By William J. Barber II and Liz Theoharis
June 21, 2020
(CNN) In public demonstrations that have spread around the world, a multicolored coalition for racial justice has taken to the streets since the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. Their slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” is reverberating across America, and politicians have scrambled to draft legislation to satisfy their demands.
But the present uprising for racial justice is about much more than ending chokeholds and police misconduct. As the nation prepares to mark its 244th birthday, millions are marching to confront the basic contradiction between the equal justice America promises and the inequality our government has consistently delivered to so many. In this historic moment, we the people are demanding a government that serves all of our needs.
Long before the Covid-19 pandemic killed nearly 120,000 of our neighbors and Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his weight on George Floyd’s neck, decades of growing inequality had left millions of Americans feeling like they could not breathe.
In 2018 we re-launched the Poor People’s Campaign that Martin Luther King Jr. and a broad coalition of labor activists, welfare rights advocates, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and Native Americans started in 1967 to demand that the federal government address poverty. When we conducted a national audit to assess what had changed in half a century, we learned that in 2016 there was not a county in the US where someone working full time at minimum wage could afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Forty years after we abandoned the War on Poverty, 140 million Americans were poor or low-income, according to our 2018 audit.
Racial disparity has always been at the heart of American inequality. The same plantation capitalism that stole land from Indigenous people and labor from Black bodies also built the wealth of the New York Stock Exchange. “Slavery never ended. It evolved,” as our friend Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, often says.
The capital and power that were built up by White landowners have been preserved through patterns and practices written into law. But the lie of White supremacy never only hurt Black people.
Just as slavery drove down wages for poor Whites in the South and Jim Crow segregation made it possible for bosses to pit White workers against Black workers, systemic racism today blocks living wages, access to health care, education, affordable housing and clean water for millions of Americans — Black, White, Brown, Native and Asian. White supremacy not only choked the life out of George Floyd, it has suffocated genuine democracy in America.
People who have felt this knee on our necks know it is wrong. We also know there is a better way. If we instituted fair elections and restricted the influence of big money in our politics, we could transition to automatic, online voter registration and give life to our democracy by ensuring every eligible voter to can exercise their right to vote.
If we instituted a $15 minimum wage immediately, we would raise pay for nearly 40 million workers. If we ended mass incarceration, we would significantly reduce the $179 billion that currently goes to policing, courts and prisons. This money we already spend could be reallocated to give life to our communities through affordable housing and education for all.
Whenever we demand what we know is necessary for all people to thrive, politicians who have accommodated themselves to America’s inequality ask, “But how would we pay for it?”
The Poor People’s Campaign worked with some of the nation’s best economists to find the money. If we stopped pouring money and resources into our border wall, we could move those billions of dollars into our children’s K-12 education and give life to their dreams. If we canceled one military contract for a year, like the one awarded by the Pentagon to Boeing, we would have $25 billion to expand Medicaid in the 14 states that haven’t already done so under the Affordable Care Act. This would mean life for millions of people in those states who are still uninsured.
If we canceled a different military contract, we would have more than enough resources to put towards expanding our water infrastructure and creating 945,000 jobs. Instead of putting those resources into war, we would support life, because water is life. If we cut $350 billion from the military budget, and closed some of the 800 bases we have around the world, we would make the world a safer place, and those resources could be put towards ensuring health care for us all.
American inequality has persisted since the Virginia planters put down a rebellion against the plantation system’s oligarchy not because we do not know how to address it nor because we lack the resources but because the rich and powerful benefit from it. People live and die in poverty in the richest nation in the world history not because we have a scarcity of resources but because we have lacked the will to change this reality.
On Saturday the Poor People’s Campaign: “A National Call for Moral Revival” hosted a national digital mass gathering to give the people who are no longer satisfied with this reality a platform to say, “No more!” More than 2 million people joined us online, pledging to continue to organize together and vote together for leaders who are ready to embrace a moral justice jubilee policy platform. (We are gathering again Sunday at 6 p.m. ET at june2020.org.)
We know what is killing genuine democracy and we know what we can do to stop it. We’re bringing a moral agenda to the nation in this election year to demand that every politician, whatever their party affiliation, explain how they plan to embrace real and transformative solutions in this moment. We will not be divided. We will vote in November, and we will continue to push this nation toward a more perfect union in 2021.
American inequality, rooted in our original sin of race-based slavery, has gone on far too long. Now is the time for radical reconstruction. We invite all Americans to stand together and say, “We won’t be silent anymore.”
William J. Barber II and Liz Theoharis are co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The Poor People’s Campaign is mobilizing a coalition of national and grass-roots justice organizations for change on June 20.