Even as they told stories of pain so deep that they cried, poor people and low-wage workers demonstrated their power during an assembly led by the Poor People’s Campaign on Saturday in the nation’s capital.
Thousands upon thousands of people lined Pennsylvania Avenue and even more watched online as impacted people shared their stories involving voting rights, the nation’s failure to respond to COVID, especially among poor communities, workplace rights, the need for health care and living wages, ecological devastation, homelessness, food insecurity, massive debut, and the day-to-day struggle of not having enough money to survive.
They were accompanied by allies such as faith leaders, union leaders, social justice attorneys, and representatives of national organizations during the Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls.
“My children are survivors just by being alive. It is not enough to be resilient and survive, it is our human right to grow and thrive.” said Maya Torralba, an Indigenous mother from Oklahoma who spoke just before her daughter Kateri Daffron did.
(Photo: Steve Pavey/Poor People’s Campaign/Repairers of the Breach/Kairos Center)
Kateri described growing up in poverty in Anadarko, Oklahoma. She said even though they moved from the impoverished area they still live in poverty.
“Although I moved away I am still in poverty. I cannot leave poverty. I am a 17-year-old child and my country has already failed me.”
The crowd, which stretched for several blocks on Pennsylvania Avenue, was punctuated with yellow-and-black signs representing over 40 states. On stage, the power of the performances of the theomusicologists pumped energy into the crowd.
Bishop William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, led the program from the stage.
While just knowing that 140 million people live in poverty or are one emergency away from poverty is grotesque enough, “there is something that is even more grotesque: the regressive policies which produce 140 million poor and low-wealth people are not benign,” Bishop Barber said. “They are forms of policy murder.”
Prior to the pandemic, poor people died at a rate of 700 a day, 250,000 a year. And a study by the PPC:NCMR and a UN organization showed that people living in poor counties died at two to five times the rate of people living in wealthier counties.
The rich and powerful “want nothing more than to stop this kind of movement,” Rev. Dr. Theoharis said. “It’s why they spend so much time and money trying to deny the right to vote, why they attack protesters, spread lies meant to narrow our vision and limit our aspirations, divide us up by issue, region, race, gender, and sexual orientation, immigration status, political party.
“But we’re here, we’re poor, we aren’t going anywhere, we have come together and we will stay together, we will transform this nation from the bottom up.”
Bernice King, the daughter of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and CEO of the King Center, offered her support to the latest iteration of the Poor People’s Campaign that is part of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
“Fifty-four years ago, my father started the Poor People’s Campaign to revolutionize the economic landscape of our nation,” she said. “Unfortunately, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not live long enough to see it come to fruition. 54 years later, poverty still has a grip on the soul of our nation.I join in solidarity with the chorus of voices that say we won’t be silent anymore.”
Mark Denning of Wisconsin, a member of Oneida nation, talked about the pain of losing three children to death by suicide – a pain even more acute on the eve of Father’s Day.
“To all the fathers that have lost their children, I grieve with you. We have lost all three of our children to suicide, and pain and killing drugs. Our children should have been given a fighting chance. (They might have lived ) had they been given the mental health care that we all deserve,” he said.
His children’s deaths were a crime, he said. “There should’ve been crime scene tape surrounding each one of their bodies. There should be crime scene tapes around each one of our children’s bodies that fall in the streets,” he said.
Al Gore, former vice president and founder of The Climate Reality, said issues such as racism and ecological devastation are “layers of injustice that build upon one another brick-by-brick to form a wall that separates the voices of the poor and of Black, brown and Indigenous communities from the platforms of policy-making.”
Among the union leaders who spoke were Fred Redmond, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry.
“We all know that we should not have to be here. We should have to join together in the streets and march to end poverty because poverty is a failure,” Redmond said. “It’s a failure of the system and not of the people. Being poor is not the failure. Being poor is not a crime. The crime is in accepting a system that allows for poverty. Poverty exists because we allow it to exist.”
Nikki Taylor, one of seven workers fired from a Starbucks in Memphis after they began an organizing drive, noted that the company thought the union would lose after the seven were fired.
“Baby, we got that union,” she said. “We won.” President Henry used her remarks to look to the mid-term elections in November. Our votes this November are not a show of support,” she said. “They are a demand. And we demand that every corporation and every elected official hear us.”
Poor and low-wealth people do hold power, as this study by the PPC:NCMR showed.
In the 2020 presidential election, low-income voting exceeded 20% of the total voting population in 45 states and Washington, D.C. In tight battleground states, low-income voters accounted for up to 45% of the ballots cast.
Bishop Barber also addressed politics, reminding the crowd that the PPC:NCMR has repeatedly asked President Biden to meet with a delegation of poor and low-wealth people. In September 2021, then-candidate Biden said at an online gathering with the PPC:NCMR that ending poverty would be a “theory of change” for his administration.”
“I know the phones work and emails work,” Bishop Barber said. “We demand a White House poverty summit with President Biden, to allow this administration to meet with a delegation of poor and low wealth people, religious leaders and economists—now!”