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2008-09-03

Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign Takes Cause to Streets Outside RNC

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Guests

Cheri Honkala, National Organizer with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and executive director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. She grew up in Minneapolis and is based in Philadelphia.

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One day after the historic Poor People’s March in St. Paul, we speak to the group’s national organizer, Cheri Honkala. She’s a longtime organizer and director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

I am joined right now here in St. Paul on Democracy Now! by the national organizer of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, Cheri Honkala, longtime organizer and director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia, now living in Minneapolis here in the Twin Cities.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Cheri.

CHERI HONKALA:

I’m very happy and very thankful for shows like yours.

AMY GOODMAN:

Your thoughts on the Republican convention and what you feel needs to be the policy, the way to deal with the poor in this country?

CHERI HONKALA:

Well, we’ve been trying to organize a poor people’s movement for over a decade now. And we’ve just been fighting to, I think, do the most important thing, which is to make poor people visible.

I think that the majority of the people in this country don’t know the conditions in which people live in, and only if they saw with their own eyes seniors having to share medication, farmers being thrown off their land, homeless people living under bridges — and I think that if they saw those daily images, that the American people are good people, and I think that they would be moved to do something about the situation.

But with the combination of the lack of civil liberties and the ability to march and to speak about what’s happening in this country, as well as the takeover of corporate media in this country, it’s one of the hardest struggles that I’ve been a part of, to show the faces of poverty in this country.

AMY GOODMAN:

Your group was also at the Democratic convention in Denver.

CHERI HONKALA:

Yes, members of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign were also at the Democratic
National Convention. Things were also difficult for folks there to put a face on what’s happening to the majority of the people in this country.

AMY GOODMAN:

Talk about your own story, Cheri Honkala. How did you get involved with this?

CHERI HONKALA:

I’m a formerly homeless mother from here, from the Twin Cities, and I have an older son who’s twenty-eight now, but at the time, he was nine years old. And —

AMY GOODMAN:

He’s Mark Webber, the actor?

CHERI HONKALA:

Mark Webber, the actor now. And the both of us almost froze to death on the streets of Minnesota, because we couldn’t get into the homeless shelters here. And so, I decided one day to move into a government-owned, abandoned HUD property, because they had the heat on in the wintertime. And I made that decision — I had never broken any laws before in my life — because I wanted to stay alive and not die. And it’s been, ever since that time, some twenty-eight years ago, that I’ve been doing this kind of work, because I knew that if I could have died and nobody cared about what was happening to me, that that had to have been happening to thousands of other people across the country.

AMY GOODMAN:

It’s the fortieth anniversary of King’s Poor People’s March that he started, and then was assassinated, but continued. What is the relevance of that to today? Were you inspired at all by that?

CHERI HONKALA:

Our movement is very much trying to take up the baton where Dr. Martin Luther King left off. We now have the largest multiracial movement of poor people in this country. The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign can be found on — it has over 200 affiliates. We have members like the Immokalee farm workers, to the Coalition to Protect Public Housing, to trailer park residents in Minnesota, to some of the largest Indian reservations, you name it. And we have one message, which is, we’re calling for the elimination of poverty in this country, not the reduction, no more band-aids, not a bigger and better welfare system, but an elimination to the kind of conditions that we’re faced with.

AMY GOODMAN:

The message to end poverty in this country, will you talk about the corporate media and how it deals with these issues, or doesn’t?

CHERI HONKALA:

Yeah, I mean, I’ve been involved in large demonstrations for like the last twenty years, and I’m very ashamed of my home state. I’ve never seen so many reporters like yourself being detained. A Channel 5 reporter was trying to cover a story of us; he was thrown into an elevator. A couple other folks that we know that were trying to cover some of our events were also detained and then later released on two different occasions. We were inside the Capitol trying to have a peaceful demonstration during regular open hours of the Capitol, and the reporters were literally locked out of the Capitol and unable to come in, even though they showed their credentials. And so, I don’t quite get what is so horrible about covering a story of women and children and the elderly and people of all colors trying to come together to talk about the day-to-day reality of their lives.

AMY GOODMAN:

You know, I was astounded when I talked to the St. Paul police chief yesterday, and, you know, with the arrest, how is he instructing the press to — the police to deal with the press, and how are we supposed to operate when we are trying to cover this and the police arrest us. And he said you can embed yourselves with the police department. And you saw Rick Rowley, Big Noise filmmaker in this piece, he’s covering the riot police, and he sees there the Fox News reporter. As they’re pushing him away, she’s in the midst of them. And he yells to her, "Are you embedded with the police?" She comes in and out with the police.

CHERI HONKALA:

Yeah. I mean, for us, that’s no surprise, when it comes to Fox News. But we’re just absolutely outraged. And, you know, like my son said, “Mom, when you get up this morning, don’t read any of the papers. You know, don’t even turn on the television,” because regardless of the fact that poor people came together from all walks of life, every color, every age, yesterday, regardless of being terrorized for actually the last month —- we had two Bushvilles that were knocked down, encampments. When we came -—

AMY GOODMAN:

Bushvilles?

CHERI HONKALA:

Yeah, we set up encampments, particularly during the Republican National Convention, for some place for people to sleep, because we can’t afford the W or the Hilton. And so, people were staying at the Bushville, and our first Bushville that we set up on Harriet Island, the first night we were surrounded by 200 police officers in riot gear. They turned on the sprinklers on our children while they were sleeping, turned off all the park lights and drove their police vehicles up onto the lawn with their brights on. And myself and a couple of our other leaders were then arrested, and our Bushville was torn down. Later through the week, they brought dogs to our Bushville, while the kids were sleeping, let the dogs bark and scare the kids, and then periodically would just go by and drive up and run their sirens at 2:00, 3:00 in the morning, just to make people afraid.

AMY GOODMAN:

Cheri Honkala, can you describe the conditions of the poor, the daily challenges faced?

CHERI HONKALA:

Yeah. Actually, later this afternoon, I leave to go to a funeral in Philadelphia, where a woman, a good friend of mine, Esther, struggled her whole life, because she was right on the borderline in terms of not being able to qualify for medical assistance. And I think she spent each and every day trying to figure out how to pay for the many different medications that she had. So her whole life was about how does she get up every morning and figure out how to pull together, you know, that $80, $90, or whatever, for one individual prescription after another. And these were in the last dying days of her life. People shouldn’t have to live like this.

I have a six-year-old son who needs serious eye treatment. I, as well, don’t qualify for medical assistance, and I’m right on the borderline. And he’s supposed to have regular eye checks, because —

AMY GOODMAN:

Glaucoma?

CHERI HONKALA:

Glaucoma runs in my family, and he’s stopped seeing out of his right eye. So I have no idea how I’m going to cover those costs.

My older son, who has now become a movie star, has spent every waking moment of his life using his power and his financial resources to fund and give us resources. And, you know, as this movement continues to get larger, there’s never enough money, but he’s committed to helping to fund a movement that wants to eliminate poverty and homelessness. He’s not interested in giving money to a charity. He knows, as a formerly homeless boy in this country, that he has a responsibility to do whatever he possibly can to help make this movement grow and give it visibility.

AMY GOODMAN:

Cheri Honkala, your website?

CHERI HONKALA:

Our website is www.economichumanrights.org. And people can see lots of the footage that they never will see on any television program on that website.

AMY GOODMAN:

Cheri Honkala, thanks so much for joining us, of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, and we’ll link to it at democracynow.org.

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