Food, sadness, coffee, screaming, march: the campaign for the poor energizes thousands

Thousands of activists gathered in the capital on June 18 to shout, celebrate and mourn, to make demands and declare their mutual determination to end poverty.

It was the long-awaited moral march of the Washington poor campaign.

Protesters gather near the main platform during the Poor People’s Campaign event on June 18. Hans Holznagel’s photo.

Saturday’s event attracted religious advocates, labor organizers and pro-democracy activists. There were people worried about climate breakdown, health care, reproductive justice, education, LGBT equality, gun violence and more.

There were clergy and laity in the United Church of Christ. Nearly 100 of them, from several states, met up early to walk together for the rally. “Forward together, not one step back,” they chanted before leaving the First Congregational UCC. More UCC members arrived – in numbers still counting – separately and merged with the mass rally on Pennsylvania Avenue.

‘Lots of feelings’

Some UCC participants said they were drawn in part to what the campaign calls a “moral fusion” approach: a heavy focus on fighting interlocking social ills.

Reverend Nancy Leckerling, a member of the First Congregational UCC, Guilford, Connecticut, gave credit to the campaign’s national co-chairs, The Revs. William Barber II and Elizabeth Theoharis. “It’s the first time I’ve heard people express intersectionality so effectively,” she said.

Her husband, John Leckerling, added that UCC itself is a “big tent.” “She has a lot of feelings. The Poor People campaign helps bring these elements together.”

Eli Anthony, who belongs to the Old Southern Church in Boston, had similar thoughts. He is also a resident urban pastoral ministry at the UCC-related City Mission in Boston. “Systematic oppression is not just about people in power doing one thing,” he said. “To fight the weight of injustice, we don’t need to fight just one thing.”

Early arrivals for the UCC Coffee Hour at First Congregational Church (from left) included Eli Anthony, Tamar Wasoian, and Rev. Melissa Pace and Rev. Nancy Leckerling and Jon Leckerling.

“Faith in Action”

Tamar Wasoyan, also a City Mission resident, said there is value in taking these principles to the streets. She described the June 18 rally as “faith in action.” “Inside the church, we talk about faith,” she said. “Outside, we act on our faith.”

Leckerlings, Anthony and Wasoian were part of the UCC crowd at 7:30 a.m. on the capital pier in front of the First Congregational. An unofficial entry sheet showed not only people from many of the capital’s churches but also from California, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. UCC participants have also been seen from as far away as Iowa and Oregon.

Before walking the one mile to the assembly, they moved inside the church and actively responded to the UCC’s welcome by its chief minister, Reverend Amanda Hendler-Voss; Rev. Marvin Silver, Co-Minister of the Mid-Atlantic Conference; and Michael Newroth, a policy advocate with the Washington-based Office of Public Policy and Advocacy.

A few members of the Mid-Atlantic Conference delegation—including their leader, Reverend Freeman Palmer (right)—stopped for a selfie on the way to Pennsylvania Avenue.

river of people

When the UCC Division turned left from 10th Street into Pennsylvania, the scale of the event became apparent. They merged into a river of people on foot, flowing as far as the eye can see in front of the US Capitol, and extending behind them as well. Dotted along the street are large video screens and speakers, some with folding chairs, that carry the program from the main event platform.

Along the way, there were enough stick-on, branded signs for anyone who wanted one – in English or Spanish. They said things like:

  • “Everyone has the right to live”
  • ‘An alarming new force’
  • We are 140 million: poor and low wages
  • “Everyone rises – rise from the bottom”

And there were impromptu performances along the way, too. A similar life-size version of a battle tank is decorated with the words “Disarm everything”. People decorated it with more messages: “Books not bombs.” “Financing Compensation, Not Professions.” “Food, not F-35s.” Money is for the poor, not for war.

Reverend Maypa Jonas, chaplain at Goucher College in Baltimore, is seen on a large screen next to the main podium.

You will not be silent

Protesters approaching the main stage could hear an opening speech titled “Moral Basis” read by speakers from a wide range of faiths, including two of the Union Carbide Corporation:

  • “In a world of abundance, not scarcity, we shout, ‘There is enough for everyone’s needs,'” said Sandy Sorensen, UCC’s director of capital office. “But there is not enough for such corporate greed.”
  • “From the truth of our humanity, and carried on the lips of our many prophets, teachers, and sages, we solemnly commit ourselves to doing justice, loving one another, and striving for victory to be ours,” said Reverend Mepa Jonas, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life at Goucher College in Baltimore.

