The Moral Question
By Douglas T. Ncebere
The declaration of independence of the United States of America, which is also enshrined in the constitution of the land, regards all inhabitants of this nation as “the people.” The words that declare all people as equal were restated by Frederick Douglass in his speech at Rochester, NY on July 5th 1852, and again by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Mountaintop Speech of 1967. Douglass and MLK remind us that the constitution indeed represents all the people, except that it is not followed to the letter. MLK’s dissatisfaction with the unmet purpose of the constitution is summed up in these words: “But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”
These words capture the imagination of Thursday, the 24th of January, 2013, in our trip to Christiana and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There exists the tension over the interpretation of this legal document, an interpretation which goes hand in hand with the choices that are made, or the predicaments to be faced. This tension is evident in the way two characters, Edward Gorsuch, a slave-owner in Christiana, PA, and William Parker, a brave fighter against slavery, understood the subject of slavery and morality over this matter. Both the slave-owner and the anti-slavery crusader saw God’s approval in their various actions. This connects well with “The Slavery Question” in which “different Americans saw slavery in different ways—as mortal sin or God’s will or a lifelong sentence to labor and oppression. American’s differing beliefs about slavery were a source of enduring bitter conflict” (words found in the Gettysburg Museum). However, Douglass and King were able to assert, with much clarity, that slavery and poverty are evils that the society needed to fight against.
The recurring issue of slavery and poverty where human beings were and are treated as property did arise in Christiana, PA, especially in our meetings in the Unitarian and King of Kings Churches. The time of speaking about the vulnerabilities suffered exposed utter brokenness of the society we live in: the fear to speak about the condition of poverty in all its forms. This raises the question of the place for human dignity in our contemporary situation. We live at a time when human beings view others not as people but as bodies to be utilized in industries, shopping malls, and other sectors of the economy for maximum profit production. The question of a just wage, the immigration status and the documentation that goes with it, unemployment, health insurance, housing, etc, emerged. Any system that does not treat all people equally and with the dignity they require can never claim to have done justice in its entirety. Rather, it is emblematic of the structures of injustice that need transformation. The main question is why hide under the cover of unfair systems and use the same to benefit from others and thus render them poor and powerless? For me this is the moral question of our time that must be dealt with.
Matt Hoffman—Blog Post:
Amidst the growing national discussion surrounding public education, one truth has become apparent —now, more than ever – and it is simply that education is intricately tied to poverty. As former teacher, I have seen how education inequality is both a product and a contributing factor to the limited options and continued marginalization of poor communities. While education has not been an explicit focus of our immersion trip to Pennsylvania/New York, I have been continually thinking of ways to connect larger economic and political systems of poverty with education. To me, education is both an individual and a collective answer to the poverty plaguing the United States.
The right to a quality education is a fundamental right given to all citizens (in my opinion, this should read “all people”) of the United States. Long attached to “the American Dream,” education is central to idea that people are able to overcome hardships. This narrative is deceiving for many reasons, the least of which is that students in low-income communities often do not have access to the same quality education as their higher-income peers. Students in such communities face a multitude of problems and struggles, compounded by a lack of access to quality education. When the location you were born or the income of your family or your status as an immigrant determines your educational opportunities, there is a huge human rights crisis on our hands.
From my time with the Poverty Initiative, I have had the opportunity to interact with two organizations that are tackling education in their own way: the Broome-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in Binghamton, NY and Teacher Action Group in Philadelphia. BOCES, a group charged with managing the school lunch and breakfast program from 15+ school districts in the Binghamton area collaborated with other organizations to meet student need. Working with area partners, BOCES was able to extend food programs to summer and long weekends. Along the lines of education, BOCES is working to educate parents, students, and family members on the importance of balanced eating and proper nutrition. As many teachers can attest, it is incredibly difficult to learn on an empty stomach and health foods are rarely inexpensive. The work of BOCES provides options and education to those constrained by poverty.
