Get our free newsletter
Are We There Yet?
The organizers of a march on poverty came to the District looking for support and participants to send a message that not everybody is prospering in the roaring ’90s. They left empty-handed.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Friday, Oct. 1
The marchers are somewhere outside of Bethesda along Old Georgetown Road as the day edges into night. It’s a stretch of real estate designed to be passed through and nothing more—the strip cuts between quiet cul-de-sacs, small, nameless malls, and office towers. It’s not the kind of place you’d go looking for a spot to camp for the night.
The megaphone-boosted protest songs trailed off blocks ago. The flags carrying the words “Freedom from Unemployment, Hunger & Homelessness” now droop. The flashlights of the marchers bounce off trees and empty SUVs. There are no pedestrians here other than the marchers, who don’t exactly fit the Bethesda profile. The toe-to-toe-to-stroller migration includes farm workers with shirts barely covering their stout bellies, smiling kids with candy-coated fingers, and welfare mothers shrinking into their baggy jeans and unfashionable camouflage jackets. The protesters look collectively lost by the time we hit Mile 18 in what will be a 400-mile trek.
It’s the first night of many on the “March of the Americas,” a monthlong march from Lafayette Square in Washington to the United Nations building in New York City that has been organized to protest the kind of poverty that a bull market will not shoo away. Organizers are hoping that the long, low-to-the-ground hike will be the foundation of a larger global movement. Or maybe get some media attention. Or maybe just convince a few of the participants that they are not as worthless as the broader culture seems to believe. It is a movement from within, one in which supposedly helpless welfare mothers realize that they are victims of larger forces and become players in the debate. Instead of stretching meager food stamps, they take up placards and their own cause. It’s a nice idea, albeit an approach that doesn’t exactly smack of ’90s Zeitgeist.
Stuck hiking through the ‘burbs, the marchers haven’t rested or eaten in miles. The lukewarm Domino’s pizza slices were gobbled up hours ago on a grassy nook outside the National Cathedral. Now it’s just pavement and the revving engines of people who are actually going someplace. The marchers are, too—it just doesn’t look like it.
Mariluz Gonzalez, the woman walking in front of me, wipes away a tear with the back of her hand. She is complaining about something, again. Gonzalez complains a lot—about the cold, the fact that her young kids are not with her, and the fact that most of the marchers are not walking in a straight, single-file line. She complains about that most of all.
Four feet away, Cheri Honkala walks alone in her $36 pair of black Reeboks. Honkala, a formerly homeless mother and the march’s main organizer, stares straight ahead holding a rented Nextell mobile phone. She limps just a bit. The medic team—their only qualification was a willingness to volunteer—will pop three blisters on her feet later.
In the front of the pack struts Esther Ortiz, 39 years old and all of 87 pounds. She bundles up in her camouflage jacket trying to warm her swollen joints. She has bone cancer and lupus and needs constant extra heat. At the moment, Ortiz is thinking about how she’s going to pay her rent and her medical bills. Her disability check barely covers the rent, let alone food and clothing for her four kids. Ortiz says she is thousands of dollars in debt.
The two-car garages and lamplit porches make her want to forget all about her native Philadelphia and her weakened bones. “This is what you call a house,” she says. “Home sweet home. This is what people dream. A shelter? This is what we need. I’d walk many miles for these homes, you know what I mean?”
“Keep it single-file,” Honkala shouts, stepping onto Old Georgetown Road. “Keep it up.” The sidewalks have evaporated, and we are now walking on a narrow strip of grass. Honkala worries about keeping everyone together. Three of the vehicles in the motorcade following the march buffer the shuffling line. It’s not long before one of the cars, a Camry, breaks down with a shot alternator. It’s taken as routine, the kind of stuff that happens all the time when you don’t have any money and don’t come by much good luck as matter of course. The people marching are used to it.
This morning, Honkala launched the march under the rubric of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, a coalition of poor and homeless men, women, and children from North to South America. Today’s 20-mile route will be one of the longest they will march all month: the obligatory opening rally at Lafayette Square, submitting of a brief documenting the U.S.’s economic human rights violations at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, lunch by the FDR Memorial, the hike up 23rd Street onto Massachusetts Avenue and onto Wisconsin Avenue NW, and then a long, steady procession all the way to Bethesda.
As executive director of the Philadelphia-based Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), a group composed mainly of welfare-assisted and homeless mothers that she started nine years ago, Honkala has organized the entire march, down to the pee breaks. She is an experienced hand at stirring things up, a woman who has worked the political side of the welfare lines ever since dropping out of college in her hometown of Minneapolis.
Like all organizers, she keeps hype in a front pocket. In the days leading to the march, she boasted that C-SPAN and 60 Minutes had called to say they were interested. She suggested the march would number 1,000 strong, that they would link up with poor brothers and sisters from the District and bring the message of economic inequality to Clinton’s front yard. But she is short a zero; there can’t be more than 100 people walking along with her, not enough to roust the local media or even slow down traffic.
There was a time, say, three weeks ago, when Honkala thought that the District’s infrastructure of activists—local, national, and global—would adopt her hearty, motley bunch and turn their little crusade into something bigger. But the rally was attended for the most part by the people she had bused in from Philly. D.C.’s once-vaunted network of poverty outlaws has evaporated—some are dead, many are burned out, and a few have managed to sell out to think tanks. Only a few local students and even fewer D.C. activists augmented the core group to begin with, and most of them didn’t make it past the Bethesda Metro stop.
