I first met Cheri Honkala a couple of years ago at a Philadelphia protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Not knowing what she looked like, I had locked arms with her and two or three others trying to block an entrance to the Federal building. We managed to keep the door closed despite the first powerful push from Federal police on the inside. It was then that I turned to the woman next to me and asked if she had been arrested before. When she said “hundreds of times” and I learned her name was Cheri, I blurted out, “Oh, I voted for you for Vice President in 2012.”
I knew that Honkala ran with Jill Stein on the Green Party ticket that year, but even before that I had read about her work as a leader of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. A tireless fighter for the poor, Honkala, along with 30,000 others, shut down Center City Philadelphia during the 2000 Republican National Convention. This time around, on the opening day of the Democratic National Convention, she plans on leading an anti-poverty march from City Hall to the convention hall, Wells Fargo Center, seven miles away.
Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country, with a poverty rate of 26%. In Kensington, Honkala’s multi-racial home neighborhood, 46.9% of the residents live in poverty. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Kensington’s working class population labored on the waterfront, in steel mills, potteries, machine works, and in the vast textile industry, which specialized in carpets. One of the biggest manufacturers, Stetson, at one time employed over 3,500 workers who produced three million hats a year.
The national spotlight focused on Kensington in 1903. In that year, 46,000 textile workers went on strike, calling for a reduction in their 55 hour work week and the end of night work for women and children. In June, labor’s most famous organizer, Mother Jones, traveled to Kensington in support of the strike and organized the March of the Mill Children. With more children working in textiles than any other trade, the three week march from Philadelphia to New York demanded an end to child labor.
I spoke out against so-called welfare reform because I thought it was scapegoating people who were helpless, people who were very, very vulnerable.”
Honkala, of course, knows that history, remembering that Mother Jones “call(ed) attention to the children who were losing their limbs in the factories.” Today those factories are boarded-up, as deindustrialization has devastated Kensington as it has much of the Midwest and Northeast. Good jobs are scarce and cuts in the social safety net have made things worse.
Coincidentally, Honkala’s anti-poverty work reached national attention in the late 1990s in response to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s support for “ending welfare as we know it.” The Clinton bill, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, placed a five-year lifetime limit on benefits, pushed states to reduce their caseloads, introduced strict work requirements, and made it more difficult for poor mothers to go to college. In applauding the bill, Hillary Clinton referred to women who left “welfare” as “no longer deadbeats.” While campaigning in South Carolina earlier this year, Senator Bernie Sanders reminded his listeners that “I spoke out against so-called welfare reform because I thought it was scapegoating people who were helpless, people who were very, very vulnerable. Secretary Clinton…had a very different position on welfare reform—strongly supported it and worked hard to round up votes of its passage.”
The consequences of the Clinton bill on the poor have been devastating: prior to the “reform,” 68% of eligible households received cash assistance, but that figure dropped to 26% by 2013; in most states the value of the average cash grant has fallen by at least 20%; and the amount of extreme poverty has skyrocketed, increasing 183%, for example, among black families.
Responding to the passage of the bill, Honkala started the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, a network of more than 40 poor people’s groups from across the country. Its mission statement declares that it “is committed to uniting the poor across color lines…for a broad movement to abolish poverty. We work to accomplish this through advancing economic human rights as named in the universal declaration of human rights—such as the rights to food, housing, health, education, communication and a living wage job.” To that end, her organization has sponsored a march to the UN in 1999, protested at the Republican National Conventions in 2000 and 2004, and demonstrated with poor and homeless families at the opening of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in 2003.
With the Clinton nomination seemingly a sure thing, and with no commitment to change the 1996 bill, protests to protect the poor and working people will only escalate. The city of Philadelphia at first refused to grant a permit for the July 25th march that Honkala will lead, but an ACLU lawsuit caused the city to give in. When the city first said “No,” Honkala responded: “The most important thing poor people have are our voices. Shutting off our voice is not an option.” Mother Jones would surely agree.