The other organization that we heard from that is working within the education sector was the Teacher Action Group in Philadelphia, PA. This group is made up of current teachers, parents, students, and community groups in Philadelphia and is organized around the idea of strengthening their influence regarding school decisions. In addition to curriculum and learning groups, TAG is advocating against the recent announcement of school closures within the city. Advocating on the best interest of students and the community is crucial, and it demonstrates the interconnectedness of poverty and education. Indeed, the large majority of students impacted by the policies of the public schools in Philadelphia are considered to be low-income and impoverished.
by Shay O’Reilly
“It’s up to us to recognize that we need a movement of people in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, nationwide, and globally to deal with this,” Frank Sindaco told us Sunday. “We don’t have the resources that RAND corporation or the Brookings Institute have, we only have each other. That means we have to be even smarter, clearer, more committed, and we have to insure that we’re building something for ourselves that can provide a counterbalance to the system that is imbalanced and is getting moreso.”
The title of this blog, “A New and Unsettling Force,” comes from remarks by Martin Luther King Jr. in which he describes an organization of poor people across lines of both color and geography. In Pennsylvania the lines are strict between black and white, city and country. This separation “is good news for the people who make policy,” Put People First PA’s Nijmie Dzurinko said Monday at a meeting to honor King’s legacy through building the movement for which he sacrificed his life.
The meeting, held at First Presbyterian in Wilkes-Barre, drew about 20 community members, young and old, black and white. It was a recruitment event and a training event for Put People First PA, although the Poverty Initiative also presented a brief background on King’s Poor People’s Campaign.
A survey facilitated by PPFPA’s Mitch revealed that the vast majority of people in attendance — including people on our trip — fought to make enough money to scrape by, find healthcare or dental care, and feed their families. Only two of the attendees were unconcerned about having their basic needs met; even these two had loved ones battling poverty.
Here is a collection of quotes from Wilkes-Barre’s struggling:
- “We have a right to vote but we put people in office who say they’re with us though they aren’t really with us… it makes one mad at politicians because they’re not doing anything to help poor people, low-income people.”
- “They made us think like we were guilty of a crime, that it’s our fault for being poor… they’ve destroyed our belief system. It’s up to us to restore our belief system, and then to take action.”
- “It seems like the only way to have a voice is to have a lobbyist or a tragedy.”
Without a lobbyist or a tragedy (at least one more gripping than the gradual erosion of people’s lives for the sake of profit), what can people do in the face of budget cuts and increasing austerity measures?
Nijmie, Frank, and Mitch find inspiration in the Vermont Workers’ Center, which launched a successful state-wide campaign to guarantee universal healthcare. By creating a power base across the state, regardless of racial and geographic prejudice, Put People First PA aims to “expand the realm of the possible” in state politics and force an end to the systems that keep people poor. Organizers are conscious of the implications of following the Vermont model: Igniting a state-by-state fight to reclaim government for the suffering people.
At the Poverty Initiative we like to point out that the elites of society are smart and — as the old labor line went — organized as a class. Poverty Scholars Program leader Willie Baptist is fond of saying that “never in history has a dumb force defeated a smart force.” In order to end the poverty that exists as part of a deliberately created economic order, the disenfranchised must organize and work smart.
“The struggle for rights has always been a struggle for power,” Put People First PA told the gathering yesterday. The struggle for economic and human rights, for the means by which people can survive and thrive, will necessarily put the poor in conflict with existing power structures. The struggle to redefine the future of Wilkes-Barre and all the other post-industrial cities in the United States means necessarily taking power from development groups and large corporations, and placing it back with the people. As with all people power, it begins humbly: with the forging of human connections that overcome artificial barriers.
“We have the solutions,” Nijmie said. “We already know the answers. All we need is a space to say them.”
By: Karenna Schiff
January 21, 2013
Today, The Poverty Initiative met with people from this northeast Pennsylvania community to move towards changing the system that keeps so many without fulfillment of basic needs like housing, child care, health and food. Frank from Putting People First spoke about “breaking down isolation” as a foundational step in this movement, and people shared experiences and feelings towards that end. A common thread was the experience of being scorned, blamed or looked down on for being poor. “They make it seem like its a crime,” one man said, “Its up to us to restore our faith in ourselves.” The conversation brought to mind a contrasting moment from yesterdays visit to a quiet neighborhood that had recently had a gas processing plant imposed on it (after a cursory, rigged “comment period”). One of the neighbors, Kim, related to us how she put up a Facebook post about living with the noise, vibration, and constant threat of explosion and pollution. No one responded. We live in an age that is hyperconnected, yet lacking in real human togetherness. The system that profits from that plant (which runs by machines and computers) depends on the illusion of democratic power and the reality of people alienated from each other. The fact that is is indifferent to destruction of the earth is not coincidental to its indifference to people. It was a startling and stark image.
