BRATTLEBORO—Turn back the clock to 1968. Systemic inequality is seen all over the nation.
To raise awareness and to advocate for change, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. announced a plan to assemble people from all across the nation struck by poverty and inequality to march on Washington for change.
Now, 50 years after this original Poor People’s Campaign took shape, a nationwide effort intends to raise new awareness of the same issues and achieve the same goals: better homes, better education and employment, and a better quality of life.
The idea of the weekly protests and activity concentrated in a 40-day span came in part from the Moral Mondays Campaign, a series of civil disobedience protests in 2013 held in North Carolina, organized by Rev. Dr. William Barber II, the president of that state’s chapter of the NAACP.
The new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is led by Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, codirector of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and a founder and the coordinator of the Poverty Initiative.
The campaign will protest the systemic issues deeply rooted in our government that cause poverty and classism all around the nation — including in Vermont, where peaceful protests are carried out at the Statehouse in Montpelier each Monday.
Vermonters are joining activists in 37 states to create the protests, which underscore a different issue each week.
Organizers say that each of the campaign’s themes illuminates symptoms caused by the same unjust system at work in the government, and therefore all topics of the week are interconnected at the deepest level.
The first weeks highlighted child poverty, women, and people with disabilities; voting rights and immigration; militarism and the proliferation of gun violence.
Upcoming themes include:
• “Ecological Devastation and the Right to Health” (June 3–9)
• “Everybody’s Got the Right to Live: Education, Jobs, Income and Housing” (June 10–16)
• “A New and Unsettling Force: Confronting the Distorted Moral Narrative” (June 17–22)
Organizers have set Saturday, June 23 as a Global Day of Solidarity, with a mass rally planned in Washington, D.C.
Local engagement via technology
The Statehouse marches happen every Monday, but each week is filled with other national events to spread information and allow those to show their support, whether in person or from afar.
Those events include live-stream mass meetings on Sunday nights, Tuesday-night teach-ins, and Thursday-night cultural music and performance. Viewing parties are encouraged; anybody is free to show support in their way even if they’re unable to make Monday meetings in Montpelier.
Though the campaign is a nationwide protest, with 37 states marching at their statehouses each week, including in D.C, many social issues within the state are inspiring Vermonters to take action.
Poverty is a big issue in the state, along with systemic racism, militarism, and ecology and health.
In Vermont, 237,000 people, including 56,000 children, are low-income residents — 38 percent.
The state has the fifth-highest disparity of black-to-white people imprisoned. From 2008 to 2014, local and state police have received $1.7 million in military equipment to use on the civilian population, yet more than 12,250 veterans earn less than $35,000 per year. Almost 34,000 people in Vermont are uninsured. A person would have to work 88 hours per week at the 2017 minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment. And soon, according to a recent study, those living on 20.1 percent of census tracts in this state are at risk of being unable to afford water.
A long-term process
The goal of the 40 Days of Action is to raise awareness that all these problems are systemic. And yet, when the same people empowered by this system are stubbornly averse to change, how can people even begin a task as big as changing the system?
“That’s the 64 million dollar question,” said Ellen Schwartz.
Schwartz, who has been participating in the marches, also sees the Poor People’s Campaign as the beginning of change.
“The vision of the campaign...is that this is really a long-term process,” she said. “We are not going to change oppressive systems by the end of this legislative session or the end of another year.”
But more and more, people are stepping forward to speak out about injustice.
An organizer of the Vermont branch of the campaign, Ellen Kaye, believes that the key to change “starts from the bottom up.”
Kaye, a former resident of West Brattleboro and Putney and longtime Windham County activist, believes that people need to start thinking about whom the oppressive policies are meant for, and whom they really benefit.
Kaye believes that when that happens, people can come together and start “feeling our collective power.”
The Monday marches at the Statehouse tackle a different theme. The Poor People’s Campaign aims to show that these topics are all tied together and stem from the same single root of systemic oppression.
Yet because these topics are social issues that are typically discussed separately, protestors could split in their support of these issues.
To avoid such rifts in ideology, the campaign uses a platform it calls “fusion organizing,” which acknowledges that these systemic issues are all interconnected.
The campaign acknowledges these problems as “pillars” that hold up a larger entity that might have many names — capitalism, militarism, or patriarchy.
“It’s a way of standing together,” said Rev. Earl Koopercamp, the rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Barre and one of the Vermont campaign organizers.
Kaye described fusion organizing as a kind of solidarity, where participants can come together and understand all of these issues as an intertwined pattern where wealth is privileged over people.
“Systemic racism, systemic poverty, environmental devastation, and the war economy are holding up something that needs to be toppled,” Kaye says. “I hope that we understand that and don’t think that we need to compete with each other.”
“To end poverty we’ve got to take on the ecological devastation that effects poor people,” said Koopercamp, who added that the movement needs “to take on the war economy, which keeps so many people in poverty.”
As a people, we must “look at systemic racism which keeps both communities of color in poverty and plenty of white people in poverty,” he said.
Kaye noted that “we have a federal government that makes policies that do not ruffle the feathers of the 1 percent,” and that’s why “we’re not getting bogged down by the issues that are used to divide us.”
Protest results in 14 arrests
This past week in Montpelier, despite the protests and demonstrations held by the Poor People’s Campaign remaining nonviolent, 14 people were arrested.
The Statehouse was filled with protestors singing and speaking during the day. The protestors were informed that anyone who stayed after the close of business would be subject to arrest.
A few hours later, 14 protestors who did just that were read their rights and arrested on the grounds of “unlawful trespass.”
Both Kaye and Schwartz were among them and were fully prepared to be arrested. Kaye coordinates training for those who want to participate in direct action and not necessarily expect, but risk, arrest.
By the end of volunteers’ training, “[t]hey’re mentally prepared, they’re physically prepared, they’re emotionally prepared,” Kaye said.
Those who participate in the direct action also go through nonviolence training. The power of nonviolent direct action is one that resonates throughout both the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and its recent incarnation.
In his autobiography, King described nonviolent resistance as “the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” Kooperkamp believes that nonviolence is the clear path forward.
“If we’re standing against the violence of poverty...we have to do that from a clear moral position,” he said.
The alternative, Kaye said, is clear from history.
“Violent social change leads to more violence, always,” she said. “I don’t think that’s an option for people, nor would I want it to be. And I’ve seen nonviolent direct action yield beautiful results.”