From the War on Poverty to the Revolution in the Garden
by Pancho McFarland
I teach a “Class and Stratification” course for the Sociology Program at Chicago State University. In the course we focus on inequality, the global capitalist economic system, critiques of it and examinations of alternative economic systems. We examine the problems of inequality caused by the capitalist economy and then focus on our city, Chicago, as a means to understand our places in the economy as working class people of color. To learn about ourselves in Chicago I use a text written by the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Taskforce. The book, Urban Renewal or Urban Removal? is volume one of a planned eight. Authors of the text include activists, teachers, parents, long-time residents and professors. It is a grassroots bunch of dedicated organic intellectuals.
Following on the work of the authors of the Urban Renewal or Urban Removal?, I like to examine what grassroots community-focused people have to say about inequality, poverty, violence, illness, and the other ills of capitalism. Some of my writings on Chicanas/os and hip hop proceed from the perspective of the working classes and people of color. These were the organic intellectuals of the urban music subculture of hip hop. My approach to the classroom and to a discussion of the War on Poverty similarly looks toward a local organic knowledge base. It is to this knowledge base that we turn and contribute to in the local food justice and urban sustainability movements.
So, I’m thinking: The War on Poverty, 1964, Chicago, inequality, organic intellectuals; Curtis Mayfield! The genius Chicago-bred musician, composer, bandleader and lyricist seemed to have his fingers on the pulse of urban Black Chicago and the Civil Rights Movement when he released “Keep on Pushing” in 1964; the year that Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty. Filled with hope, Mayfield with his band, The Impressions, sings:Keep on pushing I’ve got to keep on pushing (mmm-hmm) I can’t stop now Move up a little higher Some way, somehow ‘Cause I’ve got my strength And it don’t make sense Not to keep on pushin’
The Impressions describe the emotional and spiritual strength that many Black Americans had at the beginning of 1964. There was a sense of hopefulness and resolve that made much of the black community ‘keep on pushing’; there was a sense to keep up the struggle until their goals were achieved.
Black Revolt and the War with Drugs
By the close of the decade and into the 1970s poverty in the cities seemed to be getting no better. Resistance was at a high and so was repression. The murder of Fred Hampton by the Chicago Police Department in 1969 and the subsequent dissolution of the Black Panther Party by the FBI and other repressive paramilitary organizations were conducted by the same government claiming to be serving the poor through the so-called War on Poverty. In 1969 Chicago organic intellectual, Sam Greenlee, published The Spook Who Sat by The Door – a novel about armed resistance to government repression and extreme urban inequality. The movie of the same name was released in 1973.
Whilst urban poverty abatement projects developed from war on poverty legislation, slum conditions persisted in much of Black Chicago. High levels of unemployment led many to occupations in the illicit markets. Further, the drug economy played an important role in inequality during the 1970s. Churchill and Van der Wall argue that the Great Heroin epidemic of 1971-72 was a means of undermining the Black Liberation struggle. They write: “The flood of heroin into U.S. ghettos, meanwhile, appears to have been calculated to narcotize the country’s then-burgeoning black liberation movement in much the same way that LSD and other hallucinogens were employed to undermine the white ‘new left’ movement a few years earlier” (146). Black poverty combined with drugs and few employment opportunities was a volatile mix. The hopefulness and resolve faded for many.
So, the music, the images, and the message changed. I think about the war on poverty, Chicago, resistance, repression, the drug epidemic, and organic intellectuals. Curtis Mayfield once again comes to mind. His 1972 hit from Shaft, “Pusher Man,” approaches the drug problem cautiously from different perspectives. Mr. Mayfield sings:Two bags, please. For a generous fee Make your world what you want it to be. Got a woman I love desperately. Wanna give her somethin’ better than me. Been told I can’t be nuthin’ else Just a hustler in spite of myself. I know I can break it. This life just don’t make it. Lord, Lord, yeah! Got to get mellow, now Gotta be mellow, y’all Got to get mellow, now I’m your mama, I’m your daddy I’m that nigga in the alley. I’m your doctor when in need. Want some coke? Have some weed. You know me, I’m your friend, Your main boy, thick and thin. I’m your pusherman.
The song discusses the thoughts and life of a reluctant hustler. The protagonist is trapped in a cycle of wanting better for himself and his female partner, racist stereotypes of him as worth little, and the drug epidemic that sends many Black, White and other addicts to him to fulfill their ‘need.’ We can easily read an indictment of capitalism and its liberal war on poverty.
