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Combating the War on the Poor: Cornel West and Tavis Smiley on Cross-Country "Poverty Tour"

The 15-city Poverty Tour comes on the heels of last week's deficit agreement, which excluded a tax hike on the wealthy and any measures to tackle high unemployment.

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AMY GOODMAN: That was Harry Belafonte. Cornel West, your response, and why you’re on this tour, professor at Princeton University?

CORNEL WEST: Well, yeah, we know Harry Belafonte’s idea of brotherhood. No, Brother Tavis came up with the idea of this Poverty Tour. We’re on the tour because there has been a top-down, one-sided class war against poor and working people, that’s led by greedy Wall Street oligarchs and avaricious corporate plutocrats in the name of deregulated markets, which is a morally bankrupt policy, especially when it comes to keeping track of the humanity and dignity of poor and working people. We started with our indigenous brothers and sisters in—

TAVIS SMILEY: Hayward, Wisconsin.

CORNEL WEST: Hayward, Wisconsin.

TAVIS SMILEY: Lac Courte Oreilles.

CORNEL WEST: Lac Courte Oreilles, that’s it. I wanted to get that right. We spent time with the Hmong workers there in Eau Claire. We were with warehouse workers there in Joliet. We were in Chicago, Detroit. We met with homeless veterans yesterday in—

TAVIS SMILEY: Akron, Ohio.

CORNEL WEST: —in Akron, Ohio. I mean, we went everywhere. We’re going to spend time with poor whites, poor blacks, poor brown, poor yellow. We’re trying to reconstitute what Brother Martin Luther King, Jr., died for, which is bringing poor and working people together in the face of these class attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your analysis, Tavis Smiley, of the debt deal?

TAVIS SMILEY: As I tried to emanate a moment ago, I think it’s a declaration of war. We all know—and this is why The War and Peace Report, Amy, is so important, and we celebrate you and revel in your humanity and the work that you do every day to raise these issues. Dr. King once said, as you well know, Amy, that "war is the enemy of the poor." "War is the enemy of the poor." Congress has the power obviously to declare war. They’ve done that far too many times. We’re engaged in some excursions right now that we need to find a way to get out of immediately, if not sooner. As my granddad might say, "sooner than at once and quicker than right now," we need to get out of these wars that we’re engaged in, because war is the enemy of the poor. So Congress has the power to declare war, and I think they’ve done that once again. This time, though, they’ve declared war on the poor. That’s what this legislation, for me, is all about. I think Congressman Cleaver is right: it’s a Satan sandwich. And I don’t want to take—I don’t want to partake and bite into that.

The bottom line is that our body politic—I want to be clear about this—both Republicans and Democrats, both Congress and the White House, and for that matter, all of the American people, have got to take the issue of the poor more seriously. Why? Because the new poor, the new poor, are the former middle class. Obviously, the polls tell these elected officials, these politicians, that you ought to talk about the middle class, that resonates. Well, if the new poor are the former middle class, then this conversation has got to be expanded. We’ve got to have a broader conversation about what’s happening to the poor. And the bottom line for me is this, Amy, with regard to this legislation and all others that are now demonizing, casting aspersion on the poor. There’s always been a connection between the poor and crime, but now—between poverty and crime, but now it’s become a crime, it would seem, to be poor in this country. And I believe this country, one day, is going to get crushed under the weight of its own poverty, if we think we can continue to live in a country where one percent of the people own and control more wealth than 90 percent. That math, long term, Amy, is unsustainable. We’ve got to talk about poverty.

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