Irene has hit, leaving destruction in its wake. We could track Irene and prepare for it; we could not stop it. And now, states and localities, despite the secessionist mumblings of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, cannot pay to repair the damage. Representatives from North Carolina to Virginia to New Jersey, even those most vocal about slashing government spending, now call on Washington for help.
Conservatives scorn government until they need it.
The economic disaster is a manmade, not a natural, disaster. Some economists, mostly ignored, warned about it, but could not stop it. And now, it will take federal action to repair the damage.
Some 25 million Americans are in need of full-time work. Poverty is spreading, particularly among children. The hardest hit include what was an emerging middle class of African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities. Men and women who worked hard, got an education, found a good job, bought a house or a condominium, and were capturing a piece of the American Dream.
Then came the housing bust, and what Paul Krugman now calls the Lesser Depression. Suddenly and shockingly, teachers, accountants, store managers, construction workers, nurses, state and local employees find themselves losing almost everything.
The Obama administration stanched the free fall of the economy. But even as the weather experts overestimated Irene’s destructiveness, the economic experts, as Fed Chair Ben Bernanke just admitted, underestimated the scope of the economic damage.
Now the economy is stalled. President Barack Obama has announced that he will release a jobs agenda in September, a range of ideas that will include extending the payroll tax cut, extending unemployment insurance and investing in infrastructure. Republicans have already called those ideas dead on arrival. Conservatives embrace federal help after natural disasters, but scorn it in the wake of the manmade economic calamity.
Little is likely to happen — unless people get in motion. Those at the top need to hear from those suffering at the bottom. The unemployed need to march on Washington to demand work. People of faith need to protest against children without adequate food or shelter.
Some are conflicted. They fear that protest conflicts with politics. That protesting the lack of action will help elect Republicans who seem to be competing in a race to the bottom.
But that is not our history. In 1960, Martin Luther King supported Kennedy instead of Nixon to prevent America from going backward. Then he marched in the streets of Birmingham to pass the Civil Rights Act to move the nation ahead.
In 1964, Martin Luther King supported Johnson instead of Goldwater to prevent America from going backward. Then he marched in Selma to pass the Voting Rights Act to move the nation ahead.
For Dr. King, there was no conflict between voting strategically to prevent the triumph of reaction and leading a nonviolent mass movement to pressure a president to achieve profound social change.
When we in the movement struggled for social justice, we helped weak presidents become stronger. When we in the movement struggled for social justice, we helped good presidents become great.
Americans are sensibly dismayed at Washington’s corruption. The banks get bailed out, while homeowners go under. The entrenched interests like Big Oil keep their subsidies; the unemployed go without work.
Dr. King understood how formidable entrenched power is, but he also understood the power of democracy. Only the people can break the logjam of powerful interests. Change comes not from the bottom up.
The pundits and the politicians are waiting for Obama. They will then report on the Republican reaction. The lobbyists will weigh in. Obstruction is the likely outcome.
This will change only when people are, in the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” The Lesser Depression will not be solved from above. It will be solved when we overcome the depression of our spirit with the assertion of our humanity.
As we honor the life and legacy of Dr. King and enshrine his likeness on the Mall, let us dream again, hope again, march again. The 1963 jobs and justice coalition, labor, civil rights activists, the religious — as well as youths — must reconvene for a summit and then nonviolently and massively take thousands of resumes to Washington. Put a real face on real needs. We can change the course to inclusion again. As Dr. King would often say, what makes America great is that although America is not always right, we have the right to fight for the right. That is a special genius of our free and open democracy.