Anti-Poverty Panel Talk

Talk by Seb Bonet as part of Community Organizing Panel – Sept 11, 2013

I want to start by acknowledging that Sept. 11th is a very heavy day for a lot of people. For people from Latin America today is the 40th anniversary of the US-backed coup against the government of Salvador Allende, a coup that has come to symbolize the legacies of suffering, displacement and trauma experienced across Latin America in the 70’s and 80s, and which are still being worked through today.

It’s also the anniversary of the attacks on the pentagon, and world trade centre, attacks which tragically killed almost 3000 people and have since occasioned the opportunity for people the world over to reflect on the grotesque nature of empire. Occasions for reflection have come in the form of seeing hundreds of thousands killed, and millions displaced, throughout the middle east and into Africa. In fortress North America, we’ve seen the mobilization of a politics of fear that has produced never-before-seen levels of surveillance and compromises to civil liberties with nasty effects on the psyche of privileged white settlers.

This politics of fear is also responsible for the almost total de-mobilization of the anti-globalization movement, a movement that entering the 2000s was producing a global vision and practice of solidarity and was quite visible on campuses, including this one. In fact, in a very real sense, as organizers we are all still recovering from the critical lack of transfer of organizing skills and wisdom from one generation to the next, and still regenerating the capacity of our communities to put principles of mutual care, responsiveness and understanding at the heart of how we envision society.

But tonight, rather than cast the net wide and focus on processes with global implications, I’d like to mostly narrow in on urban poverty in Victoria and share some things I’ve learned from organizing against it for the past four years. I’m going to discuss poverty in relationship to the state, to space, and to systems of power, and I’ll end by sharing some personal lessons I’ve learned from resisting it.

Poverty and the State

I think the way many people typically understand poverty today is still profoundly shaped by organizing in response to the first waves of it produced by industrialized capitalism and colonialism. In Canada, one long-term consolidation of organizing efforts by a diverse array of political movements was the creation of a welfare state, with its basic recourses, benefits and protections for people who have been displaced and discarded by the colonial-capitalist machine.

Like any treatment of symptoms, the welfare state was always highly imperfect, and not what feminists, anti-capitalists and indigenous people envisioned. But whatever its imperfections, after more than 30 years of rising inequality, people thrown into poverty are in a much worse place today. In fact, the point that drove this home to me most came from a statistic in the policing report VIPIRG published a couple of years ago. It showed that of the 101 people interviewed, 100 of them were living with some kind of disability, or a chronic illness or mental health condition. So in a literal sense, a system that aspired to welfare for people in poverty has become a guarantor of compromised wellbeing.

In concrete terms, the dismantling of the welfare state has meant:

• The elimination of a national housing program, which has forced many more people into precarious existences.
• It has meant that welfare and employment insurance rates have been dropping, and that the ministries that administer them make them harder to access and more difficult to stay on.
• It has meant that the Acts that govern Housing and Work increasingly serve landlords and bosses exclusively, which means the elimination of protections for workers and tenants, and more precarious forms of employment and housing.
• Many other changes are less visible but profoundly affect people’s everyday lives. For instance, one common way people poor-bash is to say that the poor don’t pay taxes. But thanks to sales taxes many people on welfare get a really significant hit to their already small incomes.
• What also doesn’t get noticed are losses around health care. Many of us have enough privilege to imagine that we live in a country with universally accessible health care that is designed to meet people’s health needs, but this illusion vanishes pretty fast when you’re poor. For example, many of the people you see panhandling downtown are on long-term disability and literally need to panhandle in order to be able to purchase the drugs and equipment to manage their condition.

So those are some of the ways that the terrain of the state has been won over by people who serve privileged interests at the expense of organizing efforts from previous generations.

Poverty and Space

Poverty is also a problem that is highly spatial. One thing many people have noted is that as the welfare system has been dismantled people who are in poverty get pushed more and more to the peripheries of cities. We see this clearly with housing. Basically, the downtown, when government withdraws from regulating it, becomes a totally commodified space where access is granted strictly according to one’s capacity to pay. Ironically, students are being used as the shock troops of gentrification nowadays. But there are other tools, like the development of condos, and opening of retail spaces that sell things nobody with little money can afford.

