(Honkala in Romneyville with son Guillermo Santos)
We talked with Honkala on August 27th in Tampa, Florida at Romneyville which was part of protests during the Republican National Convention. Honkala is founder and national coordinator of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, an organization which set up the encampment.
“Different Christian groups have accused me of having a hidden agenda. It’s absolutely true. My hidden agenda is motivated by love. I’ve been involved in trying to change things in this country for 20 years, because I think it’s totally possible.”
I asked Honkala what she thinks of the idea that the debate among some activists regarding violence and strategic nonviolence is missing the point in that it’s, instead, a question of love vs. hatred.
“Some people like to participate in--forgive the term---a lot of mental masturbation. There is already a lot of violence going on, on a daily basis. So this whole thing about, ‘are we going to use violent or nonviolent strategies and tactics’---Well, just to be alive today--especially if you’re among the ranks of the poor---means enduring and dealing with violence on a regular basis, whether that’s police brutality, dealing with the violence of hunger, or your kids having to dodge bullets because people are selling drugs. My son has to dodge bullets on his way to school because people are engaged in a gun war. As far as I’m concerned, it’s foolish right now to think we can do anything that’s more than nonviolent.”
She said those in power can “knock us out in a minute and there won’t even be a paragraph about who we were on the back page of some newspaper.”
She continued, “ I just think that’s the reality of the situation and that we have a responsibility to stay alive and take this movement to the next stage. That means being smart and not taking our brothers and sisters over a cliff. It means taking on our historical responsibility with the same kind of seriousness as our ancestors had.”
I asked Honkala how those of us living in the Global North can minimize our complicity in the oppression of people of the Global South.
“People have a responsibility to do something about what’s right in front of them. If we don’t begin to do something about saving our planet, we’re going to lose everything we have.”
Honkala connected social justice issues with environmental ones.
“We have record drought in this country and people in poor communities in this country by and large are dealing with serious environmental problems and dying as a result of not being able to breathe or use their water or use the soil on their land. This is not about whether or not we want to participate in a community garden. This is about very basic things such as having access to food and water. All of these things are in question right now when we live in a country that is dominated by corporations and where we have politicians who just stand by.”
I asked Honkala about how our own hatred can be liability.
“We have to take the high road, but it’s important we don’t compromise our morals and values and things we believe in. For example, one could say Obama has taken the road of compromise and is acting in a bipartisan way. I would say that behavior is killing us. So, to really love somebody is to really care about if they’re going to make it to tomorrow. Do they have access to all of the things I have access to ? We live in a country of abundance. This is not a question of scarcity, but greed.”
Honkala said there is no reason why we can’t have a country where all people’s basic needs are met. But regarding hate, she said people are afraid of difference and have a great deal of xenophobia. She said this exists within social movements, as well as in society in general. She also said movement building needs to be intergenerational.
“ I don’t want to come down on our young folk, but as an elder I have a responsibility to say we should listen to those who came before us. There are a lot of young folks today who are saying, ‘I have the answers, the older generation has screwed everything up, and I don’t need to learn lessons from history.’ Elder protesters have a lot to teach.” She laughed and smiled as she said, “anyone that’s been able to survive has something to say.”
A divide between generations of activists is more pronounced in the US than it is in other countries, Honkala said.
“Many other countries around the world very much embrace all generations. That’s why in the US, you’ll see just young folks. You don’t see anybody that’s 50 and above (at many of the marches and protests).”
In the fall of 2011, as Occupy erupted, protestors in DC seemed to organize at McPherson Square or Freedom Plaza according to age, with the latter being, generally though not entirely, an older crowd. But of course, I might be over-stating the age issue and overlooking other factors, such as one’s philosophy regarding activism, with McPherson seeming to involve more people with a militant approach and Freedom Plaza, a few blocks away, involving people who focus on nonviolent action.
“I travel around this whole country and I rarely see much of the Occupy folks with anybody over 40, especially anybody over 40 and of color.”
I asked Honkala what she thought of the idea that social movements need spirituality based on love, which includes but is not limited to religion.
“ We’re all interconnected to each other and to the environment and the universe. We have a responsibility to learn from the people who have come before us and to pass on those teachings and to do it in a spirit of love. One of the reasons the so-called Right gets away with stuff is that they’re able to say that the things they say and do are based on their values.”
She said the Left stays away from talking about our values.
“We don’t talk about love, because these things are too corny, or not important topics. But I think they’re essential.”
I suggested to Honkala it takes a type of skill to talk about love without coming across as naïve.
“Maybe, it’s because I’m a mother.” Shimako Williams, sitting next to Honkala, interjected that it “takes balls to talk about love.” Half-seriously, I suggested that term was sexist.
Honkala got the conversation back on track, saying “mothering is under-rated.”
She said, “nurturing and caring for people and holding people is what we need more of. This movement is so full of people who will knock your head down in five seconds and not enough people who are willing to stroke somebody else and lift them up, share the spotlight, embrace them, and teach them.”
I asked Honkala if those things are feminine values and if, as such, they show us how feminism has a role to play in ecology and social justice.
“Mother Earth is going to be saved when women and the rest of society decide to stand up and do something and take it back, and righting the various wrongs. That’s why we want people to vote with courage this time and dare to vote for two women who are running for office that are motivated by love.”
Honkala responded to the idea that we should vote for Obama as the candidate who is at least better than Romney, if not the lesser of two evils.
“You can’t spoil something that’s rotten. The numbers don’t lie. There is no difference between Obama and Romney…Under the Obama administration, we’ve spent more on the military, or just as much on the military, as when George W. Bush was in office. So that means other mothers’ sons and daughters were killed in other parts of the world, and, by and large, our low income sons were sent to other parts of the world to kill for oil. That happened under Obama’s watch. Everyday in this country, every 13 seconds a family goes into foreclosure. Our president could stand up and say, ‘let’s stop foreclosures today’ and ‘let’s end homelessness today.’ But those things are not happening.”
Honkala said this could be done by spending less money on the military and investing more of it into meeting human needs. For the past few years, I’ve seen signs at protests, “Human Needs, Not Corporate Greed.” It was the slogan of the October 2011 occupation of DC, the planning of which preceded Occupy Wall Street by several months. Come to think of it, why does it matter which came first ? It’s the same cause.
Honkala said there is a false debate going on about deficits and balancing budgets.
“There’s an abundance in this country, enough to go around, not just here, but other parts of the world. We just need to develop the political will and the organization, and stop being wimps, and dare to do something different, which is to vote Green.”
I asked her about the idea that Obama is better than Romney when it comes to gay rights or women’s issues. She addressed the latter but not the former.
“There’s a famous line by Sojourner Truth, ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ The majority of the women in this country are focused on economic issues. Yes, reproductive rights is a real issue and it affects many women across the board. But it’s time for us to look out for our sisters in this country who are trying to put a gallon of milk on the table and figure out how to feed their kids.”