/A Look at the Poor People’s Campaign

A Look at the Poor People’s Campaign

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

NC has focused a lot on the Democrat Party as an institution, to a lesser extent on the Democratic Socialists of America, and also at times on the various NGOs that form the matrix in which Democrats are embedded. But I have never looked at the Poor People’s Campaign (“A National Call for Moral Revival“), or at its charismatic co-leader, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. (The co-other leader is Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis). That’s because, having grown up vaguely Methodist, and having abandoned Episcolianism, and then agnosticism, I became an athiest, after professed Christians went to war in Iraq, gutted the Fourth Amendment, and then institutionalized torture, for which God — were there a God — should have punished them, in this life, in near-real time. (Ex 20:7: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Another way of saying this is that I’m not satisfied with Christian theodicy.) And of course, as the Bearded One famously wrote:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

However, after reading Chris Arnade’s Dignity, in which opium (“deaths of despair“) has become the opium of the people, it became clear to me that, at least in the lives of the working class, opium and religion are opposed, and that religion has a salutary effect; it’s not a coincidence, I think, that the final photograph of the book is of doves, descending (Mark 1:10). From the chapter “God Filled My Emptiness,” pages 103–104, where Arnade attends a church service in Bakersfield, CA:

After an hour I leave, done in by the heat and the noise. I also leave because I’m uncomfortable. Although I respect Jeanette and her congregation’s beliefs, I don’t share them. Like many other members of the front row, I don’t think it reflects reality. I escape back to McDonald’s, which even then, on a Sunday morning, was busy with desperate people looking for an escape from the heat, danger, and boredom of the streets.

An hour later I got a text from Jeanette, who had found me and my work on addition on the internet. “Jennifer who you took a picture of me hugging during our service was a meth addict for two years. She also lived on the streets over there near the McDonald’s. She has been clean for five years since joining our church.”

So. Pragmatically, seeking “big structural change” while looking at issues of scale, it seems to me that institutions like DSA (or Our Revolution, or even the Sanders campaign, if it should actually transform itself on the ground into a real movement) must, with some humility, give an account of themselves to the religious, and not the other way around. Hence this post on the Poor People’s campaign, which would seem to combine religion with some sort of structural analysis of American society: “Blessed be ye poor” (Luke 6:20). With all that said, let’s look at the Poor People’s campaign. Naturally, I went to their website, and among the “endorsing partners” I see DSA and Our Revolution, a number of unions, and none of the usual suspects from the world of high-dollar donors or liberal Democrat NGOs; Neera Tanden’s not giving them a dime, which is good, actually.

The original “Poor People’s Campaign” was a 1986 effort organized by “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and carried out under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy in the wake of King’s assassination”. (The history is complicated; RFK encouraged the organizers (before he was assassinated). Still from Wikipedia:

King wanted to bring poor people to Washington, D.C., forcing politicians to see them and think about their needs: “We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way … and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.’”

What I remember was “Resurrection City,” which, in a way, prefigured Occupy:

On Tuesday, May 21, 1968, thousands of poor people set up a shantytown [on the National Mall] known as “Resurrection City,” which existed for six weeks. The city had its own zip code, 20013….. Thousands of people lived in Resurrection City and in some ways it resembled other cities. Gordon Mantler writes

Resurrection City also became a community with all of the tensions that any society contains: hard work and idleness, order and turmoil, punishment and redemption. Businesses flourished inside the tent city’s walls, as did street crime. Older men informally talked politics while playing checkers or having their hair cut; others argued in more formal courses and workshops.

There were unusual problems but there was also unusual dignity. Residents called it “the city where you don’t pay taxes, where there’s no police….

Unfortunately the makeshift community suffered from multiple violent incidents, including seventeen in one night including assault and robbery. In addition strong arm tactics were used by leaders of the movement to cheat local business out of money [hmm]. The group suffered from political demoralization, conflicts over leadership, racial tension, and, always, difficult living conditions.

