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writing for godot

"A New and Unsettling Force"?

Written by lesactivist   
Wednesday, 04 September 2019 11:28

“A New and Unsettling Force”?  Forward Together! At the National Moral Action Congress of the Poor People’s Campaign

When poor people take action together they will do so with a freedom and power that will be a new and unsettling force” – Martin Luther King, 1967

Nearly a thousand people from over 40 states came together in June for the three-day National Moral Action Congress: A Call for a National Moral Revival (MAC) of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign (PPC) to confront the U.S. with the lived experience of those most impacted by what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (MLK) called the “triplets” of evil: systemic racism, economic injustice, and militarism and the war economy, updated with the inclusion of ecological devastation.  Following three years of organizing, and spring 2018’s “40 Days of Action,” which brought many thousands to state capitals for direct action and the largest incidents of civil disobedience this century, this state-based “Moral Fusion” movement revived the 1967-68 PPC, building on the tradition of legendary organizations such as the National Welfare Rights Organization, the National Union of the Homeless, and even the 1868 Fusion Movement in North Carolina.

DAY 1: “Attention Violence”

Not one hour. During the 2016 Presidential debates, no debate focused on poverty.  Candidates love talking about the “middle class,” even “working families.” But in a country where 43.5% of the population–yes, 140 million people, approaching half–are poor or near-poor, ignoring the issue is, in the words of the PPC, “attention violence.”  (Maybe you’ve heard only 40 million are poor; the PPC uses the federal Supplementary Poverty Measure for a more accurate count, including those with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level.)

Perhaps surprising for a movement that eschews taking sides in partisan politics (co-Chair, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, maintains change occurs through mass movements with a moral underpinning, not through the election cycle. “Did you notice we never talk about Trump?”), the PPC challenged the Presidential candidates–all were invited, only nine came–to hear about poverty directly from poor people and to say what they would do to eradicate (not decrease or ameliorate) poverty, using the unprecedented wealth of this country. “Don’t ask us to endorse your candidacy,” they were told, “you endorse and fight for the issues.” Not infrequently, instead of responding to the questions posed by a wide spectrum of PPC grassroots activists, candidates resorted to their pre-packaged speeches.

On the fourth anniversary of the infamous mass shooting at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, former Vice President Joe Biden (who days later would declare “there isn’t a racist bone in my body”) offered zero real solutions to poverty, advocating he’d “ensure every single person has access to Medicaid” (huh?), to fix increasing income disparities, he’ll “eliminate loopholes” and make community college free for everyone.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) provoked excitement among some, claiming she’d worked with the PPC for a long time (apparently limited to helping arrange a Congressional hearing). She pushed her tax plan: after your first $50 million, she’ll take two cents of every dollar after that. Apologetic-sounding, she seemed afraid to be on record threatening the uber-rich. Why 2%, why not 22%? Or 92%?

Judging from the audible response, New Age guru Marianne Williamson impressed at least a few, sounding the most passionate about poverty, endorsing reparations to African Americans, calling for a “moral, political, economic revolution,” and blaming “unfettered capitalism.” She decried providing crumbs, or even a cookie: “all people are made to feast.” However, she lamented, “It’ll take the rest of my lifetime” to make change. Does she think the PPC will wait that long?  In a subsequent profile, The New York Times quoted from one of her books: “Many people fail to manifest money because on some deep level they don’t think they should.” Yeah, right.

Despite instructions to give all candidates the same welcome and to applaud the PPC questioners and not the candidates, a few “whoo’s” escaped when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) appeared. He proclaimed, “You are the answer…there will never be any real change in this country unless there is a political revolution,” advocating bringing people together in a movement. Despite Sanders’ difficulty in assimilating what the PPC sees as the “centrality of systemic racism in maintaining economic oppression,” if any candidate has consistently addressed the PPC agenda, it is he. “Economic rights are human rights,” he declared, sparking a palpable electricity in the room. A few gave a standing ovation, despite the tenet that the PPC is “very political but not partisan,” and “not an adjunct committee to the Democratic Party.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) invoked the example of her activist parents and the parable of the Good Samaritan, referring to the poor, e.g., her audience, as “the least among these.” She waxed passionate about poverty, neglecting to mention her role in aggressively locking up poor people as California’s Attorney General.

