Special report: In the streets with the New Poor People’s Campaign against racism and poverty

Campaign organizers around 100 others were arrested for protesting a Supreme Court ruling that dealt a major setback to voting rights by upholding Ohio’s controversial voter purge law.

SOURCEDemocracy Now!

Demonstrators descended on Washington Monday in the latest protest staged by the new Poor People’s Campaign, which organizers say is the most expansive wave of nonviolent direct action in the U.S. this century. Campaign organizers Reverends William Barber and Liz Theoharis and around 100 others were arrested for protesting a Supreme Court ruling that dealt a major setback to voting rights by upholding Ohio’s controversial voter purge law. At least 300 people were arrested nationwide. Nearly 2,000 people have been arrested around the country since the campaign launched, 50 years after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. launched the first Poor People’s Campaign. Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman and Carla Wills were in the streets of Washington, D.C., covering the action.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday in Washington, D.C., nine religious leaders were arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court. They were handcuffed for five hours, had their religious vestments ripped off them, then jailed overnight in cells with cockroaches. They were then brought into court in ankle irons.

The religious leaders were among a hundred people arrested in Washington, D.C., as part of a national day of action for the new Poor People’s Campaign protesting poverty and racism. Over the past five weeks, nearly 2,000 people have been arrested in what organizers describe as the most expensive wave of nonviolent direct action this century. The Reverends William Barber and Liz Theoharis are leading the protests, 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. launched the first Poor People’s Campaign.

Court Voting Police Protests Labor U.S. Labor ProteMonday’s protest came just hours after the Supreme Court dealt a major setback to voting rights by upholding Ohio’s controversial voter purge law. Democracy Now! was on the streets of Washington, D.C., covering the action.

PROTESTERS: Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call of Moral Revival!

REV. LIZ THEOHARIS: Historians are telling us that, five weeks in, we already have the largest wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in the 21st century. Already. And we’re just starting. This is just the launch. This is just the beginning.

PROTESTER: That’s right. That’s right.

REV. LIZ THEOHARIS: And we have, today, with us here, others that will be joining us in zone 10, when we start to rally, and across the country. We have all kinds of folks. We have workers that have been locked out of where they’re supposed to work, because they’re standing up for higher wages.

PROTESTER: That’s right.

REV. LIZ THEOHARIS: We have homeless folks whose encampments have been destroyed, but who are coming to stand up for justice. We have people who have died, that we’re standing up for still today, because they could never access affordable housing. When this country could build prefab housing in 45 minutes –

PROTESTER: That’s right.

REV. LIZ THEOHARIS:  – people are dying without housing.

PROTESTER: That’s right.

REV. LIZ THEOHARIS: There are 62 million people that make less than a living wage. But there are 400 people that make $97,000 an hour.

PROTESTER: That ain’t right.

REV. LIZ THEOHARIS: That is insane. That is immoral. That is unjust.

PROTESTER: That’s right.

REV. LIZ THEOHARIS: But we’re here.

PROTESTER: That’s right.

PROTESTER: Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival!

ASHELY LITTLE: My name is Ashely Little. I’m from Richmond, Virginia. And why I’m here, because I’m part of the Poor People’s Campaign, with also Fight for $15. It’s kind of opened my eyes, because I was making $7.35 at McDonald’s, and I was working full-time hours. So, when I got with Fight for $15, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I want $15, I want Medicaid, I want this, I want that.” And it got me fired up, where it’s like I want to keep going. And so, I’ve been – now, as I switch jobs to Wendy’s, it’s like I’m still going to fight, because I’m still not making what I want to make. And there’s people that’s making 10 – $9, $10 and still, “Oh, I’m making good money.” No, you’re still poor. Like, you’re still struggling.

PROTESTER: Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival!

KATRICE JOHNSON: OK. My name’s Katrice Johnson. I’m a D.C. resident. I currently work at Ronald Reagan Airport. Many of these people that I’ve worked alongside, they have families. And if you don’t ask them their story, you’ll never know. A lot of them are suffering from like depression. And, you know, it’s hard, because you’re living paycheck to paycheck, and you’re trying to put food and things on the table for yourself as well as your children. It gets hard. And many of them have like two, maybe three, jobs that they’re working. And I see the tiredness that be on their face.

PROTESTER: Campaña por la Gente Pobre.

