Speech at Atlanta’s “Living Walls” conference: Human Rights and the Public Sector

Posted August 14, 2011

This speech was given by Paul McLennan from Atlanta Public Sector Alliance (APSA) at Living Walls: The City Speaks.


I want to first thank Living Walls for the opportunity to engage in this dialogue. There needs to be more conversation taking place in Atlanta between artists and political activists, especially about this topic of what is happening to our public space and our public institutions. We will need to continue to have these discussions in order to reclaim and expand our public good so it is used in the interests of people not profit.

No one asks whether the fire department made money last year or whether the sales have gone up at the local branch library. This is the public sector. It provides many of the services all residents have a right to receive because they live in a community and pay taxes.

International human rights standards require governments to take the appropriate measures toward the full realization of our human rights to education, health care, housing, and other rights such as transit access. Even during an economic crisis, our local, state, and federal governments and public institutions are obligated to respect, protect, and fulfill these fundamental rights.

But all around the world, we are seeing the public good disappearing. For decades, corporations and right-wing conservatives have promoted a media message and a political and economic program called neoliberalism to attack the role of government and the public sector.

Through institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, they began to implement this methodology all over the world. As Naomi Klein describes in her book, “Shock Doctrine,” political and corporate elites have merged in an effort to target public assets that “were the end products of the years of investment of public money and know-how that had built them and made them valuable.”

Budget cuts, austerity measures, and privatization are all part of the neoliberal agenda today which calls for the lifting of all regulations on the movement of capital and the wholesale transfer of public wealth into private hands. Privatization replaces public participation, institutional responsibility, and accountability with a profit motive. This has a negative effect on access to necessary services and the human rights of everyone. The profit motive or market operations – with their inherent injustice – have no place in government or the public sector.

In recent years here in Atlanta, we have seen attacks on the public sector in the form of destruction of public housing; the privatization of Grady Hospital; the growth of for-profit charter schools; fare increases, layoffs, and service cuts at MARTA; the elimination of bus service in Clayton County; and tuition and fee hikes in the University System of Georgia.

The Atlanta Public Sector Alliance believes this global economic crisis we are facing is no accident. It has been manufactured and is the result of years of bad economic policy that benefits the wealthy few while millions suffer. In the U.S., we see misplaced priorities that can find millions for war, prisons, and Wall Street but not for public schools, transit, and health care. In Georgia, we also confront the particular problem of generations of structural racism where Atlanta’s public institutions have been historically underfunded by the state.

Atlanta is at a crossroads. The city is reviving but for whom? Reverse white flight is pushing the poor and people of color out of the city and neighborhoods they have lived in for generations. Growth and change is happening in the city but any revitalization should be done in ways that promote everyone’s human rights.


MARTA is a good example of the structural neglect that many public institutions in the city have had to confront. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority is the ninth largest transit system in the country and is the largest system in the U.S. that receives no operating help from the state. Georgia ranks 49th in the country in per-capita spending on transportation. Even the proposed new regional sales tax for transportation has language in it that deliberately excludes MARTA from receiving any money that can be used for current operating expenses.

I am a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union which is the largest public sector union in the state to have a collective bargaining agreement with management. The union was formed in 1916 and was recognized when the transition to creating MARTA took place. The union is majority African-American and according to MARTA’s own research, 76% of its 500,000 daily transit riders are also African American. MARTA is a public institution that belongs to the city of Atlanta, Fulton, and DeKalb who have built the system, maintain and work for it, and have paid for it for all these years through the one-cent sales tax.

We believe that the reason for the lack of support for this vital, public asset can be tied to the long racist, anti-union history of the state of Georgia. In the South, the public sector was opened up to African Americans only as a result of the struggle for civil rights which brought down the walls of apartheid segregation. In response to this historic victory, federal money and resources were brought to major Southern cities through programs like the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 which funded mass transit projects that created MARTA.

MARTA has had to contend with competing forces for the few resources that are available. For example, the Atlanta Public Sector Alliance believes that the Beltline project does not contribute to solving the current transportation crisis we face. We already have a core system which is in desperate need of support before we tackle new projects that duplicate service that MARTA already provides. We have to stop the death spiral of fare increases, service cuts, and layoffs that MARTA is currently experiencing that we believe may lead to privatization of the system.

In addition, the Tax Allocation Districts which are being used to support the Beltline subsidize private developers with public money that would otherwise go to Atlanta public schools. After losing a legal battle in 2008, Beltline supporters had to pass a constitutional amendment in order for this corporate welfare to continue. Now, we hear that the Beltline has made it on the list to receive funding as part of the regional transportation wish list. Again, we feel this takes away needed resources to maintain and support our core system.

The Beltline project is speeding up gentrification, creating an increase in property values and taxes, and will displace communities. Supporting the needs of developers, the Tax Allocation Districts are another example of the intrusion of the private sector into the public good in the name of profit.


What would Atlanta look like if it was run on Human Rights principles? The communities we work with, particularly people of color, face threats on many fronts. We use human rights as the framework for our public sector, Human Rights Charter campaign. Our focus is on restoring, defending, and expanding the public good. In order to achieve justice for the “public good” in one area, we must organize coalitions of the most affected to fight for the public sphere as a whole. Public housing residents, public sector workers, people with disabilities, people of color, low income families, immigrant workers, teachers, students and faith organizations can win when they see that their struggles are part of a larger whole.

Our charter campaign allows us to continue to be responsive to issues while we simultaneously advocate a people’s program that would reflect a city’s values and institutional practices. We are using this campaign as an organizing tool to build a multi-racial, multi-issue alliance to ensure that all communities have access to services; participate in the decision-making of our public institutions; and fight for the resources these institutions deserve.

We have learned many lessons from our work. These include:

1. Those most affected must lead. Learning from the work of civil rights leader Ella Baker, we believe our job is to work from below with those who are most impacted by the issues.

2. To transform the world, we must engage in a process of action and reflection. This requires a permanent dialogue between us and those most affected.

3. We see the intersectionality of oppressions. “There is no such thing as a single issue struggle,” feminist Audre Lorde says, “because we do not live single issue lives.”

4. Consciousness-raising about structural forms of oppression such as patriarchy, heterosexism, and white supremacy will need to be done in the context of our building a movement for transformative change.

Today, we are facing a world-wide crisis of values. As long as our priorities are more concerned with war and making profits than taking care of the needs of people, our communities will continue to be deeply affected. We have to continue to have dialogues like the one we are having today to figure out the best way forward for building a people-centered, human rights movement. Every successful movement has had a cultural component and we need to better coordinate the work of artists and activists. Together, we can turn this current economic crisis into an opportunity to restore, protect, and expand our public sector and envision a new society.