Today is both MLK day and Inauguration day and we are overwhelmed with epic historical echoes. The first African-American President delivered his second Inaugural with allusions to King and Lincoln (touching Bibles used by each of them). “Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free,” Obama said, echoing Lincoln in 1865. One focus of this trip is to glean historical lessons, specifically looking for inspiration from the fight against slavery for today’s fight against poverty. A close look reveals importance of movement from the ground up to challenge to challenge a social structure that benefits the few at the expense of the many. Any leader’s perspective and intentions must be understood in the context of what is the most palpable popular will.
In today’s NYT, Joseph Stiglitz writes that “The magnitude and nature of the country’s inequality represent a serious threat to America” but we have not been able to do anything significant about it. He reminds us that in 2009, bailout money poured into banks while unemployment went up, depressing wages and disabling people from investment in their own family’s futures. We could have instead rebuilt economy from the bottom up. We missed an important opportunity, but we still can change direction. To do so, we need a comprehensive political agenda that includes Stiglitz’s suggestions of “significant investments in education, a more progressive tax system and a tax on financial speculation” but we also need a fundamental shift in the national conversation to manifest “we the people” as the real holders of power.
Reflections on our first day — Sindy Morales Garcia
It was only yesterday that we began our journey together in good old AD 30, but we have already processed so much together that it feels like weeks ago. Time flies when you you’re interrogating systems of oppression!
One of the images that I’ve carried with me since yesterday is that of the tree that has become the logo for the Poverty Initiative. I imagine myself sitting beneath the shadow of that ancient tree that has witness the life and death of so many generations. Its rings are uncountable and its roots run deep within the earth, spanning in a complexly interwoven web throughout our mother earth. As I close my eyes and sit still, leaning in to hear this tree share her many stories, I hear the multiple voices in many languages of her innumerable trees, limbs, and roots. Here are the stories of our communities, past and present. Here are the stories of calculated oppression, life and death struggle, and audacious acts of resistance. Here are the stories that will inspire and inform the dreamers and revolutionaries of today. And as I lean in and press my open hands on its trunk, feeling its rough texture beneath my fingers, I am reminded of the importance of knowing my own story. Throughout the last few years discovering, embracing, examining, and challenging the silenced counter-narratives of my community has been a significant part of my life-long journey of liberation and restoration. As I sat in our classroom filled with students who carried with them a rich diversity of communities and narratives, I was reminded of the importance of not privileging the narratives of some communities over others. Everyone has a voice whispered amongst the leaves of humanity’s tree. The systems and structures of oppression, with its deep and complex historical roots, has many long and strong branches, all different manifestations of oppression that have shaped the lived realities of many different communities. But all these branches, though in separate clumps, share the same trunk and roots. So as we sit together, learning how to listen to the stories and wisdom of this tree for our struggle today, my hope is that we can continue to challenge ourselves to expand our thinking beyond the dualistic regionalism of a “black” and “white” U.S. paradigm. Jeff Perry provided us with a wonderful example of such analysis through the work of Theodore Allen. I look forward to engaging with many more voices that continue expand my knowledge of history and understanding of how that has shaped our world today. Some of those voices will be of our ancestors, others of courageous women (yes, let us learn from more women!) and men of history. But the voices I am most excited to hear from are of all of you…yes, you beautiful, intelligent, and profound women and men with whom I have the privilege of learning from and with. I welcome and strive to honor your wisdom, stories, experiences, frustrations, and fears as we sit together underneath the branches of Humanity’s tree, listening to the voices of our ancestors and each other.
