By Alicia Swords
Dedicated to the memory of Pamela Sue Rush from Lowndes County, Alabama, a leader in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival who recently died of COVID-19. At the Poor People’s Moral Congress in June 2018, she told of living with raw sewage in her front yard. She died because she didn’t have adequate resources and health care to meet her needs. As we remember and grieve for Pamela, we lift up the stories of so many in this nation whose survival is threatened.
This reflection builds on interviews I conducted in June and early July, 2020 with Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, Clinton Wright, Rev. Erica Williams and Willie Baptist.
This revolutionary moment
If history had a soundtrack, we’d be in a loud part. It might sound like a red alert on the Starship Enterprise. The cracks in the dam are starting to open. All systems are failing. 140 million people are poor. ICU’s are overwhelmed by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. has a quarter of the world’s more than half a million deaths. Eight to eleven million people are living in tents and cars and sleeping on couches. 44.2 million have filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic. A wave of protests has erupted to defend the lives of Black and brown people against racist killings by state institutions. Schools, universities, childcare, and eldercare are in total turmoil. Our ecology is in chaos. Nestlé pays $200 per year to bottle water in Michigan while in Flint, residents pay for poisoned water and thousands of households have had their water shut off.
These symptoms reflect conditions brewing for a long time, as wages for working people have stagnated since the mid-70s even while the economy has kept growing. In the U.S., we are working more hours, buying cheaper things, more in debt than ever, and any savings we may have had is spent. The safety net built by struggles of past generations is torn to shreds. There’s competition among capitalists to automate jobs of all kinds and reduce labor costs as much as possible. There are competing visions, most involving big data, artificial intelligence, some forms of supposedly green energy, but all require intensified violence against the poor and dispossessed. Prisons, opioids and militarized police are some of the weapons in this battle. And then, the U.S. government and the Federal Reserve handed over trillions of dollars to corporations.
And it’s about to get a lot worse. Homelessness is about to spike because 20 million people face eviction as eviction bans end. Along with evictions, we should anticipate water shut-offs and bills coming due just as people are let go from their jobs, or, as Rev. Erica Williams explained, come August and September, “we’re going to see shit hit the fan…It’s gonna get really heavy.”
This is a red alert.
If you study the top ruling class think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), you’ll notice that the ruling class is trembling about the demise of the current world order. COVID-19 is pronounced a key threat to the U.S.-led international order; Trump’s foreign policy is nicknamed the “Withdrawal Doctrine,” and climate change is called a “ballooning market for advanced energy products.” Search results for “poverty” on their website are dominated by headlines about other continents, except for one piece on cash transfer programs. CFR thought leaders including Richard Haass, Jeffrey Sachs and Anne-Marie Slaughter have written books to tell us how to study history and make sense of this moment, and it’s not about times when the dispossessed have gotten together.
But unlike the Starship Enterprise, we aren’t waiting for a spandexed captain and crew to rescue us. Instead, our bets are on uniting the poor and dispossessed to build a movement.
%$@#! We’re actually doing this!
I was shaking as I watched the livestream of the June 20 Poor People’s Mass Assembly and Moral March on Washington. I was almost giddy as it began. Then I cried with the testimonies of Callie Greer, who lost her daughter because she couldn’t get treated for breast cancer; Amy Jo Hutchinson, who is treating her own illnesses with essential oils and prayer; Terrence Wise, the fast-food worker who lived in his minivan with his partner and three daughters, and so many more. Feelings surged like a tide. At some point, I stopped and noticed that the movement we’ve been calling forth for decades is actually happening.
I thought back to the first movement meeting I attended in Philadelphia in 2001. I remembered meeting fellow organizers and leaders including Liz Theoharis and Willie Baptist who said, “Let’s not be like ships passing in the night.” There were years of meetings, readings, study groups, phone calls, emails, leadership schools, reality tours, conference calls, Google+ and later Zoom. We gained many comrades and lost some along the way. Buried some and parted ways with others. Wept a lot. Some were in utero early on and are now adults.
I am one of many who took part in the Poverty Scholars Program of the Poverty Initiative and the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary. We’d study, meet, learn, and go home better equipped to deal with the political and economic realities in our communities. I teach sociology at Ithaca College. Even at a private college, students struggle with hunger, homelessness, poverty, health and mental health. They graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of debt into an economy where many of the jobs they trained for no longer exist. I work to connect students and organizations in the Southern Tier of New York State with what we call the movement to end poverty. When leaders in our network met Rev. Barber and marched with Moral Mondays, it became clear there could be a marriage of our networks and our potential exploded. We began to lay the groundwork for a national network that could launch the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. I became a member of Campaign in New York State. My daughter was three weeks old at the start of the Forty Days of Action in 2018. We marched in Albany, NY with my parents, aunt and uncle, sister-in-law and niece, along with our movement family.
And then this June 20, 2020, though the pandemic prevented us from marching together, we were together across the country.
