Poor People’s Campaign fights for reform and relief amid pandemic

Organizers urge cooperative effort: ‘We’re all at risk’

CHARLOTTE, NC: Rev. William Barber addresses the media during a press conference September 22, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NC: Rev. William Barber addresses the media during a press conference September 22, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

“Stay in place, stay alive, organize and don’t believe the lies,” said Rev. Dr. William Barber, announcing a new effort by the Poor People’s Campaign, which he co-chairs. Barber, a pastor and political activist based in North Carolina and a member of the national NAACP board of directors, describes the approach as “non-violent moral resistance.” And the group is making a vigorous push for reforms and relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily focused on protecting the most vulnerable.

Rev. William Barber (Center) and Poverty Summit Director Abra Fortson (Right) (Photo by: Isiah Holmes)
Rev. William Barber (Center) and Poverty Summit Director Abra Fortson (Right) (Photo by: Isiah Holmes)

“We’re saying to people we shouldn’t be in the streets now,” said Barber during a Zoom call on March 13. “We see protesters in the street with guns and flags. We don’t need guns and flags. We need grace, and testing, and healthcare, and living wages, and rent forgiveness.”

“We need the Congress and the president to understand what must be done in this moment. Not to protect corporations’ greed, but to protect the needs of the people.”

COVID-19 has exposed the consequences of longstanding American inequities along lines of race and class. Many people work long hours for low wages, lack affordable access to healthcare, and may also have preexisting conditions making them vulnerable if they do contract COVID-19. Vast numbers of those same Americans are also deemed “essential workers,” though some feel another word fits better: expendable.

Claire Chadwick, an essential worker at a store in Kansas, says she has “worked throughout the crisis to make sure that people have food and toilet paper.” Chadwick says she is also recovering from COVID-19 after being diagnosed by a doctor, though she is untested. “Although precautions were taken to keep employees safe, and numbers in the building down, it is difficult to say whether these precautions were enough, since I and others I work with have gotten sick.” Chadwick also described managers pushing employees to get customers in and out of the store as quickly as possible. “The focus seemed to be on profit, instead of on people.”

Claire Chadwick, an essential worker at a store in Kansas (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Claire Chadwick, an essential worker at a store in Kansas (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Choking back tears, Chadwick said, “It is wrong for companies to treat workers as expendable, instead of essential.” Although people are only now acknowledging “essential workers,” Chadwick fears they’ll soon forget. “I need more than Facebook posts telling me how great my sacrifice is,” she said, remaining emotional as Barber comforted her over the phone. “I need living wages, paid sick or leave time, a union and universal healthcare.”

Denita Jones, another worker who testified on the call, agreed. “As Claire said, we’re not essential. We’re just expendable.” Like Chadwick and another worker, Mindy Bergeron-Lawrence, Jones has witnessed first-hand employers’ reluctance to provide paid sick leave to workers, even confronting them with the prospect of losing their jobs if they refuse to come to work. Bergeron-Lawrence, who works at a fast food chain, says despite working at the restaurant for 17 years, she only makes 30 cents more than someone on their first day. These inequities only compound the stresses at home. All three women said they fear bringing the virus home after being exposed at work.

Denita Jones, an essential worker who was on the Poor People's Campaign Zoom call. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Denita Jones, an essential worker who was on the Poor People’s Campaign Zoom call. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Unlike Chadwick, Jones says her employer has taken few if any precautions against the virus. Many employees walk around without masks, and some don’t even believe in the virus. “When I do return I call to let my daughter know that I’m here,” said Jones. “So that everyone else can go into their room, and I can go into the kitchen and wash my hands, and my face, and take my clothes straight to the laundry room. This is what my life has been like since returning to work. And this is not fair to them, nor is it fair to me — or any essential employee, or any employees.” On Mother’s Day, Jones said, her daughter wrote a letter expressing the fear she has for her mother whenever she leaves the house.

These are the realities and anxieties people deemed essential face, whether state leaders open their economies a crack at a time, or blow down the door. In states in which the economy is largely shut down, those same people hold hope that government relief is coming. Hopes have been dimming as relief bills funnel millions to large companies, while offering minimal aid to the working poor.  In early March, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed COVID-19 relief plans as an “ideological wish list.”

Barber sees McConnell’s comments as mean-spirited, and ironic given the direction conservative leaders wanted relief money to go. Although House Democrats have drafted a new $3 trillion relief plan, including food assistance and another round of individual stimulus checks, McConnell snarkily described it as “dead on arrival.” With over 84,000 deaths in the U.S. alone, Barber said describing  those comments as poor taste is an understatement.

