Bishop William J. Barber II in the crowd for voting rights rally on Nov. 17, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (photo by LaMonique Hamilton)
Hundreds of people marched in Washington on Wednesday, singing songs of struggle and calling for the passage of a voting rights bill by the end of the year. Rev. William Barber II marched alongside other faith leaders, poor and working class Americans and allied elected officials, filling the streets around the White House and demanding an end to voter suppression efforts they see gathering steam around the country.
Numerous organizations joined the Poor People’s Campaign including the League of Women Voters, People for the American Way, Declaration for American Democracy, Black Lives Matter, DC Vote, Democracy Initiative, Drum Majors for Change, and the Future Coalition. Some people traveled from far-away states invoking the names of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and other civil rights leaders who fought to protect voting rights over the decades. More than 200 people were arrested in organized civil disobedience actions, including Barber.
“I want the White House to remember that the scripture says, ‘Woe onto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights, and make women and children their prey,” said Barber. “In every battleground state, if just 20% of poor and low-wealth people who have not voted would vote and be organized together, they could determine every election in this country. And that is the sleeping giant that they are literally afraid of.”
Following the defeat of former President Donald Trump, Republican officials in multiple states introduced a slew of restrictive voting laws that follow a similar model. They cast doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in ballots and ramped up ID requirements, cut back early voting, and added other restrictive measures that are particularly burdensome for the working poor. More localized strategies, like limiting the number of polling sites in low-income and minority neighborhoods, have also had a depressing effect including during Wisconsin’s pandemic elections.
The Poor People’s Campaign condemns the obstructive use of the Senate filibuster, which makes it impossible to pass non-budget legislation without a 60-vote supermajority. By relying on the filibuster, Republicans have been able to stonewall voting rights legislation. . Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson backs the use of the filibuster and has continued to cast doubt on the results of the 2020 election. In July, the Poor People’s Campaign issued an open letter to Johnson demanding he change his stance. But it’s not just Republicans voting rights and reform activists are holding responsible.
“Mr. President, we want you to succeed and we will stand with you,” said Barber, addressing himself to President Joe Biden. “But we need you to fight against the filibuster because the filibuster is being used to fight against us, and to bring down democracy. We also need you to invite us in to talk to you in the White House. You need to bring religious leaders and women activists, the poor and low-wage people that you say you care about, you need them in the Oval Office. You’ve met with the senators, you’ve met with the corporate leaders. Now meet with us who make this country run!”
Barber stressed that, “something is happening that is trying to deny people the right to vote, to deny living wages, to deny the provisions in your own Build Back Better plan. It’s all connected; it’s not separated. Republican extremists like [Sen. Mitch] McConnell change the filibuster to put Supreme Court justices on the bench for life. Now they, and two Democrats, are using the filibuster to destroy and undermine the life of this democracy and the daily needs of people.”
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Biden’s Build Back Better plan calls for $1.75 trillion over the course of a decade to be spent on numerous priorities from health care subsidies to clean energy. Republican critics have opposed the plan’s price tag and, together with conservative Democrats, have worked to limit the plan’s scope. Activists in the immigrants’ rights movement have also put consistent pressure of Biden and Democrats to reverse Trump-era policies targeting undocumented workers and their families. Several popular provisions of the plan were stripped out. Those include paid family leave, free community college, lowering prescription drug prices, and adding dental and vision coverage to Medicare. Barber described the obstruction efforts as an assault on the “progressive force” in the country.
The filibuster is backed by the Chamber of Commerce, he noted, “And the Chamber of Commerce is also blocking the $15 living wage. We need to understand the unholy connection between money and greed and the denial of the right to vote. Mr. President, it’s time for you to use all your weight in this office. The weight of the presidency.” If that’s not done, Barber said, “it will depress the electorate.”
“Mr. President, it’s time to fight,” he added. “The filibuster is not constitutional, so you did not swear to uphold it. But you did swear to uphold equal protection under the law, for all people.”
Wisconsin state Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) was in the crowd, having traveled from Wisconsin to join the march. “We are all here today because the Voting Rights Act and the right to vote is a cornerstone of our democracy,” Taylor told the crowd. She declared that “if we are going to be a nation that goes around encouraging democracy, then we need to exhibit it. I am here today because in Wisconsin in April of 2020, 165 polling locations were closed. Early voting was closed for a week, and when it was reopened it was not re-opened in the community where African Americans were. Voter suppression is not OK.”
Taylor also talked about the current redistricting battle in Wisconsin, where four maps were presented in the Senate, which passed a map that heavily favored Republicans. “I stood alone saying that the Voting Rights Act protects us, and gives us the right to pick a candidate of our choosing,” said Taylor, who opposed both the Republican map and a map developed by a nonpartisan commission created by Evers, which she says does not include enough majority-minority districts. “And if the maps do not reflect that, they are in violation of the Voting Rights Act. So in the spirit of John Lewis, I’m standing up today to get in good trouble. And I refuse to be quiet and be silenced. And I’m reminding the president, ‘Mr. President you promised. Your word must be your bond. We helped you get elected, and we are expecting you to do like you said. Go to the wall for the Voting Rights Act! Go to the wall for voting rights, to stand against voter suppression.”
As Barber, Taylor and speakers from across the country made remarks, police gathered at the edge of the crowd. Demonstrators affixed banners to the black security gate outside the White House. “We need the freedom to vote,” they chanted. Person after person shared stories of struggles working for low wages, dreading an impending climate crisis, as well as personal experiences with voter suppression. Most spoke directly to Biden, demanding that his administration follow through on the policy changes he promised during the campaign. As police began moving in to make arrests, demonstrators sang, ‘We shall not be moved’.”
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