The culmination of many, many, many years of organizing
You’ve read the numbers: Our digital event reached more than 2.5 million people via Facebook, plus more via other networks and radio stations. More than 300,000 people sent our demands to their elected officials. We had 525 organizations streaming the program. We saw clear evidence of years of work, relationships, leaders and organizations built, cultivated and united.
According to Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Campaign, the result was “we started to shift the narrative, and for three and a half hours, people heard stories of what’s really going on… not just sad stories, but also people coming together, building power and solutions and demands.” You couldn’t listen without noticing that we are “not alone, and that [we all] are welcome and needed to join and build the Poor People’s Campaign.”
Our people are so powerful, Rev. Liz reminds me, because we have little or nothing to lose. Our people are “homeless or without health care or working low wage jobs or having their kids taken away or having their water shut off.” That means we’re able to make bold, visionary demands that cross lines and bring people together because we face all of these forms of oppression together.
Also, our people are working their tails off. Our co-chairs were in video footage with people giving testimonies around the country. They must have been tired. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for our team to review hundreds of hours of film and then edit it down to three and half hours in which everybody ended up beautiful.
In all of this, we’ve been doing what we said we had to do. June 20 was the culmination of “many, many, many years of organizing and uniting people,” Rev. Liz said. We’re doing leadership development, affirming a core tenet of the University of the Poor that “to build a successful movement we need a core of committed, conscious, capable and connected leaders.” And, Rev. Liz emphasized, “What happened on June 20 was only so because thousands of those leaders in 46 states across the country were playing all different kinds of roles, including movement cultural arts, political education, policy, coming up with the demands, or organizing and uniting amongst the poor and dispossessed.”
Organizing the most disorganized section of the working class
I asked two of the Campaign’s national organizers, Rev. Erica Williams and Clinton Wright, what June 20 meant to them. In state-level work, Clinton noticed the Campaign has grown in our capacity to “hold new people” since the 40 days of action. In 2018, he said, “we were tired… barely ready to hold ourselves. We needed a nap.” Today, with hundreds of people in each state joining the Campaign, we have “much bigger hands, catching new people.” We are very close to having the Campaign in 50 states.
In Portland, Maine, a coalition between Black Lives Matter and the Campaign has called for eliminating the city manager, an unelected position created in the 1920s and representing the KKK’s role in racial terror. The Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign pushed the state house to remove the Confederate flag symbol from their state flag.
Rev. Erica lifted up the organizing in Kansas where people came together to get more polling places in Dodge City where the primarily Latinx community has faced voter suppression. They fought for Medicaid expansion and challenged employers who refused to give them sick pay when they contracted COVID-19. Erica said, “People have come together like never before.”
In North Carolina, the recent uprisings have galvanized a new group of young, queer people of color calling themselves #NCBORN. With daily protests, including an encampment across the street from the governor’s mansions, youth leaders have gained clarity as they won removal of three confederate monuments and demanded the veto of Senate Bill 168, which would have made private the death records of public institutions. NC Raise Up (the Fight for $15 in Durham), NC Poor People’s Campaign and Carolina Jews for Justice are collaborating on a new survival project called Fed Up. With distributions in three counties of 800 to 1000 boxes of produce from local farms owned or led by people of color, they have brought 500 new people into the project in the last two months.
Another highlight is the work of the Deaf PPC, a new grouping within the Campaign that formed in January and organizes in American Sign Language (ASL). June 20 served as a focal point for Deaf PPC with dozens of Deaf leaders working to deepen relationships and expand their reach to thousands of people in the Deaf Community through workshops and discussion about the PPC, vlogs in ASL, increased social media presence and outreach. Core leaders came out of June 20 more clear, connected and committed to building the PPC and DPPC.
Though not directly connected to June 20, another way our networks are connecting since March 2020 is through the Freedom Church of the Poor, led by the Reading the Bible with the Poor cohort of the Kairos Center. Dozens have gathered in weekly services on Zoom to read the Bible as a history of the struggles of the poor. Services have reached two to three thousand views on Facebook, and every week draws on the prophetic voices of poor people organizing around the country.
These examples suggest our networks are practicing the kind of leadership development and organization across lines of division that the University of the Poor has been calling for. As conditions get even worse, I have to remind myself that there can be victories even in our defeats. Victories in this phase of movement building are when we develop organization that unites the poor and cultivate leaders who are clear, competent, connected and committed to building a movement to end poverty. As Willie Baptist said, our task is to “translate those songs and rallies into actual organization of the most disorganized section of the working class.”