Put People First
by Gwen Horner
Today started early, up at 6:15 a.m. Our host is The First Presbyterian Church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It is January 21, 2013, a day this nation has set aside to honor Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As an African American I am extremely proud on this day. Today is also the second inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama, the first African American president. This event is taking place one hundred and fifty years after the signing of the emancipation proclamation.
After breakfast we had textual reflection on John Brown’s final speech, a MLK quote from a speech to his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist and Luke 4. I went on a food run and missed the entire conversation. The afternoon session was hosted by Put People First Pennsylvania. The meeting was attended by a broad spectrum of community organizers and leaders. After the welcome and prayer an interactive stand up/sit down segment was held. A series of questions was posed to the audience about basic human needs. We were asked if we had ever experienced or knew someone that experienced the lack of food, employment, housing or health insurance. For each question more than half the people in the room stood up. This response shined a spotlight on the need to organize for social transformation to eradicate the economic imbalances that create the lack of basic needs. This introduction set the stage for the Poverty Initiative to provide some contextual analysis on MLK and the movement for human rights. At the time of Dr. King’s assassination he was speaking on behalf of the sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee. This was part of the work he was doing with the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign was a1968 effort to gain economic justice for poor people in this county. In 1968, 25 million people were living in poverty; today that number has increased to almost 148 million people. After his death this Campaign became a dream unfulfilled. The Poverty Initiative believes that poverty is the defining issue of our day. They have taken up the mantle and is dedicated to carrying forward Dr. King’s legacy; especially the work of the Poor People’s Campaign. Based on their experience through working with other community organizers a list of first steps was quantified. The steps should include listening, organizing, developing strategies against structures that create poverty and consulting the poor. The floor was opened to audience for feedback and reflections on the struggles of the poor in our communities. The overall consensus was that poverty is increasing in this country and the current structures and systems are not going to alleviate the problem. The solutions have to come from the poor uniting across racial, ethic and cultural lines to help them selves.
The meeting then moved on to the introduction of other community organizations and their leaders. They each had the opportunity to share a brief narrative. I was move by Nijimie Dzumako who said, “I feel a new and unsettling force in the room.” The energy of the groups in the room that are attempting to organize statewide was powerful. It is now our task to carry on what MLK began. Our journey is not complete until systemic and structural economic injustices are dismantled. All the poor and disposed are challenged to be a part of this movement.
January 19, 2013
The second day of our immersion found us beginning once more in AD30, discussing three concepts that could each be the focus of a semester-long course of their own: rights, religion, and race. We opened our reflection with a conversation on the necessity of education and analysis in the generation of effective social action. What struck me the most about the group’s discussion was the knowledge based in the experience of working with others who have organized movements for change without first engaging in an in-depth exploration of the system at hand. The ideas put forth by the group beautifully connected with the tree metaphor presented in the previous day – when we don’t engage in an intentional analysis of what exists beneath the diverse struggles we face, we end up focusing not on the roots, but on the leaves of the tree. As a result, the system stays in place, firmly planted, and new problematic leaves grow. Intentional analysis has the power to bring us together more effectively, as it encourages us to look beyond what we face as individuals or specific communities. The informed combination of our struggles creates a form of social action that all remain connected to, regardless of the issue at hand in the present moment, because we can better appreciation its relation to our universal well-being.
The discussion then transitioned to a focus on “rights” and almost instantaneously we came across our first major concern – what do we mean when we say “rights”? Martin Luther King, Jr. in his campaign spoke about shifting the focus from “civil rights” to “human rights”, leading me to believe that there is something more universal that must be at the core of our efforts when we are working to bring people together. As one student said, he envisions rights as being “the minimum, the floor” that all are entitled to have. The question we must then ask is what are those basic rights? What do we define as universal, can we even define what is universal in a society that is as diverse as this one? The reality facing many social movements is their inevitable limitation: whomever is at the forefront represents one voice from the margins. Thus, there is a danger for movements that attempt to achieve basic human rights to unintentionally exclude others who have been pushed into the margins. This pattern can run the risk of continuing the division among the dispossessed…unless we remember to engage in the intentional analysis that brings attention to the systemic concerns behind each of our struggles. Later, when the conversation incorporated the Declaration of Independence, the “God-given rights of people”, I could not help but wonder if we need a change in our view of this document’s message. The Declaration of Independence is often seen as a self-assertive document, and thus has served as a reference point for many individual movements. But for an effort such as this one, which places unity at the forefront of bringing essential change, should we adapt our interpretation of this statement as a reminder to observe the rights of others? When our own rights are violated and denied, it is easy to become trapped in a concern for the alteration in our own situation. But if our social framework is based in an understanding of others’ rights, in a gratitude for the humanity and worth of those around us (as well as ourselves), appreciating needs different from our own and uniting across lines becomes a more natural response.
