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Memphis Tea Party Blues

The lecture was the 2nd in a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of city planning in America, so 40 years in hundreds of city streets and Citizen Wealth and its themes were perfectly suited to the interests of students and civilians at the University of Memphis. I had warned my hosts that some of the excitement that came with me was unpredictable, but there was no reason to expect that there would be problems. Sunday night had been special and there were few clouds on the horizon other than some snarky comments on the Commercial Appeal site that carried an announcement that I was speaking.

By early Monday morning there signs of stirring in the hinterlands. A couple of alumni emails and some phone calls hit the university president’s office and were referred over for handling. The press office was drafting various responses. The campus police were mentioning they had a SWAT team. There were two interviews with local TV stations and the local paper, so who knew what to expect.

No one was around when we showed up at the auditorium, but before the start we heard there were a couple of Tea Party demonstrators with homemade signs out on Central Avenue. Most of the signs were riffs on the theme of “Commu-nuts!” which I thought was creative, cute, and meaningless, but whatever. Once speaking I noticed we had some outliers that started drifting in and sprinkling themselves in the crowd who didn’t fit the general study body type, so I assumed these were some of the protestors coming in from the misty cool of the Memphis evening.

The remarks went well enough, but as usual I was most interested in hearing the questions and continuing to gauge what was on the minds of people trying to grasp the impact of organizing.

The first guy was a roofing contractor who believed that his workers took off from October through December to make sure they got their Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) without any trouble. I asked him if hunting season had anything to do with it, but he didn’t appreciate the comment. It was hard to believe his example, but no sense in arguing about his experience.

A number of questions focused on real estate and pushed back around the role of CRA. These were some healthy readers of the CRA low-income family conspiracy to explain the greed of Wall Street and sub-primes. The real conspiracy is a blood boiler, so it’s not easy to understand why my friends on the right want to blame their neighbors rather than the multi-gazillion dollar beneficiaries who caused and collected the spoils.

Talking afterwards to some of the interrogators was interesting.

One who was most convinced that getting full access to benefits would create dependency was unemployed with a hard luck story that included an older brother with a meth addiction. It was very important to him to believe that “people chose poverty.”

Another who had raised a very pointed question about a position he claimed that ACORN had taken with HUD Secretary Cisneros during the Clinton Administration insisted we had lobbied against a change that would have impacted the “choice” of a family about where to live. I said I didn’t know the exact letter he was referring to, but our position on fair housing was to oppose any dilution of the protections against discrimination. We talked past each other for a little while. Afterwards he told me that ACORN had sued him in Memphis in 1995 at a realty outfit where he worked because the advertisements were alleged to not be sufficiently diverse. He claimed the suit was dismissed, which may have been the case. It turned out the complex question was really about a specific situation of a mixed Filipino client of his that wanted to live in a specific community. They had asked HUD for a fair housing clarification and 18 months later had gotten an answer which said they could represent the client in this area of “choice” discrimination, if they had a written request from the client. This was my best understanding of the unique circumstances. The bottom line: he had a beef with ACORN and was glad to finally have the chance to catch me in the open field to have me take some accountability for his grievance. Fair enough, I thought!

There were questions about illegal immigrants. Nothing on healthcare, which surprised me. Very little actually about ACORN.

People are out there searching, and they want to engage.

The paradox that underlies the controversy that seems to surround some of my visits to campuses these days is that the students love hearing the message and linking in with the passion for change and the call to organize, the community is intrigued, and the opponents are really delighted to have the opportunity to engage directly and have a chance to really debate their position with someone who is going to listen, respond, and pushback. That’s a hard bargain to beat and frankly a public service that University Presidents should be pretty proud to offer in building bridges in these troubled, polarized times.

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chieforganizer

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Wade Rathke is the founder and former Chief Organizer of ACORN. He currently serves as the Chief Organizer of Community Organizations International (Formally Acorn International) and SEIU Local 100, has close to 40 years of experience. He has worked for and founded a series of organizations dedicated to winning social justice, workers rights, and a democracy where “the people shall rule”.

Wade Rathke and his family live in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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