‘Which side are you on?’: Poor People’s Campaign pressures US Senate on democracy and justice

“Democracy versus autocracy is the battle of our time,” said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II.

SOURCECommon Dreams
Participants hold "Don't Filibuster" banners during the Poor People's Campaign news conference in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on July 12, 2021, to announce a season of nonviolent direct action. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Beginning with a “massive national call-in to every U.S. senator,” the Poor People’s Campaign on Monday launched a monthlong campaign to push Congress to eliminate the 60-vote filibuster, pass the For the People Act, restore the gutted Voting Rights Act, and raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour—progressive goals that have been thwarted by a combination of Republican obstructionism and Democratic acquiescence.

“Democracy versus autocracy is the battle of our time,” Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said Monday during an address that kicked off a “season of nonviolent moral direct action to save our democracy.”

“We must engage and escalate the nonviolent moral struggle and direct action for a Third Reconstruction,” Barber said, calling for the reinvigoration of an egalitarian movement to secure liberty and justice for all by building a true political democracy as well as a social and economic democracy that benefits and empowers the nation’s vast working-class majority.

Joined by dozens of partners, more than 40 state coordinating committees, and thousands of faith leaders, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival gave federal lawmakers a deadline of August 6—the 56th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965—to fulfill their four demands.

Organizers of the campaign encouraged supporters to sign an open letter to members of the Senate and the White House and to call their senators using a digital call tool. The campaign is urging lawmakers to take immediate action to protect U.S. democracy from the GOP’s “massive attacks on voting rights” and to advance “economic justice across the country”

“In the halls of power and our nation’s highest court, wealthy elites with a vested interest in clinging to minority rule are actively undermining American democracy,” reads the open letter.

“The surge of voter participation in 2018 and 2020—including among poor and low-wage voters—created majorities in the House and Senate that claimed to want to move the country forward,” the letter continues. “These majorities, the result of many years of organizing, were built on claims to embrace policies that enjoy overwhelming popular support: federal protection of voting rights, a $15 minimum wage, universal access to healthcare, comprehensive immigration reform, and investment in sustainable infrastructure.”

However, the letter states, “none of these policies have been enacted because of an extremist minority in the Senate who are using the non-constitutional filibuster to block this constitutional and popular mandate to establish justice and provide for the general welfare.”

“When our democracy and the rights and lives of the poor and of low-wage workers are in peril, to talk of compromise with these extremists is morally-indefensible, constitutionally inconsistent, economically insane, and a grave form of political malpractice,” the letter says. “Fifty-one votes were used to place justices on the Supreme Court for life, justices who are now undermining voting rights. Fifty-one votes surely must be used to save and strengthen our democracy.”

Late last month, as Common Dreams reported, Barber and other religious leaders and activists were arrested during a demonstration outside the U.S. Senate building in the wake of the GOP’s filibuster of the For the People Act—a popular bill that would nullify Republican lawmakers’ assault on the franchise and increase ballot access nationwide by establishing minimum electoral standards in every state.

Provisions of the bill, known as S. 1 and H.R. 1, include implementing automatic voter registration, limiting states’ ability to purge voters from the rolls, requiring states to adopt independent redistricting commissions to combat partisan gerrymandering, setting up a publicly financed small-dollar donation matching system for candidates who reject high-dollar contributions, as well as other democratic reforms.

In its present form, the legislative filibuster gives the minority party significant power by requiring 60 votes to pass—or even debate—most bills. Just a simple-majority vote is required to weaken or abolish the filibuster, but Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have publicly refused to reform the anti-democratic rule.

Those two senators—along with several others in the Democratic caucus—also voted against including a $15 minimum wage bill in the coronavirus relief package that President Joe Biden signed into law in March.

The petition calling on lawmakers to abolish the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, fully restore the Voting Rights Act, and increase the hourly wage floor to $15 asks readers: “Which side are you on? Democracy or autocracy? The provisions of the U.S. Constitution or the demands of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?”

“This fight is not just about Black or white,” says the letter. “What we are witnessing are attacks on people of every race, creed, income, gender, sexuality, ability, and identity.”

“The battle to suppress the vote is a tool of wealth distribution upward,” the letter adds, connecting the battle against autocracy to the battle against oligarchy.

During his speech, Barber stressed that “it’s time to make ending poverty a top legislative priority,” arguing that many people across the country don’t have an accurate understanding of the extent and consequences of economic deprivation due to the government’s inadequate measurements of the problem.

Referring to the need “to guarantee quality healthcare for everybody and universal single-payer healthcare,” Barber was emphatic: “It’s time,” he said. “Past time!”

“It’s time to guarantee and protect and extend voting rights,” Barber said, emphasizing the need to “expand democratic participation” in the face of the “recent flood of voter suppression laws” passed by Republican lawmakers at the state level.

In addition to trying to restrict millions of Americans’ access to the ballot, right-wing lawmakers have also been attempting to repress progressive demonstrations by preemptively criminalizing anti-police brutality and anti-fossil fuel pipeline protests.

The Poor People’s Campaign has noticed the GOP’s growing authoritarianism, with Barber calling for protecting “the constitutional right of assembly and free speech.” 

Barber also advocated for ensuring that social welfare legislation passed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, including food and housing security programs that he said improved the living conditions of 140 million people, be “extended and made permanent.” 

“It’s time,” Barber added, “to fully protect undocumented people, who even in this pandemic worked to serve this nation. It’s time to raise the minimum wage to a living wage of $15. It’s time to guarantee the right to form and join unions.”

The co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign went on to list additional policies that he said congressional Democrats and the Biden administration—given a mandate for change by voters who handed the party unified control of the federal government’s legislative and executive branches—should enact, including a repeal of the 2017 tax cuts and the implementation of “fair taxes on corporations.”

“All of those who fight against these things,” said Barber, “are the ones supporting the greed and supporting the takeover of our democratic processes.”

According to the campaign’s open letter, “The time is now for a resurrection of nonviolent moral direct action, not an insurrection of immoral violence.”

“The purpose of this season of action,” the campaign notes, “is to strengthen the resolve of our allies to stand up against these injustices and to challenge the capitulation and inaction of those who have proven themselves to be adversarial to voting rights, economic justice, and the very foundations of our democracy.”

Outlining upcoming “Moral Monday” direct actions, organizers at the Poor People’s Campaign invited “all people who believe in justice and democracy to join us in this critical moment in history to save the soul and the body of this nation.”


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