Unlike the original Poor People’s Campaign headed up (in the days soon after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination) by Ralph David Abernathy, its revival a half-century later is by design not focused on Washington, D.C. As co-organizer Reverend William Barber II (already famed for the Moral Mondays movement he led in North Carolina) told the Los Angeles Times last week, a truly national movement is needed to reverse the many measures against poor people that have intensified in the last several years:
Much of what happens to hurt poor people happens in state capitols, not in the Congress. Healthcare is blocked in state capitols. Voting laws are written in state capitols. Denial of living wages happens in state capitols. Cutting money from public education happens in both federal and state, but so much of it happens at the state level.
And so the new campaign is focused as much on 39 state capitals where its protests have already been organized as on anything in Washington. But to get the ball rolling Barber and his co-chair, Reverend Liz Theoharis, led a protest near the U.S. Capitol which, predictably, got them and others arrested for not moving away from the adjoining streets. According to an emailed news release from the Poor People’s Campaign:
Others arrested included Service Employees International Union Executive Vice President Rocio Sáenz, Women’s March Board Member Linda Sarsour, and Disciples of Christ General Minister and President the Rev. Teresa Hord Owens. The protestors were arrested after taking First Street in front of the U.S. Capitol and refusing to move….
In addition to the protest at the U.S. Capitol, poor people, clergy and advocates are waging nonviolent protests Monday at state capitols from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Jefferson City, Missouri, to Sacramento, California—an unprecedented wave of civil disobedience aimed at transforming the nation’s political, economic and moral structures.
All told, over a thousand protesters were arrested, according to the Campaign. It begins a 40-day cycle in which participants hold weekly mass meetings on Sundays, “direct action” protests on Mondays, and educational “teach-ins” — another ‘60s institution — on Tuesdays.
But the campaign will indeed focus on Washington after the 40 days of protests conclude — with a big event on June 23.
The Poor People’s Campaign’s list of demands is as broad and inclusive as those King and his colleagues advanced in 1968, and then some, ranging from living wages and universal access to health care, the right to vote without harassment, clean drinking water, family-friendly immigration policies and reduced military spending, to an end to mass incarceration and even an expanded definition of poverty to include people struggling to get by. Like the Moral Mondays Movement, this initiative insists on solidarity with LGBTQ folk and directly attacks the religious and moral credentials of the Christian Right.
It’s likely that over the next 40 days and beyond the Poor People’s Campaign will drift in and out of the local and national news. But it will insist on its perspective being heard and seen on the political issues of the day, and will try to act as a burr under the saddle of those in both political parties who would ride right past the most urgent economic and social needs of their country in order to appeal to comfortable donors and voters. A lot has changed for the better in America since 1968, but not enough, and certainly not right now.