After the six-hour candidate marathon, the PPC unveiled its “Moral Budget: Everybody Has the  Right to Live,” created with the Institute for Policy Studies think-tank and Kairos: The Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice of Union Theological Seminary, in the tradition of earlier people’s budgets like the 1966 Freedom Budget proposed by A. Philip Randolph, the legendary labor leader who proposed a March on Washington in 1941, MLK and Bayard Rustin, the (at one time) pacifist and civil rights organizer who played a large role in bringing about the 1968 March on Washington.  It would use the tremendous wealth in the U.S. to fix inequality and eradicate poverty, cutting half of the $668 billion military budget,  eliminating over half of foreign military bases and generating through fair taxation as much as $868 billion per year. However, labor economist Julianne Malveaux criticized a lack of focus on race, stating “We can’t fix poverty until we fix problems with racism” and asking would African Americans get new infrastructure jobs?

DAY 2: “Shift the narrative”

Convening at Trinity Washington University (perhaps itself a tool for fighting poverty, as the alma mater of both Kellyanne Conway and Nancy Pelosi is now a commuter college for working women, largely of color and low-income), it was a day of workshops, to talk together, share experiences and hear analysis and guidance by the co-Chairs Rev. Drs. Barber and Liz Theoharis.  A day to assimilate a shared language, body of knowledge and to experience the kind of serendipitous networking where a participant who’d decades ago spent a month visiting a community health center way up in a Kentucky hollow in Floyd County (due south of where country music superstar Loretta Lynn, “the Coal Miner’s Daughter” hails from) could discover that the grass-roots Mud Creek Clinic had survived as a nonprofit, its workers now organized by SEIU/1199, and that contaminated well water endured by the parasite-plagued community was now largely replaced by potable municipal water. A founder, legendary community organizer Eula Hall, at age 90 still watches over what poor people’s activism has created. Organized labor was present at the Congress, primarily SEIU/1199, CWA, and AFSCME (with its “I AM AFSCME” t-shirts, echoing the “I Am A Man” slogan of the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis). Apparently, some unfriendly media had infiltrated, trying to capture quotes that might be unflattering; participants were warned to be vigilant.

First, Rev. Dr. Barber led participants through details of the 14 steps of the Moral Fusion movement, offering not platitudes but presenting tough challenges. “We are building an organism, not an organization.” He reiterated basic principles, such as challenging the lie that poverty is the fault of the poor when it is the result of structural violence.  Workshop speakers were generally not from academia or the professional nonprofit world, but folks bringing truly grass-roots organizing experience, the perspective of movement insiders, and info on which/how/with whom successes were achieved.

And Rev. Dr. Barber had to rush back to North Carolina to deliver the eulogy for an HIV physician/researcher, long-time activist for health care for the poor, and Moral Mondays stalwart. (Moral Monday/Forward Together Movement is the campaign in North Carolina that gained national attention in 2013 with weekly civil disobedience for Medicaid expansion and against voter suppression that evolved into the present PPC.)  Tragically succumbing during a triathlon event in the Hudson River, Dr. Charlie van der Horst, whom Dr. Barber described as “one of his best friends,” was once part of New York City labor history, too, as an activist in the 1981 Committee of Interns and Residents’ week-long hospital strike for improved patient care.  The strike virtually shut down several hospitals, but the union was broken in the affected voluntary hospitals and never recovered many of its unionized sites.

DAY 3:  “A new and unsettling force”?

On the 154th anniversary of Juneteenth (unfortunately, at the exact same time as the Congressional hearing on reparations for African Americans, which received more press attention), Rev. Drs. Barber and Theoharis, and PPC activists testified before the House Budget Committee ( ).  Alabamian Callie Greer told of her daughter Venus suffering repeated delays in breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and palliation, first due to being uninsured and then by the Medicaid bureaucracy. The PPC calls this “policy murder,” attributing her death to the lack of timely care.  Would Callie Greer’s daughter be alive if the U.S. provided health care to all? Of course, no one can know. But it’s certainly likely.  Breast cancer death rates are 42% higher in Alabama among Black women than white women, and having no insurance or Medicaid puts Black women at higher risk of death.  Frequently overcome by emotion, Greer recounted details such as her daughter waiting two months for home oxygen. (Waiting two minutes might have been uncomfortable but understandable, two hours—torturous, two months—unimaginable.) And to make sure this doesn’t improve Alabama has embraced voter suppression. Kenia Alcocer from East los Angeles testified as to conditions at the Border and the lives of the immigrants she works with in the Union des Vecinos. Savannah Kinsey, a 22-year-old LGBTQ activist with Put People First Pennsylvania, described life in impoverished Johnstown where a poorly-rated hospital pays its CEO $13 million a year and where low life expectancy is illustrated by her losing a 26-year-old friend, the mother of a four-year-old, to the opioid epidemic. Also confronting the legislators was  Chris Overfelt from Veterans for Peace, who discussed the human costs here and abroad of military spending.

