When I was 19 years old, I came to the stark realization that my future was bleak and that I had very few choices. I could finish my liberal arts degree in political science and philosophy, but even with my academic and athletic scholarships, I would leave college with a four-year degree and $60,000 in debt.
I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to play music, but there was little chance I would be able to pay off student loans doing that. So I chose to drop out and pursue the path of art.
I became a community organizer at 20 years old, only because a vulture capitalist real estate developer had decided to buy all the local music venues and cut out the local scene (which, incidentally, had a rich history, being the hometown of indie rock bands like Dinosaur Jr, the Pixies, Sonic Youth and Sebadoh).
Eventually, I discovered that either way, I was being forced to choose a path of bondage; finish school and do work I hated that might pay my student loans, or forego formal education and be relegated to a life of poverty.
For most of my adult life, I have known scarcity. In many instances, I have known the constant anxiety and humiliation of extreme poverty. There were even a few times in my early 20s when I stole food from a restaurant I worked at because I was hungry. I carried shame about it for many years. Poor people carry a lot of shame. We live in a society that tells us we’re only valuable if we’re famous, wealthy, able to consume or be hyper-productive. We allow over 500,000 people to live on the streets, discarded like garbage as if their lives have no value.
I am blessed that God has always provided for my basic needs, even during the several years that I didn’t have a car or a place to live. But for all my personal struggles, I was still born a white guy in America, which comes with substantial advantages.
If you’re lucky enough to have parents able to pay for your education, you will most likely never know or understand what it is like to have so few choices. If your parents were not blue-collar working-class people, you may never know what it’s like to not have the principles of success taught or modeled for you. You will never know the humiliation of applying for food stamps, taking the city bus, or worse, having to get tokens for the bus at the damn social services building. It is demoralizing.
From the time I was twelve years old I had to work on farms, so this reality has been very present for me. We had enough, but money was a constant cause of violence in our household. From the time I left school at 19 to live on my own, I’ve had to scrape to get by. Still, I have had more privilege than so many, many of my fellow Americans; especially those of color.
Now, for the first time in my lifetime, there’s a candidate running for president that’s committed to changing this system of slavery and its rigged economy.
Poor and working-class people know who’s for real and who isn’t. We know our lives are not going to change significantly with another feckless centrist president who’ll continue to shore up the war economy, ensuring that volunteering for the military remains one of the only pathways out of poverty. We know who’s gotten arrested for civil disobedience, has been on the picket lines fighting alongside unions, and who’s only made fine but predictable speeches.
You may like another candidate because you see more of yourself in them, or would like to. That’s not good enough anymore. There’s a class war taking place every day in America that too few people are aware of.
I don’t regret my past, but I often wonder what I might have achieved if I had access to the free and affordable education that the baby boomer generation was given. I was never able to earn a degree, and I haven’t had healthcare for most of my adult life.
Those “moderate” and “centrist” politicians are the same that voted to bail out the big banks and Sallie Mae, and refused to prosecute the executives responsible for leaving millions homeless or hopelessly in debt.
Perhaps you also came from the poor or working-class and managed to climb your way to the middle-class. Ask yourself how long it’s been since you were only one car tow, one accident, or one illness away from disaster.
When you say to vote blue no matter who, you fail to understand that we have seen candidates make promises our whole lives that never were fulfilled. Deep down, we’ve always known that they were puppets for the ruling class. Sure there were a few glimmers of hope in candidates like Jesse Jackson, Dennis Kucinich, and Ralph Nader, but none were ever truly viable; that is, until Bernie Sanders.
Let’s not pretend that representation doesn’t matter, but ask yourself if that alone has truly transformed this nation. The specters of racism and patriarchy have always been tools of economic oppression. Without true class solidarity, the systems of oppression will continue, just as we saw as President Obama expanded the interests of the war machine, neoliberal economic policies, fossil fuels, the hegemony of Wall St., and large corporations.
Do you remember when he faked taking a sip out of that glass of water in Flint, Michigan?
The millions of people that were affected by the 2008 housing crisis remember it all too well. Those who were pepper-sprayed or hit with nightsticks by riot police during the Occupy Wall St. protests cannot soon forget, nor when the Obama administration allowed Indigenous people to be brutalized at Standing Rock despite his promises of support.
Of course, it cannot be denied that electing Barack Obama president was one of the most important paradigm changes in our nation’s history. But now, we find ourselves on the brink of a climate apocalypse, and in the most extreme class divide since the dawn of this country. The billionaire class has arguably more power than even the robber barons of the industrial revolution had. Thirty thousand people die every year because they are uninsured or underinsured.
The truth is, that no president can accomplish what must be done without a vital grassroots political movement behind them. And most likely, no candidate will defeat this radical right-wing white nationalist regime without a movement behind them.
What I learned during my first few experiences as a community organizer, was that when there was solidarity, we could exceed all expectations. At 20 years olds, we took a music scene that was declared dead by the local press and turned it into one of the most thriving hubs in the country for a few years. We accomplished this by organizing the bands to work together and co-promote one another. Then we expanded the circle to create a network with other bands across the region.
I have found the same tactic has been effective in every organizing effort I have been a part of.
This is why we must go beyond class privilege and choose solidarity. A Bernie Sanders administration is only the beginning of the work. The challenges are intersectional, and so are the solutions. We can not overlook the importance of racial, gender, and sexual orientation equity, but as a civilization, we can not afford to settle for another feeble apologist that postures well on the issues, but lacks the grit and backbone to take on the special interests.
If your reaction to reading this is to try to convince us to “fall in line”, you will have failed to understand that I’ am writing to you in an attempt to communicate why this simply will not matter to the millions of Americans who have either given up or see Bernie Sanders as their only hope.
Thanks for reading!
From Occupy to Standing Rock, Jay Ponti has been a grassroots political organizer. He was the co-creator of #BankExit, the campaign which ignited billions in fossil fuel divestments. He has masterminded direct actions with Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon, and other luminaries, which received international media attention.
Jay was a strategist for the 2017 California Poor People’s campaign that coordinated simultaneous actions occupying capitol buildings in 35 states where over 2500 people were arrested to stand for climate justice, criminal justice, health care as a human right, undocumented rights, homeless rights and many other critical issues facing our nation.
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