My recollection is that the press coverage of “Resurrection City” was snarky and negative; that King (and his much inferior substitute, Abernethy) has taken a wrong turning; the press, at least, has not changed! I include this ancient history because King’s statement: “You have made us this way.” This seems very different from “For ye have the poor always with you” (Matt 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8). Dr. William Barber shares the same modern view with King:

Barber launched the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) following the Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina. From Facing South:

In 2017, as head of the North Carolina NAACP, Rev. Dr. William Barber led a protest at the state legislature calling on lawmakers to provide health care to the poor by expanding Medicaid. When legislators refused to speak to him and other protesters, Barber led the group in reciting Bible verses, the N.C. Constitution, and statistics on health care.

After he was banned from the North Carolina legislature, Barber launched the Poor People’s Campaign, a nationwide “moral revival” challenging systemic racism, poverty, militarism, and ecological devastation.

Barber said at the time that “the rules that need to be changed are not the ones that allow for peaceful, nonviolent protest, but the ones that rob the poor of the right to health care and allow billion-dollar companies to pollute our water and environment.”

At the protest, Barber was arrested for trespassing (and sentenced to a day in jail, suspended, plus 24 hours of community service. The judge commented: “Isn’t his life an example of service, community service?” Braxton D. Shelley, of the University of Chicago (!) School of Theology, comments on the prosecution strategy:

I was most arrested by the prosecutor’s preoccupation with the sound of Rev. Barber’s voice. Earlier on the day of his conviction, when Barber took to the stand in his own defense, he found himself embroiled in a debate about the black prophetic preaching tradition that he so powerfully embodies. During the cross-examination, the prosecutor used videos of the event to characterize the activist’s voice as “quite loud,” as “yelling”…. Barber responded that the register of speech to which the prosecutor referred was his “preaching voice,” an instrument which, like the clerical vestments in which he was arrested, symbolizes submission to a higher authority.

To put it bluntly, it was Barber’s voice that was on trial—what he said and how he said it. It was loud, but so is injustice. It was insistent, but so is oppression. In Barber’s tradition, there is meaning in what sounds unruly: an abundant zeal whose source is divine…. This was Barber’s preaching voice, but it was not his alone. Is effective preaching ever a solitary act? No, this disruptive-yet-righteous sound emerged from a collective, from the crowd’s antiphonal juxtaposition of phrases from the state constitution and Christian scripture against statistics which quantified the dastardly impact of the legislature’s refusal to expand health care for the poor. To portray this scene of call-and-response as one man’s yelling requires both an indiscriminate reduction of a thick sonic event and a discounting of the elevated patterns of speech that are a multi-religious commonplace.

(I seem to recall “crowd’s antiphonal juxtaposition of phrases” at Sanders rallies, too.[1])

Unlike Occupy, then, Barber has demands, both policy and geographical. Barber and Theoharis, having convened the “the first-ever Poor People’s Moral Action Congress,” write in The Hill, on policy:

We will present a national moral budget, outlining a plan to pay for real, systemic change as well a challenge to the lie of scarcity. And poor people who haven’t seen a place for them in American public life will testify before the House Budget Committee, in a hearing to share their stories and address what the federal government can and must do now to address the real issues affecting everyday Americans.

And on geography:

We are building coalitions among poor people who are too often pitted against one another by the divide-and-conquer tactics of the Southern Strategy. In the so-called “red-states” of the South and Midwest, we are organizing people into a movement who will vote, take action and challenge the assumptions of candidates from both parties. We are organizing across race and other lines that too often divide us and lifting up and deepening the leadership of those most affected by systemic racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological devastation.

