BOSTON/Dorchester - Temperatures over 100 degrees had Bostonians scrambling to find relief last week. Perhaps an even harder challenge to face: what to do about the debt and deficit and taxes, budget cuts, and proposed austerity measures which have inflamed citizens from D.C. to Dorchester.
Massuniting, a new coalition of local non-profit groups and residents affected by street crime and economic hardship, believes it can channel that anger into progressive activism.
On Wednesday July 20, Open Media Boston attended a community Speak Out; the first in what coalition partners hope will be many informational and direct action events.
OMB Audio: Audio Report on Massuniting Coalition and Community Speak Out Event (13:38)
Mimi Ramos, Executive Director of New England United for Justice stood before more than four hundred neighbors, union members, and local activists in Prince Hall at the Grand Lodge of Freemasons in the Grove Hall neighborhood of Boston. Looking over the large crowd, she reminded the audience of the power in numbers.
"Together we can make things happen," she said. "We can make reality happen in our communities...holding elected officials accountable and demanding the type of change we want in our own neighborhoods."
But taking action to address neighborhood problems, often takes overcoming fear. Ingrid Batiste, a volunteer with Massuniting who has been going door to door to promote the coalition, had a nightmare come true on the fourth of July when her nephew was killed in an eruption of gun violence. Speaking before the Prince Hall crowd, she said people need to take back their streets from crime and called upon her neighbors to put aside their fears and mentor the youth that otherwise would fall prey to the streets.
"We as mothers are losing our sons...and I ask everyone in this room not to be scared to talk to a kid on the street and let him know what he's doing is wrong."
In an interview recently, Jason Stephany, who serves as Communications Director for the Charlestown-based Massuniting coalition described the Speak Out event as an effort to capture the critical mass in the Boston area building around social and political activism.
"We're now at a point where people want to speak out, they want to take action and do something. This is a public forum for people to share personal stories. Stories about facing foreclosure, evictions and layoffs. People who have been touched by the recent increase in crime. They're not alone and there's a community around them that is unified in the desire to take action."
The dual strategies of talking one to one and direct mass action are very familiar to the coalition's growing list of member organizations. Representing labor, economic democracy, and peace issues, some of the groups taking part in Wednesday's Speak Out included the Boston Workers Alliance, Jobs with Justice, Dorchester People for Peace, SEIU locals 615 and 1199, Mass Senior Action, and City Life Vida Urbana.
City Life - which has made national headlines for its advocacy of families facing the loss of their homes and especially the scores of eviction blockades it has sponsored in the last three years – literally demonstrated this type of action with a solidarity march and protest at the Normandy Street home of Massuniting activist Drusilla Frances. City Life and its sister organization the Bank Tenants Association, demand that financial institutions help owners in distress with loan modifications or home sales to community minded non-profits.
Standing in front of the well kept Frances home, as more than one hundred supporters cheered and jeered, organizer Melonie Griffiths described some of the neighborhood consequences her group has identified when banks decide to foreclose on properties.
"If they move forward and evict this family, this property will be auctioned off for less than the family was willing to pay. Along with that comes the blight that contributes to crime, right? We know that when families get put out, houses stay vacant for long periods of time and they become central to crime..."
"Drusilla Frances," Griffiths added, "is the one who kept up this house, not the banks."
U.S. Bank has issued an eviction notice to Drusilla Frances to be executed on Monday, August first. In response, City Life and the Massuniting coalition say they will attempt to block police from forcibly removing the family.
According to advocates, non-profit Boston Community Capital has made an offer on the home with the intent of selling it back to Drusilla Frances at close to the current market value, but that US Bank refused the offer. It is standard policy for Boston Community Capital and banks holding mortgages to refuse to speak to the media about specific cases involving ongoing financial negotiations.
Residents in Boston and in cities around the nation may be looking to Washington D.C. for relief. But Boston City Councillor Tito Jackson warned that federal officials – who signed on to massive bailouts of the banks – need to be reminded that huge disparities in wealth can't be fixed with budget cuts and borrowed money.
"Understand there's a conversation going on on a national level...and it gets twisted and turned around. But it is about rich and poor and its based on who is going to pay the bill. Well, I think when we loan you [the banks] $780 Billion...I think its about time you go ahead and pay the bill..."
Originally, the Massuniting event was to be a public forum with national and local members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But Massachusetts Representatives such as Michael Capuano and Jim McGovern stayed in Washington for the debate over the debt ceiling and to support the concept of collecting taxes from corporations and wealthy individuals instead of draconian cuts to social programs.
It's a question of economic equity say activists. Using a so-called spectrum exercise, Jeannette Huezo, Education Coordinator for the organization United for a Fair Economy, demonstrated how average family income for the lowest wage workers has diminished slightly more than seven percent in the last three decades while those in the top earning brackets have increased their percentage of the wealth pie between 75 and 130 percent.
"Now let's see the top one percent. Ready, Massuniting...129 percent! [The increase in average family wages garnered in the last 30 years.]"
Hearing these statistics, Carla Stovell from New England United for Justice and the 25 Percent Campaign told the gathering "I'm mad. And you know why I'm mad? Because the rich refuse to pay their fair share of taxes."
She expressed her lack of confidence in federal and state elected officials whose responsibility it is to regulate corporations.
For years, opposition from Massachusetts business interests held sway amongst legislative leaders who were reluctant to support measures potentially closing up to a billion dollars in corporate tax loopholes.
To be fair, Governors Deval Patrick and Mitt Romney both proposed changes in the way corporations pay taxes that would have added an estimated 200 to 400 million annually to the state treasury. And a compromise bill – establishing the practice of tax assessment known as combined reporting - went into effect in January 2009.
What Ms. Stovell and other members of the Massuniting Coalition say they don't see from their elected officials is a commitment to closing the gap in wealth and power in this country.
"Right now there is no justice for us economically. Justice to me is when young people have programs that are affordable throughout the year... Justice to me is when tenants and landlords have affordable housing they can live in... Why are we being ripped off? Because the big banks and corporations continue to foreclose and evict people from their homes while they continue to make big bucks..."
Since the Speak Out on July 20, the Massuniting coalition has participated in solidarity actions with workers at State Street Bank and a demonstration calling on Senator Scott Brown to support funding for Medicaid.