Honkala came to D.C. hoping to resurrect the mojo of the late Mitch Snyder, the legendary District poverty activist who ran out of both gas and hope, killing himself in 1990. It didn’t happen.
At 10:15 p.m., Honkala stops the marchers at the North Bethesda United Methodist Church. “We need silence. We need silence,” Honkala shouts in her already hoarse voice. It’s an unnecessary admonition; most of the marchers went silent miles ago. Honkala still worries—she doesn’t have permission to sleep here. The marchers walk across Old Georgetown Road in a mute single file and up a hill leading to the church parking lot. A sign outside the church advertises Sunday’s sermon: “The Unseen Guest.” The group takes it as an omen and beds down for the night.
Wednesday, Sept. 29
Honkala needs more time. It’s two days before the march will begin, and she is short on everything, but most especially time. She craves just a few more precious minutes to make the day long enough to build and organize her crusade. If she had more time, she could knock out a few more items on her to-do list, but even that’s lost right now.
She checks a three-ring binder infested with numbers, names, random slips of paper. Her co-workers, Galen Tyler, D.C. outreach coordinator, and Sara Forgione, student coordinator, pick their pockets. Honkala turns around in the rented Mercury Villager minivan and dives her fingers into the seat next to me.
“Move your ass,” she barks. I move, feeling just a wee bit claustrophobic. Still no luck.
Tyler and Forgione stare out into the parking lot behind a row of Cleveland Park restaurants along Connecticut Avenue. A slow drizzle starts up. It has been a long day, an even longer commute. They drove from their office in Philly to D.C. to make one more pitch for march supplies. It’s a waste of time. They have gained very little traction amidst the apathy and anomie of the D.C. activist community. Honkala can’t find many of them, she can’t find a way to motivate those she can, and, besides, she can’t find that damn list.
Things do not look good for the visiting team, but Honkala just keeps banging away as if someone—or something—is going to break through and come swooping in with a platoon of marchers, a truckload of hot meals, and solid places to crash. She knows the drill—she practically invented it. In her nine years at the helm of KWRU and at Up and Out of Poverty Now! before that, she has set up dozens of tent cities, housing takeovers, and rallies. In 1996, in Pennsylvania, she and KWRU marched from Philly to the state capital in Harrisburg; they were shot at with BB and paintball guns along the way. In 1997, she marched KWRU from the Liberty Bell to the United Nations. In 1998, she organized a 35-city bus tour to rally and make connections with poor communities across the country.
Along the way, she has received death threats, gotten plenty of her own eviction notices, and, she says, found more than 500 homes for homeless families. She has managed to win over an apathetic local press, been the subject of the book Myth of the Welfare Queen, charmed Philly Mayor Ed Rendell, and even won a fat donation from an alleged city mob boss, “Skinny” Joey Merlino. If she can win him over, surely she can convince a few D.C. advocates for the poor to help with her March of the Americas?
But first she has to find the list. Not that there isn’t anything on it that Honkala doesn’t have memorized. It’s just that there are so many items on that list—from fuel to food—that she is left with a familiar feeling: that the rent is due and the purse is empty.
Tyler starts up the minivan, and the group heads out for a meeting with a local Quaker organization near Dupont Circle. Tyler and Honkala have spent the last year shuttling down to Washington to attend local conferences; present lectures to area shelter boards, nonprofits, soup kitchens, and churches; and lobby supporters and poor people to march—or support the march in some material way. It’s missionary work of the most epic kind.
Not only are they selling something that no one wants to buy, they are pushing a cause that people would like to believe no longer exists. How can people be struggling to make it when every morning paper brings another fable about a 25-year-old millionaire? But in between all of the stories about Web riches and IPOs is the non-news that the poor remain with us—according to the New York Times, 12.7 percent of Americans are still living below the poverty line.
The stories of those left behind in the runaway economy barely receive mentions in the major dailies. According to the Village Voice, the New York Times devoted 50 stories to the homeless in the fall of 1988—and exactly 10 in the same period in 1998.
The landscape of poverty politics has been reframed by the new economy. It’s an easy time to make money when you have money; it’s a rotten time to be poor. Under Clinton, the poor have been reorganized—as part of a disappearing census class—cut from the welfare rolls and kicked out of vanishing public housing. Many jobs still pay minimum wage, and temp companies are still growing faster than unions. No matter how cheap memory chips are, vital resources like day care are still beyond the reach of many Americans.
In D.C., the boom has been felt by the poor in the form of an increasingly tight housing market (the District of Columbia was ranked fourth in a poll of states with the least affordable housing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition) and a series of cutbacks in social services. From 1992 through 1997, 65 percent of the District’s budget cuts came from social services, according to the Fair Budget Coalition. Of those cuts, child day care dropped by 22 percent, preventive health care administration dropped by 43 percent, and general public assistance to adults dropped by 100 percent. According to DC Action for Children, the District ranked last in a 1996 survey of poverty and children, with 40 percent of its kids living in poverty. The poor remain unwired for the new economy and under the radar of those who are.
Why don’t they just get jobs? say Mr. and Mrs. Middle Class, scanning the robust Employment section. Many of them have. Terri Bishop, president of the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), says that at least half of that shelter’s residents are working, and they still wake up and go to work in poverty. Honkala is used to getting bored looks when she brings up those left behind, but she is stunned by the level of apathy she has come across in D.C. during the warmup for the march: “It’s a very scary town.”
