First Person

I’m a Programmer in a Tech Mecca. I Still Have to Deliver Food to Make Rent.

10:45 a.m.

I wake up—I think I must have missed my alarm, or snoozed it too many times. I grab my phone to check the time. It’s late. I snap out of bed in a rush and curse myself for sleeping in.

I usually work as a freelance software engineer. Today, I’m a bike messenger. Thanks to a surprise layoff, I have to scramble to pay my rent and bills next month. For the last four days, I’ve worked 12 hours a day on my bike to hit an average of 18 deliveries a day. If I can do 20 more before midnight, I’ll earn a total of $1,100—just enough to tread water until my next gig pays out.

I still check my email compulsively to keep up with messages from the new client I just started working for. I can’t send them an invoice until the end of the month, and I won’t get the money until two weeks later. I need money now so I can afford to work, so I bike.

I had fantasies this week of getting up early, getting in a few hours of programming, working the rush hours for bike deliveries, and programming more in the lull between lunch and dinner. My body didn’t cooperate—it takes the entire day to do the number of deliveries I need, and it turns out I need recovery time after 12 hours of cycling up hills and in rush-hour traffic.

There’s part of me that knows this is a stupid situation. Everyone knows you should have three months of savings before you start freelancing, you should never depend on just one client, you should never treat a contracting gig like a full-time job no matter how much your client might want you to, and so on. But sometimes you make sacrifices. Sometimes you don’t want to just follow the money—you want to work on something you actually feel good about. You want fulfillment, and to feel like you’re making a real impact instead of just lining someone else’s pockets.

That’s why I went into debt to keep working on a project I really believed in, for a client who had trouble paying their bills on time, and who insisted that I treat the work as if it were my full-time job—even though the position didn’t come with benefits, legal protections, or even my usual rate for freelance work.

Sometimes it feels like it’s my fault for sticking around; like it’s my fault for expecting something as luxurious as “fulfillment” from my work. For people like me, first-generation college graduates without intergenerational wealth to insulate them from risk-taking, asking for “fulfillment” is being greedy.

I think about what it would take for me to become OK with giving up my dreams, and if that might make me happier.


11:12 a.m.

The rush hour alarm goes off. No time for contemplation now. Regardless of how I got into this, the only thing that matters now is paying the rent. Planning the next step can come later.

I get dressed in the same wool jersey and leggings I’ve been wearing for four days. I haven’t managed to do my laundry, either.


11:25 a.m.

I’m brushing my teeth when my first delivery notification goes off. I accept it without looking. I don’t know how the dispatch algorithm assigns work, and I worry that being too picky about which orders I take will reduce the total number I get. I can’t afford to be picky—20 deliveries is a lot, even on a good day. I rush out of my house and take off down the road.

I didn’t have time to stretch. All the muscles in my legs scream at me up that first hill. There’s nothing to do but keep pushing.


12:05 p.m.

I have time after the first delivery to grab a cup of coffee and a muffin for breakfast. I’m scrolling through Twitter on my phone—the big news today is at the Google I/O developer conference, where Google is announcing some fresh dystopian horror: a new tool that enables busy professionals to use robots with convincing human voices to take on the drudgery of interacting with service industry employees.

The job I’m doing right now isn’t all that different. I’m a buffer between the different castes in our economy: My deliveries bring people restaurant-quality food in their homes, without having to ever interact with an actual restaurant worker. This is supposed to be “innovation.” This is supposed to make people’s lives easier.

I think about inventions that are legitimately making my life easier today. This cafe has little plastic splash guards, so that when I inevitably have to take this coffee on the road with me, it won’t get all over my clothes. This is innovation.

I’ve just barely taken the first sip of my coffee when another delivery notification comes up. Thank God for splash guards.


12:34 p.m.

2/20 finished, now waiting for a restaurant to finish preparing my third of the day.

I examine the new EBT card in my wallet. I got up early yesterday morning before starting deliveries to go to the San Francisco Human Services Agency to sign up for MediCal (California’s version of Medicaid), and, while I was at it, CalFresh (California’s SNAP, or food stamps).

I haven’t seen a doctor in over two years. When I started freelancing full time in 2017, I was told that since I didn’t have any income yet, I qualified for Medicaid. By the time I tried to use my benefits, I was working part-time and earned too much to qualify. Because I had never actually “activated” my Medicaid benefits, losing Medicaid eligibility was not a “qualifying life event” enabling me to sign up for individual insurance. Or so I was told over the phone. I haven’t read the law.

So I waited. By the time open enrollment rolled around in 2017, I was working for a new client 40 hours a week, who assured me they would start regularly paying my invoices in full by mid-December. I signed up for health insurance, but mid-December came and went, my bills came due, and my invoices still weren’t paid. My client advanced me enough money to pay off the debt I’d incurred by working for them without pay, but not enough to pay my new insurance bill. My health insurance was withdrawn. I was told over the phone, basically, “better luck next year.”

My rent in San Francisco is $1,400 a month. The MediCal eligibility cutoff is $1,366 a month.

My invoices weren’t paid in full until April of this year. When I demanded a new contract with penalties for late payment of my invoices, I was told my services were no longer required.

