The April 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

US Government Created Housing Shortages

Hate Crimes in S.F. and Boston

Urban Removal in S.F. Bayview

Stop Bulldozers of Gentrification

The Death of Two Eloquent Homeless Voices

Grandmother Is Left Homeless by Car Wreck

Building Strong Unions on U.S./ Mexico Border

Transit Justice Is Derailed

Poor People Use the Internet to Organize

Just Wage for All

Ruling Class Runs Economy into the Ground

Art & Altruism: The Paintings of Elizabeth King

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Writers

April Poetry of the Streets


ARCHIVES

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

 

 

 


Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

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The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Internet Gives Burst of Hi-Tech Energy to Organizing

Computers put new organizing methods into the hands
of poor and homeless people.

by Lydia Gans

Lynda Carson, at right, was long familiar with picket signs and other traditional tools of the activist. The Internet gave new speed and far wider reach to her organizing.

Fighting back effectively against the Bush regime's brutal policies takes more than ranting and raving on a soap box on Telegraph Avenue. A look at some of the ways to work for social change through grassroots organizing may be of value to activists wanting to get their message out.

Our nation was scarred by the Great Depression and the Wall Street crash of 1929, with businesses failing and people jumping out of windows. But it wasn't just the rich who suddenly lost everything and were desperate. Countless poor people who had always been surviving close to the edge, now found themselves and their families literally starving. Some gave up hope, but others refused to accept their fate.

A spark of protest was ignited and, in the summer of 1932, 20,000 workers and unemployed veterans from all over the country, men, women and children, converged on Washington, D.C. They set up camps near the Capitol and demanded government help, sleeping in little shelters built out of cardboard boxes and old crates.

Congress refused to help the Bonus Army. The nation's full military might was unleashed on the protesters. General Douglas MacArthur led an assault with calvary and infantry companies, a machine gun squadron and tanks. Near the White House, thousands of poor people were attacked with tear gas and their encampment set on fire. Many were injured; several, including a child, were killed.

It appeared that the rebellion had been suppressed. But only a few months later, in November of 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a Democratic Congress were elected overwhelmingly and a new era began. The New Deal, encompassing a whole series of government social programs for poor and working people, was inaugurated. The power of masses of people, organized in protest, ultimately succeeded in bringing about change.

Howard Zinn, in his book A People's History of the United States, describes many other occasions in our history when people organized to fight back against economic or social injustice. While not all battles were won conclusively, just experiencing the power of mass action was always a positive outcome.

That is as true today as it ever was. Change happens when people organize, and that requires being informed -- which is easier today than ever before. We have the Internet, a marvelous tool to convey information and to rally people to action. It is available to everybody, including the poor and the homeless.

Public libraries all have banks of computers for public use. Anyone can sign up for a chunk of time to e-mail friends and family, or do some creative writing, or use other options that are available. And one can access the Internet to find out about happenings that the capitalist-controlled press and television will not publish.

Recently, Street Spirit reporter Lynda Carson spent several hours showing me some of the many things she manages to do with her old, slow, Macintosh computer. Computers in the public libraries generally allow only a limited time for each user; but they're very fast, so once you get the hang of it, you can get a lot done.

As a start, get on the Internet and search for www.indymedia.org and a whole new world opens up. You find a listing of news stories from all over the world reported on by activists not controlled by the companies that run the corporate media. Click on a headline that interests you and get the full story, then write and post your own comments on it -- and all within a few minutes.

Lynda regularly uses these Independent Media Centers, known as "Indy Media," to put out information on issues of importance to poor people, such as threats of cutbacks in housing, health care and food programs. She posts her articles locally, posts rally notices in the calendar section, and at times posts her news stories all across the nation through the different local Indy Media websites freely available to anyone.

News items on Indy Media are more than likely written by observers right on the scene who are telling it like it is; and often, there is more detailed information that is not shown in the commercial media. Of course, it is possible to get wrong or skewed information on Indy Media too, but there are checks and balances.

