Rev. William Barber: Immoral US Policies on Poverty Are a Threat to Democracy

We have an impoverished democracy, which is why we have to have massive, nonviolent, moral fusion civil disobedience, massive voter mobilization among the poor, and massive power building among the poor, if we’re going to turn this nation around.

National movement: Rev. William Barber (center) speaks to media at a Moral Monday rally in Albany, New York, in 2015. (Courtesy of North Carolina NAACP)

The release of the UN report on extreme poverty in the United States comes amid a nationwide, weeks-long direct action campaign known as the new Poor People’s Campaign, aimed at fighting poverty and racism in the United States. Nearly 2,000 people have been arrested around the country since the campaign began in March, 50 years after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. launched the first Poor People’s Campaign. We speak with Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the new Poor People’s Campaign.
TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. The release of the UN report on extreme poverty in the United States comes amidst a nationwide, weeks-long direct action campaign known as the new Poor People’s Campaign, aimed at fighting poverty and racism in the United States. Nearly 2,000 people have been arrested across the country since the campaign began in March. This comes 50 years after the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. launched the first Poor People’s Campaign and was assassinated, on April 4th, 1968. Organizers say the Poor People’s Campaign is the most expansive wave of nonviolent direct action in the US this century.

Well, Democracy Now! was in the streets of Washington, DC, covering the Poor People’s Campaign Monday as over a hundred people were arrested in DC alone. This is the Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, speaking before he was arrested.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: We believe we’ve got to shift the narrative of this country. And the only way we can do it is people have got to put their lives and their bodies on the line. You have preachers and poor people and impacted people who are in these lines. And we’re willing now to engage in an act of moral civil disobedience to drive home what is going on. We believe that injustice is happening in the halls of Congress and in the halls of state capitols around this country.

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AMY GOODMAN: Just after he said this, Reverend Barber was taken into custody, was arrested, along with a hundred other people. Just after they were detained, across the street at the Supreme Court, his co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, Reverend Liz Theoharis, with eight other religious leaders and activists, were standing on the steps of the Supreme Court. They, too, were arrested. They were held overnight in cockroach-infested cells, like so many others are held. When they were brought before the judge the next day, they were in ankle irons.

Joining us now from Chicago is the Reverend Dr. William Barber, as he campaigns around the country against poverty and racism.

Reverend Barber, it’s great to see you again. Talk about what happened Monday and where you’re headed now. As we bring out this latest report on extreme poverty, you expand that to poverty, all poor people in this country.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Indeed. And thank you so much, Amy, for having us on this morning, and on behalf of my co-chair, the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, and the activists and devotees in over 40 states around this country. There were actions last Monday in over 40 states, simultaneously, at 2:00. Actually, the numbers have gone up now. Over 2,000 persons have engaged in nonviolent march, fusion civil disobedience. And thousands have committed to and been witnesses and planning to come on June 23rd to DC

You know, when we had those people arrested in Washington, it happened in—it was happening across this country, because we’ve done a study called “The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America 50 Years After the First Poor People’s Campaign,” and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call Revival audit says there are actually 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this country. Seventy-three percent of them are women and children. That’s 43.5 percent of all of the people in this country are poor. Are poor. Upwards of 250,000 people die every year from poverty. Incomes—and, no, it’s no longer true that if you work, you’re coming out of poverty. In some places, you’d have to work 99 hours at a minimum-wage job just to be able to get a basic apartment.

So we have an impoverished democracy right now. It didn’t just start with Trump, but it certainly is being exacerbated by Trump. Too often, we have seen a political dialogue, a narrative, for the last 40 years, that has literally removed poverty from any of our political discussions. Politicians talk about the middle class and military, and not about poverty. And we have this impoverished democracy.

On top of that, we have, Amy, the systemic racism, particularly around the works—not the words of racism, like Roseanne Barr saying something, but the works of racism—voter suppression that hurts the poor, gerrymandering that hurts the poor and allows people to get elected who use racialized voter suppression to get elected. And once they get elected, they pass policies that hurt mostly the poor. All of the states that have racialized voter suppression since 2010 have elected statehouses and congresspeople and senators that are against funding for the poor, that are against living wages, that have tried to block healthcare, that have passed tax cuts that are devastating to the programs that help the poor.

So we have an impoverished democracy, which is why we have to have massive, nonviolent, moral fusion civil disobedience, massive voter mobilization among the poor, and massive power building among the poor, if we’re going to turn this nation around.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve talked about a basic guaranteed income, which Dr. King also spoke about. The mayor of Stockton, California, Michael Tubbs, is planning a pilot project which would give $500 to some residents as a guaranteed income. Why is this so important to you?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, first of all, for me, as a person of faith and a person of deep religious values, and even my constitutional values, there are some things that we are supposed to be about. The scriptures say, “Woe unto those who rob the poor of their right and make women and children their prey.” It also says we’re supposed to care for the least of these. And our Constitution says we’re supposed to establish justice and provide for the general welfare.

We live in a country now where we’re treating corporations like people and people like things. We live in a country where we say banks are too big to fail, but then we let human beings fail. We cannot deal with poverty if we do not deal with wages. And it’s as though we give—we give corporate welfare to corporations. We make sure everything else survives, but then, when it comes to poor people, it’s almost as though we can write them off.

There are hurting people. There are disabled people. I think about Pamela Rush, who’s down in Lowndes County, who was tricked by predatory lenders and made to buy 120—spend $120,000 for a one-room trailer, that’s now falling apart. It’s mold-infested. Her daughter is now on a CPAP machine. She’s disabled. Her daughter is disabled. And she has raw sewage coming up in the back of her yard. She should have a guaranteed basic income. She should have a guaranteed basic income to survive, because the system did so much to her to cause her life to be so miserable. And there are many, many more people.

Just like healthcare should be guaranteed as a human right. It should not just be for those who can afford it or those that some say deserve it. We have 37 million people in this country without healthcare. Without healthcare. For every 1 million people without healthcare, over 5,000 people die, literally die, in the wealthiest country in the nation, in the country with the most advanced health. And we are the one—of the 25 wealthiest countries, and we’re the only one that does not provide some form of guaranteed universal healthcare.

These things are immoral. And as Joseph Stiglitz says—the Nobel Peace Prize economist—not only are they immoral, we have to look at the cost of inequality. It is costing us people. It is costing us our moral fiber. And it is doing great injury to our democracy.

 

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