At around 2 p.m.on the day after Memorial Day, a crowd of about a hundred or so people gathered at the Bicentennial Mall in Raleigh, a pedestrian walkway between the North Carolina Museum of History and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and directly across the street from the North Carolina General Assembly. The mall has been a hotbed of protest over the past few years; a few weeks earlier, thousands of educators from across the state flooded it, rallying for education funding that has been drastically cut since the Republicans took over the state legislature in 2010.
On this day in Raleigh, however, activists were protesting what they refer to as “the war economy”: lax gun laws, American imperialism, and the lack of funding for public services. And at the exact same time as the Raleigh demonstration, activists in 38 other states were protesting around the same theme at their own state capitols. In Lansing, Michigan, for example, activists marched into the state capitol building, singing “Somebody’s hurting our children, and we won’t be silent anymore.” In Lawrence, Kansas, activists organized a sit-in on Kansas Avenue, block away from the state capitol, according to the local ABC affiliate.
And in Albany, New York, Social Security worker and American Federation of Government Employees member Adam Pelletier was one of 28 people arrested for protesting at the state legislature. “I’ve always been a quasi-activist, but through my profession I’m on the front line of this war being waged against poor people,” Pelletier said. “Not in the police brutality side of it, it’s more bureaucratized manslaughter that people aren’t aware of.”
These demonstrations were all part of the Poor People’s Campaign, a national effort for economic, social, and environmental justice that aims to connect progressive activists, groups and organizations — in labor, in faith, in civil rights, and so on — to work together towards shared goals.
For the past six weeks, demonstrations have taken place all over the country organized around themes ranging from the post-Memorial Day war economy rallies to voting rights and bigotry against immigrants and Native Americans, living conditions (including education, jobs, and housing), ecological devastation, and the problems of poverty facing women, children, and people living with disabilities. The first 40 days of action were capped off this week with the theme of “confronting the distorted moral narrative,” i.e. the view of morality as dictated by the right.
The culmination of these initial weeks of action will be a rally at the National Mall in Washington D.C. on Saturday, but the campaign’s leaders and organizers stress that the campaign is just getting going. And if it’s successful, the Poor People’s Campaign could be an impetus to build a working-class coalition that stretches across racial lines, something that progressives have dreamed about for years but which has never actually been achieved on a broad scale.
The group’s drive has been renewed by a coalition of progressive advocacy groups, religious organizations, labor unions, and others pushing back not only against President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans, but those who preceded their reign in state houses all across the country. Their demands include a laundry list of progressive priorities, such as single-payer health care, voting rights, and a federal jobs program that helps the country transition to the green economy, and their chosen method to push policymakers to adopt a “moral agenda” is via direct action — according to numbers compiled by New Jersey-based independent journalist and activist Kyle Moore, there were at least 1,952 arrests nationally in the initial six weeks of action.
“Somebody’s hurting our children, and we won’t be silent anymore.”
The national campaign has two co-chairs who come from the clergy: Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, who directs the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice in New York, and Rev. Dr. William Barber, the former leader of the North Carolina NAACP. (The Outline made several attempts to talk to Barber, but was told that he didn’t have time for a one-on-one conversation in the weeks leading up to the June 23 rally.)
At the post-Memorial Day rally in Raleigh, Barber came back to North Carolina and spoke alongside local anti-war and pro-gun control activists. “Veterans work on these billion dollar pieces of equipment, come home, and they can’t make a living wage,” Barber told the audience. “North Carolina’s legislature is more interested in blocking protesters, more interested in voter suppression, more interested in tax cuts for the wealthy, more interested in blocking health care.”
During his speech, Barber initiated a call and response with his audience. “Repeat after me,” he said. “The souls of poor folk are auditing America.”
This is not the first time this particular campaign has been tried. The original Poor People’s Campaign was a 1968 mobilization for economic justice initially led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “We are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses,” King said of his plans for the Poor People’s March on Washington. “We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect. We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago.”
After King was assassinated weeks before the campaign’s descent on Washington, leadership of the campaign was taken over by civil rights icon Ralph Abernathy. Beginning in May, thousands of demonstrators lived in an encampment on the National Mall called Resurrection City, which concluded in a massive rally on June 19 that saw more than 50,000 demonstrators. As the historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries told Voxin 2017: “This was Occupy before Occupy.”
Ultimately, however, many of the goals of the Poor People’s Campaign were never fulfilled. 1968 saw the election of Richard Nixon, marking the beginning of a long political shift to the right for America. And today, racial and class inequality is as pervasive as ever.
Although the direct inspiration for the Poor People’s Campaign is obvious — the 50th anniversary of both the 1968 campaign and King’s assassination Jr . — the historian Robert Greene II notes that a few, more recent events foreshadowed today’s campaign. “I think folks have forgotten about Occupy Wall Street, but it really pushed to the forefront this idea of how economic disparity in American society was such a critical issue,” Greene says. Even after it ended, it kept that idea in the public consciousness for several years.”
We’ve been marching and striking and fighting for economic justice and to put an end to racism for five years. We knew it would take a long time. It took a long time for slavery to be abolished, for women to get the right to vote. Movements take a long time.