On the way to the Quaker meeting, Honkala wonders how they will hustle two vans to transport medical, clothing, and food supplies. There aren’t many license-holders in their crowd, and any credit cards were maxed out a while ago. But Honkala at least has found her list. Under the heading “Stress,” she has written 18 items, including flatbed trucks, a sound system, T-shirts, walkie-talkies, and phones, among others. At least they have some portable toilets lined up.
As Tyler parks the minivan, Honkala is on her phone trolling for folks with credit cards. She gets skunked: “Anybody that’s made promises hasn’t come through yet.”
Honkala feels a little burned-out, but she will still go through the motions for the Quakers. She has no idea where she is, nor whom she really will be speaking to.
Inside, Honkala and Co. are met with a half-dozen 20-somethings sitting along the edges of a bare room in metal folding chairs. The people in the room stare at their shoes in silence as the visitors take their seats. Tyler is the designated pitchman—he’s got five minutes to convert a very skeptical bunch. He lays out the march highlights with practiced conciseness: poor and homeless from all over the world, from Mexico and Idaho, Florida and Guatemala; rallies; leadership training at night; marching with luminaries like Bruce Springsteen and Danny Glover; a concert in Philly. It sounds great, but even as he brags, you get the feeling that half of the plans won’t come off.
I have seen Tyler, 30, make this pitch before. Only now there is desperation in his voice. During the past week, I have seen him work the Gray Panthers to minor success, leave messages with the National Organization for Women and the Institute for Policy Studies, get ignored by the administration at CCNV, and have to talk over room-chatter at a meeting of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). All of these groups have been historically active in rallying around issues of employment, poverty, and health care. And he has spent hours cruising the shelters without getting past the gatekeepers.
Honkala wraps it up behind him and calls for questions. One guy tells her she should stock up on American flags. He thinks flag-waving homeless people would make a catchy visual. Another asks simply: “What’s the point?” Finally, the woman running the seminar wants to get started on the real business at hand. “Are you guys staying?” she asks, curtly.
Honkala and her crew perfunctorily thank the Quakers, and then they bounce. Outside, Honkala doesn’t mask her anger. Her version of front-line protest rarely gets a rise out of armchair poverty types. “That’s typical,” she says. “That’s D.C. for you. Man, that’s the biggest battle we got. The battle with the ideas that people have—that poor people are incapable of thinking things through, planning things.”
She has an innate suspicion of people who have never been poor or homeless, regardless of how well-intentioned they are. “It’s like, ‘Isn’t this cute? Let me give you some pointers. I have some books at home. Perhaps you should think visuals. Can you stay for the training?’ It’s disgusting.”
Back in the minivan, Tyler takes a dry run through the march’s first-day route through D.C. and on up into Bethesda. Just as Honkala has figured out a way to rent two more trucks, she gets a call on the cell phone—they’ve lost the portable toilets. Apparently, the portable toilet company has a policy that their toilets can’t be moved from a fixed location. Honkala swells with adrenaline from this new crisis; she thrives on worst-case scenarios.
“We got to go to Home Depot and make some toilets,” she says. Never mind that the cheapest toilet kit at Home Depot costs $55 and the march has a balance of zero in the bank.
“How the fuck did that happen?” Tyler asks. The whole car deflates at the prospect of not having a pot to piss in all the way to New York.
Honkala has an intimate, long-standing relationship with poverty. Her father left a few months after she was born. When an alcoholic stepfather stepped into the picture, physical and sexual abuse soon became household routines. One of her earliest memories is of being dragged to a Minneapolis welfare office by her then-illiterate mother to fill out endless forms.
Honkala says she was hospitalized every year as a consequence of abuse. By the time she was 13, in 1976, Honkala told her mother that she had been abused not only physically but sexually as well. Her mother notified city social workers, and Honkala was quickly taken out of the home. She would never return.
From there, Honkala became a ward of Minnesota, and home became a series of institutions—reformatories, foster homes, and drug rehab centers. She says she ran away from every facility, always trying to return to her mother. But whether she liked it or not, institutions—with their bars and bedtime restrictions—defined her.
“Most of my life has been about being homeless—not having a safe place to lock the door, and feel like I was safe to lay my head and be OK,” Honkala says. “I had to do a lot of things to prove myself to try and figure out how to deal with that.”
She jokes that she took the creative way out—she became pregnant. She knew that once she got pregnant she would be considered an adult and therefore no longer the state’s responsibility. At 16, while living at the Pharmhouse, a facility for institutional runaways and addicts dubbed the “Last Chance Motel,” she met her first husband, a heroin addict—and the father of her child.
Two weeks after she moved out of the Last Chance and into a friend’s house, she became a sex worker. She soon moved again—this time into
When her son, Mark Webber, was born, Honkala, then 17, moved into a place with her new husband. Within a month, her husband had sold all her furniture and used all of their rent money on his heroin addiction. And, eventually, he vanished like the furniture, and Honkala was on the streets. She and her baby soon began apartment-hopping.
