The coca fields of Colombia are a long way from Philadelphia's gritty Kensington neighborhood, but a local anti-poverty group is making the connections with an innovative and interesting new tactic. On September 17, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (http://www.kwru.org) inaugurated its "Drug War Reality Tour," taking some 30 participants through the heroin corners, pawnshops and prostitution corridors of Kensington, and then on to hospitals with detox centers and methadone. Sounds like your typical drug war horror show so far, but here's where it gets interesting: The next stops on the tour were not the jail and the graveyard, but the airport, the Philadelphia docks and the I-95 corridor, where drugs pour into the city, and the chemical plants of Kensington, where multinational corporations produce the potassium permanganate and acetic anhydride used in turning coca and opium plants into the powders that plague the community.
"We're trying to relate the micro and the macro," KWRU tour guide Arun Prabhakaran told DRCNet. "There are huge forces aligned around drugs, and we are trying to show how these affect people here in Philadelphia in their daily lives."
The KWRU was formed a decade ago by five welfare mothers and has since garnered national attention and a substantial following in Philadelphia for its innovative organizing. It has a clear political agenda: "We are trying to enforce a political platform designed around human rights rather than the interests of corporations or the political objectives of Democrats or Republicans," explained Prabhakaran. "We are part of the Just Health Care campaign and an affiliate of the Labor Party. We want to build a party that says health care is a human right. We have taken an express position that the right to recovery and treatment on demand are part of the greater issue of universal health care," he said.
The group organizes around basic human needs -- food, housing, health care, jobs at a living wage, etc. -- said Prabhakaran, and has gained political traction doing so. "We're a group of poor and homeless families and their allies who are trying to create a movement led by the poor to end poverty. We've managed to house over 500 families," he said, "and we've been able to fight on an equal footing with local officials that few groups have been able to achieve."
Along with tour guides Guillermo Santos, Galen Tyler, and KWRU director Cheri Honkala, Prabhakaran brought home the links between drug war in the Third World and drug war on the streets of Philadelphia to a varied group of participants, including PhD social workers, journalists, artists, community members, and Drug Policy Forum of Pennsylvania director Diane Fornbacher. "People who live here are survivors of the war on drugs and the war against the poor," said Prabhakaran. "We are trying to expose the connections, the interests, that corporations and the US government have in the drug war. Our tour attempts to provide a full picture of the reality of the drug war. And we relate it to using money for more effective ways of dealing with the problem, the demand side, and building a movement designed to end poverty not only in the US, but around the world," he told DRCNet.
"One of the major issues here in Kensington is drugs. Not just drug use, but poor people having to resort to selling drugs or growing drugs as a matter of survival. The drug economy must be seen in the context of other economic factors," such as the de-industrialization of the Northeast, said Prabhakaran. "We feel like poor communities are dramatically effected by the drug war. The drugs go in, then the police arrest people and incarcerate them at unbelievable rates in poor communities. This is not a race thing, this is a class issue, poor people are under attack."
Interest in the tours is high, said Prabhakaran, and the KWRU has another planned for November 8. Also, a theatrical production addressing the same themes as the tour, "Corner Wars," will be presented at Temple University on December 14 and 15. Contact the KWRU for further information, or check the calendar in future issues of the Week Online.