Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 55th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation with Jaron Benjamin, the vice president for community mobilization at Housing Works.
Sarah Jaffe: You were part of the big day of civil disobedience on Capitol Hill around the health care bill this week. Tell us about how that went down. I think there’s a pretty dramatic photo of you being carried out by police?
Jaron Benjamin: [laughs] Yes, there was. The day was pretty moving. And I think it was probably as impactful for people that participated as it was for people that saw it on the news. I didn’t expect that. When you get 150 and 200 activists — a lot of these folks have participated in protests — people from 21 different states, you would assume that people were already feeling as many feelings as they could feel, because everybody in that room is dedicated and committed, but one of the themes that I noticed when I talked to people after being released from cuffs was that we all got way more emotional, not only throughout the day, but during the demonstration than we thought that we would. It turned out that we were more angry about this attempt to take away health care from millions of people than we possibly knew, and we cared more and we were moved to tears more during the protest.
The day started off with about 150 folks getting together and just talking about why we were together and then going over the scenarios, figuring out which constituencies would be able to go and have a demonstration at which offices at one time. To the untrained eye, it was chaotic but to a lot of us, it was democracy in action.
There were a couple of very moving moments during the day. One was when a mother from Arkansas — before we went over to the Capitol — just stood up and talked in very plain English; she didn’t talk about what policy needed to be passed or exactly how much money was going to be cut from Medicaid or that the program would be transformed. She just very plainly said, “I’m a mother who has children and I’m concerned that if Senator McConnell and his friends push this bill through, I won’t be able to take care of my children that have pre-existing conditions. I’m worried about the safety of my children.” And that really hit home for a lot of folks. Most of us either started crying then or fought back sobs.
I think there was just something that really resonated with a lot of people there. We are just regular people who are concerned about our kids and our family members and we just want people to stay alive — that’s it.
Another really moving moment was while we were being processed. We were all in cuffs, about 80 of us, and we’re all in the same room and we’re being processed, spontaneously people started singing “This Land is Your Land,” and it really underscored just how we were. In a way, this protest was a dream of what we can accomplish when we’re pushing to live the “American dream” and putting our minds together and fighting the good fight.
It seems like health care has the potential to be that kind of issue for a lot of folks who otherwise wouldn’t get involved, wouldn’t risk arrest or just wouldn’t at all see themselves as part of a progressive movement.
It’s important to note that most of the people that got arrested had never been arrested before. There were a number of people that I knew, that have been involved in this fight for the lives of low-income individuals living with HIV, fighting to preserve those lives, fighting to save our access to health care, some of those folks who have been doing this since the 1990s had not participated in civil disobedience and this was their first one. I think that this is a keystone issue for a number of reasons.
The fact that the lives of millions of people are at stake is hard-hitting and important to a lot of people. I think that for people that are concerned about the new president, concerned about his rhetoric and the way that he carries himself and are just offended at the way that he conducts business, they understand that this is the first big thing that he and Senate leadership and Paul Ryan have decided to put on their docket. The longer that this is fought, pushed back and delayed, the less successful they are going to be and the more of our health care we will be able to preserve.
It’s interesting that you bring that up because there is this tendency — there’s more big Russia news this week — to talk about the demeanor of Trump rather than the policy goals, which are bigger than just Trump. This is Mitch McConnell, it’s Paul Ryan, most of the Republican Party seems willing to vote for this thing. We still don’t know how many of them are ultimately going to break.
The way that we’re assuming that this is going to go down is that the further this moves along, we can’t leave it up to the chance that some Republicans, just of their own volition will decide, “This isn’t right, we’re going to break from the party.” They’re not going to break from the party unless we get to them with the stories of their constituents and make them understand that this is flying in the face of doing their job.
