Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis alongside Rev. Dr. William Barber at a rally. (Photo by Steve Pavey)
Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, says more is at stake in the 2020 election than people realize. The question, he says, is “whether or not we’re going to address these five interlocking injustices”— systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and distorted moral narratives, which plague America’s poor. Barber gave his views on activism and politics during a virtual call with editors and reporters from across the States Newsroom network.
“For too long,” says Barber, “we have merely heard a neoliberal kind of response to our problem that says either you deal with issues from the wealthy down, or from the middle class up.” Poor people, who make up 43% of the country, he says, have been left out of the political conversation. It’s the goal of the Poor People’s Campaign to organize low-income Americans across ethnic lines.
Barber suggests that what he calls “the antics of racism” — “the name-calling and the blackface,” are often a distraction from the real issues. “What racism is really about is policy,” he says. “And racism is never individualized. It’s always about corporate reality. It is always about using power to shape policy that causes systemic disparity in the lives of people.”
More and more, even as the election draws nearer, it seems people are moving beyond taking racism at face value, and are organizing against systemic issues, Barber says. In cities across the country, Americans have marched and protested for police reform following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city, the marches have lasted for over 70 days, drawing diverse crowds from across one of America’s most segregated cities. Activists are also pushing for workers’ rights, calling for better pay and benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These efforts are coming together in a coordinated movement, Barber says. “We know that systemic racism and poverty actually enable COVID to be more powerful than it is,” he explains. “And so, here we are.” The pandemic has become famous for laying bare the systemic inequalities within America, from who dies and who gets good care to who gets to work from home and who has to choose between making money and risking their health. These compounding tragedies are fueling the push against systemic inequalities across the country.
Barber applauded Milwaukee protesters for organizing across diverse lines and backgrounds for common causes. “I want to say it’s not new,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “We may see more of it because of Twitter, and cameras and those things, but the abolition movement was multiracial. The social gospel movement, the civil rights movement, the pro-labor movement, all of these movements have been. There’s always been a deep, moral, diverse movement that has challenged the injustices of the American democracy.”
The reverend describes this as “a grand tradition that connects love and justice, and connects protest in the street to policies in the suite.” Milwaukee has seen several policy shifts related to police since the marches began on May 29. Not just in the City of Milwaukee, but across the county there are signs that officials are listening to the marchers. The most recent signs were the demotion of the Milwaukee Police Department’s Alfonso Morales from chief to captain and the suspension of a Wauwatosa officer involved in three fatal shootings. Other reforms include the fast-tracking of a body camera program and a ban on chokeholds in Wauwatosa.
Now, the challenge will be to maintain that energy and take it into the election cycle. “I would say that they have to turn all of that into voting. And not leave the streets, but do both,” added Barber. The Poor People’s Campaign has been very conscious of finding ways to continue organizing while not endangering people with COVID-19 exposure.
Digital organizing, Barber notes, has been one of the movement’s greatest assets. Every Monday the campaign has organized a mass call-in to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Kentucky) office, among other activities. “We had 160,000 people last Monday that joined,” he says, “put 8,000 calls directly to his office in less than 45 minutes and shut down the switchboard. I’m saying to activists, let’s use that, too, at the local level.”
Barber cautions against over-confidence. Milwaukee’s 70 days of marches are powerful, “but the march of Rosa Parks went 381 days, so don’t get too happy yet,” he says with a smile. “In Selma, the Dallas Voter’s League fought for 40 years,” he adds, noting that Milwaukee was often called “The Selma of the North.” Translating that energy and passion into policy change will take even more work. “Let’s stay focused,” says Barber, speaking to the young activists in the streets. “And connect these issues, because they are connected. And make your voice heard.”
As the election approaches, the enduring presence of COVID-19 will affect the vote. In the April primary, Milwaukee voters demonstrated their willingness to wait hours in long lines at the polls, even as the number of open polling places were reduced from 180 locations to five. In recent weeks, the Trump Administration has ramped up its attacks on mail-in voting, both verbally and through targeted policies against the U.S. Postal Service.
“Don’t just give up on democracy,” urges Barber to the thousands marching for change across the country. “Chiefs of police are appointed by people who get elected. Sheriffs are elected. Who can determine whether you get living wages are people who are elected. Who can determine healthcare are people who are elected.”
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Protest, pushing and persistence are all things Barber strongly advocates. Although police violence may have been a spark, “in the midst of all this,” Barber told Wisconsin Examiner, “you are standing in a powerful tradition of love, and justice, and resistance, and vision.”
In the reverend’s eyes, the protests are a sign that people have yet to abandon the idea of democracy. “They still believe there’s a possibility for transformation, and a possibility for change. So to my young brothers and sisters, we’re all there together, across every race, creed, color and sexuality. Continue to stand and be persistent. Do it in the streets, do it in the suites, and do it at the voting box.”
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