It was bad news, but it gave me an opening—if I could claim zero income and get on MediCal, I might have a chance to get on Covered California (California’s health insurance exchange) before the end of the year. But it wouldn’t be easy. My rent in San Francisco is $1,400 a month. The MediCal eligibility cutoff is $1,366 a month. I asked my caseworker whether that meant I would make myself ineligible by earning enough to pay my rent, and she said, exasperated, “yes.”

That leaves me with a very short window of time to qualify for Medicaid, report myself for disqualification (or be accused of fraud), then take evidence of my disqualification to Covered California, which is, of course, managed by a separate agency.

The fact that I have to do any of this just to obtain the privilege of paying for health insurance is madness. A program like Medicare for All, without all the means-testing busywork, would smooth this out and make life many times easier for all the people stuck waiting in line at the county benefits office.

While I’m musing about this, I realize my order’s been up on the counter for a few minutes. I glare at the guy at the counter and he sheepishly brings it over to me. “How long has this been done?” I snap at him. “I’m working here.” I exit the restaurant, fuming, and take off down the road.


1:41 p.m.

Finished delivery 4/20. Grateful the customer ordered a drink in a bottle instead of from the fountain. People love having fountain drinks in flimsy plastic cups delivered by bicycle, but nobody thinks about how it’s done.


1:50 p.m.

I get in an argument with the manager of a restaurant that won’t accept orders from my delivery company.

“It’s not our problem,” the manager says. “We told them to take us off their website but they haven’t done it yet.”

I’m pissed. This restaurant was way out of my way in a less busy part of town.

“You know I don’t get paid for my time when you don’t take my orders, right?” I say, raising my voice. “You know that people like me are the ones you’re hurting, right?”

“I’m sorry sir, take it up with—”

Look at me,” I say, getting a little out of hand. “I’m the one you’re screwing here, not the delivery company. Think about who gets hurt when you do this shit.” I slam the door behind me and hate-bike away, back up the hill I just came from.


2:15 p.m.

As I’m riding to my next delivery I realize that if I finish 20 today, I’m already going to be cutting it close on my Medicaid eligibility. I’m going to have to get into the technical weeds on how to make the transition to individual insurance if I want coverage this year.

Delivery 5/20 is ready, and now instead of thinking about how to pull off the sleight-of-hand I need to go to the doctor, I’m thinking about how to transport this expensive, delicately plated avocado toast, through potholes and up and down 45-degree inclines to its destination at … an art school.

I am literally living one of those grouchy articles about #millennials. It doesn’t matter. I need the money. I pad my delivery bag carefully and take off.


3:00 p.m.

It’s a beautiful day out and my face hurts from scowling so much. I’m mad at everyone, my legs hurt, I’ve been sweating all day, and the orders won’t stop coming. I was hoping to take a break around now but I know I can’t afford it—I’m currently at 7/20. I can’t stop thinking about my bad interactions with restaurant workers today. I feel like I made a huge mistake.


4:05 p.m.

9/20 now. It’s been unusually busy. The wind has been at my back all day. So why am I so pissed off? I decide to turn off the delivery app and take my first real break since breakfast.

I read somewhere that drinking beer doesn’t really give you the kinds of carbs that you need for a long bike ride, but I’ve decided whoever wrote that is a liar. I order a beer and try to collect my thoughts.

One of the reasons doing this work is so jarring is because, when I was working in Startupland as an engineer, I was the one being served. Everything in this city was arranged for my comfort and convenience.

Now that I’m the one doing the serving, everything is different. Managers want me to stand in a different part of the restaurant. The doorman is suspicious of me by default. Everyone can afford to make me wait. I am part of the invisible support network, increasingly orchestrated by unaccountable algorithms.

This support network, this comfort machinery, is noisy, messy, ugly and dangerous. Everyone is hustling for every single dollar. You can measure your payout by the sweat on your back.

This is what startup founders like to make believe their lives are like. They’re not.

In Startupland, almost everyone is white and aged 21 to 45. The hours are long, but the pay is good and basic needs aren’t a concern. In service industry land, everyone speaks with a different accent, almost nobody is white and ages range from 16 to 70-something. Retirement isn’t an option, and making rent isn’t a given.

I know I’m just a tourist in service industry land. The last time I worked full-time in a restaurant was before college, and I don’t plan on going back. I’m never going to be as hard as the lifetime bicycle couriers, like all the cool kids that hang out at that one statue plaza along Market Street. The least I can do is remember that we have more in common with each other than any of us do with the people we’re serving, and act accordingly.

I am part of the invisible support network, increasingly orchestrated by unaccountable algorithms.

I finish my beer and go back online. My first order comes up almost immediately. I take a deep breath—I’m probably not getting another break until I finish for the night.


5:02 p.m.

A huge percentage of this job is delivering fast food hamburgers to the top floors of luxury apartment towers that are located within walking distance from world-class dining.


5:30 p.m.

I got another break, but now I’m getting nervous. It’s been an unusually long lull.


6:00 p.m.

Still nothing. This is supposed to be rush hour.


6:20 p.m.

Got another delivery, but I had to order from the restaurant and they’re taking their time. I try to remember that they’re doing their best. I go outside and look at the map on my app. It’s flooded with orders everywhere, but it’s slow for me. I worry that I’ve somehow angered The Algorithm. Maybe I jostled the garnish on the avocado toast too hard earlier and got a bad rating. I hope not. The next two hours are going to make or break my night.


6:24 p.m.

