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The New Poor People’s Campaign: Seeds of a Non-Party Opposition?

All of us who have participated in one or another aspect of what has come to be known as the Trump Resistance should think about how we should be connecting with the new Poor People’s Campaign—and with each other.

The tens of millions of people who have participated in the Women’s March, the March for Our Lives, and the many other protests of the Trump era are marching in place in every community large or small. They have the potential to provide a vast grassroots network if the Poor People’s Campaign can reach out and inspire them to act together. (Photo: TwitPic/@Fightfor15)

This Mother’s Day a convergence of unlikely bedfellows launched a Poor People’s Campaign -- echoing the Poor People’s Campaign Martin Luther King, Jr. initiated half a century ago aiming to “transform the political, economic and moral structures of our society.” Is there a strategy that can make that aim more than a vain hope?

Today, millions of people are on the march: The Women’s March, the March for Science, the People’s Climate March, Black Lives Matter, the Fight for Fifteen, the March for Our Lives, May Day immigrant rights marches, #MeToo, the Red-state Teacher Rebellion, and more. A recent poll found that one American in five has protested in the streets or participated in a political rally since the start of 2016 – about two-thirds of them for progressive causes that some call the “Trump Resistance.”

Yet these tens of millions of people face some dilemmas. Surely most of those who participate in these actions support most of each other’s causes, yet there is no vehicle to pool their separate power. The forces they are opposing – in shorthand the 1% and their accomplices – can use their immense wealth to buy bases of power ranging from politicians and political parties to constituency organizations like the NRA, from think tanks and university policy centers to the media. They will not bow down before a march, even a march of millions. Trumpism is bigger than Trump and will outlast him.

The default strategy for opponents of Trumpism is to back the Democratic Party. Although it is surely the “lesser of two evils,” the Democratic Party is also complicit in the racism, sexism, impoverishment, climate destruction, and violence at home and abroad that the Trump Resistance opposes. It has given little evidence that it will, when in office, effectively combat these evils. It provides little in the way of an alternative vision beyond the status quo ante. It has not proposed a program that can attract those who have supported Trumpism.

These limitations exist primarily because, given the current structure of the American political and economic system, any political party is likely to be dependent on the 1% and to hew to its interests. Simply electing more Democrats, or even more progressive Democrats, provides inadequate leverage to challenge this reality. Advocates of that strategy have a compelling answer, however: Do you really think the world will be a better place if we simply let the Republican Party win elections and rule? 

There is a third strategic alternative: A “non-party opposition” which draws diverse constituencies out of their silos to combine their power but uses direct action rather than electoral politics as its means to exercise that power. Such a non-party opposition can play some of the crucial roles of a political party, bringing together different constituencies around common interests, exposing existing policies and institutions, and presenting alternatives.

The testing ground for the new Poor People’s Campaign was what came to be known as the Forward Together movement that developed in North Carolina over the past dozen years. It shows how a coalition of movements, acting as a non-party opposition, can challenge reactionary political forces and transform the political arena. Forward Together is best known outside the state for its Moral Mondays and its surprise defeat of North Carolina’s anti-trans “bathroom bill,” but those are only two of many Forward Together experiences to draw on in constructing a new Poor People’s Campaign.

Non-Party Oppositions

The idea of an “opposition party” is a commonplace in politics. It is a political party that is not in office and aims to replace those that are. But what is a “non-party opposition”?

Political parties, whether parliamentary or revolutionary, almost by definition aim to take state power. When they are not in power, they present a critique of those who are, formulate a program for what the government should do, and appeal to the public to put them in power instead.

A “non-party opposition” is a convergence of social movements that performs some of the classical functions of an opposition party without the goal of taking state power. Movements based on non-violent direct action, like the labor movement in the 1930s and the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements of the 1960s, have often been the real “opposition party” in America. For such movements to take the next step and constitute themselves as a united force around a program of basic social changes does not necessarily require that they function in the electoral arena.  Indeed, the formation of such a political force organized around a radical program to be implemented by mass direct action was very much the conception on which Martin Luther King was developing the original Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.

