Welcome to Bushville, USA

Election '04

Heather McKelvey has been sharing a tent in an old church in Brooklyn for the last week with two other adults and eight children. Liz Theoharis is there too. So is an 80-year-old woman in a wheelchair, lots of other children, and adults of every color, age, and size.

Welcome to Bushville, population 200. Its residents came from around the country to be in New York for the Republican National Convention, but unlike the delegates, they aren't staying in the Plaza or the Westin Hotel and they're not spending their time at the theater or fancy restaurants. Instead, they've been camped out all week, sharing tents and bathrooms, preparing for Monday's march to Madison Square Garden to represent the 35.9 million poor people in the United States and the 45 million without health insurance.

"As poor people, the only resource we have is our voices," says McKelvey. "We've tried testifying to Congress; we've tried talking to our local politicians. No one listens. So we're taking our message directly to those in power."

The march was unpermitted and the marchers determined to present their calls for economic justice to the official convention. This March for Our Lives, as it was called, brought home the daily lived consequences of government policies. "Over 18,000 people die each year from lack of health care," said Cheri Honkala, director of Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia and one of the organizers of the march. "We are literally marching for our lives." The front lines were a young boy and an old woman in wheelchairs, parents with small children, and white, Arabic, Asian, African-American, Native, and Latino women and men in white T-shirts protecting them. While Sunday's march may have had the bigger numbers and the brighter costumes, the thousand people who marched from the United Nations to within one block of Madison Square Garden were the ones who most reflected this country's economic and racial diversity and the only ones, so far, to actually delay the convention proceedings.

Arms linked, the group wound its way through midtown Manhattan, closing in on the Republican convention, singing:

I went down to the RNC
To take back what they stole from me
To take back my dignity
To take back my humanity.

Dignity and humanity. Michael Franti, musician and activist, marched along and nodded his head to the singing. "Bush has taken the exploitation of workers and the disregard for working people to a new extreme," Franti said. "There's no accountability but these people marching here and I'm here as one drop in this river that will move the mountain."

The mountain, draped in opening night pageantry in Madison Square Garden, responded to the hundreds of poverty rights activists at their doorstep demanding "No more starvation in this wealthy nation" by adopting a party platform that spent paragraphs affirming the rights of unborn children and the sanctity of male-female marriage, but made no mention of the millions in poverty.

Exhausted by the long walk but still singing and chanting, the marchers made their way back to Bushville, undaunted. "Our numbers are growing," McKelvey said. "One way or another, we will hold this administration accountable."

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