The Poor People’s Campaign gathers outside of the federal building where Sen. Ron Johnson’s office is located. (Screenshot | Wisconsin Examiner)
In Moral Mondays actions around the country, the Poor People’s Campaign continues to push for a $15 minimum wage, restoration of the Voting Rights Act, and doing away with the filibuster. In Milwaukee, activists staged a demonstration outside the office of Sen. Ron Johnson on Monday, which culminated in the delivery of an open letter from the Poor People’s Campaign to Johnson’s staff.
About 30-40 Wisconsinites from different parts of the state joined in the action at Johnson’s Milwaukee office. Many were also part of allied groups with the Poor People’s Campaign including Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), interfaith organizations and Fight for $15. Natalia Fajardo, of the Poor People’s Campaign, told Wisconsin Examiner that the action’s purpose was to “really demand that Ron Jonson stop dragging his feet, and stop the filibusters, pass all of the provisions of the For The People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and help enact a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour.”
Johnson has taken a firm stance against many of those policy reforms. The senator has rejected calls for a federal minimum wage, arguing that raising the minimum wage would negatively affect job growth. He backs the Senate filibuster, allowing GOP members to stonewall bills from across the aisle. Johnson also fell in line with Republican colleagues by casting doubt on the results of the 2020 election, demanding a recount, and accusing Democratic-leaning areas of fraud.
The open letter delivered during the demonstration at Johnson’s office asks the senator, “Which side are you on?” It states, “in the halls of power and our nation’s highest court, wealthy elites with a vested interest in clinging to minority rule are actively undermining American democracy.” Listing progressive policy proposals that garnered enthusiastic support from voters, the letter regretfully reports, “none of these policies have been enacted because of an extremist minority in the Senate who are using the non-constitutional filibuster to block this constitutional and popular mandate to establish justice and provide for the general welfare.”
Farjardo noted that several factors needed to be taken into consideration when planning the Moral Monday action. A basic tenet of the Poor People’s Campaign’s nationwide strategy is the use of synchronized, simultaneous actions at every senator’s office. And while past actions would have also included the office of Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin, Farjado said, Johnson’s rhetoric made him a prime candidate for the action’s focus. “We know that it was critical that he heard from us,” said Farjado. “But the campaign itself is holding actions in every single senator’s office. Because we know that it don’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or Republican. What matters is that you are representing the value and interests of poor and working-class folks.”
Rev. Ari Colin Douglass, of the First Christian Church of Janesville and Tri-Chair of Wisconsin’s Poor People’s Campaign, helped lead the demonstration at Johnson’s office. Colin Douglass invited only a few people from the main demonstration to join in actually delivering the letter. “Everyone was briefed on what we were going to be doing and what we were not going to be doing,” Colin Douglass told Wisconsin Examiner. “We were not going to be doing any non-violent civil disobedience. We were going to be acting peacefully, not breaking any laws because we didn’t want to break federal law. At least not today.”
Just last week, the Rev. Liz Theoharis was arrested alongside more than 100 women outside the U.S. Supreme Court, as they marked the 173rd anniversary of the first Women’s Rights Convention with a protest. On Monday, the same day as the Johnson action, Rev. William Barber, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and 37 others were arrested during a sit-in outside the office of Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), calling for an end to the filibuster. Those arrests were on Colin Douglass’ mind as they approached Johnson’s office, which is on federal property.
“We went into the lobby,” they said, “and were told by the guards there that we could only have one person in. And I asked, ‘Well could we maybe have two people in?’ So they gave us that, so myself and another person went up with one of the security guards and was led into Ron Johnson’s office, where there was one staff person for Ron Johnson there. We introduced ourselves, the staff person did not fully introduce themselves. Only gave us his first name, which I thought was kind of silly. Then we read our demands, and we gave him a letter with the demands in it, in an envelope that was addressed to him from the Wisconsin Poor People’s Campaign. And then we went down.”
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Collin Douglas added that, “had it not been a federal building I think we would’ve done a sit-in without a doubt. But we’re not at the point where we’d like to do a federal, non-violent civil disobedience at this point.” While Collin Douglas led the delegation up to the office, folks downstairs conducted a call-blast of Johnson’s offices. Nichole Fromm, of the Wisconsin Poor People’s Campaign, told Wisconsin Examiner that the call-blast included about two dozen people over the course of 15 minutes. “Several people actually got through to an actual staff member in Washington D.C. and were able to read portions of the letter and relay those demands,” said Fromm encouragingly.
Besides the actual actions, the demonstration also included powerful testimonies from poor and working-class residents. Like 13-year-old Ana Carrillo, a young Poor People’s Campaign member who lives on Milwaukee’s south-side. “For one, my parents have struggled to keep my siblings and I covered by health insurance,” said Carrillo, noting that her family is affected by many of the issues the campaign focuses on. “Even when we have insurance, we have had to make decisions because of how much it costs, not what is right for our well-being.”
Those kinds of decisions, made by countless poor and working-class people nationwide, have forced Carrillo’s family to choose between basic necessities, health care and things like sports many children may take for granted. “This is wrong, health care should be a human right for all people, and especially children,” Carrillo declared. In addition to those hardships, her family is also burdened by the anxieties and fears of a mixed immigration-status family. “That means not all of us have papers,” said Carrillo. “I have pretty much gotten used to the idea that something could happen that would separate my family. But is that really what we want? That children get so used to this kind of fear that we don’t even think about it?”
This is wrong, health care should be a human right for all people, and especially children.
– 13-year-old Ana Carrillo, member of the Poor People's Campaign
The young activist said she “can’t believe that some people with power to change this reality for families like ours so that we could live without fear of deportation, would rather use their power to hurt people and do things like take away voting rights or blocking raising the minimum wage.”
Abigail Picasso of Milwaukee Vecinos Unidos, or United Neighbors, knows some of those struggles as well. “I have been working making cakes and pastries for 20 years,” she said during the Johnson demonstration, her words translated from Spanish by another organizer. “It is a job that I like, but it is also a physical job. I spend all day on my feet. I believe that my work is worth more than what they pay me. My health and well-being are worth more.”
Picasso is not only challenged with chronic physical pain related to her work, but also the cycle poverty creates. “The wages I make are not enough if I don’t work at least 50 hours a week,” she said. “I have chronic problems with my knee, but I still have to work long hours because if I work any less, I would not have enough money for my basic expenses. Besides that, I have no insurance. I do not have access to the medical services I need for my knee. My doctor recommended an MRI, but it is just too expensive. And if I don’t work when my knee bothers me, I don’t get paid. So I have to just push through it and keep working. I am a human being, not a machine.”
In Wisconsin, eight billionaires saw their collective wealth increase by $11.1 billion over the first 10 months of the 2020 pandemic. These contrasts drive actions by the Poor People’s Campaign.
“I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that lives are literally on the line,” Collin Douglass told Wisconsin Examiner. “Without some of our goals, there are people who are dying in poverty because they are not making ends meet on $7.25 an hour. And honestly, as long as someone is not able to vote, then they don’t have full freedom. And when they don’t have full freedom, then they’re in chains. And if we think of ourselves in America as a true community then, if any person is in chains, we are all in chains with them.”
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