The Poor People’s Campaign planned to use an encampment in Washington, DC, as the bastion for an ongoing interracial movement to challenge the distribution of power in America. An “economic bill of rights” called for full employment, a guaranteed annual income, unemployment insurance, a higher minimum wage, low-income housing, and expanded education, all to be paid for by ending the war in Vietnam. The campaign won support from American Indian, Puerto Rican, Mexican-American and poor white communities; King’s engagement in the Memphis sanitation workers strike was part of the coalition-building effort for the campaign. In a 1968 speech to the Poor People’s Campaign King called for “opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty.”

King was responding to a political dead end. Efforts to address the impoverishment of Black America like the War on Poverty were collapsing under the pressure of the Vietnam War. More votes for President Lyndon Johnson (like more votes for Democrats today) might have arguably been necessary to forestall the right and protect existing social programs, but it provided no exit from an unacceptable status quo. A non-electoral opposition offered another pathway to change—a pathway that was tragically cut off by King’s assassination.

An “independent opposition”—contrasting with the sham opposition in the parliament—played a critical role in the upheavals in Poland that led to the rise of Solidarity and the downfall of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. As Adam Michnik put it in Letters from Prison, the purpose of Poland’s independent opposition was not to take power but to demonstrate the illegitimacy of the ruling system and help the people empower themselves in all spheres of society. The independent opposition “must be constantly and incessantly visible in public life, must create political facts by organizing mass actions, must formulate alternative programs.”

A non-party opposition can include groups that also participate in the electoral process as long as they do not try to subordinate the non-party opposition to their electoral objectives. Even a disruptive non-party opposition can benefit those working in the electoral arena by awakening the 99 percent from fear, isolation, complacency, and despair. King’s vision was that the Poor People’s Campaign would inspire millions of poor people to vote. Some unions explicitly supported Occupy Wall Street because they believed it would help progressive Democrats in the upcoming elections.

No matter who wins the next election, we can be confident that the 1 percent will still be in power. The job of the nascent non-party opposition is to draw together the 99 percent not around a candidate or a party but around our common interests, the structural changes they require, and the direct actions we can take to begin realizing them. As Adam Michnik put it early in the emergence of Poland’s independent opposition, “Nothing instructs the authorities better than pressure from below.”

The idea of a non-party opposition can provide an alternative to the Scylla of cooptation and the Charybdis of marginalization. Today, when the government, the political system, and both parties primarily represent the interests of corporations, banks, and the 1 percent, the time for a non-party opposition may have arrived.

North Carolina’s Forward Together—a Non-Party Opposition?

What might a non-party opposition that draws together a wide coalition to affect public policy by direct action look like in Trump’s America? Maybe a whole lot like North Carolina’s Forward Together.

The story of what came to be known as Forward Together is told by its founder and leader, William Barber II, in The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear. Barber, a black minister and the son of a minister, built up an extensive network and wide respect through his decades as head of the North Carolina Civil Rights Commission, the leader of the state NAACP, and the minister of a local congregation known statewide for its outstanding programs for the poor.

In 2007 Barber persuaded the North Carolina NAACP to convene a People’s Assembly with what he called the “fourteen justice tribes in North Carolina.” The assembly, held on Jones Street outside the statehouse, unanimously adopted a fourteen-point agenda representing the concerns of those fourteen tribes. It outlined eighty-one action steps. The People’s Assembly became an annual event. The movement it spawned came to be known as Historic Thousands on Jones Street or HKonJ.

HKonJ chose as one of its first actions support of workers at the Smithfield hog-butchering plant in Tar Heel, NC who had struggled for a decade to win a union. The coalition decided to “change the narrative” by “making the workers’ struggle a moral cause for our whole coalition.” Conversations about “fair wages” or “civil rights” could not be reduced to the self-interest of separate groups; “We were engaged together in a conversation about what kind of economy builds up the common good.” The coalition organized clergy and community leaders to make public statements at grocery stores across the state asking them to stop carrying Smithfield meats. After months of struggle the union was recognized and a contract won; the coalition’s relationship to the state’s beleaguered unions was solidified as well.

More directly political action followed. A rightwing takeover of the Wake County school board gutted guidelines promoting racial diversity and began to undermine public education. HKonJ held forums to alert the public to what was going on and signed up to speak at school board meetings. “Our job was to shift the public conversation.” In response the board banned protestors from its meetings. Barber says, “Like Bull Connor in Birmingham, they set the perfect stage for civil disobedience.” Coalition members were repeatedly arrested for trying to enter the meetings. At the same time they mobilized voters for the next election. A year later every member of the board who had tried to resegregate the schools was voted out and the rightwing candidate for state superintendent of schools was defeated.

