This opinion piece reflects the views of its author and not necessarily those of Madison365 or its staff, funders or board of directors.
Our group, the Madison General Defense Committee of the IWW, cooks, prepares, and serves a free meal for poor and homeless folks at the top of State Street as an act of mutual-aid and community solidarity. We see this work not as charity, and distinguish our work as mutual-aid and solidarity because we wish to reaffirm the dignity and self-determination of people in crisis; we refuse to uphold an oppressive system of socio-economic control masked in charity; we see that charity practices, unwittingly or wittingly, condescend to vulnerable people through top-down mechanisms that recreate cycles of dependency to those charitable nonprofit organizations.
In the Wisconsin State Journal article headlined “The Party’s Over”, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway called for “well-intended” groups, such as ours, “who provide food and goods to the homeless at the top of State Street” to subsume our activities within local nonprofit charity organizations instead. She charges there exists a “party-like atmosphere” in the area where homeless people, many of whom are Black, some of whom are children, are often seen sleeping on the ground because they have nowhere else to go in a way that affirms their most basic dignity and autonomy.
Veiled under law-and-order rhetoric, the Mayor’s prerogative seeks to make it more difficult for Black people and children to get access to something as simple as delicious home-made food in a safe public common space. There is no party happening at the top of State Street, and many folks have told members of our organization that they wish they didn’t have to be there, that they wish they could find stable housing and employment — but the lack of resources in Madison is jarring. An astonishing number of folks have told us they are employed, with the caveat that soaring and exclusionary housing costs combined with discriminatory housing practices have made it impossible for them to find somewhere to live.
We might argue further to say that as a common space, all people should be welcome to “party” in that space should they desire, but rest assured it is not the homeless people who are “partying” in the Capitol/State Street/campus areas. When we see frat boys and college kids, who are mostly white and affluent, not called out for their violent, sexually aggressive, and intimidating partying that occurs downtown every weekend, it becomes plain to see that Black and poor folks are being targeted specifically.
More heinous yet, the mayor has threatened an increase in police presence to make the area more unwelcoming, uncomfortable, and hostile to Black and poor people than it already is. This is a serious, ominous threat to our community targeted at homeless people, mostly Black, and including children. This is a threat of violence to our community. The institution of the police is fundamentally racist, acting as violent protectors of property who uphold systems of heterosexist patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, land theft, and labor exploitation that perpetuate the disparities that make some people rich at the expense of everyone else.
We must defend our community, and use this as an opportunity to donate supplies, labor, and money to feed its most vulnerable members.