Dr. Rev. William Barber II (Screenshot | Poor People’s Campaign Twitter livestream)
On March 28, the last Monday in March, the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) will march on Raleigh, North Carolina. As part of the mobilization, actions will also be held in Madison, Wisconsin. Part of an ongoing 12-stop national tour, the actions aim to build momentum for a mass poor people’s assembly and march on Washington, D.C. on June 18. During a press conference Monday, Rev. Dr. William Barber II said that it’s a movement mobilized “among the 140 million poor and low wealth people in this country.” In other words, Barber added, “43% of this nation — a shameful number — 52% of our children, those who have been made poorer, even during COVID. Who have decided that somebody has been hurting our people, and we won’t be silent anymore.”
Barber said that a main focus is to shift the country’s moral narrative. “Because on June 18, it won’t be people speaking on behalf of people. But it will be people who are impacted by what we call the five interlocking injustices. Systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, slashed and denial of health care, the war economy and the false narrative of religious nationalism.” The march, Barber said, will put “a face on the 140 million,” of which, he stressed, “66 million of that 140 million are white; 26 million are Black; 38% of Latinos are poor and low wealth; 38% of indigenous people, over 20% of Asians, 73 million women. And during COVID, billionaires made $2 trillion so far, while 8 million more people fell into poverty.”
In Wisconsin, over 2 million people, or about 35% of the population, live in poverty or low wealth conditions. As of 2018, some 313,000 people were uninsured in a state where the minimum wage of $7.25 is just 29.9% of the living wage of $24.54. According to an analysis done by Oxfam America, a global organization that analyzes economic and social inequality, Wisconsin “ranked last in the Great Lakes region in worker rights and protections.” Mid-2020 saw nearly half a million Wisconsinites who rent face eviction, or about 27% of householders statewide.
The trend has continued even into 2022. In late 2021, the Wisconsin Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Berrada Properties, which owns 8,000 rental units in Milwaukee and Racine, for abusive and unfair practices against tenants. Recent weeks have seen a wave of evictions hit residents who live on Berrada’s properties, despite the lawsuit. Over 800 evictions were filed by Berrada in just two weeks.
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis told Wisconsin Examiner that these facts among many, “show that we have to build a lot of power to be able to have those in power actually do what’s needed to heal, and build from there.” She underscored the importance of building movements which, like poverty, transcend political and social barriers. “We are seeing, in Wisconsin, folks building this fusion movement,” Theoharis explained, pointing to organizing around water quality in Wausau, Madison, Milwaukee and elsewhere as just one example. People organizing for labor rights and higher wages might find common ground with those organizing for expanded health care, she said.
“I think what we’re seeing that is so very necessary is exactly the kind of coming together of people who have been historically divided and pitted against each other,” said Theoharis. “For a long time, we’ve had this false moral narrative that blames poor people and blames immigrants and queer people and trans people and women for all of society’s problems. That kind of pits us against each other and then feeds us this lie of scarcity. That this is as good as it gets and we can’t really change anything for the better and we should just kind of get used to it.”
Increasingly, Theoharis is seeing people reject the lie of scarcity, she say, coming together for common causes. The Poor People’s Campaign centers what members call the hidden power of poor and low income people. Beyond grassroots organizing, 43.24% of voters in 2020 were poor or low income. In that light, poor and low income residents make up a sizable voting block with the power to sway any election. “What we’re seeing is people are coming together in these powerful and creative ways,” said Theoharis, “refusing to be divided, and refusing to be silent about these issues that are impacting us and really getting organized, and building connection, and coalition, and fusion between people of many walks of life.”
That movement might be, in part, a reaction to the pandemic, which exacerbated existing systemic problems. Theoharis noted that the pandemic, “both exposed and then further — way further — deepened many of the inequalities that were existing and festering before COVID even hit. The pandemics of racism, poverty, and low wages that preceded it have only really gotten worse.”
In April, the PPC will release an economic report. Some of the problems exposed by the pandemic were alleviated by provisions in the American Rescue Plan Act and Build Back Better. Without federal pandemic relief, they might get worse again. “It means that millions more people have been pushed back below that poverty line,” said Theoharis. “It doesn’t have to be. We have the solutions at hand, we even know the programs that could be invested in. And yet, we have our politicians who are elected to serve the people, who are instead serving the interests of corporations and the wealthy. And that has an impact on everyone.” Theoharis added a modification to the Reagan-era mantra, “a rising tide lifts all boats” : “When you lift from the bottom, everybody rises.”
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