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Resurrection City U.S.A.

The Poor People Take Over the Town

By James K. Glassman

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 15 -- West Potomac Park, where they set up "Resurrection City USA," is right next to the Reflecting Pool, which stretches between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. The Reflecting Pool is very deceptive. It looks calm and deep and beautiful. But actually it is only two feet deep. Three or four times a year, maintenance men from the U.S. Park Service drain the pool and pick up the garbage on the bottom. Then you can see that it is only two feet deep. And that is very disappointing.

Now that the Poor People's Campaign is here, government office workers in shirt sleeves from the nearby Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Navy Department walk over in the lunch hour to the edge of the Reflecting Pool to look across the water at Ressurection City. Some of them walk over to the other side to get a closer look, but even then the trees get in the way.

But there it is, fans, just like Martin Luther King said it would be--400 A-frame shelters made of plywood and plastic. And poor people from Mississippi and Alabama right before your very eyes.

But the real live people are getting disenchanted. Seventeen of them have gone home after three days. The shelters are uncomfortable. The poor people inside say they are uncomfortable, and they look it. Life for the first three days in Resurrection City, USA was above all uncomfortable and boring. Nothing was going on. There were some visitors: Stokely Carmichael drove up in a white Mercury station wagon, sucking a lollipop. He rapped with the folks, and they loved him. But he left. Sen. Charles Percy came to drive in a nail. Mayor Walter Washington and the Chairman of the City Council John W. Hechinger came "to see how things were coming."

On Tuesday no one got lunch, and the volunteers and some of the poor people wandered off to look for something to eat. Work just abut stopped completely in the afternoon. John Miller, a Harvard junior who came down because "all of a sudden I realized I didn't have any exams," was working on an A-frame shelter with a carpenterish-looking white man from Miami, Florida. At 3 p.m. Tuesday they were the only ones hammering. The man from Florida said he came because the 12 tribes of Israel are supposed to show up sometime before June 6 "right on this very spot." God told him that 23 months ago, he said. And he went back hammering.

You can get inside the camp if you know Miller and ask one of the marshals (everyone seems to be a marshal), but otherwise you have to stay out, except for periodic "press tours." The people from SCLC don't like you to interview the people inside. On Wednesday they were putting up snow fences to keep the crowd away, but if you have a camera you can take a press tour.

My guide was a tall, thin black man with an African costume named Sweet Willy. Sweet Willy can rap pretty good, and when a woman inside one of the shelters complained "This isn't a zoo," when photographers tried to take pictures of her, Sweet Willy said to her, "How we gonna show Johnson?" That worked.

Leading us around, Sweet Willy ran into one of the marshals, and the marshal said to him, "Who are you? You with SCLC?" And Sweet Willy said, "Yep." Then the marshal asked him, "Where are you from?" Sweet Willy said, "Memphis. I'm Sweet Willy from Memphis. You ask anybody." That worked too.

Sweet Willy from Memphis (his real name is Lance Watson) is the leader of a gang called the Invaders. The Invaders are credited with turning the Rev. Martin Luther King's first non-violent march through Memphis into a little riot. But after King's murder, Sweet Willy decided that "We should do all we can to fulfill Dr. King's dream." So Sweet Willy left the real tough cats in his gang home--"Some were very young, some were temperamental and unsteady"--and came to Washington.

Underneath the beauty of the Invaders from Memphis and the rhetoric of fallen leaders there is not much stuff. People are walking around in brand new denim coveralls with cars from California that have SCLC bumper stickers next to Bobby Kennedy bumper stickers. Even if this thing ends in violence (it is already confused and frustrated, and that combination often leads to violence), this is not a revolution, nor what it meant to be. Everything the Poor People want has already been proposed by the Johnson Administration, the Urban Coalition, or the Kerner Commission. The only thing really new is a guaranteed income, and SCLC only wants it for "those either too young, too old, or too handicapped to work."

Congress, of course, will not grant a single request.

It is all sad. These narodniki are a sad lot. They have toothaches, and they are sick, and they are hungry, and bored. Fat, black mamas rearrange clothes inside the shelters, and when they get through with that, they sit outside on boxes and trunks. The view is lousy, too. All they can do is look through the trees and across the shallow water of the Reflecting Pool at the office workers in shirtsleeves.

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