But what other people might construe as a series of personal disasters provided the fuel for her career. Everything—all events, mishaps, and bad breaks—has political underpinnings in Honkala’s paradigm. She eventually was able to cast aside a lifetime of chaos, left the sex work, got on welfare, found housing, and managed to wheedle her way into the University of Minnesota without, she says, knowing the difference between a city and a state, a Democrat and a Republican. With the help of a concerned professor and an intense desire to get out of the poverty cycle, she excelled as a scholar and eventually became a student teacher.
All that came to a halt in 1985. Midway through a lecture to her social studies students on military spending, the police arrived and arrested her. She was charged with two counts of welfare fraud: Honkala was busted for receiving welfare and a Pell Grant at the same time, which at the time was illegal. She had $2.87 in her pocket.
“I remember lying in the back of a squad car and just crying,” Honkala says. “I was just thinking that my whole life, my whole direction, being out of the sex industry, out of poverty, all of those things were all over.”
She pleaded not guilty and started protesting her case nonstop. The district attorney’s office later dropped the charges. The victory had ended her teaching career but begun her activism. “They destroyed my life as a sweet teacher. They made a revolutionary nutcase in a jail cell. I decided to go full-fledged with organizing all the time.”
After forming an organization called Up and Out of Poverty Now! in Minneapolis, Honkala began taking over abandoned houses for homeless mothers and setting up tent cities. And when she lost her apartment, she and her son took over houses for themselves as well. In one six-month stretch, her organization took over 70 houses. On some days, Honkala says, she would be arrested three times for housing takeovers.
In 1991, she started a long-distance relationship with a union organizer from Philadelphia. She eventually divorced her still heroin-addicted first husband, married the organizer, and moved to Philly. But the marriage didn’t take, and the two divorced within months. After getting laid off from her job as a social worker, Honkala found herself back on the streets with her son, a couple of cans of tuna, and a full commitment to running KWRU.
She still doesn’t have much to call her own. Honkala lives in a more-than-spare one-room apartment she shares with four or five others, depending on the moment. And she is stuck driving an indifferent Supra without insurance. And she thinks things have gotten even worse for the poor. “I’m not a nun,” she says. “I’ve never taken no oath of poverty. I don’t enjoy not being able to fly off every month to the Bahamas or develop intimate personal relationships or spend more time with my kid. I would much rather be doing all those things. But that’s not the time or history I’m living in.”
Thursday, Sept. 30
On the last day before her march, Honkala is still trying to convince D.C. soup kitchens and shelters that her monthlong hike is something they should go all out to prop up. KWRU needs local support. Without it, her group is really just a name with no assets. Absent the kindness of others, there is no movement—and there is no march.
I meet Honkala at the Wash “N” Fold laundromat on Columbia Road NW in Adams Morgan. It’s 2:45 p.m., and she and Tyler are taking a break, washing a bundle of “March of the Americas” T-shirts. They have already made dozens of calls to drum up last-minute backing, but all of the spade work they have done over the past few days is amounting to very little—except they have found a place in Capitol Heights, Md., that will rent them portable toilets. In spite of their efforts, locals seem surprised when Honkala and her crew show up talking about their big-deal march. The only people who are noticing seem to be the wrong ones. The organizers have received a cease-and-desist e-mail from the Maryland State Police. Apparently, the troopers found a flier and looked up KWRU’s Web page.
Tyler and Honkala fold the last few shirts and head out for the Central Union Mission, on 14th Street NW. They are in search of bodies, a chunk of locals to fuel critical mass. The two barely make it through the door before they are quickly stiffed.
“Remember, I was here a month ago,” Tyler says, all politeness, to Chaplain Barry Dobson, the man in charge of the shelter today.
“We’re from the March of the Americas,” Honkala chimes in. The two then give a quick rundown of the next day’s protest and ask if they can talk to any of the shelter’s residents about marching with them.
Dobson interrupts. “I can’t let the guys go,” he explains. “We have an open house on Saturday. They’re going to be in here ’til it’s clean. It’s an all-day thing.”
What about letting the residents just attend the opening rally? Honkala asks. No to that as well.
Honkala can’t afford to go off in his face, but outside, she calls the shelter a “plantation lockdown.” The two hand out fliers to men bundled outside the mission and then move on to the next stop on their list, Martha’s Table, just up 14th Street. They hope maybe to get at least a donated lunch, some sandwiches, some small token of local currency. There they are greeted with a grandmotherly smile and gloved handshake by Olivia V. Ivy, the soup kitchen’s director of operations. She remembers Tyler, but not the march’s start date.
“Oct. 1 came so fast,” Ivy says. “I haven’t thought about it.”
Tyler asks her if she received his fax and follow-up voice-mail messages, but Ivy insists she never got them. What about providing sandwiches anyway? he asks.
“You have a whole month to choose from,” Honkala urges.
Ivy still wants to be faxed something, and she insists on giving her fax number again. As Tyler and Honkala say goodbye, Ivy promises to have a meal prepared for Tuesday’s stop in Laurel, Md. Outside, Honkala calls the KWRU office and has someone fax Ivy a march itinerary.
“I think we’re gonna get some food,” Honkala says, satisfied. Ivy will not come through on Tuesday, however.
At a little past 7 o’clock, Tyler still hasn’t exhausted his pitch or his stack of fliers. Even though he has been here before, he works the cluster of men smoking Newports outside the entrance to CCNV, located on 2nd Street NW.
“March of the what?” asks Kevin, from just outside the dozen men. “What’s the purpose?”
Tyler mentions “economic human rights.” He might as well be speaking Croatian.
