On October 11, 2017, the Radical Imagination Project hosted the Halifax launch of “Why Don’t the Poor Rise Up?: Organizing the Twenty-First Century Resistance” (2017, AK Press).
The launch featured a panel discussion focusing on the question of when, how, and under what conditions exploited and oppressed peoples rise up to create radical and revolutionary social change. Our featured panelists are Jackie Barkley (of Solidarity Halifax), Brad Fougere, El Jones, Lynn Jones, and Ardath Whynacht. The panel builds on the recently completed “For the Long Haul” research initiative completed by the Radical Imagination Project and drawing on the knowledge and experience of local long-term social justice organizers. Volume editor Michael Truscello and contributing author Alex Khasnabish were also in attendance.
We have posted below the full video of the event, in three parts.
Below the videos, we have reproduced the text of the speech which Solidarity Halifax member Jackie Barkley delivered at the event.
Thanks to Mark Cunningham for recording the event. Click below for the three part video:
Text of speech by Solidarity Halifax member Jackie Barkley at the “Why Don’t the Poor Rise Up?” forum:
Why don’t the poor rise up?
Jackie Barkley: First of all, thanks for inviting me! And I’m honoured to be with this group of panelists, all people who are real fighters for justice.
I wasn’t sure what was meant by “the poor ” in this question, so I’d like to start my comments by speculating on different ways of understanding what this could mean.
- If by poor we mean those with the very least money, income security, or housing or food on the table, then the answer directly has to do with not having money or security or a place to live or being able to make ends meet well enough to guarantee the next meal. As a social worker by day, I know a lot of people in that category, and rising up is one more exhaustion, or fear of consequences and further oppression. To be clear, that doesn’t mean that this group never rises up: the Fight for $15 campaign in Ontario, unemployed workers, mothers on income assistance – all examples, but usually of short term and specific immediate urgent goals. And I’m talking here in Canada, not about struggles of the most economically oppressed all over the world.
- If by poor, what is meant is the employed and or unionized working class and communities that have been oppressed by race and nation, that group also rises up very frequently. The struggle of workers in the Chronicle Herald union over a year and half pm strike, Black Lives Matter, the fishermen’s strike, the history of the Cape Breton miners, the teachers struggle, Idle no More, the resistance in Elsipogtog, the Stonewall riots, the rainbow railroad, the anti fascist movement in Boston, in Charlotsville, the struggle in Standing Rock… the list is endless and inspiring.
- If by poor, and rising up, we mean, why are not organized peoples, including us in this room, rising up to challenge the state and economic power of capitalism, that is a more complicated question we have to answer for ourselves as well as others, and analyze collectively for our greater chances of success.
So when, whom, where and for what? These are necessary variables in answering the question “why aren’t we yet rising up?”.
I’ll try try to take a small look at why I think the larger broad movement against capitalism is not yet sufficiently mobilized to rise up at this time and here I want to get very down to earth talking to the experiences I see.
- Punishment as individuals. Some of us in this room and many we know have experienced the consequences of speaking out without collective support and structure. Consequences borne by some of us, or affecting our families’ well being with painful psychological, isolating, medical and financial results. And then on another level, brutal state repression against rebellions – we see examples of state sanctioned or organized killing – William Davis in Cape Breton, incarceration for two years in dorchester for JB McLachlan, the relentless police killing of young black men, the arrests of elders recently in Labrador for protests, and a killing on a picket line I remember at a Robin Hood flour plant in Quebec in the 70s to name just a tiny number of examples of a horrific list.
- Individualism. Capitalism’s insidious and universal seduction to the isolated and autonomous self, is so prevalent and so poured daily into our brains, that working together is thought of as a quaint artifact of union strikes, disasters and wars. We are influenced daily to be annoyed, frustrated, angry, and hopeless about being able to agree, to tolerate meetings, be together for the organizational and collective challenges that are required to mobilize for the long view. Short term intense resistance, people in the street, the feeling of collectivity is wonderful, but insufficent to combat individualism at its core.
- Anti-intellectualism. We are all capable of being intellectuals – which is different from being academics or from our level of education. The culture of contemporary capitalism encourages all of us to reduce complex questions to the lowest common denominator, while implying that only those with time and educational privilege can talk about and think about big ideas regarding economics, sociology, history, and culture. This is a hard one. How does the long hard ideological struggle for revolutionary change in our ideas compete with the enormous corporate control of and financial resources of print media, facebook, twitter, capitalism seduces us into instant emotional, and political gratification, and pop up organizing of quick demos and 10 second petition signatures. (Facebook organizing can be useful, but can never be a substitute for the collective development of long term strategy). The sophisticated tools of modern communication drown us in shallow and superficial, simplistic, racist, sexist junk food for the brain.
- Medicalization of our pain. By this I mean two different kinds of issues. On the one hand, capitalism has more than one way to kill and maim, as we see huge heart disease, diabetes, lung conditions, and many other conditions proliferate in the most oppressed people’s lives among us.
Then there’s the other medicalization, by which we are assaulted with the sheer weight of diagnoses of so called mental illness, diagnoses which suggest that the social conditions of alienation, poor housing, un livable incomes, isolation, sexual and racial oppression, are (we are led to believe) really psychiatric disorders, which require being drugged or talked into submission or convincing us that our suffering in biological, deterministic and inescapable.All of us here could list lots more, but these are the ones that come to my mind on this day.
So I want to comment on what I think I know will at least contribute to resistance and rebellion
- Continuity of commitment – staying in the struggle for life, not letting discouragement or frustration or anger with each other keep us from continuing to look for answers. For example the struggle against enslavement took 400 years of determination and unbearable suffering. It isn’t about us or our personal experience or failures or successes, but those of our predecessors in the fight, and our practice and lessons, and what we offer to the next generation. In the words Sweet Honey in the Rock, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest”.
- Organizing to practice: As in a sport or musical instrument, we need to practice daily how to be in solidarity and combat individualism. Practice ways of designing and sustaining organizational structures that can be both effective and democratic, inclusive and focused, in which we can learn how to stay together while agreeing and while disagreeing.
- Learning from the past – while not getting stuck in ways of organizing and mobilizing that have no popular resonance and wind up only talking to the converted, to our friends, to whomever “is like me” (whomever me is).
- Defend each other and show up, and then keep showing up, and keep learning from each other — always trying to create the conditions for more unity, not perfect unity, but more.
- And finally, go to the mall for creating political disturbance. The most inspiring experience of the last 10 years of my own life, and there have been alot I’m glad to say, was going with people in Idle No More to chant and speak and rebel at Halifax Shopping Centre. The demands for justice echoed loudly and forcefully in the modern temple of capitalism.