Marchers gather for the Poor People’s Campaign mobilization tour in Madison. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Hundreds gathered in Madison Monday in a day of action and reflection as the Poor People’s Campaign builds momentum toward its Moral March on Washington D.C. this summer.
What the campaign’s organizers called “a new and unsettling force” assembled in the Capitol, many having traveled from parts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, and elsewhere. Led by faith leaders including the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the crowd marched around the Capitol building before settling into the First United Methodist Church a block and a half away. Marchers sang songs of struggle and perseverance, while immersed in the gravity of the task before them.
The campaign’s organizers seek to defeat five interlocking injustices of systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and narratives based in religious nationalism. They also seek to harness the power that poor and low-income citizens could have in the ballot box.
“We’ve been trying to say in this campaign that if we don’t have a chance to mourn, then you get demoralized,” Theoharis told Wisconsin Examiner. “And so, people being able to come forward with their stories, with their pain, and then out of there realizing that we have the power to change it.”
Many of the people involved in the Poor People’s Campaign have lived through the effects of incarceration, poverty despite working, lack of access to education and health care, homelessness and more. In Wisconsin, more than 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, while the state’s minimum wage is just 29.9% of what a living wage in Wisconsin would be, according to Oxfam, a worldwide anti-poverty organization.
“I feel it in part because myself and others have experienced pain ourselves,” said Theoharis, a Milwaukee-native. “We’ve been taught to blame ourselves for the problems that we’re going through and feel ashamed, instead of feeling ashamed of a system that would allow for families to lose their loved ones because of racism and mental health issues. Instead of a society that should feel ashamed for not paying its workers living wages.”
Nevertheless Theoharis said, “I definitely feel a power growing in Wisconsin and in the midwest and there’s a history, there’s a long history in Wisconsin of powerful, bold organizing.”
Taking to the streets, the marchers encircled the Capitol grounds. Their procession stretched down the block and around the corner. Local police officers watched casually from the Capitol steps while one squad escorted the marchers down the street.
At the church the group gathered inside. Those who did not have proof of a COVID-19 vaccination were given rapid tests before admission. A television aired a livestream broadcast of another Poor People’s Campaign rally going on at the same time in Raleigh, North Carolina, as the Madison contingent prepared to hear testimonials.
Aubrey Taylor, a grandmother and activist with Fight For $15, described working for the Wendy’s fast food chain to make ends meet off and on since 1995. Despite her time spent at the company, Taylor made just $8.25 an hour. “That wage didn’t support me and my babies,” she said. “And now that I’m a grandma, it don’t do nothing for us now.” Things have only gotten harder. “Gas prices have went up, food prices have went up, lights, water bill, but we don’t have no money for leisure. We can’t go to the movie, really can’t go out and shop, buy an outfit, a pair of shoes, or whatever the case may be.”
“We are the ones who do the work and make the money,” Taylor said. “Not the CEO’s. They sit back, and wait for us to bring the money in.”
Mark Denning, an indigenous activist, also testified. Denning said coming to Madison was difficult for him: His daughter, a Madison college student, died by suicide six years ago just three blocks from where the marchers were. She had taken her life 33 days after her brother, a second generation college student, had done the same.
“Where he lay, hearts were broken across our great Turtle line,” said Denning. “We mourned for four days and four nights. And on the fourth night, we danced, we sang with him, and then the last day we sang. That morning, we danced with him, sang, and we closed his casket and his brother stood up and said, ‘there should have been crime scene tape around his body.”
For Denning, the words underscored the divide between “the culture of the I, and the culture of the We.” His children’s deaths were not isolated within themselves, but a symptom of wider harms. Denning’s daughter struggled to talk about her brother’s death, sought mental health assistance, but was turned away because she had no health insurance. “You don’t have the insurance, we can’t take your visit,” Denning said. “Your help is someplace else.” A little over a month later, she was gone.
Denning spoke of his “responsibility to speak for the dead and the unborn, the voiceless, one of our most sacred trusts.” What happened to his family plays out across communities where interlocking, systemic inequity thrives. “The suicide rate for American Indian girls is [up] 139% since 1999,” he said. He believes that “evidence is easily traced, premeditation can be tracked. Deliberate genocidal times are recorded against my people.”
Jason Rivera is a Poor People’s Campaign activist, a college student and the son of immigrants. He was excited to go to college even though he knew it would be hard. “Today, I can say no one could have prepared me for how difficult it would have been, or how difficult it currently is still,” he said. While his tuition was fully paid for, he still struggles with food and housing insecurity. “I even had to drop out of school for a semester because I couldn’t make ends meet,” he said.
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While maintaining a full class schedule, Rivera works 30 hours a week at two par-time jobs, plus a third during breaks. “It’s not that I and the students don’t want to work,” he said. “It’s that we just don’t have 40 hours a day, we don’t have 90 hours a week to just go ahead and work the entire time.”
Marianne Oleson spoke of the intersection of poverty, incarceration, and the right to vote. Oleson, who lives in Oshkosh, is formerly incarcerated and is an activist with Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO). Although she served her prison sentence, she will remain on extended supervision for another 21 years. At the first EXPO event she went to, “I was the only woman who didn’t end up homeless when she came out of prison,” she said.
Like many other formerly incarcerated people, Oleson said, she works and pay taxes, but she remains unable to vote until her extended supervision has ended. “Who among us isn’t more than our worst choice?” she asked. “Twenty-one years is not rehabilitation, it’s a set up. So for the entire 21 years I’m going to work like a dog, I’m going to pay taxes, but I’m not going to be able to vote.”
Milwaukee Pastor Greg Lewis, a lead organizer with Soul To The Polls and a Poor People’s Campaign ally , described the many people in Milwaukee who appear unaware that the mayoral election is coming up in early April. “We got to band together and be what we can be for one another,” he said.
He decried legislation to restrict voting rights as well as gerrymandering that dilutes the power of some voters and increases the power of others. Both endure even with the end of the Trump Administration, Lewis said. “We have to educate ourselves, and help our communities understand that we are in trouble and if we don’t stand up and fight, we’re done.”
Joe Peery, who came to Madison from Chicago for the rally, spoke of his experiences of homelessness. Cities, he said, try to hide unhoused people rather than provide resources. And Oscar Sanchez, who also came from Illinois, calls for unity and solidarity: Who else, he asked the crowd, do they have but one another?
With each testimony, the audience called out a chant: “Someone has been hurting our people, and we’re not going to be silent any more.”
For Theoharis, it’s important to remind people of their untapped power. “One-third of the electorate in this country and in the 2020 elections were poor and low-income,” she said. Through confronting elected officials with difficult truths and “a powerful movement in the streets,” she hopes to remind people that “the way that change happens, even in the ballot box, is because people come together. And if voting weren’t as powerful as it is, then we wouldn’t have these legislators trying to take away voting rights.”
Making people aware of their power and helping them to build it can foster change, she believes.
“The power to shift the entire political calculus of the city of Milwaukee, of the state of Wisconsin, and of the entire nation, actually is to be able to enliven and to enlarge that electorate of people,” Theoharis told Wisconsin Examiner. “But people have to hear their name, and hear their condition, and have to see that then, when they do elect folks, they do what they promised to do.
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