“Do I get money if I participate?” someone else asks. It doesn’t get better, but Tyler keeps banging away, hoping to capture the modicum of righteousness that once flowed through CCNV.
Earlier in the week, CCNV’s Bishop admitted that although she supports the march, she thinks that in-your-face activism is an outdated mode of dialogue. “Protests have gone on for so long now,” Bishop said. “People couldn’t care less. You could lie down on the streets, and [bystanders] will run over you or ask some silly question about why you’re holding up traffic.”
Even if CCNV isn’t going to be providing manpower, it does have beds—which come in handy at 9 o’clock, when Tyler ushers in more than 30 families, including his own, who have arrived from Philly. The administrators at CCNV have decided to allow marchers to sleep at the shelter. The clean beds are the last ones they will likely see for the next 30 days.
The march may begin in the District, but it will go off with very little in the way of local presence. Only one District homeless person, a woman named Patricia, has registered for the march.
Saturday, Oct. 2
Under a large open tarp, behind the North Bethesda United Methodist Church, bodies wake cold and wet. The rows of empty sleeping bags sag with dew under a very weak sun that does nothing to break the shivers. The marchers hover over coffee as they wait in line for the Jiffy Johns.
Ortiz, who has slept in one of the trucks, bundles up in her jacket and dips her fingers in a Styrofoam cup of hot water. When her bones get cold, they make her joints swell and her skin peel. What she really needs is a hot bath.
All of Honkala’s and Tyler’s work in D.C., both in terms of recruiting and hustling support, has yielded only two marchers, a few law students serving as legal observers, and one lunch, from D.C. Central Kitchen.
The first crisis of the march, finding a spot to sleep for the night, has been met and overcome. But it doesn’t last. Just as people finish stretching their legs, Honkala calls for a group huddle. “The church wants us out in 20 minutes,” Honkala says. North Bethesda United Methodist is hosting a Jazzercize class. “They were concerned that the people coming for the Jazzercize wouldn’t have a place to park.”
They trudge out with their still-sticky bodies and tired joints, back into a single-file formation heading to the next stop on the march, Lockheed Martin’s headquarters just off Old Georgetown Road. Lockheed Martin embodies a new paradigm for poverty protesters to protest: Private corporations are finding ways, usually at very high profit margins, to take the responsibility for poor people off the government’s hands. For Honkala and others, it is a social policy at its most cynical. Lockheed Martin, a weapons and aerospace manufacturer skimming off of the already limited funds that trickle down to the poor, is the king of corporatized poverty. And the leaders are well-aware that the company has benefited from government largess in a way most of their constituents only dream about.
Still the marchers are a little slow. “Tyler, look at the gaps,” Honkala screams. Honkala needs a bullhorn. “Single file,” she bellows. She orders marchers to start a song up: “Sing anything!”
At 11 a.m., there are few cars on the street, and the only people they pass are security guards huddled at the entrances to the corporate office towers adjacent to Lockheed Martin. Tyler drums up a chant anyway: “Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Corporate welfare’s got to go!”
When the marchers finally shuffle to the lip of Lockheed Martin’s front lawn, they are met by a half-dozen of the company’s private security guards and another six Montgomery County cops.The marchers are quickly ordered away from the property. Lt. Dan Waring Sr. tells Honkala she can have her rally—just so she makes it curbside. “I am more than happy to let them come out and have a good time,” Waring says. “That’s the American way.”
Conceptually, it’s a good event, but the promised protesters from AFGE fail to make an appearance, with the exception of its national vice president, David Schlein. The others, Schlein says, showed up earlier in the morning, but bolted after they couldn’t find parking.
“I think you’ve got to recognize that the Kensington Welfare Rights Union is not a D.C. group,” Schlein explains. “They are just starting to build bridges in D.C. That’s not something that happens overnight.”
Honkala arranged the Lockheed Martin caper to create enough of a splash to sneak onto the news and remind people that the poor are still with us. Finally, after an hour of slogans and testimonials and freedom songs, Honkala finds out that the people from Channel 7, WJLA, have called. They’re running late, but they want to cover the protest. She stalls the march by ordering up another song, “Amazing Grace” from KWRU’s “Human Rights Choir.” After 10 minutes, Honkala gives up. “We got to go,” she says. “It’s a hot day. If the press wants us, they’re going to have to get us.”
They move out with a row of office buildings on either side and are promptly met by two buses of homeless veterans from New York City. Even though there were a lot of empty seats on the buses, it’s still a big moment. Honkala plays the attentive hostess, making sure that all the new faces are introduced around.
Just a few blocks away from Lockheed Martin, Patricia, a middle-aged homeless woman from D.C., can hear the marchers’ rallying cries. She has just completed a long bus trip and a few wrong turns in an effort to hook up with the protesters. But by the time Patricia gathers her stuff and heads over to the site, the security detail is all that’s left. She wants to hunt them down, but she has some other pressing concerns, including getting food in her stomach and a shelter bed for the night. Patricia says she has no choice but to return to the District. She makes plans to meet up with the march in Baltimore.
Once again under way, Honkala gets a call from the Washington Post. The reporter asks, “Are you really marching to New York?” The Lockheed Martin rally registers a brief mention in the Metro section the next day. No one from the march is quoted. Channel 7 catches up, too. The cameraman shoots footage, gets a press kit, and leaves. The evening news includes a few seconds of footage with a voice-over.
