Magazine article New Internationalist

Chesson's Choice: Resistance Is Growing in the Richest Country in the World

Magazine article New Internationalist

Chesson's Choice: Resistance Is Growing in the Richest Country in the World

Article excerpt

NOVEMBER 10, 1998, was a sunny day in Knoxville, Tennessee. Early in the morning, 12 sheriff's deputies arrived at the home of Julia Chesson.

Chesson's home was a small apartment in a cluster of plain brick buildings surrounded by a grassy park with tall shade trees -- a subsidized housing development called College Homes, managed by Knoxville's Community Development Corporation and occupied, until recently, primarily by black people.

The deputies ordered Chesson and her daughter to vacate and began gathering up their possessions to take to another housing development a few kilometres away. They did not do the moving with a great deal of care.

'They tore up my waterbed and got bleach and salt all over my food,' Chesson said. 'They also wrapped my little girl's stuff in two bed sheets and dragged them. They put holes in my sheets. Why would they want to do me this way, because I stand up for the poor? Somebody's got to.'

This was not an ordinary eviction, but it was in some ways a typical confrontation between government officials and poor people over the nature of poverty. Chesson and her daughters were the last hold-outs, the bitter-enders, in a struggle over the future of College Homes. The Development Corporation wanted to evict tenants from all 320 apartments, tear the development down, and build 230 new units of housing for a mix of low- and middleincome families. The Chessons and four other families had defied orders to leave and filed a lawsuit to block the demolition, saying that poor and black families were being displaced to make room for white families with more money. (The new houses were expected to sell for between $30,000 and $85,000, while Chesson makes only $5.48 an hour working for the area's school system.)

'All they care about is the money,' Chesson said. 'It doesn't benefit poor people.' Residents demanded that instead of demolishing College Homes, the development should be sold to a tenant group or tenants be allowed to manage the property. But this was to be the last day of their protest. Several court decisions had gone against the protesters. By the end of the day, College Homes was ready to receive its demolition crew.

'What we were fighting for was to get our youth off the streets, to get out of poverty, and to get control of our own community,' explained Chesson. 'Now I'm out here in my new neighborhood registering people to vote. Because when they're done with one housing project they'll come for the next.'

The solution proposed for the poverty of College Homes seemed to assume that poor people and their communities are the problem. But Chesson and others believe the real problem is that poor people lack the power to run their own lives and improve conditions in their communities.

There are 35.5 million people who make up the 13 per cent of the population defined as poor. The official definition of poverty used in the US takes no account of the political powerlessness that Chesson is trying to undo. Nor does it take account of the cultural traits associated with poverty by many governmental policy-makers. Instead, poverty is officially defined as a strictly economic deprivation, based on specific thresholds set for families of different sizes. In 1997 the threshold for a family of one adult and two children was set at $12,931. The average poor family of this size received only $6,329.

Poor people are not a random cross-section of the population, of course, because poverty does not come randomly. You are more likely to be poor if you are black, if you are Latino, if you are a woman, or if you are under 18 years old. In 1997, the poverty rate for black individuals was 26.5 per cent and that for Hispanic people (this is the word favored by the US Census Bureau for Latinos) was 27 per cent. Women had a poverty rate of 15 per cent in 1993, compared to 10 per cent for men, and the rate for children was 23 per cent.

Families in poverty

The significance of these figures becomes clearer when you look at how poverty hits families. …

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