HKonJ’s research indicated that the biggest reason low-income people didn’t vote was because they couldn’t leave their jobs to do so. In 2007 the coalition pressured the Democratic legislature and governor to pass a voting rights law allowing early voting and same-day registration. Then it mobilized its partner organizations for a wide-reaching voter registration and education campaign. The expansion of voting rights added at least 185,000 new voters. In 2008 all 15 of North Carolina’s electoral college votes went to Barrack Obama, who happened to be both a Democrat and African-American.

In the 2012 election a well-organized, well-heeled rightwing backlash took control of the legislature and elected Pat McCrory governor. It passed new restrictions on voting rights, gay rights, abortion rights, environmental protection, unemployment compensation, medical care, education, and other elements of the rightwing agenda. It passed a redistricting plan so gerrymandered that it was eventually blocked by federal courts as “unjustifiably discriminating.” A group of college students with duct tape over their mouths filled the legislature’s observation area to protest voting rights restrictions and were arrested. Forward Together decided to follow suit. On Monday, April 29, 2013 seventeen protestors were arrested in the legislative gallery. The movement, soon to be rechristened Forward Together, decided to return in a week. Thus began North Carolina’s famous Moral Mondays. Over the next three months nearly a thousand protestors were arrested at the state house. Eighty thousand people joined the movement’s culminating demonstration. Barber called it a “popular uprising.” As the Moral Mondays movement grew, Governor McCrorey’s poll numbers fell.

Before the 2016 election Republicans tried to divide the movement, targeting black Christians in particular, through the so-called “bathroom bill” requiring that people use public restrooms matching their “biological gender” – a transparent appeal to anti-trans bigotry. Barber and other ministers spoke at church meetings throughout North Carolina saying “the fundamental principle of equal protection under the law” was a “constitutional and moral principle” that they must uphold. Forward Together said the bill wasn’t about bathrooms at all. In fact, it “attempted to codify discrimination, denied all North Carolinians the right to challenge employment discrimination in state court, and overrode the victories of municipal living-wage campaigns.” Once they understood what the bill really did, “workers stood with preachers and LGBTQ activists stood with the business community” to oppose it.

At the next election McCrory became the first governor in North Carolina history to lose a bid for reelection

Forward Together has become a coalition of 145 organizations representing Christians, Muslims, Jews, nonbelievers, blacks, Latinos, and poor whites, labor, civil rights, feminists and environmentalists, doctors and the uninsured, businesspeople and the unemployed, women and men, gay and straight, young and old, documented and undocumented. This unity was based on a belief that “none of us would be free until all of us were free.”

A number of principles have shaped Forward Together’s actions. One is simply “showing up to support any group in the state that was standing for justice.” In 2013 Forward Together supported the fight of Planned Parenthood and NARAL against new abortion restrictions. A few years later a hundred people filled a Durham church to demonstrate solidarity with a Durham-raised asylum seeker fighting deportation. Forward Together seeks “powerful images of solidarity” manifested in “daily acts of justice and community building.”

In Forward Together “our most directly affected members” would “speak to the issue closest to their own hearts” but “they would never speak alone.” The movement exists

“so preachers can fight for fifteen and workers can say 'black lives matter,' and a white woman can stand with her black sister for voting rights, and a black man can stand for a woman’s right to health care, and L.G.B.T.Q. folk can stand for religious liberty, and straight people can stand up for queer people, and a Muslim imam can stand with an undocumented worker.”

The movement was often marked by a dual language of faith-based morality and political commitment to constitutional rights and the common good. Barber compares the coming together of diverse constituencies to Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones transformed into a living community; he describes the lineup to commit civil disobedience as an altar call. But his is religion at its least sectarian: “It was often folk outside the church who inspired us the most, standing as examples of what the church should be,” he says; the church “didn’t have a monopoly on God’s dream.” And the goals of the movement were often expressed in secular political language: “Justice and community and the general welfare and the domestic tranquility and equal protection under the law” as guaranteed by state and federal constitutions. One journalist described the premise of the movement as a “universalist program” for health care, voting rights, reproductive choice, and higher wages that begins in “building coalitions among people whom politics have driven apart.” 