In addition, Greene pointed to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, and how the Vermont socialist was pressed by Black Lives Matter activists to more forcefully address racism in America. “Because Sanders was often pushed by Black Lives Matter activists to talk about race, it created a wholesome critique of capitalism that looked at both race and class,” Greene said. “And I think that contributes directly to what we’re seeing with the Poor People’s Campaign.”
Nijmie Dzurinko, one of the campaign’s co-chairs in Pennsylvania, sees the Poor People’s Campaign primarily as a vehicle to link up local organizers and movements which have long shared the same goals, but have too often been isolated from each other in the past. “Across the country, we see the campaign and this first series of actions as a way to help people working across issues to come together and take action together,” Dzurinko said. “The campaign isn’t doing this work, the organizations are doing this work.”
Other social and economic justice movements of the past decade, such as the Fight for $15, the national, service worker-led campaign for a higher minimum wage, have also played a significant role, and some veterans of that labor battle have joined this one. Terrence Wise, a McDonald’s worker and Fight for $15 leader in Kansas City, said Barber’s involvement in that fight encouraged him and his fellow workers to get involved in the Poor People’s Campaign. “We’ve been marching and striking and fighting for economic justice and to put an end to racism for five years,” Wise said. “We knew it would take a long time. It took a long time for slavery to be abolished, for women to get the right to vote. Movements take a long time.”
Like the 1968 campaign, this one is focusing on tackling issues of systemic racism, poverty, and militarism. But one stark difference between the 1968 campaign and 2018 campaign is the tackling of a new problem: a focus on environmental justice.
“What we’re seeing in the current day, whether it’s Standing Rock or Flint, is that it’s really the poor who are on the front lines of ecological devastation and need to be centered in any movement,” said Matt Smith, an organizer for Food and Water Watch who works closely with the Poor People’s Campaign in New Jersey. “There’s a real important change and shift that’s happening, and the Poor People’s Campaign is helping to address those connections.”
The campaign hasn’t been without its critics from the left, particularly in the diagnosis of immorality as the root cause of many of America’s inequalities. “It might make those already on your side feel nice and comfy to know they’re all moral and the other guys are not, but it’s functionally indistinguishable from Hillary appearing to call 60 million Trump voters a ‘basket of deplorables,’” wrote Black Agenda Report’s Bruce A. Dixon last month. “The words he never uses are capitalism, socialism, class or working class, not even once.”
Barber himself has not shied away much from critiquing capitalism — ”American capitalism was not the outgrowth of the Protestant ethic, King knew, but the product of stolen land and stolen labor,” he wrote in a March column — but the Poor People’s Campaign appears to broadly consider itself a big-tent movement. “We have Fight for $15 workers, Food Not Bombs people from Greenville,” said Kerry Taylor, a state co-chair of the South Carolina campaign. “We’ve pulled together an interesting coalition of anarchists, socialists, Christians, liberals, libertarians…. somehow, it’s worked. We’ve pulled it off thus far.”
Activists in five states who spoke with The Outline said that attendance at the rallies, which were held during weekday afternoons, averaged between 100 and 200 people per day. Over the past six weeks, Wise has attended protests and rallies at the state capitol buildings in both Jefferson City, Missouri and Springfield, Illinois. “It’s nothing like we’ve ever seen in the labor movement or our social justice movement,” Wise says. “It’s breathing life into Dr. King’s movement. We’ve been waiting for it our whole lives and everyone needs it.”
The campaign hasn’t been without pushback from state and local officials. After the second week of action, the city of Albany billed the Poor People’s Campaign nearly $1,500 for “police detail.” “That was a mistake on their part,” Pelletier said. “A lot of Democratic electeds are uncomfortable with the Poor People’s Campaign because we call them on their shit.”
“In some of the homeless organizing and welfare-rights organizing I come out of, we’ve had people from all kind of political beliefs who are impacted by poverty come forward and play leadership roles,” Theoharis explained in an interview with the Nation last month. “And we’ve definitely experienced that in communities where Trump won by a lot, or where Mitch McConnell has dominated politics forever; people in those communities are saying, “We need this. These issues have been going on for far too long, and people are being impacted and dying because they don’t have health care.”
”We’ve pulled together an interesting coalition of anarchists, socialists, Christians, liberals, libertarians…. somehow, it’s worked.”
But while the campaign’s goals are officially nonpartisan, that does not mean that they’re apolitical. Barber has often spoken of the need for a new “fusionist” movement, a reference to a short period in the 1890s when North Carolina’s state government was run by a coalition of white populists and black Republicans. The backlash to this movement was swift, severe, and long-lasting; in 1898 armed insurgents including a future governor of the state launched a coup against the city of Wilmington’s leadership and massacred anywhere between nine and three hundred black Wilmingtonians. That year, the white supremacist Democratic Party was swept back into power, and cemented it by enacting Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised black voters.
More than 100 years later, the left and left-of-center is trying to answer the same question: can a cross-racial working class coalition ultimately become powerful enough to influence state and federal politics?
“I do think there’s exciting potential for a movement,” said Dzurinko. “A real movement of people across the country who can build political power based on the needs of poor and working people, which are not adequately represented in either of the two major parties right now.”