Last week, Adam Barnes of the Kairos Center spoke with Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, our Co-Director and the Co-Chair, with Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Adam reflected with Liz on the state of the Campaign today, and its next steps — an organizing tour of at least seven states in which the Co-Chairs of the Campaign will visit with local leaders of the poor and dispossessed on the front lines of the struggle against systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological devastation. Read the full interview below.
Adam Barnes: On Dec. 4, 2017 in Washington, D.C. and across the country we launched the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. How do you feel now that things are under way?
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis: I feel like we had a really powerful launch. At the press conference in the morning we were joined by people from all over the country and we were able to share some of the vision of what this Campaign is. We also got to hear from some of the leaders who have been out there fighting for years and are now taking on leadership roles in this Campaign. A real highlight for me was when representatives from the different states called in and voiced their support and reiterated their commitment to take part in the 40 days of moral direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience in the spring.
AB: How has the Campaign developed since the launch?
LT: A lot of the focus right now is on strengthening the organizing in the states (right now there are 32) that are committed to take part in the 40 days of action and civil disobedience. Leaders in these states are connecting up with poor people’s organizations and other impacted leaders. They’re connecting up with clergy and moral leaders. They’re connecting up with lawyers and artists, and doctors, and all of the people who will make up this movement.
AB: I know you’re in touch with a lot of these folks. How is all of this work in the states going?
LT: I feel very good about what we have done so far and about the work that we have ahead of us. I really think we are already starting to shift the moral narrative in this country, which for so long has sought to blame poor and marginalized people for their problems and refused to look at the systemic injustices that plague our whole society. This dominant narrative has paid little attention to the key issues of our day, including systemic racism and poverty, the war economy and militarism, ecological devastation, and the distorted morality and theology that justifies all of these evils.
I think we are poised to really be able to build power from the ground up in the states and to unite in a powerful national movement.
AB: What are the specific plans over the next couple of months, between now and the beginning of the period of civil disobedience that begins on Mother’s Day?
LT: After the launch we entered into a new phase of the Campaign. A lot of things are happening in this period. In the states there is tremendous work being put into day-to-day grassroots organizing. This includes holding poverty truth commissions, community hearings, public actions, reaching out to folks through phone banks, planning nonviolent civil disobedience training, identifying artists and cultural workers, educators, lawyers, and the many other folks that need to be involved in the Campaign.
I really think we are already starting to shift the moral narrative in this country, which for so long has sought to blame poor and marginalized people for their problems.
AB: What is the purpose of the upcoming organizing tour, and what are some of the places you are going to visit?
LT: The upcoming organizing tour that Rev. Barber and I are leading is part of the state and national organizing of the poor and dispossessed that this Campaign is all about. In 2017 we had the opportunity to visit a couple of places where there is great inequality and poverty as well as some very powerful organizing. We were in El Paso, Texas at the border where we waded into the Rio Grande. This is the only way that some families who are separated by the border can meet. And we also walked up to a newly constructed section of the 30-foot high steel border wall. Around the same time we also went to the Apache Nation and connected up with First Nations groups, who are dealing with contaminated water and many other injustices that are part of a long legacy of disrespect and disregard for the land and its people.
Starting in February of this year, we are planning to visit several more places. We are going to Kentucky and Appalachia, to so-called “McConnell country,” where we will re-connect with some amazing grassroots leaders who have been building and organizing and pulling many folks into this Campaign.
We are planning to visit Michigan and the Rust Belt, places like Flint and Detroit, where people are living with contaminated water, a housing crisis, a growing jobs crisis, and are standing up and fighting back.
We will go to Grays Harbor County, Washington, a small rural county south of Seattle, where youth are incarcerated at extremely high rates, kept in solitary confinement for basically the fact that there are no jobs or opportunities.
We’re going to visit California’s Central Valley where farm workers are facing real repression, really harsh living and working conditions.
We are also going to be in Selma, in Lowndes County, Alabama where — 53 years after Bloody Sunday marked a historic turning point in the Civil Rights struggle — many folks are still struggling with a lack of healthcare and, in some cases, living next to raw sewage.
And finally, we’re going to be in Marks, Mississippi, which is where King and others decided to launch the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. A community of leaders will show us some of the historic sites and introduce us to some of the leaders who took part in the Campaign 50 years ago. Marks continues to be emblematic of the struggles of the poor in the U.S. — recently a rural hospital was closed in the area and the community struggles to keep grocery stores open.
The Campaign is in one sense a massive organizing drive aimed at trying to rattle the nation and break it from the dominant narrative about poverty.
AB: That is a lot of travel! But I think this is such an important part of how this Campaign has developed and continues to develop. It is a commitment to listen and help organize in these many different and hidden places where people are hurting. It is important to witness that, but, unlike what I think many of us in this country have gotten used to from our political leaders, it isn’t about a photo opportunity, or securing a vote, but showing the condition of our society, which is clearly sick, and also the movement of people who are fighting back, refusing to let things go on this way.
LT: Yes, that’s right. A lot of this organizing tour is about having this country, the USA, weep at what is taking place in what by many measurements is the wealthiest nation on Earth. The tour is a chance to really see the faces of the people who are deeply impacted by poverty and racism and ecological devastation and the war economy, the “evils” that King saw 50 years ago. But, equally important, it is about seeing the strength of the people and how they are coming together to find solutions to the problems and to really pick up the mantle of King and the Poor People’s Campaign.
AB: Maybe you could say a little bit more about why the particular places have been selected?
LT: These places were chosen, in part, because they help to shine a light on the reality in this country, which is a reality that just isn’t talked about and is actually still quite well hidden. They were also chosen because of the organized resistance that folks in these communities have built. At the Kairos Center we describe this as the plight, the fight, and the insight of the poor.
