After months of collecting donations and raising funds, on the morning of Feb. 24 the Boston branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation was ready to start its first Serve the People Day of Unity supply drive. Even before the doors were scheduled to open, eager community members entered the Black Market in Dudley Square. Upon arrival attendees received a paper bag spray painted with the Black Panther logo and the PSL website, for ease of browsing all the free clothes, coats, toiletries, diapers, baby formula, children’s books, bags, blankets and more. Attendees were also given PSL’s 10 point program from the 2016 elections, Liberation News articles about homelessness and the Black Panther Party, and excerpts from the writings of Kevin Rashid Johnson. By the end of the event, over 250 community members were served.
The Day of Unity was not merely a depoliticized charity event, but a celebration of Black History Month, the Black Panther Party’s famous survival programs, and a chance to build relationships and political consciousness with working class communities in Boston. As PSL member Rachel Domond told Liberation News:
“There are many organizations who carry out donation-based drives to collect coats and clothes and distribute them to the community…. Our goal was to highlight the importance and significance of the Black Panther Party — a Marxist party for Black liberation — and their survival programs. We wanted to bring recognition to how crucial these programs, such as the Free Breakfast for Children and Free Ambulance programs, were to the communities the Panthers were part of and aimed to serve….‘Serve the People,’ while obviously an act of mutual aid, was a community event in which we discussed with our neighbors why we are having to host events such as this in the first place.”
PSL members Nino Brown and Joe Tache presented on the history, politics and strategy of the Black Panther Party, and on why there is always a housing crisis in Boston. During Brown’s presentation several attendees exclaimed “All power to the people!” and after Tache described why the wages workers receive are always less than the value they produce, one member in the audience stated “We’re making and creating everything, but they’re giving us a minimum wage off of our work because they’re making all the profit off of what we’re creating.” After the presentations, attendee Deondre Morton received a copy of Mumia Abu Jamal’s autobiography, We Want Freedom, for answering a trivia question correctly. He told Liberation News, “I learned a lot about the Black Panthers…I learned about the figures, I had heard of their names before but I didn’t really know how they were connected to the struggle. Particularly, about Black people back in the day and how it’s affecting us today.”
Many of the the event’s attendees were people experiencing homelessness. Despite Mayor Marty Walsh’s grand rhetoric around working towards “being the first major city in the country to end chronic homelessness,” Boston saw the largest increase in homelessness of any major city in the United States from 2017 to 2018. Maritza, a woman living in a homeless shelter in Boston told Liberation News, “Being homeless in a shelter is like being in jail…It’s the worst thing that could happen to anybody. When 300 women share just a few bathrooms and you have to carry all your stuff everywhere you go….it’s horrible.”
The Massachusetts Union of the Homeless also staffed a table. After speaking with them, Maritza said: “Get all the people together because all of us together make us stronger…the union makes us strong.”
Preparations: unity through action
Excitement for the Day of Unity was so great that eight different businesses and community centers opened up their doors to collect donations, including Massachusetts Jobs with Justice in Jamaica Plain, The City School, Next Step Soul Food Cafe and the Cape Verdean Adult Health Center in Dorchester, the Democracy Center in Cambridge, the South End Tech Center and Dudley Cafe in Roxbury. Building relationships with the drop off locations and the community members who donated also served as a vehicle for strengthening ties with the community. Organizers raised over $2,000 in addition to in-kind donations, enabling them to purchase food, more toiletries and diapers. By the day of the event, organizers had collected so many donations that they could hardly fit them inside the U-haul they had to rent.
Together with members of the Mass Union of the Homeless, the PSL distributed thousands of flyers in Dorchester, Roxbury and nearby homeless shelters leading up to and on the day of the event. In addition to PSL organizers, more than 30 people volunteered their time to help make sure the Day of Unity was a success. Volunteers served food, signed in attendees, helped them pick out clothes and provided childcare.
Survival programs pending revolution
The PSL believes the only thing that will completely break the shackles of working-class exploitation and oppression is a revolutionary process. So how do revolutionary politics relate to programs like Serve the People: A Day of Unity? Although there are hundreds of nonprofits, charities, and governmental agencies that offer a wide range of social programs, they intentionally depoliticize and erase the roots of poverty and homelessness. The goal of Serve the People: A Day of Unity was to provide material assistance for communities under the boot of capitalism and white supremacy, while simultaneously raising consciousness and building community around fighting against these oppressive systems. Referring to the purpose of the Black Panther Party survival programs, Huey P. Newton — co-founder of the Black Panther Party — said,
“All these programs satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to our problems. That is why we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution. We say that the survival program of the Black Panther Party is like the survival kit of a sailor stranded on a raft. It helps him to sustain himself until he can get completely out of that situation. So the survival programs are not answers or solutions, but they will help us to organize a community around a true analysis and understanding of their situation. When consciousness and understanding is raised to a high level then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors.”
As socialists, we know that people are struggling to meet their basic needs because capitalist society is organized to benefit the minority: a handful of billionaires. Under socialism, society functions to serve the needs of people, not to fill the pockets of the elite. Organizing initiatives like the Day of Unity display working class solidarity in action and help cultivate the deep relationships necessary to build a multi-national working class movement powerful enough to overthrow the ruling class. When we provide for and protect each other we activate the strongest weapon we have: working class unity.