WASHINGTON—Demanding an “end to policy murder” that slams poor and low-wealth people, Poor People’s Campaign Co-Chair the Rev. William Barber II and more than 150,000 allies took to the streets of the nation’s capital in a mass rally Saturday.
Their goal: Massive changes in federal policy away from enriching the rich, corporations, and the capitalist class and towards ending the plight of the nation’s 140-million-plus poor and low-wealth people.
Attendees, including a large contingent from the Service Employees and members of other unions, insisted lawmakers and Democratic President Joe Biden redirect federal money away from war and toward domestic needs, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, strengthen workers’ rights, and battle against systemic racism, among other goals.
As a handwritten sign carried by Madeline Stanczak read: “$7.25 an hour x 40 hours a week = less than $20,000 a year. Livable for who?” At age 14, she said, she earned even less. “I didn’t know I was being screwed,” she told a reporter. The current federal minimum, $7.25, hasn’t risen since 2009.
Marchers and leaders laid the blame for refusing to act for the poor and for workers at the feet of the corporate class and their political minions, especially in the evenly split US Senate. Barber singled out the entire Republican caucus plus renegade Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, DW. Va.
Blacks, whites, and Latinos/Latinas all “are suffering from poverty due to bad tax policies, the war economy, and religious nationalism,” among other scourges, Barber added. In opposition to those ills, “This is what moral fusion politics looks like,” he said.
“As long as the Chamber of Commerce and 49 (actually 50) Republicans and two Democrats deny people a living wage, and as long as they keep asking ‘How much will it cost to do it?’ rather than ‘How much will it cost not to do it?’, then we will not be silent,” Barber said.
Added Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry: “Workers—especially frontline, low-paid workers of color—are speaking up. It’s past time they’re respected, protected, and paid.”
The marchers and the Poor People’s Campaign also demand the passage of laws to preserve and strengthen voting rights while concentrating on extra aid to poor and low-wealth people of every race, creed, and heritage. Another hand-drawn sign declared: “Jim Crow must go.”
And a large banner had a message for the right-wing majority on the US Supreme Court, too: “Overturn Roe? HELL, NO!” The justices are expected to eliminate the constitutional right to an abortion, disproportionately hurting poor women and women of color, by the end of this court’s term.
The Communist Party USA and the Young Communist League endorse the Poor People’s Campaign’s goals. Including DC-area and out-of-town groups, the Communist contingent numbered approximately 500 people. With their red flags and banners waving in the sun, they stood out among the rally crowd.
But the campaign won’t stop on June 18, Barber declared to the gathered masses, which stretched for blocks, curb-to-curb, down Pennsylvania Avenue. Now it’s on through November’s election and beyond, marching and educating voters against economic and political repression.
“We are resolved not to stop until we no longer have to fight,” Barber stated. “We are the Poor People’s Campaign, and we won’t be silenced anymore.”
The campaigners and their leaders realize the struggle will not be easy, given the political, corporate, and financial might arrayed for the oppressive status quo. The rich and powerful “want nothing more than to stop this kind of movement,” campaign co-chair Rev. dr. Liz 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.”
Many marchers had individual stories to tell. Besides the CPUSA-YCL brigade, their numbers included large contingents from the Service Employees, plus Communications Workers members campaigning for the right to unionize at Maximus call centers in the South.
“When I was 14 years old, I began working in agriculture” for a conglomerate, said Luke Jacobson of Toledo, Ohio. That conglomerate was Dow Chemical, which also makes Agent Orange, he noted—the dangerous defoliant of the US’ wars in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
To try to find something better, Jacobson said he now works for a small chain of smoke shops. And he’s applying for a job at Amazon, despite its vast record of mistreating workers and keeping them poor. So is his colleague Jacob Neidt, who’s only had one employer so far in his life: Low-paying FedEx.
“People tell me they’re working four days a week for 10 hours a day” or more at Amazon added Jacobson. Its HR people “make it all sound nice and pretty. They’re lying.”
Amazon Labor Union organizer Justine Medina said in an informal talk that the company’s latest gambit—after the union won a vote at Staten Island’s JFK8 warehouse—is to call in a worker for a two-hour shift, forcing two-hour commutes each way. If the worker misses the call, it’s noted on the record.
“We started an organization, the Bronx Support Committee For The Homeless, to feed the homeless on the subway trains,” explained Susan DiRaimo, a Teachers Union (AFT) member from New York. They became known for their “midnight run” for meeting the homeless on the last run of the IRT’s Broadway-Seventh Avenue line to 242nd Street in Riverdale.
They ran a temporary overnight shelter, too, for 15 years, “until the Parks and Recreation Department said ‘no.’”
“Policy violence is devastating to New York,” one speaker explained on a video beamed between speeches from the podium. It affects “2.4 million kids” and is “undermining our neighbors’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” she added, quoting the Declaration of Independence.
Rural poverty is a major issue, too, said Mark Froemke, chair of Minnesota’s West Area Central Labor Council, which also covers North Dakota. “It’s like Charles Dickens’ Tale Of Two Cities.†
“In the smaller towns, wages are low, there are no benefits, and everybody’s having trouble saving. Issues such as housing and child care are crushing the working class. Minnesota’s done a good job on all of them, but cross the Red River” west into Republican-dominated North Dakota “and they’re not being dealt with.”
Decent affordable housing and federal child care subsidies are among the domestic programs the Poor People’s Campaign demands funding for, too. They’re also in Democratic President Biden’s Build Back Better bill, to expand and improve the frayed US social safety net. The Chamber of Commerce, the Republicans, and the two renegade Democratic senators have prevented even debate on the BBB.
Union members in lower-run jobs struggle, too. DiRaimo, a member of Teachers (AFT) Local 2334 at the City University of New York, said that after decades of supporting staff jobs, she still makes only $40,000 yearly. That’s not enough to live on in the Big Apple, and there’s “a two-tiered pay system at CUNY, too.” She actually made more per hour as a nurse, but that was a temp job.
“We don’t get” health care “benefits to cover the whole family,” just her, DiRaimo said. “And some adjuncts (non-tenured faculty) have to get food stamps to live on” during the school year “and live in their cars during the summer.” They don’t get paid then.
The AFL-CIO agrees with the campaign’s analysis. “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,” said its Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond, days after the federation’s four-day convention.
“It’s a failure of the system and not of the people. Being poor is not a 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.”
Barber reiterated the campaign’s demand for a face-to-face White House meeting between poor and low-wealth people and Biden. So far, the White House has been silent, though staffers have occasionally met with campaign leaders.
“I know the phones work and emails work. 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!” he said.
So the campaign and its allies will hold politicians’ feet to the electoral fire unless they move fast and forcefully to help solve the problems bedeviling poor and low-wage people in the US
“We are here today fighting for every worker, fighting for unions for all, and a government that works for all. Our votes this November are not a show of support. They are a demand. And we demand that every corporation and every elected official hear us,” Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry said.