ISATA JALLOH: My name is Isata Jalloh. I came here because of – we need a union. I work in the airport, Dulles Airport. My company name is Huntleigh Corporation. We’re pushing wheelchairs to help the old people. I got fired from my job. I worked there almost 14 years, from 2004. They said that we are participating with the union, because they don’t like the union. And we like the union because of disadvantage, disrespect, you know? They feel like we are Africans, so they don’t respect me. They don’t have no regard for me. You see? So they treat me any way they want to do. So that one is not good. We are all the same, you see? We are all human being, you see? So that’s why. I will cry because of advantage, the disrespect, you know? It’s not good for me, you see?

PROTESTER: Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival!

PROTESTER: Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival!

VALERIE BLAKELY: My name is Valerie Blakely. I’m from Detroit, Michigan. And I came because I believe the Poor People’s Campaign is going to bring about great change. Forty percent of Detroiters live below the poverty line. And when wages and money isn’t – you know, like that you don’t have access to that, but the price of water and your basic needs, like electricity and things, are going up, and you don’t have – you can’t make your ends meet. I live in a neighborhood that was shut off all at one time. Three-block radius, we all got shut off. That’s endemic poverty, where people – and that happened all over the city. They would send two guys in a truck and shut off water for whole neighborhoods.

PROTESTER: Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival!

JAIME CONTRERAS: I’m Jaime Contreras. I’m the vice president for SEIU 32BJ. It’s sad that in this country you have 400 people making $97,000 an hour, when you have, you know, people who clean airports, the wheelchair attendants and skycaps, working for tip wages and unreliable tips, working two and three jobs at the airports. We’re hoping that this is going to bring to light the huge income inequality in this country, but not just that, but also like, you know, structural racism and systematic racism, the war economy, wage equality for women. That’s what this campaign is all about, and that’s why 32BJ is part of it.

YARA ALLEN: If your voice trembles, sing it. If you’re crying, sing it. Sing your song.

PROTESTER: That’s right.

YARA ALLEN: My name is Yara Allen, and I am from Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I am director of cultural arts with Repairers of the Breach. Music is so important because it is actually the heartbeat. It is the life’s blood of the movement. And a lot of people are drawn to movements by the music. You know, I’ve encountered several people who said, when we were doing our Moral Mondays in North Carolina, “I heard the music.” Once they’re there, they actually hear this message. So, this particular song, by Dr. Jimmy Collier, Mr. Jimmy Collier, it goes, [singing] ”Everybody’s got a right to live / Everybody’s got a right to live / And before this campaign fails / We’ll all go down to jail / Everybody’s got a right to live.”

REV. GRAYLAN HAGLER: I’m Reverend Graylan Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you doing today?

REV. GRAYLAN HAGLER: Well, I’ve been here continuously supporting the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call to Moral Revival, to lift up the various issues, because it’s clear that we’ve got to change the narrative of this country, change the discussion in this country, that really deals with the issues that so many of us are concerned about and feel that it’s at a crisis proportion, such as what’s going on in terms of voter suppression, what’s going on all around the country in terms of economic issues, the kind of xenophobia that seems to almost be an accepted quality in political language. We’re here to challenge that. We’re here to continue to challenge that kind of rhetoric and that kind of dialogue, and create one that is open and one that’s inclusive.

AMY GOODMAN: The Poor People’s Campaign is not a new name, echoes back 50 years to Dr. King. Can you talk about that and your activism then?

REV. GRAYLAN HAGLER: Right. I mean, it’s important to remember, because people – I see people in media saying, “Oh, the new Poor People’s Campaign.” Well, this is a continuation of who we are, where we’ve been, the kinds of things that really, historically, were on the table, because we’re dealing with Martin King 50 years ago, who – when he was assassinated, there was unfinished business. It rained and rained, like it’s been raining here, and basically washed away Resurrection City. But we’re here today to say that this is a continued issue, that we need to continue to press, 50 years later, until it becomes clear that this country needs a new set of values.

PROTESTERS: [singing] Everybody’s got a right to love / And before this campaign fails / We’ll all go down to jail.

AMY JO HUTCHISON: My name is Amy Jo, and I’m from West Virginia. Yeah. West Virginia, we have one of the nation’s highest poverty rates. My children – I have two daughters in West Virginia. My daughters have a greater chance of dying of a drug overdose than they do from graduating from high school.

PROTESTERS: Shame! Shame!

AMY JO HUTCHISON: It is a shame. So, my mom was widowed in the ’70s. And if there was one song in my childhood that kept playing all the time, it was “Get an Education, Amy Jo. Get an education, because you shouldn’t have to work this hard.” I want everyone here to think for a minute about the poor West Virginia students who were at these colleges, who have seen a tuition increase over the past 15 years from 120 to 140 percent for in-state tuition. I want you to take just a minute to think about the West Virginia students who have to visit the food pantries on campus, and that there is a reason for there to be food pantries on college campuses in West Virginia.