When the conversation shifted towards the nature of “rights” in religion, I admit that I became a little uncomfortable. Having been raised I a non-Christian environment, I am concerned when conversations on religion in social movements remain focused on Christianity and the Bible. While that conversation is an essential part of our discussion, particularly when examining the oppressive forces at play in US history, rights (if they are truly universal) cannot be defined by a religious, let alone solely Christian, framework. I realize that this statement is potentially controversial, and I do not mean to say that religion plays no role in our work to assert or defend our human rights. But the defining work, in order to be universally applicable and unifying, cannot be based in an element of society that not all share. That being said, our reflections on and protection of these rights can only be strengthened by a deep religious understanding of their relevance to whatever faith we may proclaim.
After lunch, we returned to discuss perhaps the most complex topic yet – race. The presentation by Jeffrey Perry began with a powerful statement – “there is no white race.” Having read some of Tim Wise’s anti-racism work, I was familiar with some of the ideas surrounding the intentional construction of race, but this presentation offered a deeply historical analysis that was conducted by Theodore Allen. Allen’s theory identifies race as being a social construct carefully crafted by the ruling class. His analysis beginning in early-colonial America presents the invention of the “white race” as a way of preventing those in the lower classes from coming together against the wealthiest members of society. By dividing the poor with the invention of the “white race”, the wealthy created a system that united Euro-Americans of different class levels against poor African-Americans. Thus, “plantation politics”, as defined by Du Bois, began to take hold of our society in its earliest days, pitting poor whites against African-Americans, and creating a system of social control that left the wealthy untouched. Class unity among the poor was effectively prevented with the creation of this new social construct. Among the inevitable conclusions of this analysis is the reality that modern-day racial oppression only serves to perpetuate class division, and serves as one of the greatest hurdles to the creation of a movement that unites the poor and dispossessed. So long as racism is allowed to continue, there will not be an effective effort to address the glaringly unjust economic disparity in our society. Perry’s presentation was a powerful reminder of why efforts like the Poor People’s Campaign and the Poverty Initiative are needed – to show the shared story, to create a class-consciousness that unites across different lines, and to recognize what is at the root of our experience of oppression so that we can come together to assert our truly universal human rights.
Our day ended with a tour of different key sites in the Abolitionist (and anti-Abolitionist) movements, highlighting once more the division that perpetuates the oppressive systems in our society. One of the prime examples was our stop at Five Points, where the poor of different backgrounds co-existed peacefully for some time. However, this harmony dissipated with the institution of the draft in the Civil War, and division between Euro-Americans and African-Americans surged. Seen as the cause of the draft, African-Americans became targets of hostility, which came to a peak in the “Five Point Riots”, in which dozens were killed and unity among the poor in the area was destroyed. Our tour continued to the site of Collect Pond, which had been a location of poor living conditions for many across colorlines, and the African Burial Ground, now a national monument identifying the location where hundreds of Africans were buried in the 17th and 18th century. One of the memorial walls had an inscription that dedicated its existence to those who “are not forgotten”, an important message to remember as we examine the roots of the division ad oppression present in our society today. We continued to Printers Row and City Hall, where the role of mass media in generating social movements through the endorsement of a particular stance on a divisive issue was considered in relation to our work today.
