Statement on Portland’s Asylum Seekers

On Wednesday, June 12, around 100 asylum seekers– many of them women and children– arrived by bus in Portland. Because our emergency shelters are already at capacity, these asylum seekers are being sent to stay at the EXPO building. Federal and state agencies have told the city to expect more arrivals in the coming weeks.

The Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America rejects the narrative put forth in news headlines that the arrival of these families is a “problem” and affirm that this “very critical emergency” we face is actually a manufactured crisis.

The City and State are already being congratulated for their response, when they should be shamed for their evasion tactics. Asking citizens to donate via crowdfunding text is washing their hands of their responsibility, both in the incendiary language they have used to respond to this situation, and for actions they’ve taken to get us to such an unprepared position

The effects of the United States’ reckless foreign policy, disastrous domestic and global wealth inequality, and an increased frequency of climate disaster will only bring more people in dire need to Portland, and our city needs to be better prepared to welcome them.

Asylum seekers are not coming here just because they want to.

They are fleeing violence, food scarcity, and persecution in their home countries, and are making the obvious decision to save the lives of themselves and their families by coming to the United States. The US has played a role in the global injustices and poverty that facilitates this violence, and we have an obligation to help the people impacted by it. US imperialism and global capitalism will continue to create instability around the world. As a self-proclaimed sanctuary city, Portland must fulfill that proclamation with action and greater preparations to meet the basic needs of people fleeing violence

The only problem we have is a public policy one.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings and the councilors who walk in lock-step with him have prioritized private profit over the public good for far too long, systematically eroding our housing stock, under-funding our shelters and community support funds, and creating the perfect conditions for fiscal catastrophe and civil unrest. Their policy decisions and votes provide corporate welfare to the real estate developers and the billionaire corporations funding their campaigns. This leaves working-class residents to pick up the tab, as we have done here. They have pushed our city to the breaking point, and any crisis we face is a direct result of their short-sighted decision making

We need radical solutions, not damage control.

Portland’s $200,000 Community Support Fund was established in 2015 to help families who are here legally but cannot yet work. Underfunded from the start, Manager Jennings sponsored an amendment to deny new applications to the fund beginning July 1, 2019. Councilor Pious Ali and Mayor Ethan Strimling will sponsor a motion at the June 17th City Council Meeting to strike that amendment, but we must do more.

For too long, our housing stock has been commodified and compressed behind exclusionary zoning walls to cater to the needs and profits of the wealthiest in society. Massive corporations have been sold swaths of public land at below market value. Hoteliers and short-term landlords have made fortunes by flipping our depreciated and depleted housing stock. The council has enacted affordable housing zoning in name only, and voted down any efforts to strengthen it

We make the following demands:

We demand that arbitrary deadlines not be set upon asylum seekers to sign up for benefits.

We demand that finding sanctuary for new arrivals not be limited to “affordability” logic, in which the end goal is profit, but rather where is best for them. For example, the schools that are best funded (often by affluent white populations) should not escape consideration

We demand that corporations like Wex, Unum, and Maine Health, be required to pay into the Community Support Fund.

We demand that hoteliers be required to donate a number of rooms in times of housing shortages.

We demand that while our city of 70,000 is unable to house one-to-two-hundred new neighbors in need, short-term rental licenses be rescinded.

We demand that our city’s “inclusionary” zoning rules be made truly inclusionary, by removing the ability to build affordable units off-site.

We demand that our city’s inclusionary zoning fees be at minimum doubled and the required affordable units be raised to at least 25%.

We demand that our city begin a good faith dialog about building public housing.

We demand that the media, those tasked with governance, and those citizens who engage in discourse do not restrict themselves to the narrow thinking of neoliberal austerity. The question should not be, can we afford it? But rather, how do we accommodate all that are made homeless?

Response: All we have is our voice.

The editorial board of the Bangor Daily News (BDN) this week joined calls for the working class to be polite and calm while the rich rob us and our politicians fail us. They quoted a post we made on Facebook that poked fun at the Portland City Councilors who voted against the right of their constituents to earn paid sick leave. They decried our lack of “civility,” and even compared us to Trump.

For them and other media outlets, it’s not about substantial issues like whether Trump deserves impeachment; it’s about the swear-word Congresswoman Tlaib used when she called for it. It isn’t about the horrors of the Israeli apartheid against Palestinians; it’s that even mentioning it is somehow anti-semitic. And now it’s not about how denying paid sick leave will affect families struggling to make ends meet; what’s important is that the DSA called these heartless councilors names. In all of this, the media misses the point. And if a lack of civility is all that we, the public, are actually resisting from the Trump administration (and the one percent who hold his puppet strings) we’re missing the point, too. When we focus on how “civil,” “electable” and “well-spoken” a public figure is, we gloss over what really matters: their policies.

We understand that people do have a knee-jerk reaction to name-calling, but as working people, we’re angry that a modest bill, which held so much promise for working people like us, was shot down by those in power. We’re angry and hurt that our city government chose profit over people, labeling us “outsiders” and telling us to “stand down” when we object to this denial of workers’ human rights. The Council’s decision will in no uncertain terms sicken and kill working people and our families. And so we punched up because we can’t afford to respect leaders in business and government who continue to show us none.

The state of politics in this country reflects the level of frustration felt by poor and working people from all political walks. Politicians, financial elites, and their captive media disenfranchise us and belittle us for daring to speak the truth with emotion. Demanding decorum around political discourse is designed to prevent meaningful reform by sanitizing the voices of the oppressed. Most of us don’t have the money to run for office or the free time to organize against oppression. All we have is our voice. The working class is uniting; we will not be silent, we will speak from our lived experience, from every identity that we claim, while rejecting the vocabulary of the ruling class.

We say it’s “uncivil” to force a parent to choose between staying home with their sick kid and making rent, to destroy our planet in search of profit, to tell us what we’re allowed to do with our bodies. On the scale of civility, being rude to elected officials on social media should barely register, and yet the editorial board rushed to their defense. Asking us now to return to a pre-Trump era of false civility is like trying to put a lid on a boiling pot. The pot is already overflowing and heat is on high.

Respectability politics will not solve the problem of wealth inequality. The Democrats have followed these rules for decades and all it got us was Trump. We followed these rules for 18 months while the Council slow-walked this ordinance through two flu seasons, all the while getting chummy with the Chamber of Commerce and the CEOs of Maine’s largest corporations who opposed it. We have been civil while the news media gave preferential treatment to billionaires and refused to even publish Southern Maine DSA’s involvement as a strategic partner in the Keep Portland Healthy coalition.

The BDN’s editorial asks us to make a choice, “will we push back against the slide into gutter politics, or will we be part of it?” Our response recalls a famous quote by American socialist Eugene V. Debs who was sent to prison for speaking out against American imperialism: “while there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” We in the DSA can now add that “while there’s a gutter, we will fight from it.”

If you’re angry that your boss can force you to come in sick, that your landlord can jack your rent, that our schools are underfunded, or that billionaires like Bezos and Zuckerberg make more in a day than most make in a lifetime, join us in the DSA. We fight from the working class, with the working class, and for the working class, because we’re angry too. We’re not concerned about being rude, and we refuse to apologize to our oppressors.