Sunday, Oct. 3
At the end of a long Sunday afternoon, in the parking lot of Soaps, a laundromat outside College Park, the mothers with school-aged kids say their goodbyes and leave in vans headed back to Philly. There are now only about 50 marchers left, what organizers describe optimistically as their “core” fighters, who mainly consist of recent college graduates and KWRU members. They continue on before stopping at Lakeland Park, located just off U.S. Route 1, less than a mile from the University of Maryland, hoping to crash there for the night.
Honkala stands among the picnic tables and notices that the Park Police have shown up. The police tell her that the march will have to keep moving. But after walking 10 miles, they are in no mood to keep rolling just because a couple of cops don’t like the looks of them. Honkala smells the kind of challenge that can fire up the group and knit them together.
“Who has my cell phone?” Honkala bellows. “Who has my cell phone? Somebody?”
She keeps asking until somebody coughs up her Nextell. A dinner of Domino’s pizza slices reheated over a fire has just been consumed. Everyone relaxes in the grass, but not Honkala.
“Where is Jamie?!” Honkala asks, ever more harried. Jamie is KWRU’s press coordinator. “Somebody call Jamie and tell him to call every news station in this county now. Now!”
She may sound as though she is calling in tactical bombers, but the only thing she can really throw at the situation is some calls to the media, plus a press release that will undoubtedly be ignored. Still, she pushes on as if the group were just a couple of calls away from salvation.
People notice the commotion, pick themselves up off the grass, and begin milling around Honkala. The cops are telling the group that there is no room at the inn. The park, they say, closes at 9 p.m.
“Somebody call Philly,” Honkala shouts. “And put this over the listserv. Call people they know locally.” She orders Forgione to hit the campus: “Go door to door to all the dorms and try to get a bunch of students down here.”
Honkala consults the march’s lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Jr., who showed up earlier in the evening. The officers, she tells him, would let them stay, but it’s against park regulations. The cops say the neighborhood is a little sketchy, as well.
Honkala thinks their concern is a bad joke—as if this crew could get in trouble in some suburban college town. But it’s clear that the cops aren’t going to budge, so the marchers will have to—press releases and listservs notwithstanding.
“We’re going to go church-hopping,” she explains to the marchers. “We’re going to push it all the way. They’re going to have to send in 9 million cops.”
Honkala then dictates a press release into her cell phone to the KWRU office in Philly: “Homeless men and women and children after marching from Washington, D.C., to find refuge in College Park, to be evicted at 8 o’clock at night after walking miles in the hot sun all day.” She stops to catch her breath before describing the headline. “[Make it] big and National Enquirer-ish,” Honkala explains.
While Ruffin presents his clients’ case to the police, Honkala sits for a minute with a diet Coke and confers with Willie Baptist, the march’s education director and her closest confidant. “This is going to be a lesson for our folks, for all of us,” she says.
By 9:45, a deal is reached: The marchers will leave the park, but they have been authorized to sleep on the front lawn of the University of Maryland’s chapel. It’s 10 blocks. “I hope you feel like marching,” Honkala jokes .
Within minutes, the marchers set off. They start to sing: “I got my mind set on freedom.” They sing louder with each step. “Walk, walking with my mind set on freedom.” But once they get to the campus’s edge, the campus police tell them to keep on marching. Honkala is furious. She thinks the marchers are being double-crossed, and she immediately asks the marchers who is willing to go to jail for the cause. More than a few raise their hands. “As soon as I get out [of jail], I will join you on the march,” Honkala tells them.
She leads her crew up the campus and orders everyone to sit on the chapel’s front steps. The marchers continue to sing. Within seconds, eight more campus police officers show up. “They’re fucking with us,” Tyler says.
The conflict doesn’t take long to get heated between Honkala and the cops. “I’m not going to take the word of any officer,” Honkala bellows. She argues that she was only following the orders of the Park Police, and she demands to see a representative from that branch. After the Park Police arrive and confer with the campus cops, they both agree the marchers should go back and sleep at their original spot. It’s an awkward, almost comical resolution, but Honkala considers it a victory. They were told under no circumstances that they would be allowed to stay at Lakeland, but that’s exactly what the marchers will do.
Just past 11 p.m., the marchers are singing their way back to the park when five gunshots ring out from the nearby neighborhood. At least two bullets cut through the trees just above a few marchers’ heads. “Get down! Everybody get down!” one organizer shouts. Others run through the crowd, patting everyone to the ground. Within minutes, the police swarm through the suburban streets. But the gunfire doesn’t seem to faze anyone; gunplay back in the marchers’ respective neighborhoods is a common occurrence. The big debate is not whether they’ve become target practice for some local chump, but what caliber gun was used.
For the rest of the night, a police cruiser is stationed on the street adjacent to the park. As people bed down for the night, Honkala takes in the scene with visible satisfaction.
“People went through a bad experience together and they grew up, and that’s good,” Honkala says.
The next morning, the marchers awake at 7 o’clock to their first rainfall. They march down Route 1 through the downpour in garbage bags, paper-thin ponchos, and sweat shirts. They pass through a continuous landscape of graying mobile homes, washed-up motels, corner bars, superstores, and storage facilities. They eat tuna sandwiches on stale bread at an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory warehouse. They pass roadside crosses for “Dottie” and “Irene” on their way to the next stop, Laurel.
