Interviews TV

Storming Caesars Palace Sheds Light on The Important Leaders of America and The Fight for A Basic Income

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is a phrase from a poem by Emma Lazarus called “The New Colossus.” More importantly, the phrase has become part of the American consciousness and a symbol of hope for people escaping various forms of oppression. But what if that oppression is coming from the land that sells others the dream of equality and prosperity while letting its own poor citizens starve?

What if the country that opens its door to others doesn’t grant you the same rights simply because of the color of your skin? Even if you qualify. If history has taught us anything, it’s the value of standing up for our rights so that one day future generations will benefit from the labors of the past.

Meet Ruby Duncan who not only faced food inequality but lived through the systematic racism that kept herself and others from receiving public assistance. Instead of staying quiet about her treatment, she stood up and fought back, joining others who organized, and protested against a welfare system that gave them little to no resources to build a better life for themselves. As a result, she changed the lives of thousands who still reap the benefits of her actions. However, progress is never-ending as today’s generation are still fighting for their right to survive, to eat.

INDEPENDENT LENS’ Storming Caesars Palace chronicles the extraordinary story of Ruby Duncan who went from a boisterous protestor to a strategic organizer to a White House advisor. As she led a grassroots movement that fought for basic income for families, challenging presidents, and the Las Vegas mob, everyday Americans had to rethink their notions of the “welfare queen”—a derogatory stereotype of women who allegedly misuse or collect excess public assistance through fraud or manipulation.

Based on the groundbreaking book by Annelise Orleck, Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty, the documentary spotlights an unsung leader and movement, whose stand for America’s principles of justice, inclusion, and opportunity for all continues to shape the calls for economic justice that ring today.

Through interviews with Duncan, her family, and key players in the movement such as Gloria Steinem, filmmaker Hazel Gurland-Pooler weaves together a trove of archival footage to tell the story of the brave fight for justice, dignity, an adequate income, and democratic participation for low- income mothers.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, The Koalition spoke to filmmaker Hazel Gurland-Pooler to learn more about the importance of Duncan’s actions, how the fight for basic income is still ongoing and more.

We’re still facing so many of the same issues. There are 37 million people who are living in poverty today and, if we include folks that are on the verge, I think it goes up to 45 million. We have 13 million kids living in poverty. There are hungry people, affordable housing is a problem [and] the economic inequality right now is actually worse than it was back in the 60s and 70s when this film takes place. The things Miss Ruby Duncan and the other mothers of the National Welfare Rights Organization were fighting for is absolutely things we’re still fighting for today.”

“What I think is so exciting is they were fighting for guaranteed income; they were fighting for dignity, for economic justice; all the things we’re fighting for today. I think what was so visionary was they were fighting for a guaranteed income; this is something we still don’t have.”

Ruby Duncan never intended to be on welfare. In fact, she tried to avoid it the best she could. However, in 1952, she slipped on some spilled grease while carrying large platters of food. Badly injured, she was unable to work and ended up on welfare. “When I fell, I cracked my spine, cracked my knees. I just became totally disabled all at once. I didn’t know what in the world was going on. And so, I cried. I prayed. And I said, ‘I just can’t sit here and do nothing.'”

Begrudgingly, she called the Nevada Welfare Department, told them she could work sitting down, and they guided her to a sewing class that paid $200 a month. It was here she met other welfare mothers. This meeting would forever change Duncan’s life as she discovered just how little Nevada welfare recipients were receiving compared to other states, making survival impossible: just $1,700 for a family of four in public assistance annually, less than half the $4,000 families in places like New York, New Jersey and Alaska. Even though the food stamp program was created in 1962, Nevada did not accept the funding.

Even if they received the $1,700 a year in public assistance, that wasn’t the end of their nightmare. Families faced an embarrassing, humiliating and invasive provision called “Man of the House,” where welfare benefits could be terminated if any working-age man regularly visited and/or stayed at a single mother’s house. The government felt, any man of the house or male visitor should be helping to support her kids — even if he wasn’t their father.

Women and mothers constantly lived with the threat of welfare employees visiting their homes at any hour (even 2am) to check for signs of a man’s presence. Everything was questioned; including shavings in the bathroom sink to any men’s clothing in the closet. Marriages were under threat, as married women faced an ultimatum of having their husbands leave the home if they couldn’t find a job — or else their benefits would be canceled.

