Don’t Shoot Portland has endorsed a $15 minimum wage and not just for the City of Portland. Responding to today’s news that all Multnomah County employees have won a $15 minimum wage, Don’t Shoot Portland organizer Teressa Raiford said, “That’s a great step, but we need to make sure we win $15 for the whole state, for all of Oregon.”
Since August of 2014, Don’t Shoot Portland has organized mass rallies, community meetings, and public forums around the issue of police killings and brutality, systemic racism and racial profiling, and oppression of communities of color in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.
Don’t Shoot Portland has shown a tremendous ability to harness the disillusioned outrage of a new generation of civil rights activists in Portland, to draw relevant connections between Ferguson and police brutality and killings here locally in Portland, and translate it all into powerful public action and discourse. It is worth our time to explore how the problem of systemic racism and police oppression of communities of color goes hand in hand with the problem of systemic poverty and income inequality.
Racism, racial profiling, and police oppression are serious problems that are faced daily by black communities throughout Oregon and the U.S. From the earliest days of American law when black people where legally deemed the property of white men, through Jim Crow and Oregon’s exclusion laws, down to the prison-industrial complex today the system was, in fact, never meant to serve and protect black communities. Today, one unarmed black person is shot and killed by police every 28 hours in America.
They are killed by the same police that are called on to violently break up peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience against police brutality and corporate domination of our society. They are the same police who are called on to serve the corporate state by violently attacking striking workers and forcing them back to work.
The militarized police forces in this country are used to protect corporate wealth and power. This is certainly true when it comes to keeping communities of color in poverty and prison, and it is true when it comes to breaking strikes and squelching first amendment expression. The racism and systemic problems that allow police to get away with murdering unarmed black men are on and the same as the racism and systemic problems that allow massive corporations and a few mostly white individuals to amass and hoard vast amounts of wealth while communities of color live in poverty.
It is no secret that poverty is one of the major causes of violence and crime. Many of these “crimes” are nothing more than crimes of survival. Crimes people commit because they are hungry and desperate, they have kids to feed, and they can’t survive on the poverty wages offered by the American economy. So they seek black market and other opportunities to provide for themselves and their families. Like Eric Garner selling single cigarettes on a street corner in New York City. Now he is dead.
When talking about how these issues intersect, Teressa Raiford said it best and simply when she said, “We all know that we aren’t going to end violence unless we end poverty.”
When it comes to poverty, communities of color are disproportionately represented as a result of the racism that has been built into the American economic and legal system. For example, white people make up 88% of Oregon’s population, and only 15% of white people in Oregon live in poverty according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy. On the other hand, while black people make up a disturbingly small 2% of Oregon’s population, a staggering 41% of black Oregonians live in poverty. This shows that just like police oppression, violence and murder, systemic poverty is a serious issue for communities of color. Systemic racism (a tool for dividing the working class) in a country who’s laws were never meant to protect and serve the black community is at the heart of both the problems of poverty and police violence in that community.
There is no one solution to these problems. These problems are systemic, meaning that they are part of the very structure and they are built into the very institutions that compose and hold up our society. The only way some people can be filthy rich, with billions of dollars that they could never spend in one lifetime, is by keeping the masses of people in poverty, people who work hard to create the wealth their bosses hoard. Indeed, today half of all Americans either live in poverty or are on the brink of poverty. In Oregon, 72% of families living in poverty have at least one parent that works.
Poverty is not an issue of laziness, or a matter of a lack of skills or education. Those families and parents work hard to try and provide for their families. It is simply a matter of a system built upon the fact that a few people can get disgustingly rich only if the masses are either in slavery, or are paid poverty wages.
In the same way, communities of color are kept in poverty and in prison because our unjust economic system needs low-wage workers, it needs soldiers, its needs cannon fodder. And so communities of color are hounded and oppressed by militarized police forces. They are shoveled down a school-to-prison pipeline that ensures our prison-industrial complex is continuously fed new slave labor for companies that use prisoners as a labor force. Many of these companies, such as Target and Macy’s, are among the same companies that are guilty of paying poverty wages to their non-prison labor force. It is also ensured, through background checks and laws allowing businesses to discriminate against felons, that once out of prison people remain in poverty and are unable to find good jobs and move up the economic ladder. They are relegated to poverty wage jobs.
If all these problems are systemic, then the solution to these problems is also systemic. We must Fight for $15 to help alleviate the pressure of poverty on communities of color and all other communities suffering from systemic income inequality. We must fight to end police brutality and racial profiling, to end a racist system in which police can indiscriminately kill unarmed black people and get away with it.
We need to join together, unite across movements into one mass movement to create the systemic changes necessary for real justice to be ensured. We need a new civil rights era with people engaging in mass protests, strikes, and walkouts to demand justice: economic justice, racial justice, social justice, environmental justice…justice for all!
Justin Norton-Kertson is an organizer and steering committee member with 15 Now Portland, and is the Northwest regional representative on the 15 Now national steering committee.