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Sharon Smith

Letter from the US

War on the poor

(May 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘New Hampshire plans to begin forcing welfare mothers to have their teeth straightened, on the theory that better looks lead to better jobs’

In the face of the massive civil rights movement and a series of urban ghetto rebellions, President Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party declared a ‘war on poverty’ in the 1960s. The picture looks quite different in the 1990s. Today President Clinton and the Democrats have declared a war on the poor. The growing ranks of the poverty stricken and the homeless across the US are being treated as if they are criminals.

It is now a crime in many major US cities, for example, to be caught in the act of being without a home. It doesn’t seem to matter that there are only about 275,000 shelter beds across the US – just a tiny fraction of what’s needed to provide shelter to the nation’s estimated three million homeless people. It is common practice for police to evict homeless people from camps and shanty towns.

The San Francisco police department now issues $76 tickets to homeless people for such unlawful acts as sitting on the sidewalk or sleeping in city parks or other public areas. Since last summer the police have handed down 4,300 of these citations to homeless people. When the homeless don’t pay the ticket, the city issues a warrant for their arrest.

In one of the poorest US cities, Washington DC, it is now a crime to beg, loiter or sleep in public.

In New York the homeless are being rounded up under general ‘public nuisance’ laws, while begging on subways has been declared illegal under a recent court ruling which stated, ‘Begging in the subway often amounts to nothing less than assault, creating in the passengers the apprehension of imminent danger.’

Many yuppies after all find it unpleasant to rub elbows with the hungry and homeless while commuting to the office.

Meanwhile, although Clinton is preparing a national policy to ‘end welfare as we know it’ by throwing poor women off welfare after two years, many Democrats still think he’s being too generous.

Many states simply don’t want to wait for new federal laws to begin implementing programmes of their own. The state of California now fingerprints all welfare recipients and has issued an across the board cut in welfare payments. The state of Maryland penalises mothers who fail to get their children immunised by reducing their payments. Ohio and Wisconsin have lowered payments for women whose children skip school. And the state of New Hampshire plans to begin forcing welfare mothers to have their teeth straightened, on the theory that better looks will lead to better jobs.

And last month Clinton stripped another section of the poor of even their most basic constitutional rights. He endorsed routine ‘police sweeps’, or apartment to apartment searches, throughout high rise public housing – without requiring that police first either go to court to get search warrants or ask for residents’ permission.

Just days earlier a federal court judge in Chicago had ruled such police sweeps unconstitutional, on the grounds that they amount to ‘a chaotic invasion of privacy’. The judge went on to argue that many of the same people who support the idea of police sweeps ‘would not dream of allowing police to search their own homes without their consent or without warrants.’

Since last July the Chicago police department has routinely sent squads of up to 200 police to sweep through the city’s enormous public housing complexes – which together house 150,000 of the city’s poor – ostensibly in search of drugs and guns. The case which prompted the ruling came after some poor tenants filed legal complaints when their apartments were searched.

Clinton however, was unmoved by the judge’s talk of poor people’s right to privacy. He denounced the ruling, and vowed not merely to continue, but to increase the number of police sweeps in public housing. ‘We must not allow criminals to find shelter in the public housing community they terrorise,’ he said.

And he announced that his administration will urge all cities to force public housing residents to sign leases giving standing consent to having their apartments searched by police at any time. Then the searches will be considered legally ‘voluntary’ and will not violate the constitutional right to privacy.

The problem of violent crime, highest among the poor, has reached horrific proportions within public housing complexes. The incomes of the families who live in Chicago’s public housing projects average only $3,500 per year. And during a single weekend in April, 15 people were shot and eight were killed during shootouts after a gang truce broke down at one of the city’s poorest complexes.

Many residents are desperate to find a solution to the violence, and some endorse police sweeps. Across the city of Chicago 5,000 public housing residents recently signed petitions saying they want sweeps to continue. And most black politicians have praised Clinton’s plan.

But there is no evidence that police sweeps do anything at all to lessen the bloodshed and drug dealing. If anything, experience has shown the opposite. Just last month dozens of New York cops in Harlem were discovered to be operating a massive drug dealing ring. They regularly brutalised tenants as they ‘searched’ through apartments in order to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs and money, and they beat up any drug dealers who refused to cooperate.

A preliminary report suggested that police collusion was a large part of the reason why the drug trade has got completely out of control in the area.

And despite Chicago’s claim that the vast majority of those who live in Chicago’s housing projects support the police sweeps, it is clear that many firmly oppose them. Ethel Washington, one of the tenants who took the Chicago police department to court, argued, ‘They want to tear up the constitution ... We aren’t all hardened criminals. The law is not supposed to be just for the rich.’

A group of angry residents confronted Clinton’s housing secretary, Henry Cisneros, ‘This business of trying to make the sweeps all right, that’s what they did in Hitler’s Germany, and that’s what they’re trying to do to the black man now.’

Another angry tenant pointed to the cause for all the violence. He said to Cisneros, ‘You can’t ride in here like the silver bullet and then just heigh-ho, Silver away. Give us some jobs.’

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