Poor and proud

Cheri Honkala's diverse group of anti-Bush marchers arrives in New York, declaring that homelessness is a societal, not a personal, failing.

By Michelle Goldberg
Published August 31, 2004 1:17PM (EDT)

Mothers with small children and people in wheelchairs went first at the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign march on Monday. Behind them was a diverse crowd of the homeless and formerly homeless, social workers, public-housing tenants, clergy, students and sympathizers. Perhaps that's why the police let them march, even though they didn't have a permit -- faced with thousands of such people on the streets during rush hour, what was the alternative?

For Cheri Honkala, the formerly homeless leader of the group, it was the culmination of six weeks of protest throughout New York and New Jersey. Dozens of people who've slipped off the lowest rung of America's economic ladder had joined her on a grueling pilgrimage meant to dramatize the plight of the poor, pooling their food stamps and sleeping in churches or under the summer skies. Few walked the entire time; people would spend a few days and then rotate out, to be replaced by others. Some days, when only a handful of people were marching in poor neighborhoods with no journalists around to record their sacrifices, it was hard to believe Honkala's claims that thousands would be with her when she came to Manhattan to confront the first day of the Republican National Convention.

But there they were, filling Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza outside the United Nations building, where the march began with a rally. Lefty folk-rocker Steve Earle sang for the crowd. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, quoted Martin Luther King Jr. on nonviolence: "We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity ... We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation."

The crowd hardly needed to be convinced of the importance of nonviolence. Though a few black bloc types hung around the back, the gathering was largely composed of reluctant protesters -- people who hate confrontation but who took to the streets because they felt they had no other choice. Patricia Lewis, a large 54-year-old woman in a wheelchair, has been unable to use her legs since a car accident in 1985. A retired bookkeeper, she depends on Section 8, the affordable-housing program, for her one-bedroom Harlem apartment. In November, her building will be auctioned, and the new owner might convert the building into nonsubsidized housing. "I cannot afford to pay $1,600 for a one-bedroom," she said. "That's why I have Section 8 -- because I'm poor!" She'd never taken part in a march before, but the desire to defeat President Bush had inspired her. "This is something I really, really want to get involved in," she said. "We have got to get rid of this man!"

Michael Bender, 42, had parked his wheelchair next to her. He lives in a houseboat in Redwood City, Calif., and was moved to come to New York after hearing about plans for the march on the radio show "Democracy Now!" "I have muscular dystrophy," he said, his body shaking and voice trembling. "That's part of the initial resonance for me -- these are the most poor and underprivileged groups." Bender's health is deteriorating, and though he once worked in Silicon Valley, right now Social Security is his sole source of income, and he fears that Bush's policies are going to take that away from him. "Their intended aim is to get rid of Social Security, to undo everything that FDR did that catches people who fall through the cracks," he said.

A friend gave Bender money for a plane ticket, and he flew to Philadelphia to meet up with Honkala's group on Monday morning. He was a little delirious with lack of sleep; otherwise, he said, he probably wouldn't have talked to a reporter. "I don't like to draw attention to myself," he said shyly.

Honkala, a striking, theatrical woman, has no problem drawing attention to herself. She stood before a microphone at the rally and exhorted the crowd: "Start loving yourself! Say, 'I'm poor and I'm proud of who I am, but I'm ashamed of my country!'"

This message of self-empowerment is at the core of the movement she's trying to build. In Philadelphia, where she lives and works, she finds homes for homeless families, taking over abandoned buildings or lodging people temporarily in what she calls "human rights houses," cooperative shelters were people can stay while they search for something more permanent. Housing, she believes, is a right, and homelessness is a societal, not a personal, failing. Many of her followers credit Honkala for getting them off the streets, and are fiercely devoted to her.

Before the march, she unapologetically laid down some ground rules. "If there's any agents provocateurs or undercover police officers or anyone who wants to start any problems, you're not welcome in this march," she announced. She had the crowd repeat after her, "We are peaceful people. We practice nonviolence." A sign language translator was on hand to communicate to a contingent of deaf protesters.

With her 2-year-old son, Guillermo, and her 24-year-old son, actor Mark Webber, by her side, Honkala led the march from 47th Street to 23rd, then west to Eighth Avenue. The group then went uptown, until police stopped them four blocks from Madison Square Garden. "This is the first demonstration" of the convention week, said Daniel Burns, a member of the pacifist Catholic Worker Movement, who was carrying his 2-year-old son, Finian, on his shoulders. "The others were permitted. That makes them a parade."

The mood of the marchers was both defiant and festive. All along the way, from restaurants, offices and apartment buildings, windows and balconies, people waved and cheered. The crowd took up about five city blocks, and everyone was peaceful. It went so well, in fact, that a policeman congratulated Mahdis Keshavarz, who was serving as the event's P.R. coordinator. "You did a very good job," he said. "You're a good leader." Asked if he was going to let the group have a closing rally, he smiled and said, "They walked this far, they deserve something."

Moments later, a small fight broke out between some cops and an anarchist contingent at the rear of the march. Several people were arrested, an officer was injured, and there were reports that people had been sprayed with pepper spray. For at least the second time this week, police helicopters hovered low over the crowd, spotlights sweeping, while row upon row of riot cops filled the streets.

Angela Coppola, who has been acting as a media coordinator for many of the anti-RNC groups, worried that those few moments of violence would make the news. "This was a great march," she said. "People were getting out of work and joining us. At the Chelsea Hotel, people ripped the sheets off the bed and waved them out the window. I would really like it if it did not seem as if we began the Republican Convention on a violent note. It was really joyful, and I hope the first thing America sees when it flips between channels isn't violence on the streets."

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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