“It is a damnable shame,” declared the reverend. Barber is baffled by what he described as Republicans “so committed to injustice that they would use the words, ‘dead on arrival,’ while people are dying. People are dying, and they’re saying that it’s ‘dead on arrival.’”

Battleground Wisconsin

In 2020, the Badger State is a focal point for political and electoral organizing. The so-called “pandemic primary” on April 7 made international news. Wisconsin’s struggle with the virus demonstrated which communities were vulnerable.

Low-income, minority communities, particularly in Milwaukee, bear the brunt while anti-safer at home protests demanding a full re-opening of the state drew people from suburban and rural communities. A popular idea among the anti-safer at home crowd involves locking down communities with a high number of COVID cases, like Milwaukee, while letting others enjoy ordinary life.

It’s something that, shortly after the Zoom conference, became reality via a state Supreme Court ruling striking down the Safer at Home order. Bars rushed to re-open as local municipalities like Milwaukee worked to continue a measured re-opening for businesses.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis on the zoom call (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis on the zoom call (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

“As a native of Wisconsin, my heart breaks at the decision of the State Supreme Court to reject truth and science and endanger the lives of the people by ‘going back to business’ without having the capacity and public health infrastructure to re-open safely,” Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, told Wisconsin Examiner. ““We know that COVID-19 is disproportionately hurting poor and low-income workers and communities of color. State re-openings, especially one as chaotic as what is happening in Wisconsin, will only bring more suffering and death to our communities.”

Barber has always emphasized the importance of breaking down systemic barriers through organizing. Poverty is the target. In  communities which are most vulnerable to COVID-19, whether in the inner-city or rural areas, poverty imposes the same stresses, because of the same lack of resources. Still, Barber hears the thinly veiled racism laminating arguments for a partial shut down.

“You know, there is a racist narrative that is going around in some places,” Barber told Wisconsin Examiner, “that is used in ‘lockdown Milwaukee,’ i.e Milwaukee is predominately black, or has a large black constituency.” He points out something echoed across the board from politicians, fellow activists and medical experts: “We have more people of color who are dying, who are getting sick, particularly across the country. Not because of their race, but because of systemic racism, and because they’re working the low-wage jobs. The so-called ‘essential jobs’ that are putting people at risk.”

Dr. Mary Bassett, who was on the call, also added, “There’s no place that should feel it is exempt from the idea that you have to have adequate testing in place so that you can identify circulating virus.” The former New York City health commissioner, and director of Harvard’s Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center of Health and Human Rights, notes that the virus was here long before the confirmed case. Thus, people who feel their community isn’t at a high risk of having a COVID-19 outbreak are flying blind.

“You don’t know that it’s there unless you’re able to test,” Bassett told Wisconsin Examiner. “So these areas [rural and suburban communities] have to have testing in place. They don’t.” She also stresses that even having enough tests doesn’t “make you safe,” it simply allows for new cases to be quickly identified. “Places that are low prevalence [of COVID-19] now have to have those capacities in place, they don’t.”

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These kinds of assumptions about the virus actually aren’t a new phenomenon in American history. “The concept of racial susceptibility to diseases is very longstanding in the United States,” she explained, “but it’s not accurate. Every human being is susceptible to this.” Dr. Bassett emphasizes to everyone, “What protects people is not who they are, or where they live, it’s how their lives work.”

For Theoharis, all of this leads back to one conclusion. “What we’ve learned is that if one person does not have healthcare, or paid sick leave, or is homeless, that actually everybody in the society is at risk, with the measures we have in place now,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. Theoharis feels that the pandemic has created a kind of “inseparability” among people’s fates. “You can’t say, ‘I don’t have it and so, let’s lock down Milwaukee,” or other areas with high numbers of cases, she said. Without the infrastructure needed to provide adequate healthcare and eliminate poverty, Theoharis states, “We’re all at risk.”

As the Poor People’s Campaign has attempted to show through its organizing efforts, it takes everyone working together. The issues of systemic poverty being amplified by COVID-19 affect vast numbers of people from all backgrounds. Organizing for the kinds of policies the Poor People’s Campaign are aiming for will continue.

People who feel state and local leaders calling for businesses to re-open have their best interests at heart are misled, Theoharis said.

“This is not about helping people out,” said Theorharis. “This is not about letting people go back and work, and open the economy so that we can all live a better life. This is about kicking people off of unemployment, having people have no healthcare, so that we can protect the profits of some wealthy corporations.”