A Disconnect Between the Protesters and the Poor

by Lydia Gans



Thousands of people filled San Francisco Civic Center Plaza late in the afternoon of inauguration day, January 20, to express anger at George W. Bush's installation for a second term in office. They voiced anger at the war in Iraq, at the lies the president told to justify the war, at his Middle East policies, and at his favoring the interests of the wealthy at the cost of social programs for the needy. People carried all sorts of creative signs at the protest, and the usual vendors were out selling T-shirts, banners, books, and buttons.

Civic Center Plaza and the surrounding area, especially the main library and United Nations Plaza, are generally populated by homeless people. The city has removed benches in an attempt to drive away homeless people, and, as a result, tourists and ordinary citizens out for a stroll have nowhere to linger. The homeless folks sit or lie on the ground. I was interested in their thoughts on the demonstrations, on the extent of their participation and how effective they considered them to be. The homeless and the poor are, after all, among the people most severely hurt by Bush's actions.

Not surprisingly, their participation was minimal, and their attitude tended to be cynical. However, they were far from hostile. They had opinions which they were eager to talk about with anyone who cared to pay attention. This was the same response I found last Fall when, under the sponsorship of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), we carried out a campaign to get homeless people to register and to vote. More on that later.

A man with a walker sitting by the library shrugged his shoulders when I asked what he thought about the demonstrators. "Let them talk," he said, but he saw no reason to go over and join them. His companion was equally noncommittal, though he agreed that everyone has the right to free speech. At this point, several police cars pulled up, disgorging a crew of officers. This jolted the homeless men out of their apathy even though - this time - they weren't the targets of police surveillance. "Here comes the Gestapo," they observed bitterly.

I strolled over to the mall area, past people sleeping on the grass not ten feet from all the action. A couple of homeless men were sitting on the low concrete wall near the Grove Street side. Their opinions, too, were colored by their own needs and experiences.

One of the men, an amputee who had a prosthetic leg, was agonizing over the difficulty of getting SSI (Supplemental Social Security) for people with disabilities. His application has been rejected and he is currently going through the appeal process. Maybe if he could convince them he was crazy, he speculated, he'd have a better chance at getting on SSI.

What about the protest against Bush's plans to further curtail social programs, I asked, might that make a difference? The other man was cynical about the whole scene. In his eyes, the vendors, like all other capitalists, were there to make a profit even though it was just a buck or two on the T-shirts they were selling.

The one group that earned his praise had a table giving away "funny money" imprinted with pictures of Bush with slogans like "IN FRAUD WE TRUST" and "THE UNINFORMED STATE OF DENIAL," and listing a number of websites including 911forthetruth.com, 911inquiry.org, indymedia.org and others.

While we were talking, a young man approached with a stack of newspapers. He spoke with great sincerity of how his paper contained the truth about the evils of war, the oppression of the poor and the need to change conditions in the country. The homeless men listened politely and nodded appreciatively - until the young man informed them that they could buy the paper for only 50 cents.

To use the jargon of the day, there is a disconnect here. There are the people of good will and broad vision who dedicate themselves to political activism. And there are those who can't afford to because they have to put their energy into their day-to-day survival.

We observed that same pattern in November when we focused on the elections, getting homeless people to register and then out to vote. It's not that they don't care, or don't have thoughtful opinions about national or global issues. It's just harder for them to vote, because they have to pick up their mail in one location, hang on to the election materials with all their other necessities in a shopping cart until election day, then get to the proper polling place to vote during free time between securing some food and a bed for the night.

What will it take to make people feel all that is worth the effort? Poor, homeless, and oppressed people have the power, if they unite, to affect the conditions of our lives.

Howard Zinn, in his book A Peoples History of the United States, describes numerous actions undertaken by an aroused people protesting evil situations that needed to be changed. Zinn writes about sit-down strikes in factories against oppressive working conditions and at lunch counters against racial discrimination, about huge marches, demonstrations and general strikes that, for a moment, stopped the system in its tracks.

These things have happened throughout our history, and we have the power to do it today. It is time we organize, unite and assume that power. There is too much at stake for all of us to sit this one out.