Apr 04, 2022
On March 28, the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival brought together a diverse coalition of participants in Madison, Wisconsin, to march for the rights of poor and low-wage workers across the United States. A parallel event took place in Raleigh, North Carolina; both were part of a buildup to a national march planned for June 18 in Washington, D.C.
"Half of our kids go to bed hungry in this rich nation. Here in Wisconsin, we've seen concerted attacks on voting rights, families struggling with a lack of health care and low wages. We've heard about rising homelessness and the mistreatment of immigrants and Indigenous people."
The Poor People's Campaign draws from the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.'s original 1968 march of the same name, which sought to create a multiracial and multifaith movement that transcended left-right politics to demand fair living and working conditions for the poor.
The reimagined campaign was launched by the Reverend Liz Theoharis--who attended the Madison event--and the Reverend William J. Barber II in 2018. Its mission is to fight the "interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism."
A crowd of more than 100 people began to gather around 4:30 p.m. at the foot of Wisconsin's Capitol building, with a few faith groups congregating across the street before joining up with the larger group. Attendees visiting from chapters of the Poor People's Campaign in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, and Iowa, energetically smiled--oftentimes through a mask--and introduced themselves to each other.
Leading up to the start time at 5 p.m., organizers offered extra signs while a few participants handed out pamphlets for their own organizations. One handmade sign proclaimed "Union Jobs Now!" Others said "Protect Our Climate, Water, and Health" and "Invest in Kids, Not War." Another person walked around collecting signatures on a petition opposing the Line 5 pipeline.
In the crowd, I met Pastor Ari Douglass, who preaches at a progressive, LGBTQ+-affirming congregation in Janesville, Wisconsin, and was one of the event's regional organizers. I asked him to speak to the moral foundation of the movement. He told me he believes Jesus's phrase "the poor you will always have with you" is a "mandate, a royal decree" to act in solidarity with the poor.
The movement is "founded both within our collective religious morals as well as our constitutional morals," Douglass said. "We have Christians--which I'm a Christian faith leader particularly--but we also have Jewish, Muslim, and across the board humanist leaders who find it deep within [their] morals to be pushing for this."
As the crowd cheered and sang, participants were herded by organizers in orange safety vests into pairs to form an orderly line in the street. (Police presence was limited to a car slowly cruising along at the front of the line, with no officers in sight on the ground.)
The crowd marched around the Capitol and toward the First United Methodist Church, with singing and chanting continuing throughout: "I went down to the Capitol and I took back what they stole from me / I took back my dignity, I took back my humanity."
At the church's doors, proof of vaccination and a mask were required for entry. A live stream of the sister march happening in Raleigh, North Carolina, played on two screens framing the altar.
Addressing the audience, Theoharis said, "Half of our kids go to bed hungry in this rich nation. Here in Wisconsin, we've seen concerted attacks on voting rights, families struggling with a lack of health care and low wages. We've heard about rising homelessness and the mistreatment of immigrants and Indigenous people."
She said that the country's stark inequality is the reason why "we must commit to uniting the 'nobodies,' building a moral fusion movement, and organizing and uniting people across all the lines that divide us."
"Impacted speakers" from Wisconsin and Illinois were also asked to testify on the injustices of poverty through their own experiences.
Audrey Taylor, a leader in the Fight for $15 campaign and a mother and grandmother of two, said she has worked at Wendy's on and off since 1995, never making more than $8.25 an hour. "Gas prices have went up, food prices have gone up, lights, water bills . . . but guess what isn't going up? Our wages."
Mark Denning, an Indigenous man who tragically lost two of his children to suicide and one to an opioid overdose, also spoke. Two of his children were University of Wisconsin-Madison students and one, Taylor, was a law school graduate.
"When we closed [Taylor's] casket, his brother stood up and said, 'There should have been crime scene tape around his body.' His words were a stark reminder that this is the difference between the culture of the 'I' and the culture of the 'we.' In the culture of the 'I,' self-harm, suicide ideation, and completion falls squarely on the individual."
Denning said his daughter, reeling from the death of her brother, was turned away from receiving mental health care because she didn't have insurance. "Complicity of economy and health care systems leave the poor and fragile unprotected. Racism is a public health care issue," he said.
Other impacted speakers included the Reverend Greg Lewis, executive director of Souls to the Polls, a voting rights organization mobilizing Black people in Milwaukee; Marianne Oleson, a formerly incarcerated woman from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, who, despite having served her five-and-a-half-year sentence, won't be able to vote until the end of her twenty-two-year parole; Jason Rivera, a UW-Madison student who works thirty hours a week at multiple jobs and has faced food and housing insecurity in order to afford staying in school; and Joseph Peery, a formerly homeless member of the National Union of the Homeless from the Cabrini-Green neighborhood of Chicago.
To end on a note of victory, Oscar Sanchez was brought to the stand to share his story as a participant in a thirty-day hunger strike in the Stop General Iron campaign in Chicago, which successfully blocked plans to move the facilities of a "serial polluter" from the wealthy North side to Sanchez's primarily low-income, Black, and Latino Southeast side neighborhood.
After each testimony, in lieu of clapping, the audience soberly repeated the refrain, "Someone has been hurting our people and we won't be silent anymore."
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