Then things got worst. Under the guise of “welfare fraud,” Nevada welfare director George Miller cut the state’s welfare rolls, which saw benefits cut by 75% but even more families lost all their benefits.

“We see in the film Ruby Duncan and the other women are actually really hard working, working harder than most people are. They’re not only taking care of all of their children but they’re fighting for their community and they’re banding together, organizing, lobbying ultimately for food stamps, which now feeds like 38 million people. [They are] participating in the democratic process, realizing [they’re the] experts on what [they] need the most. Not the people who don’t know how much diapers cost, how much milk costs, how much eggs cost [or] the people who are stretching their monthly budget as far as it can go to pay rent, the electric bill and everything else. The sooner we realize we have the power, and we know our experience, the sooner we will be able to try to make changes.”

However, George Miller underestimated the power of women and their voices. Together with Duncan, they would create a protest so loud, it would shut down one of the most profitable cities in America.

“One of the biggest myths we have in this country is that poor people don’t want to work and they’re, for some reason, undeserving of government support. We should have a safety net that supports us so that if anyone falls on bad times, there’s a safety net for them. There’s something like half of American people if they have an unexpected incident happen, like an accident, a divorce, a medical emergency, they would be basically in poverty.”

People often think, ‘I don’t need welfare, I’m not going to need unemployment, I don’t need these things,’ but actually we all very well might. Covid really pulled back the curtain on that. The stimulus checks were essentially welfare. Anytime there’s a tax break, any time there’s a farm subsidy, Elon Musk and all sorts of folks who aren’t paying taxes like Jeff Bezos are basically getting welfare. We see banks getting bailed out, that’s all welfare. Politicians often trot out [the] welfare mom trope that’s totally racist and a wrong stereotype about who is on welfare [but] over the years, three-fourths of the people who are on welfare are White. It’s not even women of color or black women who are receiving welfare in the highest numbers.”

Even when the Nevada women had their benefits cut through, “Operation Nevada,” that never stopped them. In fact, it emboldened them to an army of 1,500 strong that included members Ralph Abernathy and Jane Fonda, who decided to protest on the Las Vegas Strip, defying the Vegas mob, and storming into the infamous Caesars Palace, shutting it down until the government took notice.

Sen. Harry Reid, in white shirt, speaks with Ruby Duncan while campaigning at a block party in Las Vegas Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010.

Even then, Duncan and the women never stopped fighting, nor did they play victim. If the government refused to help them, they would band together to help themselves and the community. Forming Operation Life, it became one of the first women-led community corporations in the nation, bringing medical services and gainful employment.

“Women are always the backbone of these movements but women of color [are often] excluded from the White feminist movements as well. [Storming Caesars Palace] confronts both racism and sexism at the same time. I was born in Colombia in Bogota, and I am an adoptee. I was born to a 16-year-old girl who couldn’t keep me, for one reason or another, and with the privilege I have, because I was lucky enough to be adopted by a family of means in the U.S. I feel a responsibility and a duty to be able to really uplift the stories of women of mothers particularly of color who are fighting for their children fighting for their families and that are really fighting these systemic barriers in order to do that.”

I just thought this film was such an important story that it just had to be told. It was shocking to me. I didn’t know the story. I was shocked this whole story was kind of a footnote of history. We see Stacey Abrams [and] black women leaders today all standing on the shoulders of people before them and I think it’s important to realize this isn’t sort of a flash in the pan, there’s a history, there’s a legacy of black women leaders who have been on the ground doing the work for generations for all time. This is a story people don’t know and they should and it’s a great opportunity to spotlight the visionary work of low-income mothers who are often ridiculed, stigmatized and treated badly by other people. It’s important we reframe that narrative and reveal who are the important leaders in this country.”

To learn more about Storming Caesars Palace, check out the full interview in the video above.

Related posts

Exclusive Clip – Beacon 23 Season 2 Episode 2 Sees Harmony Questioned for Her Actions

Dana Abercrombie

John Baker Doesn’t Believe in Aliens but Could That Change in Upcoming Resident Alien Episodes?

Dana Abercrombie

Kaylayla Raine’s Resident Alien Reflects on Jay’s Complicated Relationship with Asta

Dana Abercrombie