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Fifty Years After the Declaration of Human Rights

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On the 50th anniversary of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, a New Freedom Bus is traveling to poor communities throughout the country proclaiming “Freedom from Unemployment, Hunger, and Homelessness.” Sponsored by the National Welfare Rights Union, the Economic Human Rights Campaign is a national effort to highlight the economic human rights abuses caused by welfare reform, anti-immigrant legislation, downsizing and poverty.

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

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

On the 50th anniversary year of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, a New Freedom Bus is traveling to poor communities throughout the country, proclaiming “Freedom from Unemployment, Hunger, and Homelessness.” Sponsored by the National Welfare Rights Union, the Economic Human Rights Campaign is a national effort to highlight the economic human rights abuses caused by welfare reform, anti-immigrant legislation, downsizing and poverty.

We’re joined right now by two people who are riding that bus. Erica Morrison is a Freedom Bus rider who lives at the Human Rights House, a transitional house for homeless people and welfare recipients in Philadelphia, and Cheri Honkala, who is executive director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! They are in our Washington studios. As they finish crossing the country, they are making their way to New York, where they will be on Wednesday. Welcome, both, to Democracy Now!

CHERI HONKALA: Good morning. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to be with you. Cheri Honkala, why don’t you start by telling us what the inspiration for this trip was?

CHERI HONKALA: After we had exhausted things on a local level and a national level, we knew that we had to do something other than that. So that’s when we decided that we had to break our isolation in this country and take this thing to an international level. We’ve participated in every kind of testimonial and every hearing possible to talk about what’s happening to poor families across this country. And after seeing no results, we knew we had to take this thing to a larger body and to break our isolation here in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Erica Morrison, where did you get on the Freedom Bus?

ERICA MORRISON: In Philadelphia on June 1st.

AMY GOODMAN: On June 1st. And where have you traveled so far?

ERICA MORRISON: I’ve been to places like West Virginia; Lorain, Ohio; Rochester, New York; San Francisco. I’ve been a lot of places.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you yourself were homeless, is that right?

ERICA MORRISON: Yes. Actually, I still am.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you hook up with the whole National Welfare Rights Union and this Kensington Welfare Rights Union to become a part of the Freedom Ride?

ERICA MORRISON: I heard about the Kensington Welfare Rights Union from a friend of mine that used to be with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. And she was telling me about the Kensington Welfare Right Union fighting for housing. And naturally, I just, like, jumped on the bandwagon. And I was worried about getting a house or whatever, because I was living with my aunt and her 11 kids, and, like, five of her kids had kids, and I have three children, and was just in this one house, a four-bedroom house, and it was just like, really, really hectic. And so I moved into the Human Rights House. And naturally, I was just wanting housing, wanting somebody to just get me a house. So I said, “Oh, well, I’ll just just go on a little protest, just do whatever it is I need to do to get my house.” But now I see that it’s much, much bigger than just that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Erica Morrison, Freedom Bus rider, now I arrived in Washington, and Cheri Honkala, who’s the executive director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. Now, when you both arrive with the Freedom Riders in New York on Wednesday, can you talk about the suit that you will be filing and on what grounds you’re filing this lawsuit, Cheri Honkala?

CHERI HONKALA: After traveling to about 30 different locations in this country, we know that we have the basis to go forward with filing some sort of class-action suit against the United States government for economic human rights violations. The devastating stories that we’ve heard about people dying in this country as a result of not having their basic human rights has been absolutely devastating. And so, we will be met by a group of attorneys. One attorney that’s leading the process is Peter Weiss from the Center for Constitutional Rights. And at that point, he will announce the fact that we are not symbolically engaging in this activity, but that we are serious about going after the United States government for these economic human rights violations.

As the president is in China today raising issues of human rights violations, he has them right here at home. And just like human rights violations are appalling anywhere in the world, they’re also appalling here. And we’ve got to begin to do something, because we live in such an affluent country, and there’s no reason for the kind of deaths that are occurring in our country as a result of welfare reform.

AMY GOODMAN: Cheri Honkala, describe the people who are on the bus — how many are there, where they come from.

CHERI HONKALA: There’s about 47 of us that are on the bus. About 13 are children. So you can imagine how difficult that is. And, like, yesterday, we had a ride for about 32 hours. So it’s quite difficult. The majority of the folks that are on the bus are currently homeless or formerly homeless or on public assistance. All of us that are riding on the bus are struggling to figure out how to provide for ourselves and our families. And they’ve been a courageous group of people, like Erica here today, who are currently in devastating economic situations. And yet they understand the importance of traveling around to different parts of the country and collecting the stories of other folks that are hurting across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the press coverage that you’ve been getting, the idea of putting out people’s stories to humanize people who are homeless, people who are on welfare. What is the press interested in? Are you getting any coverage?

