Poor People’s Campaign readies ‘massive, nonviolent’ effort to save democracy

"The path to electoral victory in this country goes through the 140 million poor and low-income people."

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SOURCECommon Dreams
Demonstrators gather for the Moral March on Manchin and McConnell, a rally held by the Poor People's Campaign, outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on June 23, 2021. (Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Don’t call it a day of action.

On June 18, the Poor People’s Campaign and its partners in organized labor, the civil rights movement, and religious communities are planning to mobilize their members and allies from across the U.S. to Washington, D.C. for what they hope will be the “largest mass assembly of poor people and low-wage workers in this nation’s history.”

But Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, cautioned against viewing the impending “massive, nonviolent” march on the nation’s capital as a singular event, one whose energy and demands will fade as soon as that June Saturday ends.

“The Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls is not just a day of action,” Barber said during a press call on Friday. “It is a declaration that we won’t be silent anymore. It is the declaration of an ongoing, committed, nonviolent, truth-telling, multiracial, interfaith moral movement.”

“We will shift the moral narrative,” he added. “We will build and mobilize political voting power. We will utilize, where necessary, nonviolent civil disobedience… We’re trying to help this nation save itself.”

The product of months of organizing, the Poor People’s Campaign’s ambitious effort comes at a perilous moment for U.S. democracy. Across the nation, Republican-dominated state legislatures are ramming through voter suppression bills at an alarming clip and rigging district maps in a bid to tighten their stranglehold on power.

Far-right loyalists to former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, have trained their sights on secretary of state posts in key battlegrounds, an effort to seize control over the electoral process to ensure it works in their favor. In a number of states, Republican lawmakers and functionaries are also working to take over local election boards, further compromising nominally independent institutions.

Yet despite their warnings that such machinations pose an existential threat to the democratic process, Democrats at the federal level have thus far been unable—and, in the case of some individual members of the majority party, unwilling—to eliminate the 60-vote filibuster and pass legislation that would thwart the GOP’s sweeping campaign of disenfranchisement.

Facing long odds due to the opposition of every Senate Republican, Democrats on Tuesday are expected to try to advance legislation that combines the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, two bills that fallen victim to relentless GOP obstruction.

If Senate Republicans filibuster the legislation again, Democratic leaders are vowing to press for Senate rule changes—and effort that is also likely to fail thanks to Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), outspoken defenders of the 60-vote filibuster.

The long-shot Democratic push on voting rights will come a day after the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., who helped launch the original Poor People’s Campaign shortly before his assassination in 1968. During the Friday press call, members and leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign explicitly invoked that chapter of King’s legacy as inspiration for their burgeoning protest movement.

“As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said when he was calling for a Poor People’s Campaign, ‘There is a fire raging for the poor of this society. They are living in tragic conditions because of the terrible economic injustices that keep them locked in,'” said Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, another co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.

“Our democracy is on its deathbed,” Theoharis continued. “People are dying from poverty and inequality. The earth is on fire. So we’re signing up ambulance drivers, we’re running through the red lights of closed polling places and redistricting and all forms of voter suppression.”

Denita Jones, a member of the Texas Poor People’s Campaign, added that political elites “have destroyed this nation’s land, sea, air, and water, and now you have turned your sights on the people.”

“For what? To enrich corporations?” Jones added. “Gone are the days that you tell us there is not enough… It’s time to decide now, which side are you on? June 18, 2022 in Washington, D.C., that is your deadline.”

The central objective of the June 18 mobilization—and the organizing work done both before and after—is to harness the power of tens of millions of people across the U.S. who have been disproportionately impacted by the intertwined crisis of climate change, skyrocketing inequality, poverty, systemic racism, and mass voter disenfranchisement.

And, of course, the health and economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic has been concentrated among low-wage frontline workers who have been forced to put their safety on the line as corporations rake in record profits and billionaires add to their staggering fortunes.

“The path to electoral victory in this country goes through the 140 million poor and low-income people.”

“Who kept this country running in the last two years? The people on the front lines. The people in the factories, in the warehouses, the first responders, the people delivering groceries and goods to rich people,” said economist Jeffrey Sachs, who’s been tasked with assembling a “pandemic report card” for the Poor People’s Campaign ahead of the June 18 event.

“The rich have gotten so unbelievably rich that we can’t even fathom it,” Sachs continued. “And an absolutely corrupt Congress dominated by millionaires, paid by billionaires… will wreck this country entirely until your voices are heard, registered, and empowered, and that’s what the Poor People’s Campaign is about.”

Last year, Shailly Gupta Barnes, policy director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice, authored a report detailing how the Poor People’s Campaign’s 2020 turnout drive reached more than two million low-income voters in 16 states and contributed to Trump’s defeat in Georgia and other key states.

Writing for Sojourners magazine earlier this week, Barnes noted that “our findings offer a path toward realizing the nation we have yet to become.”

“Policies that would improve the lives of poor and low-income people—around living wages, child care, paid leave, affordable healthcare, debt relief, clean air and water, safe communities, and more—are widely popular but far from fully implemented,” Barnes wrote. “Poor and low-income voters have been largely ignored in electoral politics, but according to this data, they could make the difference in the 2022 midterm elections.”

“Let this be a lesson to all,” she continued. “The path to electoral victory in this country goes through the 140 million poor and low-income people—ignoring them is impossible.”

Poor People's Campaign graphic

June 18 will hardly mark a departure in message or tactics for the Poor People’s Campaign, whose members, leaders, and supporters have repeatedly put their bodies on the line and faced arrest in recent years for demanding an end to the filibuster, poverty, voter suppression, and other injustices that—as Barber argued Friday—”America must address simultaneously, not separately.”

“And it must be done with a continuous, long-term, in the streets, in the suites, in the voting booth, in the pulpits movement agenda that brings together poor and low-wealth people, Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, people from every race, creed, color, region, sexuality,” he said.

“We are not in this for a moment, but for a movement,” Barber continued. “June 18, and everything that leads up to it and after it, will be for the fundamental shifting of the narrative and changing this sickness that we’re seeing in our nation. We are here to say, ‘Our deadline is victory.'”

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