TCT: Cheri Honkala rallies audience at Democracy Convention

August 26, 2011
Pat Schneider


Say what you want about Take Back the Land-Madison, whose members have occupied a handful of foreclosed properties to protest public policies that put families out on the street. Their tactics are audacious, if nothing else. It's a brand of activism with the power to rally the allies and antagonize opponents.

So I was intrigued that the organizers of the Democracy Convention now in town tapped Cheri Honkala -- who shared the billing with blast-from-the-past activist Tom Hayden -- as a keynote speaker for their five-day primer on how to build a better society.

Honkala, who convention organizer Ben Manski called "the leading advocate for poor people's rights in the United States," has stirred things up (and gotten repeatedly arrested) in her hometown of Philadelphia for the kind of actions Take Back the Land has adopted.

Honkala, a mother who formerly was homeless, told convention participants how, on a wintry night, she reflected on the practice of keeping the heat on in vacant houses to save the water pipes from freezing and breaking.

"I decided I was just as important as those pipes and so was my son," she recalled, as you can see in this video of Honkala speaking at the Democracy Convention on Wednesday.

She began breaking into vacant housing, and found a calling. Today she's an activist -- some would say agitator -- who says she draws too much attention from police and not enough from mainstream media.

She's also a candidate for sheriff in Philadelphia on the Green Party ticket, who vows, if elected Nov 3, to end evictions in her jurisdiction.

That's something Take Back the Land has asked the Dane County Sheriff's Office to do in its continuing protest against policies that its members say put families out of housing and money into foreclosing banks that have already been paid with federal stimulus dollars.

The change that's needed is much bigger than a moratorium on evictions, Honkala told the group of conventioneers eager to transform the political structure. "This isn't just about bad greedy banks or corrupt politicians. We need a whole new cooperative society, one that's based around human needs."

Agitating for that level of change is risky business, says Honkala, who spoke not only of her many arrests, but of vague threats to her safety, too. She decided not to let her fears stop her, she says. "I decided to live life immobilized by fear isn't really living, and I deserve to live and so do millions upon millions of poor and homeless people desperate to speak out across this country."

Honkala quoted Martin Luther King Jr. on the untapped political power of the nation's many poor people, and added: "We are that new and unsettling force."

"We are one class, we have one cause." she told the activists and agitators at the convention. "Let's play our role in history," she urged the cheering audience.

Like I said, it's a brand of activism with the power to rally the allies and antagonize the opponents.

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