It would be hilarious if it weren’t so sick, it: the Republican Congressmen—and they were all (white) men— put on a Saturday Night Live-type parody of themselves, spouting the pernicious myth that poverty is the fault of the poor. “You can be as poor as you want to be or as wealthy as you want to be,” this pearl from Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK), McDonald’s franchiser, whose distaste for poor people seems propelled by hatred of his no-good stepfather.  Who knew, as Rev. Dr. Barber exclaimed, they’d all grown up poor? One by one they described lacking running water, cooking on a pot-bellied stove, doing chores at dawn before school (including what sounds like dangerous child labor), having a mother who worked three or four jobs, being first in their families to go to college.  Yet they all pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, no need for government help, just accepted Jesus into their hearts, and made it to Congress. Poverty comes from having no father in the home, and the deleterious effects of the War on Poverty and present-day safety-net programs.  Even rent regulation (New York called out on that one)! Two Republican testifiers, African American pastors, also blamed promiscuity, teenage pregnancy, the WIC Program and public schools. A successful antipoverty program?  According to Chairman Steve Womack (R-AK) it’s the military. Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) asserted that nowhere in the Bible does it say it’s Caesar’s job to feed the poor, rather it’s the Church’s responsibility, prompting Rev. Dr. Barber to remark that it was interesting the Republicans would define themselves as Caesar.  And “they’re actually proving our point: people shouldn’t have to work three jobs.”

Bringing “the people’s voice to the people’s House,” in the words of Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), is a repudiation of their invisibility in the public discourse.  And the committee learned how to measure poverty. It’s hard to maintain we’re the greatest country on earth if 43.5% of the population is poor.  And to hear once again data establishing that safety-net programs do reduce poverty. Either in support of the PPC message or taking an opportunity to stick it to the Republicans, the Democrats were, to be fair, appreciative, eloquent and on point. Even Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who showed up for the hearing, quoted the signature song of the PPC (“Somebody is hurting our children and it’s gone on far too long…”) and repeated Rev. Dr. MLK’s famous lament what good is the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee. She’d apparently paid attention, using the PPC’s figure of 140 million for the number of poor and low-wealth individuals.  Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) delivered an impassioned and insightful rebuke ridiculing the idea that just because you’re (e.g., Rep. Jason Smith, R-MO) okay that your grandparents died without ever getting running water, it means others should continue to suffer.  “We can’t pray our problems away.” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) declared “poverty is evil” and related that she was the recipient of public assistance and  food stamps, and that she got where she is today because of government assistance. Other Democratic Congresspersons [Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Hakim Jeffries (D-NY), Ro Khanna (D-CA), David Price (D-NC), Joseph Morelle (D-NY), Brendan Boyle (D-PA), and the purple-haired Rosa DeLauro (D-CT)] also were supportive of the PPC testifiers. However, Rev. Drs. Barber and Theoharis decried Congressmembers for not asking the PPC testifiers for solutions and not addressing specific demands in the Moral Budget.  It bears watching to see if politicians’ rhetoric translates into concrete proposals and sustained opposition to  policies against the interests of the poor, whether from Republicans or their own Democratic colleagues.  After all, over the past four decades, income and wealth inequality has increased under both Republicans and Democrats.

“In a sense, you could say we are engaged in a class struggle”–MLK, 1968

“It’s not about left and right” says Rev. Dr. Barber, “but about right and wrong.”  Nevertheless, the central issues of the PPC would be characterized by many as a left analysis and program. For those who welcome a mass movement to redistribute wealth to abolish economic and racial injustice, the PPC’s fundamental principle of “building unity across lines of division” seems essential. While there have been phenomenal left formations emerging in the past few years (e.g., Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, immigrant rights organizations), the organized left, particularly longer-established groups,  can sometimes appear siloed, talking mainly to itself, without substantial new recruits.  As Rev. Dr. Barber says, “movements cannot become cliquish.”  But how do those who identify with the left (meaning the space beyond the Democratic Party) feel about the seeming equating of left and right? Are they okay with a paradigm designed to reach people for whom the message may resonate but who’ve never identified as leftists?  An elder, whom I’ll call Aaron, sporting a “Hands Off Venezuela” t-shirt acknowledged he had come out of the left. However, he now eschews those labels; during the last couple of years he only evaluates issues as either being “moral or immoral.” Was he influenced by Rev. Barber? He acknowledged perhaps he was. Some members of left groups collaborated in the 2018 “40 Days of Action,” often when the week’s focus was on a single issue of interest to a particular organization. Not all have remained.