My order is finished, and as I’m riding away the little chime in my headphones lets me know my next delivery is already scheduled. Deliverance! The Algorithm smiles on me.


6:48 p.m.

13/20. There’s nothing worse than looking at your destination and seeing words like “Alta” or “Terrace” or “Heights.” Every time I deliver to the top of a hill, the customer always lives at the top floor of an old walkup and wants their food delivered to their door.


7:07 p.m.

The Algorithm stacked two massive orders on top of each other, so they both have to be carried in the same bag. “Doesn’t fit” isn’t a cancellation option, so I have to get creative with my delivery bag.

Thankfully, I’m in a part of town where everyone loves having food delivered to their houses from 4 blocks away. The decadence is irritating, but I can’t be mad about it right now.


7:49 p.m.

Another stacked delivery, another restaurant absolutely slammed with takeout orders they can’t get out fast enough. There’s a guy sitting behind me who’s picking up dinner for himself, puffing his chest up, getting ready to throw a fit about his order being late. I’m not happy either, but I’m keeping a lid on it. They get my order out first. I thank them and rush out the door.


8:06 p.m.

Two deliveries to damn near around the corner from the restaurant. God bless these people and their excess disposable income.


8:15 p.m.

Four deliveries right on top of each other, and now, nothing. The dinner rush is almost over. I need three more deliveries. I’m losing it. What have I done now to offend The Algorithm?


8:16 p.m.

18/20. Frozen yogurt delivery, straight up a hill. The fog rolled in an hour ago and it’s cold and drizzly, but sure, great time for frozen yogurt.


8:45 p.m.

19/20. Somebody ordered a single piece of garlic bread for $3.99 and paid me at least $5 to deliver it. Up six flights of stairs.


9:18 p.m.

20/20 COMPLETE! They were a model customer—met me outside the door of their luxury apartment tower instead of making me fight with the security guard, and offered me a cash tip.

Cash tips are strictly forbidden by lots of gig economy platforms, in part because keeping total control over the entire transaction makes it easier to discipline workers. If I depend on the app for my payout, I only serve one master, and if there’s a conflict between what the app wants and what the customer wants, the app wins.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter. I’ve paid cash for app-based rides before, and I tip in cash. But obviously I would never accept a cash tip in violation of the terms of service.


9:26 p.m.

I didn’t turn the app off quickly enough after I finished my last order, so I have one more to finish the night. It’s a single order of bubble tea from a brand new shop, on a gnarly stretch of 6th street just south of Market.

As I’m locking up my bike, somebody calls out to me: “Hey white boy, you all fucked up, right?” I look up and see an angry white guy, a little younger than me, aggressively walking toward me. “I said you’re all fucked up, right?”

I have no idea what he’s even asking me or what he wants. He gets six inches from my face. He’s glaring at me like he’s mad, or wants something from me. I can’t tell if this guy is high, or fucking with me, or what. I finish locking my bike and rush into the restaurant. I half expect him to run up behind me and attack me.

I’m a little shaken up. The bubble tea guy doesn’t say anything, but the guy who was yelling at me is still standing next to my bike. I’m trying to keep an eye on him.

My order comes up. I don’t see the guy out the door, but part of me assumes he’s around the corner. I step outside—he’s not there. I check my bike tires to see if he slashed them or something. They’re fine. I’m OK for now.

I strap my bag down and head south toward Mission Bay, the city’s fakest and least accessible neighborhood. All the buildings and roads are brand new—so new that Google Maps routes you to dead ends. I’ve been on this same road, an isolated stretch under several freeway overpasses, dozens of times this week. But this time, it’s unsettling. I’d never considered myself vulnerable on my bike until just now.


9:54 p.m.

I finish the delivery—naturally, on an upper floor of a luxury apartment building. I walk outside to my bike and lean against it. It’s a little early—I only had to work 10 hours today, better than the average of 12 hours it usually takes.

I get back on my bike and head toward my favorite dive bar. I get an hour or two to celebrate paying my rent. Tomorrow, I’m a software engineer again. I’m working with economists studying the behavior of consumers who are subject to major income shocks, and separately, working on open source software for Medicare and Medicaid provider screening. Fucking kismet.

I’m going to be busy trying to hit those deadlines. So busy I might even have to order delivery.



The Cost of Drug Testing Is Making It Harder for Poor People to Afford Treatment

When Laura Keck was pulled over for turning without a signal in Boulder, Colorado, her blood alcohol content was .08, just over the legal limit. She was a new grad student, still adjusting to the demanding schedule of academia. For the next two years, that would also include urinalysis tests up to six times per week as a result of her DUI charge—with out-of-pocket costs every time.

Across the United States, people are mandated to take drug tests for a variety of reasons, ranging from employment, to drug treatment, to probation. While employers and insurance companies typically cover these fees, court-ordered tests are often at the expense of the individual. The costs vary widely, and can result in hundreds of dollars of fees depending on type and location. For urine and saliva tests, costs run $25 to $80—though one facility in West Palm Beach, Florida is reported to charge as much as $2,300 for a urinalysis. Hair tests range from about $100 to $150 each. Regular breathalyzer tests are usually only a few dollars, but ignition interlock devices—the breathalyzer tests some people are required to install in their cars after getting a DUI—range from about $50 to $100 per month. As for how often individuals have to pay, it is entirely up to the courts. Most people are tested once or twice a week—or even just a few times a month, depending on the severity of the offense—but as Keck discovered, that number can go up drastically.