In the five hours that followed, the spiritual mingled with the secular.

Gospel hymns have received testimonies from coal miners and call center workers. The Baptists sided with the Social Democrats. Theologian Cornell West stirred up the crowd. They were greeted by former Vice President Al Gore on video. On a signal from Barber—which lasted all day—the crowd would often respond to the speakers by shouting, “And we won’t be silent anymore.”

Seven steps to the middle of the semester

Campaign banners decorate Freedom Square on June 17.

Time and again the focus has returned to the campaign’s organizing principle: fighting poverty with better public policies.

During his motivating opening speech, which was greeted with loud cheers, Barber paused to outline the seven steps planned for the campaign between now and the US midterm elections on November 8:

  1. He urged every member of Congress to acknowledge the “reality and pain of the 140 million poor and low-income” — “not just the 39 million,” some said, he said — and to acknowledge the “moral crisis that must be reckoned, rectified, and reformed.”
  2. Get Congress to support legislation “developed by poor, low-wage communities.” Examples include the campaign’s long-established “Third Reconstruction” proposals that are now included in Proposition HR 438.
  3. They demanded that President Biden hold a “poverty summit” at the White House. The campaign wants the administration to meet with a “delegation of poor, low-income, religious and economic leaders” and “commit to an operational plan of action to eradicate poverty in 2022.”
  4. He launched a “mass mobilization” – through visits, letters, petitions, candidate forums and phone calls – calling on government representatives to meet the needs of 140 million people.
  5. In September, he brought a delegation of “5,000 poor, low-income, religious and economic leaders” to the capital to “roam the halls of Congress” and demand action on those needs. “We’re not disobedient,” Barber said. “We are a resurrection.”
  6. “Register and educate poor and low-income communities to vote in every election for candidates who are committed to tackling bottom-up poverty and low wealth.”
  7. To support the Movement that Votes, “Fight with every tool we have to ensure that no vote is excluded from this democracy, and that no vote is rejected.”

“What we are asking for is not radical,” Barber said. “This is correct.”

Healing requires mourning

Despite all its exciting aspects, the event also witnessed quiet and even sad moments.

Sandy Sorensen (right), director of the UCC DC bureau, was among those prepared to serve up the free June 17 meal at Freedom Plaza.

Despite the 97-degree heat, a free community meal the night before the rally drew about 500 people to Freedom Square in Washington. As Barber told outdoor activists — joined by a few local skaters and street folks — the meal was meant to illustrate the need that exists within the Capitol and White House buildings. It also embodied one of the campaign’s values: “Everyone is inside, no one is left behind.”

Later that evening, campaigners gathered between the Lincoln Memorial and its reflecting basin to remember the people who died from COVID-19 and poverty. After they applauded respectfully for some of the early speakers and musicians, Barber warned them. “I don’t think applause is appropriate at a gathering like this,” he said. “Can we Not Smile for just an hour? “

Indeed, the tone of the hymns, prayers, and obeisances in the service was a tone of weeping, wailing, and wailing. I literally shed tears when Barber invited people who have lost someone to COVID or other tragedies to join him around the podium. He said: To heal, the nation must first grieve. “If this movement can’t cry, no one can.”

This country needs this

In an email to supporters of her campaign on June 20, Theoharis said she was “stunned” by Saturday’s “moral march.” However, she said, “Saturday was not a working day.” “It was an advertisement.”

“Now, we will demand real political solutions,” she said. … We will do so by insisting that leaders at all levels prioritize policies that raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, ensure adequate income and quality housing for all, and provide high-quality health care. Quality and affordable, protecting and expanding voting rights, ensuring public quality education for all children, reforming the crippled immigration system, ending the war economy, and ensuring the rights of indigenous peoples.”

On Saturday, as the Union Carbide Corporation delegation headed toward the Capitol, Reverend Freeman Palmer, Secretary of the Central Atlantic Conference, said he saw signs of hope in the assembled crowd. He said that positive mobilization and encouragement are important, given all the current struggles and struggles in society. “This country needs this now.”

Rally participants walk toward the podium in front of the US Capitol on June 18.

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