So does the PPC function as a left movement even if careful to not define itself that way?  While the PPC insightfully describes poverty, anti-capitalists would question that it never talks about how a phenomenally rich economic system leaves most people poor or just one step away. Do labels or terminology matter? At the Budget Committee meeting, Rev. Drs. Barber and Theoharis said, “God did not make us poor; greed, and abuse and power make us poor” and “poverty is people’s creation and we can choose to end it.”  There is diversity of outlook among PPC leaders; at a panel at the MAC on intersecting injustices (the four PPC evils plus the distorted moral narrative) young clergypersons and PPC thought leaders explicitly and repeatedly named capitalism as the underlying pathology.

Would advocates of identity politics feel the focus on the four evils signifies a lack of prioritizing their issues (which in other hands has been a cover for ignoring racial injustice and appealing narrowly to white working-class males)?  No, the PPC never fails to make clear that the movement includes women, immigrants, LGBTQIA, disabled, Muslims, Jews and most uniquely, “those of no faith.” (Polls reveal nearly a quarter of U.S. adults have no formal  religion.)  And the PPC condemns what it calls the “distorted moral narrative of  religious nationalism,” while allowing space for opposing views on deeply felt issues like abortion. At  a time in this country’s history when we are debating the mass incarceration of toddlers, a National Call for Moral Revival seems even more pertinent.  But a focus on morality implies an appeal to conscience, a strategy disdained by some, evoking movement arguments of a half century ago.

There is a palpable cultural distinction, though, from some of the groups of the ideological left, where there are few if any calls to love each other and give hugs. At times more reminiscent of religious culture than political organizations, the MAC was notable for its downright friendliness and politeness. Notably, PPC activities are very tightly planned out, organized and facilitated.  A  participant since the early PPC was initially surprised at the amount of singing and chanting but was won over by seeing the fellowship and sense of belonging engendered. And there is an intentional modeling of the primary cultural manifestation of the civil rights movement: music.  As T.V. Reed said in his book, The Art of Protest. Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Present, “Songs…formed the communication network of the [civil rights] movement, and they also expressed the “soul” of the movement, linking its spirit to centuries of resistance to slavery and oppression…music was the key force in shaping, spreading, and sustaining the movement’s culture and through culture its politics.”  Some PPC songs come out of the civil rights movement (one day’s session began with “Woke Up this Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom”), others are newly written using words of MLK, .   And a commonality of language and culture was developing, as activists from the east coast to the west knew the words to the songs.  Reed saw song as even more effective, “[t]he group-centered process of singing, with a leader emerging periodically…was at once an instance of and a metaphor for the general model of nonhierarchical leadership the organizers were seeking to instill.”  But it’s not all from the mid-20th century tradition, as the audience joyously arose to dance the Wobble.

So how does the PPC score? With a  fundamental principle of “lifting and deepening the leadership of those most affected by systemic racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological devastation,” the PPC seems terrifically successful. The MAC brought together truly diverse participants from movements of poor people from all over the U.S., demonstrating that fundraising by each state delegation to cover costs worked (dorm rooms, food, childcare provided); no small feat given the competing demands on poor people.  It seemed a very politically sophisticated group.  Although very diverse, there was perhaps over-representation of middle-aged and older people; a conference during the workweek may tend to get that. Does PPC’s approach speak to younger activists?  There are a lot of outreach and programming to ensure that happens. The PPC is building a movement, not a moment.”

“Register People for the Movement”

PPC plans to connect to 30,000 new people via social media with a goal of reaching one million. Although the focus is on state-based organizing, a Mass Assembly and Moral March at the National Mall in Washington is planned for Saturday, June 20, 2020 (the day after Juneteenth, “’cause America hasn’t gotten the message yet.”  Find local activities through your state chapter or follow the PPC on facebook, Instagram and twitter.

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