For those who are homeless the privatization of public space becomes a constant concern. It’s perhaps here where we best see the way governments have not simply dismantled the welfare system in order to better serve elites, but they have actually replaced welfare with marginalization and criminalization as the government’s preferred policy for poverty. We see this in growing federal expenditures for incarceration, and ever-increasing municipal police budgets (it takes up over a third of Victoria’s). We also see it in Safe Streets Acts that make it a bylaw infraction to sit, stand or kneel in boulevards or sidewalks for half the day, or put your backpack on the ground, or panhandle, or bin. We see it in the creation of red zones that bar people from accessing services they need, or in the creation of Good Neighbour Agreements that make social services less safe for people who need them. We see it in the Downtown Victoria Business Association’s red circles campaign, which empowers the growing number of private security people to move people along at all hours.

We also see the spatial problem of poverty when services are pushed into the peripheries and out of sight of the middle class eye. Here in Victoria, Rock Bay Landing is an example of that, a service that is in the industrial part of town and forces people who access those services to regularly walk 6kms or more in the everyday drudgery of going from one line up to another to access the things housed people take for granted, like showers, storage space, meals, clothing, and other services.

You can’t separate the question of space from mobility. Privileged people take for granted a society shaped to allow their individualized transportation wherever they please. For people living in poverty, movement is also a constant concern. So-called public transportation is not accessible on $610/month. I’ve talked with lots of people downtown who have not been outside of the downtown core in years simply because when you have no money and health issues you are effectively tethered to the few places where you can access services.

Another profound reality for those living in poverty is that the attempt to form a relationship to the spaces they find themselves in is constantly mediated by people with power. People at Our Place are told they are members of a family, and invited to develop a relationship to that space. But if the head of the family decides to invite cops in to the facility, as has happened there, then the so-called family members have to put up with it. Or if our patriarchal government decides to cut funding for PEERS, then a safer space to spend time and develop relationships in is eliminated.

Poverty and Systems of Power

I’ve been alluding to this throughout my discussion, but a fundamental aspect to understanding poverty is that it exists as a relationship, namely between people who are under-privileged and those who are over-privileged. It follows that any serious discussion about ending poverty has to take in ending over-privileging. This is the message that we tried to convey in the Radical Health Alliance’s Jam Unacceptable campaign.

The relationship between over- and under-privileging is mediated by systems of power, like colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy. So poverty is what results when indigenous people are displaced from their lands, have settler forms of government imposed on them through the band council system, and have the generational transfer of their traditional cultures critically compromised by the residential school system.

Poverty is also mediated by capitalism. It’s what results when the land is privately owned, and where the things we need to survive are privately owned. It’s what you get in a society that increasingly frees capital to accumulate in whatever form best suits it, whether by eliminating jobs here, displacing people in the global south, subsidizing war, or responding to the crisis of climate change with further waves of resource extraction.

Organizing Lessons

OK, so I haven’t brought very good news so far! Why would anyone with enough privilege to choose whether or not to resist poverty actually do so?

I can only share my own experience. First, if you accept that poverty is a relationship then part of taking responsibility for your privilege is to try and change the systems that benefit you at the expense of other people. In my case, all the systems and institutions I’ve named are ones I’ve benefitted from intensely. My capacity to flourish amidst material abundance has and continues to stem directly from the oppression of countless others.

Second, if you’re not quite ready to accept that poverty is a relationship, or that our society is unjust, organizing against poverty will help clarify things pretty quick. Spend a year organizing for a safe consumption site – which is a straightforward, life-saving measure – and you’ll learn who our health authority is designed to serve, and how stigmatizing middle-class people can be. Spend a year organizing to resist the criminalization of poverty and you’ll learn that police primarily work to protect privilege. Or spend a year organizing against gentrification and you’ll learn that our city, despite the noises that come out of our councilors’ mouths, exists to facilitate the gentrification process. So in other words, the vantage point of poverty provides a very clear view of the oppressive nature of our society and the way institutions that are supposed to help actually exacerbate poverty.

But above all the most profound lesson I’ve learned in four years of organizing is that often where the most oppressive circumstances prevail, I have found the finest expressions of our humanity. I’ve been humbled over and over again by the generosity, kindness, vulnerability, and warmth shown by people that according to privileged ways of understanding have nothing, and yet share their spirit and support each other day in and day out.

If we’re going to work our way out of the mess we’re in as a society this is precisely the spirit of solidarity I think we’re going to need. I thank the many people who have helped me see it, and I hope to honour that gift by trying to embody it myself. I encourage others to do the same. Thank you.