It has been a long few days, and people begin to drift away. Within the next two days, Ortiz will leave. She needs to get a checkup to continue receiving her disability checks. And her son, Aaron, is scheduled to go on trial for attempted murder. A formerly homeless mother and activist from Boise, Idaho, Dana Hardy, will drop out to be with her kids. There will be at least two minor fender benders by the time the caravan reaches Baltimore. There will be sleepovers inside an abandoned car dealership and a church in rural Maryland. More than a few cars, and at least one set of car keys, will get lost along the way. And Honkala will gain one more blister.
Thursday, Oct. 7
Honkala fits her fingers with two hand puppets and flips on the turntable. The record starts to spin, emitting the horrid shrieks of a thousand screaming Barney-era kiddies into a classroom at a downtown Baltimore Head Start branch, where the marchers have been allowed to crash. It is still hours from dawn, and Honkala is trying to roust everyone up. The marchers, still bundled in their sleeping bags, are not amused.
The smell of sweat and road sludge fills the air. The marchers have had only two opportunities for showers so far, and some have declined those. Honkala gains steam under exactly this kind of circumstance. She loves playing the annoying mom who teases the boys about their appearances, who gives them advice about girls, who always seems ready to be in on a gag. They are a needy bunch—young men who have dropped out, been caught up in crime, seen their best friends incarcerated, and spent a lot of time following their mothers on the streets and into tent cities. They became radicals out of necessity, and committed radicals through Honkala. “She’s cool,” Brian Wisniewski says. “She’s not about bullshit.”
At this point, with the population of the march having dwindled to under 50, Honkala knows most of them well. The group’s morale hinges on Honkala’s mood and her ability to constantly crack jokes, even during the march’s loneliest moments.
Even though the march seems to have begun to power itself, it’s still a drag that no one outside of it is paying attention. But that will change. The reason Honkala is torturing everyone out of bed is that they have to get ready for actor Danny Glover’s appearance. Glover will be presenting KWRU with an award at an Institute for Policy Studies function later that night, and Honkala has convinced him to participate out in the field.
He is scheduled to arrive at 11:30 a.m. at a downtown location Honkala has picked out. She has decided to march early to the day’s preplanned destination, Essex Community College, more than 10 miles outside of Baltimore on U.S. Route 40. The marchers will then shuttle in vans back to Baltimore and re-walk a section of the route with Glover. The early rise and haul to Essex weren’t originally part of the plan, but 11:30 was the only time Glover could make it. Honkala figured they had a better shot at press if they did the Glover event in Baltimore, not in the suburb of Essex.
“Everyone up,” she bellows, laughing through the classroom. Slowly, everyone starts to rise and migrate to the coffee maker. By 5 a.m., the marchers have started to cross downtown Baltimore, making their way past fast-food wrappers, broken glass, cigarette butts, and newspaper trucks.
In the early-morning cold, Honkala looks beat. Her eyes are bulging and red, and her limp is pronounced. Tyler is leading the march. We have walked at least 70 miles, and he insists on everyone following his dust. The march’s flatbed sound truck is in front of him, already cranking Nas. Tyler cuts the air with his hands as if he’s working two invisible turntables. “It’s getting warm now,” Tyler says, not fooling anybody, as we head down Route 40 into the sunrise. Except for Nas and Tyler, everyone takes the dawn in silence.
The marchers reach Essex in good time, ride back to Baltimore, set up a makeshift stage out of the sound truck in an abandoned lot, and make dozens of posters for the rally. Glover arrives and rests in a sedan across the street at a Jiffy Lube parking lot.
When he finally gets out of the car, he looks as tired as the marchers. Honkala comes over for an introduction. “Can I get a T-shirt?” he asks, by way of a greeting. “I need a T-shirt.”
No matter what Glover’s actual affiliation with the marchers, the Baltimore media are here in full force to record what he has to say. All four major television stations and the Baltimore Sun are in attendance. When I ask one TV reporter why he got the assignment, he says simply, “Danny Glover.”
It’s no surprise that the lens caps stay on the cameras while speakers from Haiti, Bolivia, Atlanta, and Baltimore rail against the Man. Honkala, too, is given little attention, but she doesn’t care. When she steps up to the microphone, there is no limp in her stride. Honkala spews a righteous anger she has so far shared only with the police.
“We are tired of the misleading facts that appear in the newspapers and on our television,” she screams. “We know that we have been left out of this so-called economic boom. Until America lives up to the promise of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights—where no man, woman, or child has to lay their head under a bridge—we will reclaim our human rights!”
Honkala seems to finish only when she is out of breath. By comparison, Glover is strictly understudy material. “Here in Cali—” Glover goes, pausing to correct his geography. “Here on the East Coast…” His speech doesn’t get more focused from there. Still, the cameras are rolling.
When the rally is over, Glover marches with Honkala and about 50 others down rows of boarded-up blight. The cameras and reporters bump up against Honkala to get a decent soundbite from the actor. At least one reporter asks him if he might follow Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and consider making politics a full-time gig.
The marchers are just decoration for Glover’s appearance. Honkala knows the rally is pure gimmick, but she can’t argue with something that produces the first significant coverage after days
“It’s sad,” she says. “From an emotional standpoint, this whole thing is incredibly sad. If I thought about it that way, I would be a basket case, crying every single day—or incredibly rageful.”