Liam O'Donoghue is part of the collective that runs the Indy Media site for the San Francisco Bay Area, Indy Bay as it's known. It receives pictures and poetry as well as articles. Liam explains that people are free to post on the website, "but then editors for the website usually look at it, they try to look at everything." While Indy Media sites practice free speech, they will block things like racist or sexist or disrespectful language or name calling.

Besides using the Internet to get and send information, access to a computer for people who are homeless or just too poor to afford one has other advantages. Mark Creekwater, a Berkeley resident who has been houseless for many years, keeps in touch with family and a vast network of friends by means of e-mail. Both Yahoo and Hotmail offer free e-mail, he explains.

Mark frequently goes on long walks; he has even walked across the country several times and has just embarked on another cross-country peace walk. Everywhere he goes, he stops in public libraries to send and receive e-mails. He also uses the computers to print out his articles and poems - some of which have been published in Street Spirit.

The Internet can also be a powerful organizing tool. Protesting an injustice or bringing about change has always meant calling out masses of people to demonstrate for the cause. Organizers must notify people, make and distribute posters and flyers, and contact the media. It's all a lot easier than it used to be, once you know how.

Lynda Carson knows how. Over the years, she has learned how to write press releases and make flyers. Then, "it was up to me to figure out how to find some 600 fax numbers" for various press outlets, she recalls. She has fax numbers for all sorts of media outlets, for organizations and for specific groups of people.

"Say I'm helping a group set up an event," she explains. "I want to quickly let everybody know we're having an event at City Hall to protest certain issues. I'll put together a flyer and/or a press release, fax it out all over the Bay Area."

It does take time because she doesn't have any kind of high-speed system. "I can sit here and get something to over 200 organizations in one night. I program the computer, sit and watch a movie, and it chugs away. And if the computer crashes, I just start it up all over again."

Lynda also has search programs to collect and organize information, and it's surprising how much is out there for someone persistent enough to ferret it out. She gives an example. "Let's say in February the Bush administration submits the budget proposal for fiscal year 2007. I'll pick through that whole budget for the HUD budget. I may also want to see the budget of the Agricultural Department because that covers food stamps and other housing programs like rural housing. So every year when the budgets are released, what I'll do is put them into a PDF file."

Her system is set up to regularly capture the latest information from many sources on a set of topics that she is interested in, and put that information into something like an electronic filing cabinet.

Lynda explains that she is "just one individual" who has learned how to use her computer to research and mobilize on crucial issues. She is "an activist who discovered many different ways online to be able to focus on the issues I'm concerned about -- how to dig up the information, how to find the newspaper articles, how to find the budget or proposals to slash or expand these budgets, then how to get that information out in a focused way that people can look at it and make sense. And I post it all over the country and at times in England, sometimes Australia and sometimes South Africa.

"I started out organizing by making fliers to educate people about issues of importance to me, and I used to hand them out around apartment buildings, or post them on telephone poles or under the windshield wipers of cars in certain areas. If I had twenty bucks a month to spare to Xerox the fliers I felt lucky. Then I got my first fax machine, and would also fax out the fliers to organizations and the media as I started collecting fax numbers.

"When I got my first old Mac computer that no one else wanted anymore, I figured out how to use old viable programs that helped get my message out to TV, radio, and newspapers. I collected several thousand e-mail addresses to send out information to organizations, politicians and other activists. Eventually, I started to write my own stories for publication locally and the Indy Media became a big part of the process to get my articles out all across the nation on the Internet.

"I've been able to get my message out to millions of people through the years, and have helped many others to get their message out to the public. Being disabled, and spending most of my days alone in solitude, it has been a big surprise to learn that I could find a way to help out and support others through the organizing skills that I have developed."

The lesson is here for all of us. It's a small world after all, and we need not feel like isolated individuals. We have at our fingertips the means to inform ourselves, communicate, and act together to bring about change.


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