Our tour and day ended with visits to Zuccotti Park and Wall Street, key sites of the Occupy movement. During our visit to these sites, we were reminded of how they were places where people were united against oppressive economic systems, showing us how barrier-crossing was possible and functioning today. But we were also reminded of one of the greatest risks of coming together – that is when the attempts to divide us are the strongest. The lessons of the day flowed through my mind – our actions must be grounded in deep reflection on and understanding of the forces at play. Only then will we be able to move beyond our own narrow understandings of what rights we are struggling for, and create a universal movement that is based in bonds that defy past, present, and future attempts to prevent unity among the marginalized.
by Shay O’Reilly
As our van hopped over the Delaware Water Gap, the Wyoming Valley spread out before us, houses glinting white in the bright January morning. The communities in the valley are a set of little municipalities. For every 100,000 people, there are 28 governments — tiny towns, all brought together by the deep veins of anthracite coal that, after a long struggle, made them rich for a time.
On the swooping two-lane road into Wilkes-Barre, we passed homes in various stages of disrepair and decay: from gleaming fresh lawns to crooked, boarded windows. There were fewer new houses than old ones, and most of the older houses were peeling at least. Dead leaves drifted in the empty main square, a couple of people crossing hurriedly in the winter cold; wooden debris piled high in an empty lot near Main Street.
Wilkes-Barre local Frank Sindaco told us later that the town wasn’t as hard-hit as its neighbors, that the lingering coal and newer industry had kept its community more stable than those around it. Still the empty storefronts and “for sale” signs on houses spoke of a community struggling for decades against the economic forces that ransacked the rest of the country.
First Presbyterian church was a majestic red sandstone building, its translucent stained glass covered in a fine metal mesh. We moved our belongings into the church, and met Frank Sindaco there. Frank, a Wilkes-Barre native, had seen the town’s struggle, and its recent crisis; he was a volunteer with Put People First PA, an organization we’d heard about from Nijmie the day before. He took us on a whirlwind tour of the city’s history.
First there was the coal. The coal breaking plant reared up from the hills like a giant tooth. Up close today, its broken windows look like a rotting shroud; the plant, long abandoned, may soon be the site of a coal miner’s memorial. The coal companies owned everything at first, Frank said, including people: “To the people that owned these mines, human lives were dispensable.” Later organizing by the United Mine Workers released the miners from quasi-slavery. Major strikes rocked the region, and the UMW’s victories in Northeastern Pennsylvania became the cornerstone of the union’s spread.
But anthracite mining declined in the Wyoming Valley around the World Wars, after the reserves were exhausted and the cost of extraction became too high. Farming declined, too, although the industrial boom and expansion hitting the entire nation affected Wilkes-Barre, too, with manufacturing common.
When automation and globalization condemned manufacturing to a slow death, the communities declined too. The death of manufacturing and industrial work meant the weakening of unions and other community groups run by common people. Standing in an empty lot, Frank described the cycle now so familiar to many Americans: lost jobs lead to lost homes lead to a smaller tax base leads to service cuts lead to lost jobs.
Growing up in Wilkes-Barre in the 1980s, Frank did not know what homelessness was. But the 1990s crisis in the old industrial areas brought it home. With the old blue-collar organizations’ decline, only the Chamber of Commerce and the politicians had the strength to put forward a vision for Wilkes-Barre — and, as happened all over the country, they decided that the real problem was a lack of development. A rising tide would lift all boats.
We traveled to the result of their policies, past the ever-expanding casino: A big-box development area, with a Target, WalMart, and other cheap (and not-so-cheap) chain stores. They were the result, Frank said, of a “keystone opportunity zone” — a bribe to large chains to let them occupy the land, rent-free, for the first ten years.
The development organizations saw people suffering and offered service-sector jobs with little security, low wages, and few benefits. They also created a cheerleading campaign for the town, figuring that the real cause of the economic struggles was the people’s “hopeless negativity.”
As these policies unfolded, a new industry came into the area: natural gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing.
We drove half an hour out of Wilkes-Barre, through hills and farmland instead of modest homes. A sharp turn up a steep road brought us to the corner of Kim’s land. Below us was a gleaming industrial facility lacquered deep green: a natural gas processing plant, part of the fracking machine that’s come to Pennsylvania. That plant refined the raw product of fracking, with impurities — including methane and benzene — removed. Two towers released the shimmering waste into the air.