The Turn of the Century
The city and its citizens experienced crack epidemics, a rapid rise in the prison population and the War on Kids of Color, a.k.a. the War on Drugs, welfare ‘reform,’ and ‘gangsta rap’, the music that chronicled and critiqued it all in the 1980s and 1990s. In the new millennium we continue to see high Black poverty, illness and unemployment, few and diminishing educational opportunities, food deserts, violence and repression. We have had environmental devastation and climate chaos, the housing crisis, continued ‘urban renewal’ (see the demolition of Chicago public housing and dispersion of its residents to far south and suburban communities and gentrification in neighborhoods such as the ‘West Loop,’ Pilsen and Englewood), and communities fed up with violence, drugs and poverty. The community peace movement, food justice and sustainability movements, grassroots education projects, the revolutionary left, and the like have continuously fought the aftermath of the so-called ‘War on Poverty’ and the capitalist economic system.
The situation that many of us are struggling against is chronicled and explained by Chicago-based musicians. Today, a musical voice of young Chicago includes Chance the Rapper. This organic intellectual talks about pushin’ too. His song from 2013 is “Pusha Man/Paranoia.” Late in the song he raps:They merking [murdering] kids, they murder kids here Why you think they don’t talk about it? They deserted us here. Where the fuck is Matt Lauer at? Somebody get Katie Couric in here. Probably scared of all the refugees look like we had a fucking hurricane here. They be shooting whether it’s dark or not. I mean the days is pretty dark a lot. Down here it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot. No love for the opposition specifically a cop position Cause they’ve never been in our position. Getting violations for the nation, correlating, you dry snitching I’ve been riding around with my blunt on my lips With the sun in my eyes, and my gun on my hip. Paranoia on my mind, got my mind on the fritz But a lotta niggas dying, so my 9 with the shits. I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared, too. I know you scared. Me too. I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared, too. If you was there, then we just knew you’d care, too. [Verse 5:] It just got warm out. This is the shit I’ve been warned about. I hope that it storm in the morning. I hope that it’s pouring out. I hate crowded beaches. I hate the sound of fireworks. And I ponder what’s worse between knowing it’s over and dying first. Cause everybody dies in the summer. Wanna say ya goodbyes? Tell them while it’s spring. I heard everybody’s dying in the summer so pray to God for a little more spring.
Poverty conditions continue 50 years after the war on poverty began. In many cases, the continued violence, multi-generational hopelessness, and the availability of firearms leaves entire communities in worse condition than in 1964. Chance provides us with a thick description of the conditions many of his peers experience today. It seems little has gotten better since 1964.
However, one thing is dramatically different than what it was in 1964. The demographic composition of the most exploited sector of the labor force in Chicago has changed. Today, the system of illegalized immigration creates a class of worker that is super exploited with few rights or resources with which to use to resist their circumstances; not unlike the Black population under the U.S. Apartheid system from sharecropping to Jim Crow. This illegalized immigration regime creates a sector of the working class which has the effect of disciplining the rest of the work force and muting worker dissent. Additionally, the super exploited labor of illegalized immigrants lowers the price of necessary goods muting dissent from consumers. The circumstances of ‘illegalized’ Mexican immigrants – the 1½ generation in Chicago – are documented by young organic intellectuals such as Juan Zárate.
Zárate’s most useful examination of living in a poor, Mexican/Mexican American community in Chicago is the song, “El Santuario” (The Sanctuary). He describes a multi-generational economic problem in much of Mexican Chicago: A lack of ‘good’ jobs with living wages, job security, and benefits; and the ubiquitous presence of gangs, drugs, crumbling infrastructure, few educational or recreational opportunities, and the like. Despite the condition of political and social ecological chaos and disturbance, he finds way to recognize the barrio and the people living there with genuine fondness. He welcomes us to his barrio saying:Bienvenido, compa al único lugar que nos entiende Al veces es el peor, cabrón pero aquí nos acepta Welcome, friend, to the only place that understands us. Sometimes it’s the worst, cabrón (a person characterized by stubborn determination) but here we are accepted.
