When a black welfare mom from Philadelphia tells a white farmer from Missouri, "Your problem has become our problem, and our problem is your problem" there's some kind of magic happening. Some kind of shared rescue, love, dignity, respect. Some kind of energy. And the magic's been happening every year for 31 years when National People's Action meets in Washington DC.
Legendary NPA leader Gale Cincotta, who died in 2001, once told a Chicago Tribune reporter that "most people are raised to believe that there's somebody 'professional' who's going to deal with all these problems. You find out you're pretty smart and that the people around you are pretty smart, and the so-called professionals really aren't that smart. Plus the difference is that you care and they don't ... I don't know why I should be intimidated ..."
NPA met this year the first weekend in June, bringing together neighborhood groups from across America. Some neighborhoods have been working on environmental problems; industries like putting their problem plants and dumps in poor neighborhoods, and counting on the poor residents not to fight when the industries neglect environmental safeguards.
Other neighborhoods have been working on welfare rights, immigration, fraudulent lending practices, health care, affordable housing, neighborhood safety, and job training. The organizers select key issues to work on at each conference.
At the conference, over 1,200 activists and community members educated each other on what's happening in their neighborhoods, leading each other through confusing mazes of other worlds and vocabularies. Over and over again, the communities discovered that their enemies are the same bad guys that hurt other communities.
For the farmer, industrialization of the food business takes his business away and puts it in the hands of corporations. Turns out, the same corporations stealing from the farmers are the corporations bringing illegal immigrant workers into the US to work in the chicken and hog factories. And, they're the top beneficiaries of welfare-to-work programs, which keep impoverished moms from getting an education.
The conference members never doubt that they can make change. One group in Syracuse, N.Y., has forced a lender called Citifinancial to review predatory lending policies and re-write bad loans. Citifinancial, owned by Citigroup, is an unregulated lender. Citigroup also owns a group called "The Associates." 95% of their rotten loans are to black borrowers.
Regulated lenders, like banks and savings and loans, have to follow strict guidelines that limit how much money they lend, the percent they charge, and how it is paid back. Unregulated lenders write their own rules. Unregulated lenders prey on the elderly and the uninformed. They make the victims feel stupid, ashamed, gullible.
Other unregulated lenders operating in poor neighborhoods are Conseco, GreenTree, Payday loans, and SECO. "If you're getting a lot of mail from a lender," said one of the leaders, "he's a predator." Or, if you're turned down by a bank and referred to one of their partner institutions, "Don't sign. Start running."
At the panel on predatory lending, victims told how they had been promised one interest rate but got another. They warned against such sleazy practices as lenders switching pages when they went to the copy machine, and stapling in pages that required outrageous terms from borrowers.
In many cases, credit life insurance and other insurance had been added to payments, payoffs were figured wrong, fees taken out of the promised amount. One woman was promised $30,000 to fix up a house, but after fees and insurance only received $10,000. Her payments? $1,700 per month for ten years, then a $27,000 balloon payment.
The foundation of any community is its collection of homeowners, but unfair lending leads to abandoned homes and unstable, unsafe neighborhoods. People with the opportunity to leave will leave. Successful people who have left for good jobs perhaps invest in corporations like Citigroup, never suspecting that their investments are undermining the stability of their old neighborhoods.
Key leaders of the offending organizations are invited to the meetings, of course. Farmers invited the CEO of American Meat Institute, an umbrella group made up of the heads of such corporations as Kraft, Oscar Mayer, ConAgra, Tyson, IBP and the handful of others who have industrialized farming, forced families off their land, and produced quasi-edible food for consumers. AMI was the main proponent for allowing livestock to be raised by corporations. This lifting of the ban against corporate ownership undermines decades of law protecting farmers and consumers.
Nobody from AMI came to the meeting, so NPA sent a delegation to the office. Twenty busloads of activists trickled into the AMI office in Arlington, Va. Riding the elevators to the 16th floor, first a delegation of 10 farmers entered the office.
One elevator load at a time, the activists entered the AMI office until everyone was squashed together like hogs in a confinement building. Farmers took the microphone, telling stories about their losses. The consumers, mostly black and Hispanics, connected the dots. "Your problems are our problems."
"The packer ban is one of the most significant things Congress could do right now to support independent livestock producers and fight against corporate takeover of the food industry," said a family farmer from Rhodes, Iowa. A member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, he was joined by members of progressive farm communities from Missouri, Minnesota, and Indiana.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the NPA protest, and other NPA protests over the years, is the attitude of the protesters. The Meat Institute staff reacted by laughing and making rude comments about the crowd. One NPA member observed, "They don't respect us," and the staffers became respectfully silent.
NPA members watched their leaders, and their leaders were having fun. Joe Mariano, director of the National Training and Information Center, pushed through the crowd carrying a chicken feather. "We've got some DNA from the AMI here. We'll find them!" he joked. Entering the board of directors room and seeing the pictures on the wall, Mariano observed they were all white males and ordered the election of a new board. The protesters elected each other, declaring the new board mostly female, Hispanic and black. The joking, chanting and singing stopped when the leaders signaled for quiet.
When the police came, NPA members cooperated and left the building, riding the buses to meetings with their individual congressmen. Later, the farmers went to a scheduled meeting with EPA regulators; urban neighbors met with Health Department officials.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org