Kim, a farmer who raises horses, and Scott, a filmmaker documenting the spread of fracking in the region, talked to us on the asphalt road. The plant had come after a neighbor leased fracking company PVR his land, they said, and with it came a host of troubles. The constant movement of the refinery caused houses around to constantly vibrate, raising concerns about structural damage; valves have broken several times, releasing spurts of gas into the air and sounds like a jet engine. “If two blow, it’s so loud you can’t hear yourself think,” Kim said.
If the plant somehow caught fire, neighbors would have an estimated 14 minutes to salvage their belongings and families before the inferno melted their homes. One woman who lived close to the plant woke up one morning with a rash; her water tested positive for arsenic. At the refinery hearing, a PVR representative told families that their children with asthma would not be effected, and that the emissions would be pure methane — a blatant lie. But advocates like Scott who did not live in the county were not allowed to testify.
Neighbors are filing a lawsuit claiming the plant is a nuisance, but beyond that they have little recourse. Natural gas companies prey on economic need, convincing farmers to lease them land without a thought to the future environmental consequences. They also target communities in economic shambles with promises of jobs. “There is money and there is jobs, but never as much as they say there is,” Scott told us. “It’s all for the corporate executives in other states. It’s not for us.”
“You have to take care of your land,” Kim said, shaking her head. “If your land is contaminated, and your water is contaminated, you can’t feed anybody. Every farmer knows that.”
The refinery is unmanned. As Union student Karenna Schiff pointed out on the van ride back to the church, it is literally inhuman: A machine steadily extracting value from the land, uncaring for the imperiled lives around it.
The gas-rich Marcellus shale will be exhausted in 40 years, and Frank predicted another coal situation: “Industry comes in, sucks everything out, destroys everything, and leaves people behind.” Decaying monuments to coal stand across Northeastern Pennsylvania, and there is fear among the farmers and the organizers that fracking’s legacy will be more permanent.
Wilkes-Barre is in crisis, caught in another cycle of declining city income and joblessness; new and unaffordable “eco-friendly” developments stood empty at the edge of downtown, near the recently-privatized hospital. Whole sections of the city have lost fire coverage after the city closed fire stations to save money. And the only answers put forth by the city government are more capitulation to corporate interests, and more free-market solutions that put profit ahead of people.
In fact, the rise of mechanization untethers profits from the people who used to produce them. Kim goes to bed tonight with her house shaking from the machine at the bottom of the hill, no human worker observing as it extracts value from the flesh of the earth. Townships now lobby corporations (and not vice versa) for relocation, losing tax dollars in the process and hurting local businesses.
It reminds me of an essay in Jacobin magazine by Peter Frase just a few years ago about the future of our political economy: whether we would have scarcity or abundance, hierarchy or mutuality. Frase describes the most disturbing option, scarcity and hierarchy, as “exterminism,” “communism for the few”: as the majority of the population becomes no longer useful for the elites, they withdraw to enclaves of plenty (guarded by ever-more-elaborate protections) while the rest starve.
In some ways a shadow of this darkest future (and Frase admits it is Platonic, abstract) already exists, although not in totality: Like the coal companies stripping the anthracite veins, the multinational corporations use up cities like Wilkes-Barre, and then both leave. For now consumers are still useful, although the diminishing purchasing power of post-immiseration consumers will force businesses to evolve. At that point, if we get there, poverty will have already spread and deepened.
Frase’s tortured vision of exterminism, a terror that haunts me as I settle in for the night in the Presbyterian church, would mean the triumph of evil. Our theological reflection tonight revealed numerous perspectives but one underlying truth: we all believe that God does not support injustice, and that human beings are gifted with both the responsibility and free will to struggle against it. This, as Rev. Liz Theoharis points out, is historically a rare and revolutionary belief.
The story of Wilkes-Barre is not one of despair. There is a solid determined hope, one that echoes through history in miners and reformers. People like Frank Sindaco, who gave us a tour he gave so many people before us, are organizing, building a coalition of the poor, people who are best able to lay claim to a better future. Their story does not end when coal, or industry, or fracking, leaves. On this trip we will see the grim shadows of American society, but (I have been promised) we will also see glory in the people striving. The purpose of this course is, after all, to understand both the task ahead of us and how people rise to face it.
We will learn about that tomorrow.