Here’s a copy of the speech given by Zoe Wells at the start of our People’s Assembly on the steps of City Hall in Johnson City, TN, January 20, 2017.
We are in uncharted territory. We are now in a place where will wake up every morning aware that we have no idea what the president of this country will do or say today. We will wake up every morning and think, “Please don’t let today be the day World War III gets started by a tweet.” Rates of depression and anxiety among youth, teens, and adults have been climbing in this country for decades. It’s a product of the society we live in, a society that says if your job doesn’t pay enough, get a new job. If you can’t get a job, go back to school. If you get that education and come out of it with debt and still no job that pays a living wage, you shouldn’t have taken out those loans knowing they’d have to be paid off. If you have kids, get laid off, lose your house, and have to move your family in with friends—or your car—you shouldn’t have had kids.
We live in a society of judgement. We live in a society where, if we aren’t living the American dream, it’s our failing—despite the stagnating wages, despite the precariousness of jobs, despite the rising costs of housing, despite wage discrimination and job discrimination and the fact that there are too damned many people and too damned few so-called “good” jobs. It’s our failure despite the breathtaking hikes in the cost of going to even a state college. It’s our failure despite the fact that there are 27—thank you, Kentucky—27 states that have adopted “Right to Work” laws that can be more properly described as “Right to Fire.” It’s our faults despite the fact that mental health was significantly defunded in favor of funding prisons. Our faults despite the high costs of health care—if we get sick, it’s our fault for not taking better care of ourselves. Twenty percent of adults in this country have a mental health issue. I would not be surprised if, after four years of President Trump, one hundred percent of this country has PTSD, because, folks, on top of the toxic, individualist culture we’ve already been living in, we now add utter and complete uncertainty every morning we wake up.
I’ve spoken with many people between November and now, and one common thread has been an overpowering feeling of dread and helplessness. It’s like we’re on the Titanic. We can see the tip of the iceberg sparking ominously in the ocean before us. The captain doesn’t care—it’s a great iceberg, you’ll love the iceberg, it’s the most beautiful iceberg—and what can we do?
What can we do, so far from the nation’s capital, so far from any sphere of influence? What can we do?
We can start by building lifeboats. Our sphere of influence is right here at home. We start where we’re at. We figure out what we need. We make it happen. Making it happen can mean pressuring our local and state governments. Making it happen can mean running our people for school boards, city councils, state district reps. Making it happens means creating our own resources where there are none. It means boycotting if we have to, it means demonstrating, it means, sometimes, making a racket so loud they can’t ignore us.
We’re on the steps of the Johnson City municipal building, where our city council holds their twice monthly meetings. I recommend we all start going to those meetings, get to know these people, how they vote, how they respond to citizen concerns. Let them see your faces and get used to seeing your faces. If you’re not from Johnson City, find out when and where your local government meets and put your face there in the audience as often as you can. We are going to want things from them. We’re going to expect things from them. They’re not going to do these things on their own. We are only going to be able to achieve what we need if we come together as a force they cannot ignore. And if they still ignore us, we will replace them. We will replace them. With God as my witness, we will replace them.
Now I’m going to turn things over to you. I said we need to build lifeboats right here at home. Let’s talk about what these lifeboats are going to look like. What do we need to keep us safe, to keep us healthy, to keep our children clothed, fed, and educated, and reduce our struggles in this getting-harder-every-day-to-make-ends-meet world we live in? I know there’s no shortage of needs. What are they?