That is a tall order because we’ve seen them go along with what President Trump says and excuse his behavior for a long time. It’s a scary moment. But the one thing that Trump has promised — that even some Democrats have said, “This isn’t such a bad idea — his infrastructure plan.” Well, he can’t figure out how much money he’s going to spend on infrastructure until they figure out how much money they’re going to dole out in tax cuts for the super-wealthy. And they can’t figure that part out until they make huge cuts to the existing budget, and the only place that there is enough money and that they would be willing to make big enough cuts is in Medicaid and Medicare.
So, the longer that this is delayed — especially keeping in mind that most presidents get their signature accomplishments started in the first year of their presidency — the longer we’re able to delay this, the more we’re able to deal a blow to people who are trying to give tax cuts away at the expense of the rest of us.
We don’t talk about the way that health care is itself infrastructure, the way that this bill would in fact take away jobs from nurses and home health care aides.
That is true. My father works in Oklahoma at a health center and there are a lot of folks who are on Medicaid and Medicare and who access these clinics. It’s really important for people to be able to: one, be employed, and two, be connected to health care. Health care jobs, that’s one thing, and the other thing, too, is that if you’re talking about investing in your country, if people aren’t healthy, they aren’t healthy enough to work and if they can’t stay healthy, they can’t work. It really derails a lot of what we’re trying to get accomplished — no matter what we’re trying to get accomplished — if people aren’t connected to health care and aren’t healthy.
I want to ask you to talk a little bit about the history of Housing Works, because Housing Works has been connected to fights around health care for a long time.
Housing Works was founded in 1991 by the housing committee of ACT UP. There are usually four individuals that are credited with founding the organization: our CEO and president Charles King (who I get to work with almost every day, unless he’s in jail or in some other part of the country); our senior policy adviser Ginny Shubert (both of them are still very much involved in these efforts today); and Eric Sawyer, who currently works at [Gay Men’s Health Crisis]. The [fourth] founder, who passed away, was Keith Cylar, the partner of Charles King. He was an incredible figure and really in a lot of ways embodied the fighting spirit of Housing Works.
The idea was if we could have people living with HIV or people with an AIDS diagnosis in housing, then we would be much more successful in stabilizing them, in getting them into treatment. In the early 1990s, maybe even 10 years ago when I started working on the issue, that was kind of a radical idea, not everybody understood that. People still don’t understand that — that when someone is stably housed, they have a place to take their medicine, their lives are a lot more stable because they don’t have to worry about where they’re going to sleep tonight. They know where they’re going to sleep tonight, they know where their next meal is coming from, they can settle down a little bit more and focus on making sure that they’re taking their meds, making sure that they’re making good health choices.
What we’ve seen as Housing Works has had victory after victory in convincing the New York City and State governments to invest more in housing for people living with HIV, more in health services for people living with HIV, and people at risk as well; what we saw was that Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo in 2014 made New York the first state to commit to ending AIDS as an epidemic. And so, there’s this great initiative that we’ve got in New York State of ending AIDS as an epidemic by the year 2020, getting to below epidemic levels — below 750 new infections by that year — and a lot of other states and jurisdictions have followed suit.
There are more than a dozen places — like San Francisco, Washington State, places like Illinois and Minnesota, Fulton County in Georgia, Texas — starting to try to figure this stuff out as well. That’s something that we take very seriously, the idea that we can end AIDS as an epidemic, even as we don’t have a cure for HIV.
That’s the organization’s history and where we’re headed. I think that everybody involved in those struggles understands that if we lose Medicaid expansion, if people aren’t connected to health care — to routine health care — then our ability to fight HIV as an epidemic really becomes hamstrung. So, it is so important to hold on to the health care that we’ve got.
Tell us a little bit about the coalition that came together for this action and the networks that were at the heart of that.
I think a lot of this started — I hope my colleague Paul Davis doesn’t mind me sharing the story — but I think it’s an important story to share. It was early February, it was about 11:00 at night and he sends me a text. He can’t stop crying because of this article he read. He sends me the article and it’s about the people who read letters that were sent to President Obama and were responsible for sending him 10 letters a day. The stories were heart wrenching, the stories took you behind the scenes and showed you how this stuff moved people. It kind of served as a guiding light in some moments too.
