In Chicago With Smiley and West Poverty Tour

Tavis Smiley and Cornel West (Lynette Holloway)
Tavis Smiley and Cornel West (Lynette Holloway)

The grandmother of a 13-year-old boy, whom she says was wrongfully shot and wounded by Chicago police officers, needs help obtaining legal assistance.


Another man, who works with ex-offenders, simply wants help bridging the gap between grassroots organizers and African-American business owners and leaders, whom he calls "elitist Negroes."

The two were among hundreds of people in Chicago who slogged through a sudden evening downpour on Sunday to attend the first town hall meeting that is part of a 16-city Poverty Tour: a Call to Conscience, led by broadcaster Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West. Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, who received a warm welcome from the crowd, was a surprise guest speaker.

Smiley and West, vocal critics of President Barack Obama's economic and social policies, brought their battle to the front door of his stomping grounds: St. Sabina Church on the South Side. The president lived on the South Side and made his name there as a grassroots organizer before becoming an elected official.

In doing so, Smiley and West went straight to the heart of President Obama's political base — the African-American faith-based community — to call on him to address issues of the poor in America at a time when the nation's poverty rate stands at 14.3 percent, the highest point in 15 years. Recent figures show that the overall national unemployment rate hovers at 9.1 percent and at 15.9 percent for African Americans, almost double the 8.1 percent for whites, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Given the pair's public criticism of President Obama, it was also a surprising turn of events for the church's pastor, Father Michael Pfleger, to host the affair. Pfleger has been a supporter of the president, but he has said that his interest in the tour is to help combat poverty.

Still, there was no shortage of anti-Obama rhetoric, which was well received by the large, multicultural audience. Smiley and West condemned the legislation that was negotiated to raise the country's debt ceiling because of the budget cuts that were part of the deal. Over the next 10 years, the law will allow at least $2.1 trillion in spending cuts that could hurt entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicaid.


The "wretched debt-ceiling legislation signed by the president is a declaration of war on the poor," a fired-up Smiley told the audience, to applause.

The 2-hour affair was punctuated by references to the Old Testament and how God protects the poor from oppressors. Farrakhan used history to underscore his point, making frequent references to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights icon's support of the labor movement. Echoing that historical reference, the tour will end with a town hall conversation in Memphis, Tenn., and a visit to the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 while in town to march with poor sanitation workers.


Farrakhan extended the civil rights era allusions even further, warning of impending uprisings by the poor. "There will be blood on the streets," he intoned, harking back to the urban riots of the 1960s, when people rose up against poverty, unemployment, lack of housing and other issues.

President Obama should acknowledge the poor and come back home to his base — even if it means being a one-term president — said the Nation of Islam minister. "Go out standing up for your base," Farrakhan said to rousing applause.


On that note, not everyone was happy to see Smiley and West. A small group of protesters met the team during a stop at Dr. King Legacy Apartments, new affordable-housing units built at the site where the civil rights leader lived in 1966. The protesters were upset that Smiley and West appeared to align themselves with city officials, who denied them access to jobs at the site, a man speaking from the audience said.

Overall, audience members who lined up by the dozens were looking for the kind of help that is impeded by poverty. Among them was Collier Baggett, the grandmother of 13-year-old Jimmell Cannon, who was shot multiple times last month by police officers, who say they thought he was holding a BB gun. He has nightmares and other problems as a result of the shooting, said Baggett, whose family is poor. West told her the family was in need of a lawyer.


Paul McRiley, a grassroots organizer, called on Smiley and West to help bridge the gulf between the black haves and have-nots. He is a member of Voice of the Ex-Offender, a group that helps black former prisoners. He said that ex-offenders are getting a raw deal when it comes to jobs.

"The African-American grassroots people feel we have been left out by elitist Negroes," McRiley said. "We've been living in a lot of pain."


West and Smiley acknowledged the gulf, saying it's why the tour is so important. Many stories gathered during the tour will be broadcast on the weekly radio program Smiley & West and featured on the PBS show Tavis Smiley. Smiley and West also pledged to help find assistance for some of those who came forward with their stories. Meanwhile, Baggett had told The Root that a Farrakhan assistant at the event had offered to help her.

Still, Smiley and West said, if elected officials haven't made progress in addressing poverty by next fall, they plan to host another town hall in Chicago during the presidential-election season. After the tour, which ends Aug. 12, the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs will release a white paper that examines the so-called new poor and the changing face of poverty in America. Smiley said the results would be announced in advance of the president's next State of the Union address.


"We refuse to be silent," Smiley said of their efforts to draw attention to the plight of the poor, which increasingly includes former members of the disappearing black middle class.

Lynette Holloway is a frequent contributor to The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine. Follow her on Twitter.