“The media didn’t want to hear from me,” she continues. “They didn’t want to focus on the issues. But I think it opened some doors for us, and those are the doors we’ve got to take. Whether we like it or not, movie stars and the religious community represent credibility, and that’s something we desperately need.”
The cameras finally drift off, and so does Glover. And reality is waiting for the marchers. The crew has no place to sleep tonight. Honkala’s plan is for the group to crash at Essex Community College without the school administration’s consent, but now she’s not so sure about it.
In a few hours, Honkala and 22 KWRU members will be back in the District to receive their award, the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award. Glover will be introducing KWRU. Honkala thought that even though she wouldn’t be in Essex to protect her flock, she could use the awards ceremony as leverage if the college gave the marchers trouble.
Earlier in the day, as other organizers worked over a Plan B—staying with a Baltimore activist Honkala knows—she talked about the tactics of confrontation should they get the heave-ho from the campus.
“We alert Danny Glover,” she told her advance team. “Danny Glover gets on the phone and calls the university. Worse-case scenario is, we have drama tonight.”
Most of the core group heads back in vans to the Washington event, to be held at the National Geographic Society building. As the KWRU members arrive in their T-shirts, they look out of place beside the huge spread of exotic cheeses and bread, along with the sports-coat-and-pantsuit liberals. Even though it’s an odd mix, Honkala sees opportunity and tells her posse—which includes Esther Ortiz, who has returned in time for the reception—to schmooze those in attendance, people with money and connections. “It’s real dog-and-pony,” she whispers to Mariluz Gonzalez. “You know what I’m saying?”
The reception’s chow lines are full of former activists, foreign-policy wonks, and old-money liberals. The marchers silently slip to the back of the room and hang along the walls as if they were at their first boy-girl dance. Ortiz’s sister, Liz, can’t stop fussing with her son’s collar, until he gets visibly annoyed. “I would like to know what they think about homeless people,” she says. “They’re all dressed. We’re not.” A few months ago, Liz Ortiz survived triple-bypass surgery while still homeless. Just days before the march, she finally received housing.
Ramona Cooper, another marcher, stands outside, away from everyone, smoking a Camel Light. A former military brat, she understands events like this—the dress-up, the cheese cubes, the cocktail chatter. But she and her twin toddlers were homeless two weeks ago, and she isn’t impressed by the dip into tweedy liberalism.
“Helping out is not one event a year. Nice cheese, though,” she quips. “I don’t know where they’re coming from. This isn’t going to solve anything.” She and the others are a little peeved that the award comes with no money when they desperately need it.
But even the most righteous among them—especially those who have been on the road for eight days—can’t pretend to be immune to the serenade of old Robeson-era union songs, the canned praise from Glover, a bronze medal, and the two standing ovations that go with it. By the end of the evening, Honkala & Co. have started to relax and work the suits.
But they can’t eat or fuel the vans with this gauzy good vibe. The marchers brought along T-shirts, videos, and buttons to sell at the event, only to be told hawking merchandise was out. The Human Rights Choir got peevish when nobody joined in as they were singing. They felt as if they were singing for their supper.
At the end of the night, KWRU is presented with a garbage bag filled with castoff coats. “Fuck IPS, man,” Tyler grunts outside. “Fuck IPS.”
On the bus ride home, Honkala ignores the dis others perceive and focuses on the honor bestowed. The award is a validation of KWRU’s history and its current efforts. The press may not have shown up, some local activists may have reneged on their promises, but the free food and glamour of the night were enough. For once Honkala is willing to find the silver lining. “We need exposure,” she says. “We need connections, you know. We can’t afford to be isolated. We have to work with whoever is willing to work with us.”
Everyone is still laughing about the event when Honkala, curled up in a borrowed blanket, yells for quiet. “I’m so tired I don’t care if I piss myself,” she jokes.
Back in Essex, the community college crash is a bust. The group descends on a single activist’s house to sleep inside and out. The smell of fruit-and-cheese-induced gas is almost toxic. More than a few guys make fart jokes, laughing themselves to sleep.
The next morning, the marchers start up where they left off. They stretch in a strip-mall parking lot, and attend to their sore muscles and aching feet. Liz Ortiz can’t find her medication, everyone is cold, and at least one driver is lost. The next stop is Joppatowne. It’s at least another 11 miles.
Honkala rallies the troops for a huddle. “The next three days begins some difficult stuff,” she bellows through a megaphone. “There’s not going to be a lot of people out. It’s going to be a long stretch. It’s just us.”
On cue, the marchers line up single file, hobble out of the parking lot, and head toward Route 40. Honkala clutches an American flag and stares out into the empty distance. She is limping again, but she’s still marching.
Two days later, Honkala and four others will be arrested for minor traffic violations outside of Havre de Grace, Md. They will be released after three hours and will quickly rejoin the march. In Philly, they will be joined by Mayor Rendell, and musicians Jackson Browne and Steve Earle. The march will temporarily balloon into the hundreds, but quickly fall back to about 120 participants by the time they reach Camden, N.J. There, Esther Ortiz will drop out again to go into the hospital. Liz Ortiz will leave to look after her son. Hardy will return from Idaho with her daughter and a friend. They will be joined by marching contingents from Holland, Brazil, and Peru. By New Brunswick, Honkala will be up to six blisters on her feet.
The march is scheduled to arrive in New York on Nov. 1. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.