As part of her probation sentence, Keck was required to attend a Mothers Against Drunk Driving seminar but was given no formal treatment for alcoholism. The most demanding mandate was, by far, her drug tests. As she put it, “Basically all I had to do for a solid year was drug testing … There was no follow-up. They didn’t care if I was actually getting clean.”

Average urine tests can’t detect alcohol, so Keck was instructed to take an ethyl glucuronide urine test. Today these tests generally cost around $25 a piece, with some testing centers charging $75 to $100, but Keck was lucky—she only had to pay around $12 to $15 per test in 2012. It was the frequency of the tests that hit her pocketbook the most. Working as a waitress while also paying for living expenses, textbooks, and other school-related costs, Keck says she got by, but just barely.

Like many college students, Keck liked to drink with her friends. She says she was able to recognize that she was a problem drinker, but without any evidence-based treatment offered as part of her probation, she didn’t have much motivation or help discontinuing use. Instead of actually ceasing her drinking, she researched ways to get around the test. She discovered that if she drank about 10 cups of water before providing the sample, she could dilute her urine to the point that alcohol metabolites would be undetectable.

Instead of actually ceasing her drinking, she researched ways to get around the test

“I kept getting false negatives because I kept having diluted pee,” Keck admits. “Because of the false negatives I started having to go three to four times a week.” By the end of her probation she was required to test six days a week, costing her close to $100 weekly in drug testing fees alone. That doesn’t account for transportation costs or other probation fees, like the cost of classes and a mandatory donation to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Some might say it was Keck’s own fault that she had to test so much. After all, if she simply quit drinking, she could have passed without raising suspicions. But addiction is defined by the inability to stop despite negative consequences. It makes sense that someone faced with a penalty but no treatment would have difficulty discontinuing use.

“I’m not drinking and driving,” she says. “I don’t want to deal with that anymore. So at least that aspect worked out, I guess.” Nevertheless, she admits to nursing a hangover during the interview. Maybe there’s one less drunk driver on the streets—certainly a good thing—but it seems Keck’s money could have been better spent in a treatment program that provides real help for her problem drinking.

It’s not just people who “cheat the system” who are paying exorbitant costs. Kenny Ernst was placed on probation in Palm Beach County, Florida for one year in 2016 on a petty theft charge. He traded five years in prison and a felony larceny charge for the year of probation, which is a common trade-off among people who accept plea deals instead of going to trial. But unlike prison, probation shifts the financial burden of the sentence from the government to the probationer—and drug testing fees are no small part of that burden.

There are currently 3.7 million people on probation in the United States and 840,000 on parole. Arrest rates are already considerably higher for people of color and low-income individuals, especially for drug-related offenses. Because probation is often offered as part of a plea bargain, low-income offenders who can’t afford private lawyers or trial costs are more likely to become caught up in this financially demanding system.

Ernst, who studied photojournalism in college before becoming addicted to heroin, says he was stealing to fuel his addiction, which was in full swing when he was arrested. Opioid addiction is notoriously difficult to kick; in Ernst’s case this was one of many relapses during his long struggle for sobriety. Unlike Keck, Ernst entered a recovery program and managed to kick his habit in order to genuinely pass his drug tests. Unfortunately, the probation fees prevented him from enjoying the financial benefits that should accompany the cessation of an expensive drug habit.

“I paid 50 dollars a visit [to my probation officer],” he says, “and 25 whenever I had to be drug tested.” Probation drug tests are random, so Ernst essentially had to be ready with $75 at all times, just in case. He says he had to take up to three tests per month, in addition to regular probation visits.

In response to the question of whether probation helped his recovery, Ernst said “absolutely not.” “If anything, it made you want to use more. Imagine the pressure. Bills are hard enough to cover, then I have to go in and pay for a drug test.” He describes days when he would have $100 set aside for groceries, until he got the call that he needed to come in for a test. Suddenly that $100 was reduced to $25.

If someone doesn’t have the money for the drug test, probation officers get to decide whether or not to “violate” someone, which could lead to incarceration. The single time Ernst didn’t have the money for his test, his probation officer let him off the hook until he was able to borrow the $25. But that was a choice; if his probation officer had been in a bad mood or simply didn’t like him, Ernst could have been sent to jail or prison.

It’s supposed to be illegal to incarcerate people for being unable to pay debts, but court-ordered fees like probation and drug testing open the doors for exactly that. Human Rights Watch has published several reports following the stories of low-income people involved in probation who have experienced consequences like homelessness and imprisonment due to the cost demands of these programs.

Ernst and Keck were relatively lucky. Their finances were consumed by drug testing and other related fees, but they were able to pay. What about those who aren’t? Some judges will waive fees when clients can prove they are indigent, but again, that’s the judge’s choice. For many who are caught up in a substance use disorder, the difference between freedom and incarceration is little more than dollars and chance.



The New Poor People’s Campaign Wants to Change How We Think About Poverty

Yesterday, at a moment when people in poverty are facing unprecedented attacks on their basic living standards, a new Poor People’s Campaign launched.

It is reminiscent of the campaign Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began developing in 1967, five months prior to his assassination. King made his intention clear in his last sermon: “We are coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses … We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty.”

