrocities being perpetrated upon the poor in 2016).
Politicians who control the big guns, candidates who want to control the big guns and those who choose to ignore the fact that unarmed people who were marching across a bridge or complying with police orders were still hurt and killed by police are now telling us to remain calm and peaceful. Let's add in the fact that slavery was ended with a war. Then those who could no longer enslave Blacks resorted to Jim Crow Law. Immediately after that, Nixon began mass incarceration in 1972 only to resign a few years later in an effort not to end up in prison alongside the Blacks who were there thanks to his policies. While I'm not suggesting that Blacks today resort to violence, I AM juxtaposing what I believe are some of the most pertinent facts when discussing the plight of the nation's poor (most of whom are actually White).
1 – One of the worst and most overt forms of systemic oppression that has been perpetrated by the wealthy and influential in this country was only ended with violence – the Civil War (an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp”, I might add).
2 – Remaining non-violent in the face of police brutality, though it might have prevented further casualties, has neither guaranteed that an encounter with police would not lead to death nor guaranteed that the issues being raised by the poor would be fully and adequately addressed.
3 – What powerful people fear the most is a well-educated base of poor and oppressed people who have a viable social theory, suitable critical thinking skills and an ability to put forth their demands with a concerted effort.
Now, as a preacher might say, “Let us prey.....on that fear”.
Here we are today confronting the same issues that the BPP was confronting in 1966 -- more than two years before my birth, two years after the death of Medgar Evers and a year and a half before the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther king, Jr. We're gathered in the shadow of the Democratic National Convention which was held in Charleston, SC in 2012 where homeless people were pushed out of extended-stay hotels in order to accommodate the convention crowd and so that hoteliers could gouge prices. However, it stands to reason that most or all of those gathered here today – including Yours Truly – are from a third party, of which there are many. Go figure. We're not here because we figure that the Democrats will do any more for the poor than the Republicans will do. After all, both major parties are part of the capitalist system. Being the movement people that we are, we all know these two things quite intuitively:
1 – Our purpose and goal is to effect positive social change irrespective of party affiliation – ours or that of the next occupant of the White House.
2 – We own whoever wins on November 8th.
You might come to this space as a homeless advocate. You might advocate for access to nutritious food. You might be fighting to preserve public housing. You might work to end one or more of our wars so that, As MLK, Jr. suggested, the money our government spends decimating other countries can be put to better use caring for the needy here at home. No matter what brings you here, we are all united in common cause against the atrocities of capitalism and to promote the creation of a system that ensures that all able-bodied people can afford the necessities of life with the pay they earn while the elderly and disabled are cared for.
I'm a homeless advocate who lives in Washington, DC where there were at least 8,350 homeless people as of January 2016. That's up 1,052 or 14.4% from 7,298 homeless people in January 2015. I might add that there was also a significant jump from 2013 when we counted 6,859 homeless people to 2014 when there were at least 7,748 homeless people in the capital of the most powerful nation on Earth.
I was bothered in June 2014 when, at the quarterly meeting of DC's Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH), there was no discussion by committee members of the substantial one-year increase in homeless people – the numbers having been published in May. I became suspicious that local officials were trying to sweep their failures under the rug. The non-profit that normally does the report-out told me that they weren't asked to do their usual presentation. Go figure. To be fair, the ICH was going through a transition at the time. With all that's happened since June 2014, that matter is water under the bridge and we have bigger fish to fry – if we can ever catch them and kill them.
In 2016 a reason was given for the increase. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser who took office in 2015 changed the draconian policies of her predecessor by granting families greater access to shelter. This, in turn, led to homeless families who needed shelter before 2015 coming out of the woodwork. While I don't doubt that possibility, whether the newly homeless are entering shelter immediately after being evicted from their most recent rental or by way of Mom's couch is of less consequence than the fact that they now need shelter in the short term and affordable housing in the long term. That said, it hurts the poor any time that any government focuses on blaming the previous administration, saving face and making excuses rather than charting a path forward and figuring out how to solve a social ill. To put it another way, the government shouldn't focus too much on asking when those who present at shelter became homeless – in 2014 or 2015. They should be trying to assess the total current need – of those in shelter, those on the streets and those who are couch surfing. Government should then consider how to ensure that ALL such people are housed and that everyone has access to affordable housing – no matter what year they became homeless.
That brings me to the good news and to some ideas as to what we as a movement can do to effect the positive change that we so strongly desire and so urgently need. The first bit of good news is that DC Government, the local advocates, the non-profits and the council have begun to move in a direction that might actually end homelessness in DC by the end of 2020 – assuming that a number of things work out as predicted for the next four years. The locals there were able to develop a somewhat comprehensive plan only because of federal laws and programs such as Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH), the Workforce Innovations and Opportunities Act (WIOA), Veterans' Administration Supportive Housing (VASH) and the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act. With the HEARTH Act of 2009 mandating that municipalities find ways to reduce homelessness and WIOA (which was signed by Obama on July 22nd, 2014) mandating that municipalities serve those who have barriers to employment by connecting them to living-wage jobs, this means that the Obama administration has given us something to build our demands on. The movement can find ways to leverage existing laws before demanding that our officials create better laws. Let's not reinvent the wheel.
At the same time, let's not operate under any illusion that the powers that be will readily bend to the will of the electorate. As Frederick Douglass told us, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will”. Let's use the “gunboat diplomacy” of Teddy Roosevelt who said, “Speak softly; but, carry a big stick”. The movement needs to have a threat to hold over the heads of those in power. I can think of a number of such threats. Some of them actually fall within the constraints of the law. We can start by developing a shared vision for society; but, government won't feel all that threatened by a room full of people reading and discussing Plato's Republic. We can organize; but, we may find ourselves going up against the likes of J. Edgar Hoover or Congressman Joseph McCarthy. We can show ourselves to have some staying power; but, should always be cognizant of the fact that the fire hoses and dogs of the 1960's have been replaced with militarized police forces. In any instance, I strongly believe that, no matter who wins on November 8th, those who supported the loser will partake in a rebellion which could turn into a full-on revolution. We who are already socially and politically conscience need to make sure that, when that energy is created, that it is geared toward realizing our goals and that it doesn't fizzle out until those goals have been reached. As an old man recently told me, “You've got to be ready to stand up for what you believe in; and, once you've won, you have to be prepared to hold on to what you've got”.
Are you ready???