Millions of people joined in the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington on June 20. We did not stand shoulder to shoulder, but we did stand together.
It was an online event, also broadcast on MSNBC and CSPAN, that achieved something rare, powerful, wise, and morally right: we listened to poor and near-poor people from across our nation. They told us about their constant struggles to secure habitable housing, clean water, adequate food, a job at a fair wage, and health care. They told of their determination to fight for something better. They were organizers for the Poor People’s Campaign, for labor unions, and for community organizations.
Over three hours, people tied together the “interlocking injustices” of systemic racism, ecological devastation, poverty, militarism, and a “distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.” And they did it by recounting how these injustices had played out in their lives.
Their eyes are open. They would “no longer buy into the narrative that poverty is my fault.” They see the massive misdirection of wealth to a tiny few while 140 million poor and low-income people struggle to get by. They recognize that voter suppression “destroys the dreams of ordinary Americans who are extraordinary in their possibilities.”
In their own lives and in their communities, they live with and fight against the scourges of police violence, racism, crippling debt, low wages, no benefits. Even in “good times,” inequity meant little of the “good” got to the 140 million. Now in pandemic bad times, the cost of dividing us by race, immigrant status, disability, or gender identity is laid bare, and it is just too high.
The Poor People’s Campaign, co-led by Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, has traveled across the country, holding town halls before the coronavirus made in-person gatherings unsafe, and drew upon the wisdom and determination of thousands of people who had experienced homelessness, lead-poisoned water, mass incarceration, inadequate schools, low pay, and disproportionate sickness and disability. The crucial lesson they taught themselves and are teaching the nation: it does not have to be this way.
Repeated at times throughout the event: “Somebody is hurting our people. It has gone on far too long. We won’t be silent anymore.” That is, the hurt is not just inevitably occurring. It is being carried out by people to serve institutions that preserve wealth and power. These institutions have been built over centuries, so the fight to dislodge their stranglehold on low-income people is hard. No more silence means fighting back.
We heard from Curtis Bradford, formerly homeless, sick and addicted, now living in an SRO, who got health insurance for the first time in his 50’s. Terrence Wise earns $9/hour, and told us he has not seen a doctor or dentist in the past 18 years. He is active in the Fight for $15. Stanley Sturgill worked in coal mines for 40 years and got black lung disease, but had to fight 7 years to get a settlement from the company.
We heard from people who had been incarcerated, from teachers seeing inadequate investment in education, and from a mother with lead-poisoned children from the contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. They told us that one military contract could pay for expanding Medicaid in 14 states, and that 700 people were dying every day from poverty – and that was before the pandemic struck.
They quoted author and activist Brittney Cooper, who paraphrased Frederick Douglass to “power concedes nothing without an organized demand.”
The Poor People’s Campaign is organizing. It is made up of over 40 state coordinating committees and partners with hundreds of faith, labor and other national organizations. It planned the June 20 event – originally scheduled as a rally in Washington, DC – well before COVID-19, and well before the rising up over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The Poor People’s Campaign, and the very interrelated efforts against police violence and systemic racism, share the need for sustainability.
What You Can Do
The Coalition on Human Needs was one of many organizations co-sponsoring the June 20 event. If you’d like to listen and learn from low-income people, you can watch the recording.
At that same site, you can join more than 300,000 people who contacted their members of Congress to call for support for the Poor People’s Campaign’s policy agenda. To read their Poor People’s Moral Justice Jubilee Policy Platform, click here. The changes our nation badly needs starts with heeding the voices of the poor.
This piece was originally published on the Coalition on Human Needs website on June 25.
Just Harvest is on the steering committee of the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign. To be a part of the PA campaign, contact our policy advocate, Ann Sanders, at firstname.lastname@example.org or email email@example.com.