More than 50 years later, the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is coming to Washington. But it will be taking action in 39 states across the country, too. The first phase will be 40 days of direct actions, teach-ins, cultural events, and more.  The campaign will then transition into voter registration and mobilization.

Many people are familiar with campaign co-chair Reverend Dr. William Barber II, through his leadership of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. Less well known is his co-chair, the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis. Theoharis is the co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice.  She has worked as an organizer with people in poverty for the past two decades, collaborating with groups like the National Union of the Homeless, the National Welfare Rights Union, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

I spoke with Rev. Theoharis about how poverty is viewed in America, the contours of the campaign, the role of the media, and what organizers hope to achieve in the first 40 days and beyond. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Greg Kaufmann: Is this campaign trying to tell a different story about poverty in America?

Rev. Liz Theoharis: Yes; we are showing the deep reality of poverty where there are 140 million people who are poor or low-income in this country—where poverty affects close to half the U.S. population. It affects people across all races, nationalities, ethnicities, geographies, genders, sexualities, ages, and religions.

[We need] to break through the current narrative in our society. That narrative is one that blames poor people for their poverty, pits us against each other, and claims that there’s scarcity when we’re really living in a society and world of abundance. We are going to do a sustained season of organizing [for 40 days]; it’s both to connect up, and wake people up, and say that you’re not alone and there is a movement to join—and also to shift the narrative in our country right now.

Poverty affects close to half the U.S. population

And what does that narrative shift look like? What is a more authentic narrative?

I think what needs to happen first is for people to deal with the reality of the injustices that are happening, and the intersections of those injustices in people’s lives. And to see that coming out of deep pain and suffering are people who have a set of demands and a program of resolutions to the problems in their communities: we need single payer universal healthcare, we need full voting rights, we need decent housing for everyone, we need education that is equitable for our kids, we need higher education that’s free and available to anyone that wants it.

The story that we want to get out there is that right now there are 140 million people who are poor or low-income—that’s 43.5 percent of the population. So we’re not talking about some little group of people over there, and there is no small bandaid to fix it. We need a national discussion and national action in terms of policies that will lift people out of poverty, curb systemic racism, shift our war economy to a peace economy, and save the planet and everything living in it.

Have you run into any resistance to the word “poor?” In terms of people with low-incomes not wanting to identify as “poor,” or a feeling that it’s the wrong frame for a broad-based movement?  

It hasn’t been an issue among poor people who are calling for this campaign. But sometimes progressive religious folks, or people associated with colleges and universities worry about this. Our response is that the idea of a Poor People’s Campaign and a National Call for a Moral Revival is coming from poor people ourselves. Also, there is a rich history in terms of poor people organizing across color lines in the ’68 Campaign, and in other moments in U.S. history.

If we go back to our sacred texts and traditions—the bible is a form of mass media that talks more about uplifting the poor than any other topic. This 40 to 50 year attack on poor people, of blaming poor people for their and everyone’s problems—how you counter that isn’t by throwing out the word poor, or only talking about the middle class, only talking about economic insecurity, without naming the reality that almost half the population in the United States is experiencing.

A big part of this campaign is about people hearing their names and hearing their condition and coming forward and saying, “This doesn’t have to be and I’m going to stand up with other people and fight for justice.” If you look at our demands, some of them are about broadening our understanding of who is poor and why people are poor. Because right now in part due to how the media has portrayed poor people, a lot of times there is shame and blame associated with it. But as one of the steering committee leaders said, “I don’t feel ashamed that I’m poor—I grew up in the poorest census district in the country. I think our society should feel ashamed about the kind of deep poverty that exists and I had to live through.”

The Poor People’s Campaign intentionally didn’t reach out to national organizations until late in the organizing effort.  Can you talk about the reasons for that?

We believe this campaign is only going to be successful if it is a deep and wide organizing drive of poor people, of moral leaders, of all people of conscience, who think that these issues are a problem. And it has to come from the bottom-up. And so we really started with grassroots leaders who had been doing work for a long time in their communities, or had just emerged because certain struggles were happening in their communities so they stepped forward to respond. We built very diverse coordinating committees in 39 states. It really is being led by people who are most impacted.

After we launched officially on December 4, 2017, national organizations came forward wanting to endorse. We have more than 100 now—and it’s a meaningful endorsement. We see national not as doing work in D.C. or having a P.O. Box in D.C., but as nationalizing state-based movements.

‘I don’t feel ashamed that I’m poor ... I think our society should feel ashamed about the kind of deep poverty that exists and I had to live through.’

Can you walk us through the launch and the 40-day season of organizing?

Sunday we had a Mass Meeting—Rev. Barber and I led it—and some local D.C. folks were involved, and we livestreamed it nationally.  We’ll have these Mass Meetings on Sundays weekly. For 40 days, [direct] actions will continue to be on Mondays. On Tuesdays we’ll livestream teach-ins, on Thursdays we’ll nationally broadcast cultural events, and on [weekends] we’re in houses of worship and places of worship, where people will focus on weekly themes and get people involved. On June 23, we’ll launch the next stage in terms of people coming to D.C. for a massive mobilization and then going back to their homes to do organizing that is connected to voter registration and voter mobilization and education.

What can you tell me about what today—this first day of direct action—looks like ideally?