CHERI HONKALA: Well, thank God for radio stations like you folks, because we have clearly come to understand that no matter how amazing it is to have poor folks themselves organize a bus, go around the entire country in one month, hitting over 30 locations — somehow we think that’s kind of newsworthy. And yet the media coverage has been absolutely disgusting, very little coverage, small paragraphs. But we know we’re in an uphill battle. We know that if we’ve got to stand on every corner across this country, go door to door in every housing projects, that we will get to the people that need to hear us, that we know that if the majority of the American people knew what was happening to families across this land, that they wouldn’t tolerate it. And therefore, we understand the importance of what we’re doing, because they also understand the importance of ensuring that we don’t get a voice in this process.

AMY GOODMAN: The Kensington welfare rights group that you are a part of is a very controversial one, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia. You are involved with house takeovers. Can you explain what they are? It doesn’t only happen in Philadelphia; it does happen around the country.

ERICA MORRISON: I think I can answer that question. You got to figure it like it’s so many — so many poor families that’s out on the streets dying literally just like every day, and you got so many abandoned houses that’s just sitting there for we don’t know what reason. So, what we do is we house these families that need to be housed, whether it have to be breaking padlocks off doors or whatever. So, we’re going to try to see someone in the house instead of on the street. And that’s like the basis for our takeover housing.

CHERI HONKALA: We believe that we have the moral high ground, that we think that it should be against the law for folks to allow women and children to live on the streets in this country. And so, on a daily basis, we move families into abandoned houses, distribute free food, provide clothing. There is no waiting list. There is no bureaucracy. There’s plenty to go around in this country. And we think that things like food, clothing and housing shouldn’t be left up for negotiations, that these should just be basic human rights. And if our country isn’t prepared to provide the people of this country with them, we’re prepared to take those things back.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Cheri Honkala, executive director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, and Erica Morrison, who’s a Freedom Bus rider and a part of Human Rights House in Philadelphia and part of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. It’s very interesting also that you’re doing this not only during this year of the 50th anniversary of the U.N. Human Rights Declaration, but also as President Clinton is in China, because I was just reading in the headlines that students there in Beijing were asking about the human rights situation here at home, here in the United States. And here, you’re on this trip that is highlighting the issue of human rights here at home. So it’s interesting how little press coverage that you’re getting. But aside from press coverage, what about church groups? What about community groups in the cities that you pass through?

CHERI HONKALA: We’ve been embraced by elements of organized labor, by many different churches, student groupings, you name it. But we still have a ways to go. We won’t be satisfied until the majority of the people in this country begin to say that we’ve got to begin to do something, similar to slavery — there became a period in history in which people could no longer sit by on the sidelines and not see themselves as a part of the problem. And that’s what we see today. Five years ago, it was appalling to see homeless families living on the streets of this country, and now it’s kind of the norm. We were appalled, pulling into Washington, D.C., last night and seeing the massive numbers of homeless people just around the White House. It’s absolutely appalling.

And we think that there needs to be more done on behalf of the religious community, on behalf of organized labor, community groups, you name it. We think that this is the number one issue right now in this country and in our land, and that we can no longer afford to be spectators and sit on the sidelines, that we have to actively do something in an effort to save the majority of the people that are in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Once you make it to the United Nations on Wednesday, where do you go from there?

CHERI HONKALA: Well, what we will do is, we are committed to going forward with some kind of case against the United States government for economic human rights violations. And in October, we will be holding a national Poor People’s Summit that will take place in Philadelphia, in which we will bring together all of the folks that have been organizing on the Economic Human Rights Campaign. After that, we have many international invites. Approximately a day after the bus, I have been invited to a human rights conference that’s taking place in Israel. And we will be speaking about what’s happening here in this country. Many people abroad are excited by the fact that poor folks in this country are beginning to get organized and beginning to expose the dirty laundry here in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: If people want to get a hold of the Kensington Human Rights Union and, overall, the National Welfare Rights Union, where can they call?

CHERI HONKALA: They can contact us at area code 215-203-1945. That’s 215-203-1945. And they can give us a call and find out where we are at any given point in the country, figure out how they can get involved. Or they can also bring up our website, which is LibertyNet.org/~kwru. And if they bring up our webpage, they can find out ways in which to get involved. And poor folks that are listening, the fact that you don’t have a computer is not a good excuse. They’re available in all of our public libraries across the country in both urban and rural areas. And so we want to encourage folks to begin to use the technology to be able to speak to each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Give the phone number and the website again, please.

CHERI HONKALA: The phone number is area code 215-203-1945 That’s 215-203-1945. Website, LibertyNet.org/~kwru.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for joining us, Cheri Honkala and Erica Morrison, both part of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and the Economic Human Rights Campaign, as they make their way from Washington, New York as part of a new welfare bus on this 50th anniversary year of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute with a story you won’t forget.

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