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Immediately after the news of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, social media feeds exploded with advice for those suffering from depression, for those who have family or friends who may need help but are unable to ask for it. “Reach out,” posts read. “Ask someone who may need help, how they’re doing.” “Observe those around you.” “Help is a phone call away.” Those messages have value, certainly.
Having been on the road with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, for over five weeks now, it was impossible for me not to tether the nationwide reaction to the tragedy of Bourdain’s inability to ask for help and the 140 million people who live on or below the poverty line, in the richest country in human history, who are screaming for it. Literally screaming for clean water. Begging for health care. Pleading for a living wage.
The Poor People’s Campaign is now entering its sixth week of nationwide nonviolent direct actions. Hundreds of local and grass-roots groups continue to join. To date, over 2,000 people have been arrested and thousands have signed on with coalitions in 39 states and Washington, D.C., to challenge environmental devastation, systemic racism and poverty, locally and at the federal level, and to demand a moral agenda for the common good. This movement has nothing to do with left or right, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal. It’s all about right and wrong.
If the strength of a social movement can be measured by the force inflicted by those who are in power and trying to kill it, then the Poor People’s Campaign has garnered so such that it is now in a new and powerful stage.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” This saying, often attributed to Gandhi, is applicable here.
Examining the prior weeks of the burgeoning Poor People’s Campaign, viewing it in correlation with the government’s response to it—being ignored, being laughed at—there is little doubt that after last week’s nationwide actions the Poor People’s Campaign finds itself standing nonviolently in “the fight phase.”
During the first weeks, in 39 states and Washington, D.C., the protests—which address systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and the nation’s distorted moral narrative—were met with little drama. Although there were some arrests, many of the states’ tactics were to stand by and observe, to wait out the protesters until they simply went home.
Most mainstream media, not surprisingly, did not squeeze any of the protests into their 24-hour news cycle. Activists shut down streets in Boston, Sacramento, Calif., and Albany, N.Y., without any arrests. They slept overnight in the Kentucky Capitol (and had pizza delivered!)—no arrests. They occupied the Springfield, Ill., Statehouse and blocked entrances to assembly rooms—no arrests.
Since then, however, the movement has grown. And with this growth, various strategies of suppression and constitutionally questionable tactics have emerged.
Week 5 saw participants being denied entry into the Kentucky Statehouse, blocked from the Arkansas Statehouse and arrested before entering the New Jersey Statehouse. In New York state, Poor People’s Campaign participants were hit with a bill for “rally security” by the city of Albany. And in Kansas, Poor People’s Campaign activists were informed that they had “harmed” the Kansas Statehouse and would not be allowed back to protest.
The media has begun to take notice, too. In Kentucky, the right-leaning newspaper the Lexington Herald-Leader ran an editorial excoriating the Kentucky State Police, which barricaded the Capitol and blocked entry for an estimated 400 people. It said, in part: “This is not a proud distinction for our state. The Capitol is the pre-eminent place to assemble and seek redress from the government, a right that is guaranteed to all U.S. citizens by the Constitution.”
In Jefferson City on Monday, where I was covering and livestreaming a protest in front of the Missouri Chamber of Congress, the police arrested me. They did so before arresting any of the activists participating in civil disobedience, sitting in the street, locking arms.
My charge, as written on the ticket, was “fail to obey.” Of the 77 people arrested that day, I was the only journalist. We were all issued a citation that carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. (More information on my arrest can be found at U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.)
Beyond covering the Poor People’s Campaign since its launch May 14, I’ve covered protests for more than seven years, including Occupy Wall Street in New York City and the Dakota Access pipeline protest in Standing Rock, N.D., where journalists’ rights were often violated.
I do not have evidence that I was targeted by the Jefferson City police, but from the get-go, the police were monitoring journalists and those with cameras. Just 30 seconds into my livestream, police bullhorned at me from across the street that this was my “final warning.”
The march had not even started, and the police were belting out “final warnings”? Odd.
That, right then, was a clear signal to me that more than likely, at some point, they would arrest a journalist as a way to intimidate others, who would then refrain from documenting the protest. I’ve witnessed that tactic before. This time, the journalist happened to be me.
The most egregious crackdown on the Poor People’s Campaign’s actions, however, occurred last week in Washington, D.C., where nine people of faith, including a co-chair of the campaign, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, were arrested while praying on the steps of the Supreme Court.
The group was protesting to draw attention to the court’s Husted v. Randolph Institute decision, which upholds what some call voter suppression, one of the main targets of the Poor People’s Campaign.
The nine were held in shackles for 27 hours, their religious garments were taken away and they were ordered to surrender their passports and stay away from the Supreme Court building. In addition, they will be required to check in weekly under a pretrial service program. It is not yet known if they will be tried by a jury.
Saturday, June 23, thousands of people from across the country are expected to flood Washington, D.C. “But [that’s] not the end of the Poor People’s Campaign,” the Rev. William Barber, a co-chair, told me in North Carolina during an action last month. “June 23 is the launch of the movement.”
The “fight phase” has just begun. But how will the campaign survive against powerful forces trying to crush it? That depends on whether the public finds enough value in the campaign’s message to create change.
After Anthony Bourdain taped one of the episodes of his “Parts Unknown” television program in Gaza, he won an award from the Muslim Public Affairs Council. In his acceptance speech, Bourdain said, “The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity. People are not statistics.”
This rings true for what the Poor People’s Campaign is attempting. It has the statistics and facts—hundreds of them—on its website (i.e., 13.8 million U.S. households cannot afford water; over 48 million Americans have no or inadequate health care; more than 250,000 people in the U.S. die due to poverty-related issues each year).
But the Poor People’s Campaign is much more than statistics and facts. In a way, it is implementing what Bourdain was so masterful at: stripping away the theoretical by revealing the stories behind the statistics, the faces behind the facts, and, by turns, connecting us all.
America’s system of intentional inequality is a system of death. But how many will jump into the maelstrom to assist those who are reaching out and asking for help?