We will head from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church to the U.S. Capitol for a call to action, where leaders from different struggles around the country will have a chance to speak to why we’re building the campaign and what they campaign is calling for.  Then Rev. Barber and I will explain how the action will take place, and then throughout the afternoon people will have a chance to continue to make connections with others that are there. So the actions are happening at the U.S. Capitol and then simultaneously happening in more than 30 states.

What do you do to sustain the movement beyond these 40 days of action?

This is why the coordinating committees in the states have been set up for months now. The committees have connected with teams of lawyers, with teams that do non-violent direct action training, they’ve been doing a political education process amongst their own leadership so that folks understand not just how to do this but why we’re doing this and what is going to be needed for the long haul. And also identifying cultural leaders, and singers, and songwriters—components for what a state-based movement of people across all the different lines that divide us need in order to be successful.

Will the campaign be addressing some of the legislative fights going on right now—such as the proposed SNAP cuts and additional work requirements in the Farm Bill, Medicaid work requirements, and other issues that impact people’s basic needs?

We have posted a preliminary agenda and demands on the website, and they are a mix of federal and state policies. Some of them are reactive to current fights that are going on—from not cutting SNAP, not cutting [heating assistance], not having these work requirements. But then there are things that are more proactive—like single-payer universal health care, and automatic voter registration at the age of 18. So we are trying to be relevant and connected to the current fights that the people in this campaign are having to fight. Like currently in Michigan there is a water crisis, so if there is anything that can help people immediately, we have to take up that fight. But we also have to not just react—to put out visionary and necessary demands that would translate into making everybody’s lives better.

While the heart of the campaign is clearly consistent with Dr. King’s Poor People’s campaign—in looking at poverty, ecological destruction, militarism, and systemic racism—are there some key differences as well?

Yes. What Dr. King was talking about was bringing 3,000 of the poorest citizens from about 10 communities across the country to Washington, D.C. and staying there until people’s demands were met. It’s really important for us not to just have people come to D.C. but have people doing actions and organizing in their states. Also, we called for this 40 days, so we’re not staying until everything is met.

We’re doing something historic—historians have told us that there’s never been this kind of direct action at state capitols in a coordinated way for a sustained period of time.  And we’ve never had so many people go into the U.S. Capitol and engage in non-violent direct action, and then keep on returning. So, it’s not a one-off mobilization.

Dr. King called for a Poor People’s Campaign in December of ’67, and was killed in April of ’68.  The first meeting of the 25 different organizations and leaders—Native Americans, white Appalachians, Latino folks—it was two, maybe three weeks before King was killed.  So we also hope that we have more time to keep building these bonds across lines that divide us—especially race, geography, issue, gender and sexuality—and that we can mature in terms of a movement. 

The campaign is very clear that it is non-partisan—that the problems and solutions are not the domain of any single party.  That said, have you had conservatives turn out and participate?

Yes. Of the more than 1,000 people who have been engaged in the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina and gotten arrested, more than 11 percent of those folks were registered, active Republicans. In some of the homeless organizing and welfare rights organizing I come out of, we’ve had people from all kind of political beliefs who are impacted by poverty come forward and play leadership roles. And we’ve definitely experienced that in communities where Trump won by a lot, or where Mitch McConnell has dominated politics forever, people in those communities are saying, “We need this.  These issues have been going on for far too long, and people are being impacted, and dying because they don’t have healthcare.” It isn’t just uniting progressive people but instead uniting people around what’s right and wrong.

Anything I’ve not asked you about that you want people to know heading into May 14?

It’s really important to see the grassroots nature of this work and pay attention to the leaders in the more than 30 states across the country and in the District of Columbia who wake up every day thinking, “How do we build a poor people’s campaign?  How do we pull off a moral revival in this nation?” People like those in Lowndes County, Alabama who have raw sewage in their yards, and in El Paso, Texas who get four minutes—once every 15 years—to hug their relative in the Rio Grande. Or folks living in Grays Harbor, Washington in a homeless encampment of predominantly poor, white millennials.

Out of those struggles people are uniting and organizing and calling for real systemic change. It reminds me of this quote from Dr. King, when he said: “The poor of this nation live in a cruelly unjust society. If they could be helped to take action together they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” And I think this new and unsettling force of poor people across race, geography, religion, gender, and sexuality—are rising in this non-violent army. I think something big is happening, and we need everyone to be a part of it.

Author’s note: To get involved, go to the website and sign up to connect with coordinating committee leaders in your state. Or check out the interactive map of where actions are taking place.

This interview was originally published on



ICE Is Terrorizing Immigrants. Now Some Communities Are Putting It On Trial.

In ten events in ten different cities, from February to May, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is being put on trial. The Detention Watch Network, a coalition of organizations focused on the injustices of immigration detention, has organized people’s tribunals to hold ICE’s history of abuse and oppression up to public scrutiny.

This past weekend, the “ICE on Trial” tribunals continued near detention centers in Taylor, Texas, and Richmond, California. The events are loosely presented in the form of a trial, with a jury, expert witnesses, evidence and testimonials from victims and their families. The symbolic tribunals questions the very legitimacy of the agency.

ICE detains approximately 40,000 people a day in a network of more than 200 facilities throughout the country. Annually, ICE holds about 400,000 people in its facilities. But the numbers don’t tell the story of the misery that the agency inflicts, which involves terrorizing neighborhoodsbreaking apart families; separating children from their parents; subjecting asylum seekers to prolonged detention; and sexually, physically, and emotionally abusing those in its custody. As the ACLU put it recently, “ICE cruelty knows no bounds.”