We are beautiful, brilliant, wise, righteous and fierce
On June 20, I loved seeing the range of people who make up this Campaign that I’m committed to. We are all different shades of black, brown and pink. We are trans, queer gay, lesbian, bi, hetero and lovers of all kinds of people. We are Deaf, deaf-blind, hearing and sighted. We use wheelchairs and canes and all kinds of technologies. We are young and old and in-between. We are gender-queer, women and men. We are workers, unemployed, underemployed. We have short hair, long hair, or no hair. We fit stereotypes and identities but we also bend and blend and defy them. Our family is all different shapes and sizes and our bodies don’t look sculpted or airbrushed. Our faces shone with sweat and tears, not with glitter or fancy lights. We have accents that show that we are from shining seas to lakes to swamps, from barrios to plains, to hills and hollers. We are pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists. We object to any flavor of Christianity that disses the poor. Mostly, we believe in the prophets of our times who speak out against those who are profiting off of our lives and our deaths. We cover for each other, cut each other some slack. We all push really hard when it’s time to, and sometimes we tell each other to rest.
I loved hearing our stories. I found myself surprised that the whole thing followed our narrative. From years of mainstream media, I expected there to be a glitch and suddenly our people wouldn’t be portrayed as beautiful, dignified, righteous prophets. Suddenly, we’d be portrayed as stereotypes, as welfare queens, as lazy or dumb or fanatical. But there we were. The whole three and a half hours. There was Rev. Erica in her bright yellow, the mom of the deaf-blind baby in New Hampshire in a brilliant orange, the beautiful purples that matched Yara Allen’s voice. We are beautiful, brilliant, wise, righteous and fierce.
I loved that although “our digital game has lagged behind our ground game,” as Clinton Wright explained, our people have become digital organizers. June 20 was evidence that we are using digital technologies to advance our strategy. It was homeless leaders who figured out how to broadcast on hundreds of radio stations, so people could tune in free without access to data and the internet. Clinton says, “I’m real proud of our scrappiness. But June 20 wasn’t scrappy. It was beautiful. Our states across the country have a digital game that is prepared to hold our ground game, so when we’re able to hit the ground again and we have all these digital skills, there’s no holding us back.”
A dumb force never rose up and defeated a smart force
As I watched on June 20, I had to ask myself, what were all these celebrities doing on our livestream? Some say they stand with the Poor People’s Campaign. OK, maybe today. But a bunch of them believe in capitalism, don’t they? Did they wake up one day and hear a new calling? Do they actually think poor people know stuff? Do they believe in grassroots movements? Maybe they think we’ll help their causes. They are probably trying to use the Campaign to move some people in their direction, but hey, we’ll try to use them to bring some people in the door so we can move them in our direction. Most other days, celebrities get to be the stars and sing the solos, but on our livestream, they were just singing back-up for the poor people who testified.
We’ve got to know who we’re up against, Willie Baptist says. And we’ve got to analyze the economic conditions to understand the political possibilities. When I asked Willie about June 20, he told me a story from the 1990s about when the Kensington Welfare Rights Union tried to take over a boarded-up welfare office that turned out to be privately owned. The owner was a speculator who was in conflict with the Greater Philadelphia First Corporation, the association of big corporations and medical and educational institutions that dominated the city’s politics, who wanted to build a big convention center. So when KWRU began getting daily news coverage from major media, the revolutionaries among them knew they were being used as a battering ram against this property owner.
Willie explained, “In the same way, the forces we’re up against see the Poor People’s Campaign as a battering ram against and as a force to help contain Trump. And yet they want to make sure we don’t turn against Wall Street or actually unite the poor.”
We need the political dexterity to choose our battles and alliances, and to determine tactics that advance our strategy. Campaign co-chair Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II appears particularly aware of attempts to co-opt the Campaign’s direction for the use of the Democratic Party in the 2020 elections. He addresses that concern directly when he says, “Now this isn’t about conservative versus liberal, that’s too puny. This isn’t about left versus right, that’s too puny. It’s really about life versus death.” He said on June 20 that he is often asked if he got the Campaign’s demands from the Democrats or the Progressives. “No,” he said. “I got it from the Bible…I got it from the prophets of the Jews, Muslims and Christians.” Here Rev. Barber shows an ability to evade the traps set for the Campaign by its political opponents.
All hands on deck
Even as we face the “red alerts” of these days and months, let’s take time to celebrate our victories, grieve those we’ve lost, and continue to study together. Our clarity calibrates our compass and will help us gather the crew we need. I want to end with some questions. I’m sure the more work we do, the more questions we’ll have. Someday we’ll have some of the answers, too.
How do we use the study of economic conditions to better understand who we are and who we are up against? What historical periods have parallels to today and lessons that can be useful for our organizing?
How do we turn clicks, views and likes into real revolutionary power? How do we contribute to the development of every person featured on the June 20 live stream into a leader committed for the long haul? How do we build the organizations to hold all the people who are hurting and going to be hurting?
How do we develop the political dexterity to recognize opportunities and potential pitfalls in real time? How do we make sure we don’t set the table for our opponents to eat?
Alicia Swords is a member of the Poor People’s Campaign in New York State and a member of the University of the Poor Journal editorial board. A sociology professor at Ithaca College, she conducts collaborative research with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier.