On September 16, 2019, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis spoke at the first mass meeting of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival’s “We Must Do M.O.R.E.” Tour in El Paso, TX. The following are her remarks.
Yesterday was the 56th anniversary of the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the murder of four young girls at the hands of white supremacists and a society sick with racism. A newspaper report at the time indicated that all of the church’s stained glass windows were destroyed except one that depicted “Christ leading a group of little children. The face of Christ was blown out.” And today is over a month and a week from the mass shooting of Latinos at the Walmart here in El Paso. A newspaper report from August 3 reported that one of the victims was a young mother who lay over her 2-month-old baby, who died saving her baby’s life.
Three days after the Birmingham bombing thousands of mourners spilled out of the sanctuary into the street for a mass funeral for three of the girls.
And less than two weeks after the shooting in El Paso, three thousand strangers paid their respects to Antonio Basco who lost his wife and only family member in the shooting.
Days before the funeral a white pastor in Birmingham suggested that the murderer of those 4 girls was a society sick with racism. He wrote, “It is all the Christians and all their ministers who spoke too late in anguished cries against violence.”
Indeed as this community here at the Border experienced in the shooting at Walmart, at the detention and deportation of immigrants, at the high rates of poverty and the lack of affordable housing and living wage jobs, our society is still sick with racism. It is sick with poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and a distorted moral narrative of Christian nationalism. And there are many who speak and act too late against this violence. There are 140 million people who are poor and low-income in this country — 43.5% of the population — 60% of African-Americans, 65% of Latinos, 40% of Asians, 60% of Native Americans, and 67 million poor white Americans but our society, faith communities, mainstream media are virtually silent on the matter. We have fewer voting rights today than we did 54 years ago, but politicians get away with suppressing voting rights; Mitch McConnell has filibustered the senate for thousands of days refusing to reinstate of the Voting Rights Act.
There are 15 million households that can’t afford water and 4 million whose water is poisoned but corporations and the US military block life-giving water to millions of people. And during the last 30 years, the U.S.-Mexico border has become one of the most militarized in the world. In 2018, Border Patrol had a budget of $14 billion for border enforcement here. There are more than 23,000 border patrol agents deployed along the border, 700 miles of fencing and walls, 12,000 underground sensors, 170 aircraft and 8 drones, nearly 500 surveillance systems, dozens of immigration check points and detention centers. Federal spending on immigration, deportations and border enforcement has increased 8x in the past 40 years — from $2 billion to $17 billion in 2015. With all this spending have come more deportations, ten times as many more deputations. The cost of the southern border wall is approximately $22 billion according to Dept of Homeland security (or closer to $60 billion according to policy institutes). This could help cover the costs of expanding Medicaid in 14 states ($25 billion for the year), or create hundreds of thousands of new infrastructure jobs, or provide k-12 education for thousands and thousands of children.
As we know, things don’t have to be this way. Our Poor People’s Moral Budget tells us that if we cut our military and make our world more secure, tax those who can most afford it, and invest in living wages and health care and free education and housing and de-carceration, the vast majority of people could live better.
We could raise the federal minimum wage to a living wage and experience a ripple effect as that money is circulated back through the economy, faster and further than the billions Congress gave the rich and corporations through tax cuts;
We could gain $886 billion in estimated annual revenue from fair taxes on the wealthy, corporations, and Wall Street;
We could invest in public infrastructure and create more jobs outside of the military that could speed a clean energy transition that would be good for our country and the planet;
We can end poverty, we can stop detention and deportation, we can provide a decent education for all our children. We can have it all! All! But to do this, we need to rise up!
This reminds me of a story from the Gospel of Mark about the Gerasene demoniac. Mark 5 reads,
They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.
Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea.
The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it.
They told the story of the demilitarization of their community. They told the story of the people in Gerasene and across the country being made well.
And the story continues,
Then when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.
These stories from Mark tell of another society sick with racism and violence and poverty. Roman legions have taken over Gerasene, inhabiting the bodies and minds of the people conquered by militarism and racism and poverty. Jesus heals the man possessed by violence and militarism; he helps the man to rise up and send the military, and law enforcement and forces of poverty and empire and nationalism away. Jairus’ daughter rises up literally and starts marching and organizing with other people in the conquered provinces of Rome. The woman with the flow of blood takes power into her own hands and takes her health and the health of her community into her own hands.
Our Poor People’s Moral Budget tells us that if we cut our military and make our world more secure, tax those who can most afford it, and invest in living wages and health care and free education and housing and de-carceration, the vast majority of people could live better.
This reminds me of a slogan of the National Union of the Homeless: You only get what you’re organized to take.
Well, El Paso, just like the people in these stories of the Bible, just like the people who came together in this city after the mass shooting, just like the people of Birmingham and Alabama and the South, after the crucifixion, there is resurrection.
After the bombing of the church, the movement rose powerfully and passed the voting rights and civil rights act.
After violence and poverty and white supremacy, a movement is breaking through.
We are rising up for voting rights! Rise up!
We are rising up for immigrant rights! Rise up!
We are rising up for living wages! Rise up!
We are rising up for health care! Rise up!
We are rising up for housing rights! Rise up!
We are rising up for education! Rise up!
We are rising up for peace and justice! Rise up!
This evening we launch the “We Must Do M.O.R.E.” Tour — More mobilizing, more organizing, more registering, more educating. We are rising up to demand a fair and just society.
We demand a just immigration system. This includes providing a timely citizenship process that guarantees the right to vote.
We demand the immediate full restoration and expansion of the Voting Rights Act
We demand an end to military aggression and war-mongering.
We demand a stop to the privatization of the military budget and any increase in military spending.
We demand a ban on assault rifles and a ban on the easy access to firearms.
We demand the demilitarization of our communities on the border and the interior. We demand an end to federal programs that send military equipment into local and state communities.
We demand that the call to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border be ceased.
We demand an immigration system that, instead of criminalizing people for trying to raise their families, prioritizes family reunification, keeps families together and allows us all to build thriving communities in the country we call home.
We demand relief from crushing household, student, and consumer debt.
We demand decent, safe public housing for the poor.
We demand the immediate implementation of federal and state living wage laws that are commensurate for the 21st century economy.
We demand the right for all workers to form and join unions.
We demand fully-funded welfare programs for the poor and an end to the attacks on SNAP, HEAP, and other vital programs for the poor.
We demand equity in education and an end to re-segregation of schools.
After violence and poverty and white supremacy, a movement is breaking through.
We demand free tuition at public colleges and universities and an end to profiteering on student debt.
We demand 100 percent clean, renewable energy and a public jobs program to transition to a green economy that will put millions of people in sustainable living wage jobs.
We demand a fully funded public water and sanitation infrastructure that keeps these utilities and services under public control and that prioritize poor, rural and Native communities that have been harmed by polluting and extractive industries.
We demand a ban on all new pipelines, refineries, and coal, oil, and gas export terminals.
We demand equality and the safety of all persons regardless of race, immigration status, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.
We demand justice! And we believe we can win!