Though ICE has been a scourge on immigrant communities for years, the past year may have been the agency’s most brutal. Bolstered by anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump administration and a directive from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to prosecute “all immigration cases,” ICE has dramatically widened its net.  It has resumed a Bush-era strategy of terror-inducing raids in neighborhoods and workplaces—and even outside of churches—as well as amplified its individually-targeted arrests at homes and at courthouses, resulting in 42 percent more arrests in 2017 than in 2016.

ProPublica and Philadelphia Inquirer recently collected stories of ICE agents allegedly engaging in racial profiling, conducting warrantless searches, detaining people without cause, fabricating evidence, and even soliciting a bribe. “But in none of these cases,” write journalists Deborah Sontag and Dale Russakoff, “have agents or officers been put on the stand to respond to the allegations.”

That’s where the people’s tribunal steps in. The Detention Watch Network’s ICE on Trial events publicly present a litany of disturbing and systemic abuses committed by the agency. Alan Dicker, one the organizers of El Paso’s tribunal, said they are necessary because “ICE is, in effect, a lawless law enforcement agency.”

According to Princeton professor of International Law Richard Falk, people’s tribunals “have emerged to fill the normative vacuum created by the stark hypocrisies of international justice.” Philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre famously convened a people’s tribunal in 1967 to hear grievances of war crimes committed by the US military in Vietnam. The same year, organizers in Detroit also called a people’s tribunal after the Algiers Motel killing, when white police officers killed three black teens and severely beat a number of others. The ICE on Trial events are underscoring a similar hypocrisy—or plain scarcity—of justice.

At the El Paso tribunal—which took place on April 21 along with ICE on Trial tribunals in New York City and Gadsden, Alabama—there were four jury members (made up of local activists and people directly-impacted by ICE), three expert witnesses, and a barrage of evidence and testimonials from victims and their families. In all, about 100 people attended. The jury weighed three charges against ICE: The agency does not fulfill its legal obligations to migrants in its custody; it does not live up to moral and ethical standards of the surrounding community; and it oversees an inherently dehumanizing, exploitative, and destructive system.

At least thirteen people have died in ICE custody since the beginning of 2017.

ICE was not invited to the El Paso tribunal in order to ensure a safe space for all in attendance, but responded via email, claiming that the agency is “committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.”

Nellie Alvarado, a 42-year-old El Paso native who testified, explained how she was occasionally laughed at by ICE agents while her husband, Oscar, was in detention in El Paso for 16 months—33 days of which he spent in solitary confinement, unable to receive visitors. Oscar asked for asylum at the U.S. border in Juárez, Mexico in 2015 after being shot by an unknown assailant, but he said he was harassed and threatened by Juárez police, who didn’t seem to believe his testimony. After being released from the hospital on the U.S. side, he was placed in ICE custody as his asylum claim was processed. (It was eventually denied.)

Alvarado said that her husband was mistreated from the moment he was placed in ICE custody. First, she said that ICE didn’t provide necessary cleaning for his gunshot wound. Weeks later, while in custody, Oscar was diagnosed with PTSD but was provided insufficient access to his medication for anxiety, and sometimes missed doses. He also lost significant weight while in detention. “He received the opposite of the care he needed,” she said.

In response to these allegations, ICE claimed that all “detainees… can expect timely and appropriate responses to emergent medical requests,” adding that “ICE takes very seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care.” Yet at least thirteen people have died in ICE custody since the beginning of 2017, and there are many claims of substandard care.

Alvarado described her husband being in solitary as an experience that was “emotionally disabling”—she was constantly worried that something would happen to him, or that he would commit suicide. Alvarado also claimed she was consistently denied even basic information about her husband—whether he had been transferred to another facility, for instance. She summed up ICE as an agency with “no ethical values, no respect for human life.”

Oscar was deported in 2017 and, since then, Alvarado has lived with him across the border in Juárez. She said, “I expected to find the man who went in, but the man who came out was different.” He became really quiet, didn’t talk much, and had suicidal thoughts. “Where’s my husband who jokes around?” Alvarado wondered aloud.

Private immigration attorney Jessie Miles argued at the tribunal that “ICE is failing to meet legal obligations under the US constitution.” He noted that immigration detention is civil detention—not criminal detention—and “cannot be used for punitive purposes.” Yet despite internal guidelines directing ICE to focus its detention efforts only on those who are a “danger to society” or a “flight risk,” Miles explained that since February 2017 ICE has adopted “across-the-board policies to detain non-dangerous and non-flight risk immigrants.”

Miles said that in the El Paso area, ICE seemingly no longer allows people to fight their cases outside of detention. The ACLU documented 349 parole requests for asylum seekers in the El Paso sector from February to September of 2017. All 349 of them were denied.

ICE, in response, said that the agency makes decisions to release detainees with pending proceedings “on a case-by-case basis.”

The jury in the El Paso tribunal effectively found ICE guilty on all three counts, and encouraged the community to advocate for abolishing ICE, shutting down its detention centers, and building support for those who remain detained. Although the tribunals aren’t legally binding, the idea is to galvanize community resistance to what organizers call an unaccountable, opaque, and out of control agency.