At the same time, we have a very practical goal of strengthening this growing national Campaign, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The Campaign is in one sense a massive organizing drive aimed at trying to rattle the nation and break it from the dominant narrative about poverty, to cry out on the streets so we can reach the ears of many people, folks that have been engaged in the struggle for a long time and folks that haven’t yet gotten involved.
AB: When you step back and look at the last 10 years or so in this country, it is clear that people are beginning to move, whether against economic inequality during Occupy Wall Street, systemic racism through the Movement for Black Lives, or most recently with the wave of people standing up against sexual violence and harassment. How does this Campaign fit into this moment of social disruption? How is it distinct or related to these other points of resistance?
This Campaign means to lift up those who are most impacted by all of the different injustices that are taking place, which are all interconnected.
LT: I think we live in times where people are being treated without dignity across the board. In the places I’ve been and the people I’ve talked to and the struggles I’ve been a part of there is this powerful sense that human life is no longer treated as something sacred. For me, this Campaign is really an affirmation of humanity and dignity, liberation and freedom. It aims to connect folks that are struggling around all kinds of issues into something more cohesive and coordinated.
The reason that we’re calling for 40 days of organizing, education, culture, direct action, and nonviolent civil disobedience is because we really believe that it’s going to take more than a tweet or one protest or one meeting to break through the narrative, to break through the despair, to break through the degradation. We need a season of organizing. By having this 40 days of action and all of the organizing leading up to it we allow people to get together that haven’t been together before and to see how we have common cause, how our strength and our power is in our numbers and our unity.
This Campaign means to lift up those who are most impacted by all of the different injustices that are taking place, which are all interconnected. This includes struggles around immigrant justice, around the rights of women and the rights of women to control their own bodies and not face assault or any kind of degradation. It’s about voting rights for the millions of people who have been systematically disenfranchised, it’s about the struggle of families to be able to thrive in this society and not just barely hold on to surviving.
This Campaign is bringing together folks from all these struggles and also national organizations, religious groups, faith organizations, and whole religious denominations. And a central part of what I think we’re doing in this stage of the Campaign is trying to unite folks around a common moral agenda and platform, and a set of actions and activities.
We know that not everything is going to be solved overnight. We know that we aren’t going to achieve everything in one campaign, but if people continue to come forward like they have been, welcoming us into their communities and saying that this is what they’ve been waiting for, we can actually begin to unite across all the lines that divide us into something that is more powerful than any one of us.
AB: The idea of a national coalition, or a movement that unites, is both ambitious and also not a new idea. Clearly this Campaign has been effective in energizing people. We have people in 32 different states taking up this call and this vision and they are committing to civil disobedience and to the ideas and activities of the Campaign. And they’re doing it in a way that stays rooted in local struggles, history, and culture. In my mind there are two key elements that have contributed to this energy and success, aside from the tremendous leadership that you and Rev. Barber and others have demonstrated. The first is the focus on religion and morality, which cuts through the politics and reminds and challenges us to look at what we’ve become and what we are committed to becoming as a people and as a nation. The other is the way that this Campaign is built on decades of organizing that raises up the leadership of the poor and dispossessed.
The power of demanding a moral agenda is that we are not simply talking about what’s politically expedient.
LT: I agree. When we look at history it is those who are most impacted who have pretty much everything to gain and very little — and, in some cases, nothing — to lose from the status quo and the current system. This Campaign is built on the urgency and insight and courage of these leaders. Again, if we look to the history of social change, at the center are people of faith, people who draw from their moral values, and from our constitutional values. This is what is particularly important about this Campaign. It is an organizing campaign with impacted folks and with moral leaders at the center of it. The Campaign is making the connections between the different issues and showing how we really can’t end poverty without dealing with the long history of race and racism in this country, or how we are not going to get a real war on poverty as long as so much spending goes to the military and to disrupting and destroying communities both at home and abroad through the war economy.
The power of demanding a moral agenda is that we are not simply talking about what’s politically expedient. We’re not just concerned about what will get people elected, but we’re making real demands for what people need and what people deserve and what people are already fighting for. We are seeing that people are willing to move and put their bodies on the line and willing to pay the consequences because all of us need to be free. In my experience, people have been willing for a while, but this Campaign has become a vehicle to really put our whole self into the movement.
AB: What is the vision that is emerging through this Campaign? How would you, as Langston Hughes put it, describe what you hope America will one day be?
LT: I want to say something about hope here. I think it’s actually really important to talk about what hope is and where hope comes from. Sometimes we see hope as this kind of empty idealism, or some kind of nice, fuzzy idea, but I think that the path to hope is born from actually making it through the hard times. It’s like King said, “only when it is dark enough can we see the stars.” Whether we are talking about this nation and society or this world, we find hope not by glossing over and ignoring the great suffering that is taking place, the violence and want and despair that is in so many people’s lives. It does not come from ignoring that there are real problems, but when we confront them, struggle through them, we come out knowing, in a profound way, that those experiences don’t have the last word.
We're not just looking at that suffering or gawking at it, but seeing the power and inspiration of the people who are standing up and fighting in the midst of it.
Hope comes out of great mourning and great despair. It is not an accident, when you’re at the border where families are being completely torn apart and devastated, or when you’re in communities that have no running water, or where the water that comes out of the pipes is poisoned, you encounter the very people leading this movement.
To me that’s really important and that’s one of the things that the Campaign is doing: we’re shining a light and exposing to the public’s eye the reality of the suffering that is going on, but then we’re not just looking at that suffering or gawking at it, but seeing the power and inspiration of the people who are standing up and fighting in the midst of it.