The barrio as a vibrant, living community is often a difficult place to live but at least there he feels a part of a community. The people of the barrio are essentially good. The circumstance of living in poverty in a racially segregated postindustrial city is the principal force leading to violent experiences like the too common acts of gun violence and murder. He raps:Nacimos con el santo de la espalda, morimos con balazo en la espalda We were born with a saint on our back we died with a gunshot in the back
“Born with a saint on our back” signifies the tattoo that comes to adorn the backs of many members of gangs. The death by gunshot signifies Zárate’s critique of this violence, a call to remember that – like the many poor and marginalized social groups throughout Chicago’s history – people in his community fight back in a struggle to live with dignity. Zárate claims that his peers in the barrio are born with a resistant spirit: “alma de Zapata” (he soul of Emiliano Zapata).
Revolution in the Urban Garden
Economic statistics show that poverty is as common today as in 1964, the wealth gap has grown not decreased, and almost all socioeconomic indicators show what organic intellectuals in Chicago already know; little, if anything, is better.
It is obvious that this economic system cannot be reformed but rather needs to be replaced with something much more humane. This is the true lesson of the ‘War on Poverty’. We need to destroy this corporate-controlled top-down political system and replace it with a truly democratic locally focused and nonhierarchical coupling of ecological and social systems. This revolution in the urban garden is already apparent in the spaces of the urban food justice struggle.
The future is being organized in worker and consumer cooperatives with distribution of the goods of our society to those who need them the most. Capitalist consumerist values of accumulation, excessive consumption, competition, material worship, greed, must be broadly challenged and rejected, especially in everyday acts of resistance and autonomy and the formation of alternative networks of working-class self-valuing, free of the prison tethers of the commodity form. These will be replaced by cooperation, shared labor, conviviality and hospitality – in lak ech, ubuntu, mitakuye oyasin –respect for diversity and difference.
I argue that we can circulate and grow this type of social organization by fusing two approaches to autonomous struggles. First, is the wisdom of our indigenous, place-based ancestors who organized themselves communally with an understanding of themselves as one people amongst many interdependent peoples and other beings; the spirit embodied in mitakuye oyasin/all my relations. Those indigenous traditions and relationships to nature that provide ecological democratic means of living should be passed on to our children and future generations as active forms of “knowing and being in the world”.
In addition, the insights of contemporary communists and anarchists can be helpful in developing a more just world. A great deal has been learned from centuries of struggle against capitalism and its efforts to rule through the imposition of hierarchy and domination. The numerous communes, revolutions, temporary autonomous zones and experiments in libertarian communist living have taught us much about human potential and the difficulties of organizing freely associated self-reliant and resilient small-scale societies in the midst of capitalist domination.
Lessons from our ancestors and anarchists influence organizing against poverty in Chicago. Autonomous zones pop up and endure all over the city. Our work with economic and racial justice-focused people in the local food movement illustrates this well. Freedom, democracy and anti-capitalist living are amongst the many pleasures of working in urban community gardens.
In the gardens in which I work we democratically decide how to use our plot and the resources therein. We tend the garden using the communalist values of our placed-based ancestors. We remember and re-invent their worldviews in our garden and mini-farm work. Together, we decide what is best for our community, what to grow and how. With shared, cooperative labor we increase our community wealth of good food, good soil and good seed. We use only organic, ecological growing methods on our land because we know that ‘all our relations’ must be present and thriving in the mini-ecosystems we create. We reject private property or the private ownership of the means of production; namely, the land, tools and seeds required to feed us. We reject hierarchies and –isms. Our gardens are acts of direct action against the capitalist system and for an autonomous, free and well-ordered network of communities.
The gardens and the ethos sowed and harvested therein illustrate the possibility for a more just and equitable future for us. They represent viable alternatives to the violence, greed and ecological catastrophe that are capitalism and its State backers. The community garden and the need for them shows us the wrongheadedness of the war on poverty and similar cynical liberal reform attempts to say that our government is doing something about poverty. Only through direct action emerging from our own alternative community institutions can we generate the means to biopolitical self-determination required to end poverty and the many maladies of capitalist structural violence in Chicago and the rest of the world.
Pancho McFarland, Ph.D., is a former b-boy, current hip hop head, professor of sociology at Chicago State University, author, martial artist, and father. His book, Chicano Rap: Gender and Violence in the Postindustrial Barrio, is the first book written about Mexican Americans and hip hop. He is an activist within the food justice and local food movements. This essay originally appeared on the Environmental and Food Justice blog.