The stakes are clear, as Jean-Claude, an asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast testified in El Paso: He had languished in detention for nearly a year, and at various points regretted his decision to come to the U.S.  He said, “Detention has killed everything in me, my soul and my spirit.”  And that’s despite the fact that his case was one of the few with a happy ending.  After nearly a year of suffering he was granted asylum and now lives in Maryland.

As the Trump administration and DHS continue to criminalize migrants and asylum seekers, people’s tribunals—and the grassroots movements they represent—offer hope that, perhaps someday soon, people like Alvarado, Jean-Claude, and hundreds of thousands of others won’t have to suffer for searching for a safe place to live.



The Supreme Court Could Make Unions a Lot More Radical

Fed up with the harsh conditions under which they were forced to labor, workers from West Virginia decided to call it quits. Together, they left their jobs, donned red bandanas, and amassed 10,000 strong near Blair Mountain, where a local sheriff had assembled a 3,000-man force of police, hired security, and militia to put them down.

No, this isn’t the recent West Virginia teachers strike — it’s a 1921 coal miners strike, which escalated into what would come to be known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. The two sides battled for five days, until more than 2,000 additional U.S. Army troops entered the fray to crush the workers rebellion. Up to 100 laborers were killed, hundreds more were injured, and more than 1,000 were arrested. While the uprising seems like an episode relegated to the largely forgotten labor wars of past, the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) may make such conflicts part of the future for unions once again.

The plaintiffs in Janusbacked by right-wing foundations and corporate lobbying groups—seek to deprive AFSCME of its ability to collect agency fees, which are essentially reduced union dues from non-union members. By setting a federal precedent, the case could cleave the public sector workforce across the country into two groups: those paying for collective bargaining and those not paying for it but still receiving benefits such as higher wages—often referred to as “free riders.” The fear is that, without a way to prevent free riding, collective bargaining will be overburdened and underfunded, and already embattled unions—which have fallen from representing 33 percent of workers in 1954 to just 11 percent today—will be finished. Or, as Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, put it, “[S]uch a broad-based attack on workers would leave no group unscathed.”

But this prognosis ignores that unions both existed and made great strides before they were officially recognized or even legal organizations. And it ignores what organized labor has accomplished in the roughly half of U.S. states that already prohibit mandatory agency fees—including West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky, where massive teacher demonstrations have led to statewide victories.

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Prior to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), employers had no obligation to recognize unions, and they even included anti-union clauses in employment contracts. This prevented millions of workers from joining unions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Unions both existed and made great strides before they were officially recognized

Yet it was during this time that unions were their most militant. Without legal recourse, workers relied on direct action—such as boycotts, pickets, and strikes—to win their demands. These tactics put workers face to face with their opposition: the bosses and their lackeys; mercenaries; local law enforcement; and, as in the 1921 West Virginia coal miners’ strike, even the U.S. military. And with so many union sympathizers barred from official memberships, labor actions often included both unionized and non-unionized workers, if not their entire communities.

The results could be explosive. Besides the Battle of Blair Mountain, which remains the largest labor rebellion in U.S. history, the Haymarket affair of 1886 involved a bombing and Chicago police opening fire on a rally in support of striking workers; the so-called “Colorado Labor Wars” led to the deaths of both strikers and strikebreakers from 1903 to 1904; and two people were killed by the police and militia during the 1912 “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Despite the overwhelming violence used against them in this period, unions were still able to win significant victories, such as the eight-hour workday (albeit only in particular locations and industries). By 1934—the year before the National Labor Relations Act granted unions state recognition—the tide seemed to be turning in favor of workers: Sailors and longshoremen unionized all West Coast ports in the United States, and 400,000 textile workers from New England to the South launched what was then the largest strike in U.S. history.

According to Peter Cole, professor of history at Western Illinois University, these strikes—and the “working class radicalism” they represented—were curtailed by the NLRA. Cole says the Act was designed to contain “radical left-wing forces by forcing employers to accept modest, if still quite beneficial, reforms,” like giving workers the right to unionize and strike.

In other words, the federal government used the NLRA to enforce a peaceful compromise between labor and business, rather than risk the escalation of all-out class war. In exchange for the right to unionize, strike, and collectively bargain, workers agreed to union elections and arbitration of unfair labor practice charges through the newly created National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). That is, rather than rank-and-file union members fighting for their demands through direct action, labor struggles were decided by lawyers and bureaucrats behind the closed doors of NLRB regional offices. (Although the NLRA does not cover public sector employees, many of these same rights were later extended to them through various state and federal measures, such as President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order 10988, with the substitution of federal and state boards for the NLRB.)

Janus threatens to dismantle this regime of compromise and deliver unions into the pre-NLRA era, shifting labor struggles from the courts back onto the streets. And we don’t have to look as far back as the 1920s for examples of how this could play out. Unions in West Virginia lost the ability to collect agency fees in 2017, yet rather than collapsing, labor’s struggle in the state has hit a new zenith. Without the backing of their union or much faith in their elected representatives, 20,000 rank-and-file West Virginia teachers organized and led their recent nine-day strike, winning raises for public sector workers statewide and inspiring successful teachers strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky—all states where unions are barred from collecting agency fees. In an homage to the past—and perhaps a harbinger of the future—some of the teachers in West Virginia chose to wear red bandanas, just like the striking coal miners of 1921.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and are not representative of the Center for American Progress’ policy positions on any issue.