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Damu Smith

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Damu Smith was in Washington, DC when he heard the doctor’s diagnosis. Stage four colorectal cancer! It had already metastasized to his liver. And, said the doctor, his treatment would cost approximately $500,000. This he must pay himself, as he has no health insurance – even though he’s fully employed. ‘There are so many people who do not have healthcare because they work for small organizations. Large organizations and businesses can afford healthcare costs but small ones can’t.’

Smith has been a grassroots organizer in the American anti-apartheid, civil rights, environmental justice and anti-war movements. So his immediate reaction was that of an experienced activist: to organize a struggle against the predicament that he and many Americans face every year as well as a fight for his life. He started the Spirit of Hope campaign from his hospital bed. ‘Before that first conference call, I told people that it can’t just be about Damu Smith. It’s got to be about the fundamental overarching issues such as the need for universal, free, comprehensive healthcare. There are 44 million people in this country who do not have any form of health insurance in the richest, most militarized state in the world. How can we call this country a democratic nation when we cannot provide basic healthcare services for so many of our citizens?’

It’s a well-timed question. Not only is private industry in the US running amuck, but other industrialized nations whose governments have always guaranteed basic services are on the brink of privatization. It’s back to the ‘every-man-for-himself’ of the 1980s – downsizing governments cutting back on public spending by passing the burden of service-provision from the benevolent state onto its citizens. Today, as that trend reaches its peak, Smith is plotting a change of direction. ‘When Hilary Clinton took on the issue during the first Clinton administration, the mistake she made was going to policy makers and organizations to talk about a strategy for healthcare. It was completely disconnected from the grassroots.’

Smith won’t make the same mistake. His work has always focused on affected people and how to give them voice – a tactic he mastered in his environmental justice work in Louisiana and Mississippi. While working for the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice in 1991, he toured 40 towns in one year. After learning at first-hand how poor and black communities suffered from corporate polluting practices, he trained locals how to communicate directly those experiences to the media. When working with Greenpeace USA in 1996, he visited every household in two towns to introduce a campaign to communities that would otherwise have been untrusting of an outsider. And now, for the Spirit of Hope Campaign, his strategy is, once again, to reach and radicalize the individual: ‘[People] must believe in this so much that [they] are prepared to go to jail; to block the doors of the finance offices of hospitals; to camp out in hospitals all around the country.’

But before he can mobilize, Smith recognizes that the stigma associated with being uninsured in the US must first be removed. ‘[Poor] people are so ashamed. That’s why we don’t have a national, militant comprehensive healthcare movement in this country. There is this mindset that somehow healthcare is a privilege and the government shouldn’t have anything to do with providing it to its citizens. We live in a profit-driven political culture that has taught people that healthcare is not a basic human right.’

In addition, many Americans accept the portrayal of the uninsured as lazy, uneducated and unskilled, which prevents them from empathizing with those who don’t have access to healthcare. The reality is that many working people – those from the middle classes – now lack coverage and are shamed into silence. ‘Even with healthcare, if the patient is required to pay 40 per cent of a service that costs $5,000, they’d still have to pay $2,000. That’s a lot of money. So having healthcare [insurance] doesn’t mean having access to healthcare [services].’

Essentially Smith’s aim is to relocate healthcare from its present place as an individual’s responsibility to its true position as a human right: to show Americans that the healthcare question is a moral one that principled people – insured and uninsured – must pose together to their leaders. ‘We can pay billions of dollars to fight wars and occupy other countries, and we can gather the funds for this quickly as we saw in the aftermath of 9-11. But when it comes to healthcare for our citizens, the US is not doing it. It’s a matter of priorities. It’s a matter of values. It is not a matter of money. We have the wealth in this country to take care of everybody.’

New Internationalist issue 384 magazine cover This article is from the November 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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