JOSHUA ARMSTEAD: Good afternoon, brothers, sisters, comrades. My name is Josh Armstead. I’m the vice president of UNTE HERE Local 23 for the DMV. I’m also, more importantly, a shop steward for Georgetown University, a strong union shop. I’ve lived here in D.C. all my life. It is expensive to be poor in the nation’s capital. It is something that you cannot live with. And I’m glad I got into a union, because now I’m able to actually see the benefits of standing together and actually being able to inspire others to stand together.

I’m here today in front of the Capitol with the Poor People’s Campaign and my union and other unions to show solidarity to the working-class people here in America, and also to tell the millionaires and the billionaires in this country that organized labor is not dead. We are growing.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you getting arrested today?



JOSHUA ARMSTEAD: Because it is time to take a stand and to send the message that we are willing to risk our lives, not only inside our shops, inside our workplaces, but also on the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about “right to work.” What did you say?

JOSHUA ARMSTEAD: I talked about “right to work” because it is a racist stratagem to divide working-class people in this country. It was made by millionaires and billionaires who wanted to divide black and white workers, who – they wanted to keep wages down. We need to build up our collective power again. And we need to realize that racism and capitalism are intertwined in this country. And they – it is the reason why we have wages that are so low. It’s the reason why, near the White House, we have homeless people sleeping at McPherson Square. We need to come together and realize the game that is being played in this country, and we need to flip the board.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell me your own personal story, how you got involved with the union?

JOSHUA ARMSTEAD: I got involved with the union because I saw my mother, growing up, struggle. I didn’t ever want to be that way. I didn’t ever want to live that way. So when I got to Georgetown, I joined the union. And I became involved as committee. I talked to my co-workers. And we fought against the third-largest food service corporation on the planet, Aramark. And we won that contract. And because of that victory, I’m able to see. I didn’t get a chance to say that on the stage. But I’m able to see, because we’ve got union healthcare in a union contract.

REV. LIZ THEOHARIS: Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, the Reverend Dr. William Barber.



REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: “Treating people.”

PROTESTERS: Treating people!

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: “Like things.”

PROTESTERS: Like things!

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: “And corporations.”

PROTESTERS: And corporations!

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: “Like people.”

PROTESTERS: Like people!

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: You saw the rabbi, the imam and the Christian minister standing together in solidarity. Something’s happening.

And on this campaign, we also believe in something Dr. King and many others talked about, and that is a basic guaranteed income. If we – if banks are too big to fail, then people are too important to fail. People should not be dying on our streets in the richest nation in the world. And we know that not paying a people a living wage and undermining union rights and cutting social safety nets for the poor in this country, the wealthiest country in the nation in terms of money, is unconscionable. It is a moral sin. And it is a violation of our Constitution’s promise to establish justice, when we have these realities of 250,000 people dying.

And I know today some say, “Well, we’ve stood out here an hour.” But imagine what – living all day outside for 24 hours. Imagine having to worry about healthcare 24 hours a day. Imagine working at a job that doesn’t pay you a living wage, day in and day out. Imagine not even having a basic income and not knowing how you’re going to feed your children. We have to have a people in this country that are willing to stand as long as it takes, and organize as long as it takes, and fight as long as it takes.

When the Supreme Court handed down today a 5-4 decision that begins to take us backwards on voting rights – and they’re expecting one on labor rights – and we are seeing happening in this country now what we haven’t seen since 1883, when the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875, it is unconscionable. It is a moral sin. It is a violation of the promises to establish justice.

This weekend, I heard a Trump adviser say that there was a special place in hell for those who challenge Trump on trade. Well, I don’t usually talk a lot about hell, but let me tell you what the Bible actually says about hell and special places, since he brought it up. James, chapter 5 says that – ”a final word to you arrogant rich: Take some lessons in crying. You’ll need buckets of tears when the crash comes upon you. Your money is corrupt. Your fine clothes stinks. Your greedy luxuries are a cancer in the gut of your nation. And it’s destroying you from life – your life from within. You thought you were piling up wealth, but what you have actually piled up is judgment. Why? Because of all the workers you have exploited.” That’s in the Bible, y’all.

