The Poor People’s Day Caravan

Of course it received little fanfare from the mainstream press. Yet on January 26, 2008, the Poor People's Caravan zigzagged through downtown Atlanta as part of a Global Day of Action for the 8th World Social Forum. On this cold and overcast day, the banners that hung from processional vehicles voiced the concerns of Georgians of all walks of life: affordable housing, a living wage, health care, reproductive rights, education, workers’ rights, and the ongoing evictions of public housing tenants—a process that expedites gentrification and increases the homeless on our streets. Apparently our political and economic leaders not only cannot connect the dots, they cannot do the math.

But also on this day, a new movement to the political process was introduced. As the caravan wound its way to the Capitol Plaza, thousands upon thousands of The People's Ballots were handed out. The ideology behind The People's Ballot is that Georgians should go to the polls in this election cycle not with the intent of electing a candidate or party, but to vote on social and political agendas that are of pressing concern to our quality of life. The People's Ballot increases the pressure on our political and economic leaders to address the issues that have direct impact upon the people themselves and seeks to prevent legislators from distracting the people with reactionary politics. Or, as in the mock eviction that took place at the Atlanta Housing Authority as part of the January 26 proceedings, it seeks to remove the bastards from office who stand in the way of the people's will. One can obtain The People’s Ballot until the November 2008 general election from the following groups: Georgia's Coalition on Hunger, Project South, Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition and Georgians for Choice.

While the Poor People's Caravan made its way to the Georgia's Coalition on Hunger, I became engaged in an impromptu labor protest at a neighborhood ice-cream shop. Jake's Ice Cream owner Jake Rothschild is an Atlanta employer with a notorious reputation for treating his employees unfairly with wages. At a time Rothschild and I had previously agreed upon, I waited across the street with Shafik M., an activist with the Atlanta Worker's Project. After roughly 30 minutes of waiting, we were informed by a co-partner of Jake's Ice Cream that Mr. Rothschild was unavailable. Hungry, Shafik and I went to a local pizzeria where we met up with other members of the Atlanta Worker's Project, a group whose mission statement declares, "We strive to build and strengthen the solidarity of working people in Atlanta through education, direct democracy, direct action, and cultural activities to discuss and solve problems at work and in our communities.” After some discussion, a few members of the group decided to return with me later that day to demand the wages Rothschild was refusing to pay. Of course, owners do what owners do when a large group forms in protest of their bad labor practices; they call the police. The police officer, however, informed us that we were within our legal rights as long as we did not physically harass the customers or come onto the property.

After some mediation by the police officer we reached Rothschild, and he promised to mail me a cashier's check. The Atlanta Worker's Project and I agreed to plan a larger protest for the next Saturday if matters were not resolved. The good news is that the issue was indeed resolved very quickly, showing that worker solidarity, across all lines, and regardless of class, race or skill level, can result in fair play. This impromptu protest forced Jake's Ice Cream to pay back wages to other workers as well, such as one ex-employee, Catherine R., whose hours had been erased from the payrolls. Where the Department of Labor and other institutions were slow to move, a unified community of workers stood to say, "Pay now, scumbag." People have rights, but whether they are basic human rights, social rights, or worker rights, it still comes down to the communities at large to enforce them. Politicians and government agencies have forgotten about the people. It is we the people of our vast communities who must develop new strategies and structures to ensure our rights are guaranteed. If not, even "the neighborhood" ice cream shop can over time develop a sweatshop mentality.