I read the article and I’m bawling as well, and Paul said something that I’ll never forget, which was: “We have to do this. This is what we have to do.” We had to make sure that people that work for elected officials understand the impact that their decisions are having on their constituents. Because that stuff will transfer over to their bosses. It’ll be harder for them to conduct business as usual. If they feel the same way, this can be a guiding light. And so, with that we kind of set out, not really knowing where it would take us. We put out a call to action, we have this idea, if you want us — meaning Paul, me and our colleague Jennifer Flynn who works for the Center for Popular Democracy — to come out and train you on how to talk to your elected officials, whether it’s in a public setting like a town hall, whether it’s going to their office and telling your story or whether it’s at a demonstration, call us and let us know.
Within a few days, we had 60 requests from different cities. Fast-forward to now, between the three of us, I would say, we’ve held so many trainings, in 25 or 26 states, and have trained more than 1,200 activists since February to tell their stories to their elected officials. And a lot of these folks are new activists. These aren’t people who have been doing this for a long time. They’re just concerned citizens who are really worried about the direction that our country is headed in and are really worried about things like losing their health care.
With that, just developing relationships when things started getting closer, when the repeal of the [Affordable Care Act] and cuts to Medicaid — as they became more of a reality instead of a possibility — conference calls started to bubble up, and people thought that it’d be a good idea for us just to all converge in Washington, DC, and continue to take the message to our elected officials at home. Whether it’s in town halls, or whether it’s in their offices, make sure that they know exactly what’s going on in the lives of their constituents.
And so looking forward, now Mitch McConnell says they’re going to keep working for the first two weeks of the August recess, what’s next?
We’re trying to figure that out. We’re not going away, that’s for sure. We’re going to — as long as they are threatening to take away health care for more than 20 million people, as long as they’re threatening the lives of thousands per year who will die if they don’t have access to health care, as long as that’s going on — I can’t see us going away. I think that McConnell said something about activist fatigue or some sort of fatigue — we don’t have anything left if they take this away from us, so we’re not getting tired and we’re not going anywhere. Our lives depend on it.
There was one person who was arrested at the demonstration on Monday who has severe medical issues and was hospitalized after she was jailed, and I think that some people might say, “Well if she’s got so many serious medical issues, why is she out there protesting?” It’s because her life is at stake if we lose access to health care. She doesn’t know how she’s going to be able to make her doctor’s appointments if her access to health care is cut off. So sure, she might endanger herself by doing these protests, but the prospects don’t look very much better if she loses access to health care. I think a lot of people understand that and are energized by it.
So, I’m not exactly sure what the next step is going to be. I know that it might come as early as Monday of next week, it might come at the end of next month; it’s coming and we are not going away. We are going to continue to tell our stories to our elected officials.
What comes next now that this version of the bill is dead?
We’re glad that BCRA is dead, but the White House and Senate leadership are collaborating to repeal without replacing the ACA. We’re mobilizing again Wednesday to send the message, loud and clear, that we deserve much better than that.
And if McConnell is forced to work with Senator Schumer and others on ACA repair, we’ll fight to make sure that Washington results in more people covered, fewer out of pocket expenses, and that the quality is on par with what members of Congress receive. We ultimately want universal coverage, and want Washington to move in that direction.
How can people keep up with you and how can they get involved?
I think one way to do it is by visiting our website, www.housingworks.org. That’s our organizational site [and] you can make a donation to us. When we decide to send activists to Washington, DC, and when we decide that we’re going to risk arrest that’s kind of expensive, it does cost money; you can sponsor protesters by donating. I think the other thing that people can do, you can email me at [email protected] to figure out how to get involved, whether it’s getting trained and learning some tactics that activists have used in the past, or getting involved in some of the stuff we’ve got going on both in DC and in districts around the country. Maybe together we can do the impossible, which is save the health care that we’ve got, and maybe even push our elected officials to make improvements to the programs we’ve got now. You can follow HousingWorks on Twitter.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.