(Note that this strategy is very, very different from the strategy of liberal Democrats, who tend to regard citizens outside their coastal enclaves as “deplorables,” or as “bitter” people who “cling to guns and religion,” and leave it at that.) Here is an extract from the PPC’s “Moral Budget,” created together with the Institute of Policy Studies (PDF):

The United States has abundant resources for an economic revival that will move towards establishing a moral economy. This report identifies:

  • $350 billion in annual military spending cuts that would make the nation and the world more secure;
  • $886 billion in estimated annual revenue from fair taxes on the wealthy, corporations, and Wall Street; and
  • Billions more in savings from ending mass incarceration, addressing climate change, and meeting other key campaign demands.

The below comparisons demonstrate that policymakers have always found resources for their true priorities. It is critical that policymakers redirect these resources to establish justice and to prioritize the general welfare instead. The abundant wealth of this nation is produced by millions of people, workers, and families in this country and around the world. The fruits of their labor should be devoted to securing their basic needs and creating the conditions for them to thrive. At the same time, policymakers should not tie their hands with “pay-as-you-go” restrictions that require every dime of new spending to be offset with expenditure cuts or new revenue, especially given the enormous long-term benefits of most of our proposals. The cost of inaction is simply too great.

I think the left could get behind all of this (though sadly, MMT is not explicitly included, though it’s certainly righteous to cripple PayGo).

So why can’t we have nice things? The budget concludes on page 115:

For too long, we have turned to those with wealth and power to solve our most pressing social problems. We have been led to believe that those in positions of influence and authority will use the resources at hand in the best possible way for the betterment of our society. This orientation has justified tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations and work requirements for the poor; it has secured environmental shortcuts for industry and military expansion around the world; and it has yielded very little for the 140 million people in this country who are still poor and struggling to meet their needs.

This is not an argument for charity or goodwill to the poor. It is, rather, a simple recognition that the poor are not only victims of injustice, but agents of profound social change. Rather than following the direction and leadership of the wealthy and powerful, it is time to follow the direction and leadership of the poor. Indeed, if we organize our resources around the needs of the 140 million, this Budget shows that we will strengthen our society as a whole.

This is why the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival continues to organize and build power among the poor today. It understands that those who have been cast out of the economy and who are living on the few remaining crumbs of its meager offerings are also articulating a way out of this wretched existence – not just for themselves, but for us all.

That’s the stuff to give the troops! If I have a criticism of PPC (and the budget) it’s that who “those with wealth and power” might be is not crisply articulated (unlike, for example, “the billionaire class“). At this point, I realize I’ve shifted from saying the left should give an account to the PPC to saying that the PPC should give an account to the left. Be that as it may, Barber tweets:

Well, those Democrats who talk about “working people” use that phrase — “working families” seems to have, mirabile dictu, vanished from the discourse — probably started doing so only recently, having been pressured from their left, and as a replacement for “working class”; they don’t take their bourbon neat, that is, but watered down. And yes, they may be scared of the “free stuff” argument that liberal Democrats deploy against the left. However, I think the left (very much as opposed to liberals) would view “the poor” as a subset of the working class, those who are coerced sell or give their labor to survive (forgive the crudity of this ahistorical analysis). If indeed the PPC/DSA/left are to move beyond a relationship of “endorsing partners” to something akin to co-operation, both tactical and strategic, then distinctions like this are going to have to be hashed out. For example, Barber tweets:

“Policy murder” is brilliant framing (and would provide one account of elite behavior on climate change). However, who is the murderer? Barber says “a legislator.” But if you believe — as most of the left does, and (I would say) most liberals do not, especially donor-dependent NGOs — that we live in an oligarchy, then the murderer is not the legislator, but the person who hired or owns the legislator: Much more often than not, when all the threads are traced down, a billionaire. The billionaire class is surely composed of great sinners. And every billionaire is a policy failure, just as surely as every slaveowner was. Should this be hard to say?


[1] I think there is a class dimension here, too. Elites, especially when doing elite business together, tend to speak quietly. Loudness is taken as a sign of inability to control one’s self; hardly professional.

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