Amidst a welter of issues, the defining common ground for Forward Together has been a response to the needs of the poor and vulnerable. As Barber put it, “poor and hurting people were the capstone of our moral arch.” They required a response to human suffering that was shared beyond any particular religious or political persuasion. Its supporters knew that “laws which so obviously hurt people are wrong and must be challenged.”

Forward Together provides one model, though surely not the only one, of what a non-party opposition might look like in the Trump era. It plays some of roles of a conventional opposition political party, drawing together diverse constituencies around common interests, criticizing existing policies and institutions, and proposing alternatives. But it exercises power by direct action rather than by running candidates.

Barber says,“effective work for justice in the real world” requires “real political power.” And yet, “The battle, while deeply political, wasn’t fundamentally about campaigns and elections.” More than winning seats in the legislature it was about “exposing the conspiracy of the governing elite to maintain absolute power through divide-and-conquer strategies” and reshaping “the stories that tell us who we are.” Forward Together began making its demands for voting rights and equal justice when Democrats controlled the legislature and governorship and maintained that its agenda “wasn’t Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative.” Unlike a political party or lobbying group, Forward Together has eschewed running or supporting candidates for office. Yet it has transformed North Carolina politics.

Forward Together remains poised for rapid response. It has a network of activists ready to converge on the legislature at a moment’s notice. Barber has said that the movement won’t stop until its “People’s Agenda” becomes the agenda of the North Carolina government.

The new Poor People’s Campaign—A National Non-Party Opposition?

Within two years of the first Moral Monday in Raleigh, Moral Mondays coalitions had come together in fourteen states. Now the Forward Together movement is going national in the form of the Poor People’s Campaign. For the past year co-chairs Barber and Liz Theoharis of the Union Theological Seminary have been holding meetings and rallies around the country. Barber says, “Our focus has been to go to the people first, in the states, on the ground, and build a network of coordinating committees.” Activists in dozens of states and Washington, D.C., are joining in 40 days of civil disobedience “to build the power of the poor and the working class to reset the national agenda.”

It is not self-evident how to apply the Forward Together model to national politics. It will certainly include dramatic civil disobedience at local, state, and national levels. But Barber says “civil disobedience is just one part of the plan.” A second phase will include voter registration, building a broader network, and creating a detailed list of policy demands.

Theoharis makes clear the political but non-party character of the campaign. “We surely want to influence the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 Presidential election.” But they do not plan to endorse candidates or support any political party. Their statement of fundamental principles states that “no elected officials or candidates get the stage or serve on the State Organizing Committee of the Campaign.”

The new Poor People’s Campaign, like the original one, addresses a wide range of issues related to poverty but going far beyond it to oppose American militarism and foreign wars and emphasizing the threat of climate change. Barber says “Four diseases, all connected, now threaten the nation’s social and moral health: racism, poverty, environmental devastation, and the war economy.” The Campaign’s demands, presented in its “Moral Agenda Based on Fundamental Rights,” include 100 percent clean, renewable energy and a public jobs program to transition to a green economy. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking out against the Vietnam war, it is willing to take a public stand on unpopular issues if it is convinced its moral responsibility to do so is clear.

The tens of millions of people who have participated in the Women’s March, the March for Our Lives, and the many other protests of the Trump era are marching in place in every community large or small. They have the potential to provide a vast grassroots network if the Poor People’s Campaign can reach out and inspire them to act together.

Conversely, all of us who have participated in one or another aspect of what has come to be known as the Trump Resistance should think about how we should be connecting with the new Poor People’s Campaign—and with each other. Perhaps we can make that campaign and similar efforts starting points for a non-party opposition that can challenge Trumpism and the power of the 1%—and indeed “transform the political, economic and moral structures of our society.”

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Jeremy Brecher

Jeremy Brecher

Jeremy Brecher is an historian, author, and co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability. A new edition of his most recent book, Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival, is available for free download at his personal website. His previous books include: Save the Humans? Common Preservation in Action; Strike!; Globalization from Below; and, co-edited with Brendan Smith and Jill Cutler, In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond (Metropolitan/Holt).

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