On November 17th, John Wessel-McCoy led a Poverty Scholars’ tour of Wall St. with fasting Walmart workers, part of OUR Walmart and the Fast for $15. Hundreds of Walmart workers around the country are fasting for the 15 days leading up to Black Friday, demanding an end to the poverty wages and irregular hours that leave them and their families hungry. You can learn more on Facebook and Twitter, and you can support fasting workers by signing onto this letter from people of faith.

Yesterday we walked together through the Financial District, a.k.a. Wall Street, on a Poverty Scholars’ Wall Street Tour. You were coming from your vigil in front of Alice Walton’s residence on Park Ave. Despite being several days into your fast, you were on fire from the time you spent on that Park Ave sidewalk with Rev. Dr. William Barber II and Ms. Yara Allen. I imagine Rev. Barber and Ms. Allen were just as moved by your courage and love.

Ms. Yara Allen and Rev. Dr. William Barber sing and pray with fasting Walmart workers outside of Alice Walton's NYC apartment.

I am writing to express my profound gratitude for getting to spend a couple hours with you. I have given this tour to grassroots community and religious leaders, students, educators, journalists, and even my parents. I’ve walked these streets of Lower Manhattan with leaders from so many powerful fights — from leaders representing the fight against water privatization in Detroit to the fight to end mountaintop removal in West Virginia. These leaders come from the ranks of homeless from NYC, low-wage workers from Baltimore, landless workers from Brazil, and shackdwellers from South Africa. They represent the best examples of poor people speaking for ourselves and acting for ourselves.

You, the leaders of the OUR Walmart struggle, rank at the top. You inspired me more than I can say. Thank you.

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Fasting OUR Walmart Workers
Fasting Walmart workers, John Wessel-McCoy, and Shailly Gupta Barnes on the tour of Wall St.

Eric Sclein/OUR Walmart

The Poverty Scholars’ Wall Street Tour has evolved over the years since 2008, but it has always been designed first and foremost for leaders like you. From the ranks of the vast numbers of Walmart employees, you are among those who have decided to do something about your poverty wages, the benefits you don’t receive, and all the other ways Walmart de-humanizes and disrespects you.

Leaders are the first to wake up. You woke up, and you’re doing something, not just for yourself, but for all your brothers and sisters who work at Walmart. And if you only knew, you are leaders for all low-wage workers and the vast numbers of us catching hell in this obscenely unjust system built on inequality. You’re like the United Mine Workers and the United Auto Workers of the 1930s who made an impact far beyond West Virginia mines and Michigan factories.

Walmart is a giant in the global capitalist system. Wall Street is a command center for that system, and that’s why it’s so important that the leaders of the poor and dispossessed come here to see for themselves — to stand by that Charging Bull, to know our history, and to know who we’re up against. Walmart has to go to the bank. It serves its shareholders above all else. It is not in the business of selling merchandise at everyday low prices. It is in the business of making the most profit possible. This is why Walmart is tied at the hip with Wall Street. Walmart has to go to Wall Street.

We come to Wall Street, also, because it helps us to see how all of our isolated fights ultimately lead us here. All of our roads lead to this modern day version of Rome. It helps us break our isolation and realize our potential power.

Yesterday we stood in Battery Park and gazed out into the New York harbor at the Statue of Liberty. We read Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus.” This poem is best known for its last few lines:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

I’ve been thinking about giants ever since. A Colossus, after all, is a kind of giant. Some giants are good and others are evil. The Statue of Liberty was conceived as a good giant — a grand, beautiful Colossus raising her torch high and welcoming the tired, poor, and homeless immigrant to the United States — to the land of freedom and plenty. Imagine that — America welcoming immigrants! (And you taught me that the artist originally envisioned her as a Black woman!)

Then again, there’s other kinds of giants stalking the land. Wall Street is a giant. Walmart is a giant. And that got me thinking about the saying, “Every Colossus has feet of clay.” This saying is often linked to a passage in the Book of Daniel:

Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. (Daniel 2:31-33)

Every Colossus has feet of clay. In other words, no matter how big and terrible giants might appear, they are not invincible. They have weaknesses. Clay crumbles.

Another giant of the Bible comes to mind here — Goliath. The battle between David and Goliath holds deep meaning in our culture. People in struggles throughout history have drawn inspiration from it. The movement to end slavery in the U.S. — the abolitionist movement — is a great example.

In 1857, Frederick Douglass gave a speech responding to the infamous Dred Scott decision. In this Supreme Court decision, it was said that blacks had “no right the white man was bound to respect.” Black people could not be citizens and in fact, as slaves, they were indeed property — to be bought and sold just like cattle and swine. It was a terrible blow to the abolitionist movement — not to mention to enslaved black people in the U.S.

Douglass reflected on the situation. He said:

The pen, the purse, and the sword, are united against the simple truth, preached by humble men in obscure places.

But then he went on to say:

This is one view. It is, thank God, only one view; there is another, and a brighter view. David, you know, looked small and insignificant when going to meet Goliath, but looked larger when he had slain his foe.

There you go. The truth is there was a time when the vast majority of people in this country believed slavery could never be ended. The Slave Power was too powerful, too wealthy — too giant. Cotton was King! But it was ended.

Walmart is no joke. Wall Street is no joke. Neither can be underestimated. But they are not all powerful. They are not God.

There’s one last giant — a sleeping giant — to consider. Ultimately there are more of us than them. When the Waltons own the same amount of wealth as 43% of the nation’s population, the truth is clear. The majority of us are poor and dispossessed people. But we’re disunited. We are pitted against each other — oblivious to the man behind the curtain. And so, where the poor fight for a better world, we look small and outmatched. We need to know our power. We need to be smart like David. We can’t go into the fight against Goliath fighting his way. We need to fight our way. David knew his enemy, and he knew himself. At this time, we can’t out-money, out-might, or out-mass Goliath, but we can out-maneuver him. We can change the story, and we can defeat giants.


Fasting OUR Walmart Workers

The New Colossus
Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”