I went to lunch today with an activist friend in DuPage County. On the way there, I noted two things. First, I passed three "Don't tread on me" flags, the symbol adopted by many "Teapartiers". Secondly, the strip malls that used to hold small stores had been largely reduced to "CASH FOR GOLD!", "PAYDAY LOANS!" and pawn shops.
I work in a public library in DuPage County. It's free, warm in winter (and this winter in Chicago has been brutal), cool in summer, and we serve free coffee. We have free internet access. It's a good place to come if you are unemployed. And they do come. In droves.
Most of them are men, aged 30-50 or so. They check out six movies on dvd, the maximum we allow. They bring them back the next day and check out six more. They are interesting, talented people. And they've largely given up hope of ever finding work.
Others come to the desk, angry. They are checking out books by Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Sarah Palin. They complain about the pensions that municipal workers get, and tell me that the firefighters - these are people who, remember, run INTO burning buildings while the rest of us are running out - should be forced to shovel snow from village sidewalks in their "spare time" to justify those inflated pensions.
Here's what I don't see them reading: Anything by Studs Terkel, John Steinbeck, or Howard Zinn. Why is the right capturing their imagination and controlling the dialogue?
Traditionally, the progressive agenda has been advanced by the labor movement. Union membership, at an all time low, is not anticipating a renaissance anytime soon. Where are the voices on the left who are speaking to the needs, hopes and dreams of the people who, by all rights, should be our natural allies?
Anyway, my friend - the activist - and I talked over lunch. We agreed: an awful lot of people in the suburbs are desperate. And desperately lack knowledge about how to survive in this economy. How do you feed your kids when all your money went to pay the rent? How do you keep your lights on? Where can you go when the pain from that cavity is getting blinding and you can't possibly afford a dentist? If we, as progressives, are going to organize in the suburbs, we need to offer more than the hope of an eventual jobs bill passing Congress in a few years' time - if we're lucky. We need to talk peace, bread, and land, as another activist once put it; we need to offer solidarity and solutions, one starfish at a time.
There must be, we agreed, some way to try to create a clearinghouse for the unemployed and the underemployed, for those facing foreclosure or in desperate need of other help. Those of us who have traversed the atrocious social service network that passes for a "safety net" need to reach out and help those facing it for the first time. We can't provide everything that is needed, obviously. But we need to do what can be done; we need to remember how the Unemployed Councils gathered support and provided real aid to those in need during the 30s.
Too many of us attend meeting after meeeting with the same 200 people. We're all great people, of course - but a mass movement we are not. And that, historically speaking, is what we are going to need to see real change.
So we're going to focus on that, my friend and I. There are great groups out there already in place, peace groups, justice groups, living wage groups, labor groups, faith based groups. We all share common values. We were all discouraged by the November election results, but with a little effort, we can take Joe Hill's words to heart and "Dont mourn - organize!"