Because of all the workers you have exploited and all the workers you have cheated, now your nation stands in judgment. The groans of the workers you used and abused are roaring in the ears of God, who is a master avenger. You have looted it up on Earth, you’ve lived it up on Earth, but all of you will have to show for it. And you’ll end up like a corpse if you don’t change. In fact, what you’ve done is condemn and murder perfectly good persons, who stand there and take it.

You want to talk about a special place. There’s a special place anytime politicians get up in the morning, and all they can think to do is take people’s healthcare. Oh, there’s a special place, whenever folk get up in the morning and all they can think of is how to block living wages and take care from the poor and the least of these.

And that’s why, if we really love this nation and the people of this nation, we must have mass, nonviolent, fusion, moral civil disobedience. We must have mass voter mobilization. And we must have mass power building among the poor. And we must not stop until things change!

I come to tell you, as a preacher who has studied all the comparative religions, that what we’re seeing today is not just left policies and right policies, and conservative policies and liberal policies. In the theological tradition, it is sin. It is a form of wickedness when the greedy take and take and take and take from the needy and the poor. Now, I didn’t use the word “wickedness.” Nancy, help me, Rabbi. Where’s my rabbi? I wasn’t the one that used it. But since these people always want to bring preachers up here to bless their unjust action, and they got Bibles all over the Capitol, and they’re always putting their hand on the Bible when they get ready to swear themselves into office, well, you have messed up now, because you’ve got some folk in the movement that know what the Bible really says.

This is in the Bible: Stop blaming the poor! Stop playing religion and quoting creeds! If you didn’t mean what’s in the Constitution, you shouldn’t have written it! Loose the bands of wickedness! Stop lying and saying America doesn’t have enough resources! If you can find a $2 trillion tax cut, you can find the resources for everybody to have healthcare and have a living wage.

And so, if we want this nation to be seen as good in the sight of God, as good in the sight of the divine spirit, then we’ve got to cry loud and spare not. We’ve got to be a part of breaking these bands of wickedness, injustice and racism and systemic policies that drive poverty. We have to set the nation free.

And I heard a friend of mine. He’s dead, but I heard him in a book. He was gay. He’s a powerful brother. And he said something like this in the 1930s, in the middle of traumatic times, that still has relevancy today to us:

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every person is free.
The land that is mine – the poor man’s, the Indian’s, the Negro’s, ME –
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Talk, Langston! Sure!

Sure! – Langston Hughes said – call me any ugly name you choose –
But the steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America! America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
That America will be!

Is there anybody out there that will declare, right here and right now, that I’m going to do everything in my power to make America what it ought to be? Make America what it ought to be! Make America what it ought to be!

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Barber, can you tell us what you’re about to do?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, we’re about now to do an act of moral fusion civil disobedience. We’ve been five weeks straight. Right now this is happening all over the East Coast. Next hour, it’ll happen in the Central area, then out West. Our focus today is on labor and poverty and living wages and guaranteed incomes. We believe we’ve got to shift the narrative of this country. And the only way we can do it is people have got to put their lives and their bodies on the line. You have preachers and poor people and impacted people who are in these lines. And we’re willing now to engage in an act of moral civil disobedience to drive home what is going on. We believe that injustice is happening in the halls of Congress and in the halls of state capitols around this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are you planning to be arrested in front of today?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, I can’t say just yet. But I can say that we’re headed toward the Capitol and toward the street, because what we’re saying is we’re going in the streets to say we have to stop, because this country is going in the wrong direction.

The bottom line is, when we look at poverty, there are 140 million people living in poverty and low wealth. We have more poverty today than we had in ’68. We’re spending more money on war today than we spent in ’68, the height of the Vietnam War. What—he was killed. The movement didn’t end, it was assassinated.

And that’s why Dr. Liz Theoharis, myself and others have said we have to re-engage it, but in exactly the same way. They came to D.C. We’re all over the country. And we’re launching a movement, not ending a movement. And we’re building coalitions of people of every race, creed, color and sexuality, who say we’re going to build a multiyear campaign to change the narrative, to shift the voting in this country, voter mobilization, and to be a power from among the poor. So, we’re inspired by Dr. King and others. But what we also know is this is not a commemoration, because the last thing you do with a prophetic movement is commemorate it. What you have to do is reach down in the blood, pick it up and re-engage it. And that’s what this is.

PROTESTERS: I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!

AMY GOODMAN: The Reverend William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, speaking on Monday. He was joined in Washington by labor leaders, the Fight for $15 campaign – that’s $15 an hour. After the rally, Reverend Barber led the protesters from the Capitol to the street in front of the Supreme Court, where about a hundred of them were arrested.


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