By Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis & Rachel O’Leary Carmona
July 14, 2020
On the surface, 2020 feels like it can be defined by adversity. The year began with an unprecedented pandemic, and a corresponding public health and economic crisis. The COVID-19 quarantine was followed by mass protests in response to the police killing unarmed people of color.
Yet, from that adversity a movement was strengthened that is growing in power every day.
Across the country, people are reimagining what is possible and necessary for our public life. Look at the heroic protests for racial justice that have sustained across the country for more than a month. Millions of Americans from every intersection have coalesced to become a rising tide, demanding liberation.
Many of the people who have flooded the streets with cries of “we can’t breathe” are the same people who have also organized rent strikes, labor strikes and more since the pandemic hit. This multitude, which has been gasping for breath long before this crisis, is articulating the dream and vision of a new America.
It is the diversity of voices united by a moral call to justice that gives this movement its strength. Just last month, millions across the country joined for the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, demanding an agenda designed to heal a nation besieged by systemic racism and poverty. This was the largest digital gathering of poor and low-income people in this country’s history – garnering more than 2.5 million views from Facebook alone and resulting in nearly 300,000 letters being sent to governors and members of Congress.
The assembly and the organizing work that has followed demonstrates that movements begin with the telling of untold stories, and that nothing less than bold and creative action is required to lift the load of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the distorted moral narrative that ties it all together. The growing movement of this moment insists that we cannot fully address the plight of Black and Brown Americans without policy solutions that include demilitarizing our communities and enacting living wages, universal health care, equal pay for equal work, decent education and housing, immigrant rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and environmental protections.
And these demands are all the more urgent because of the impact of the pandemic and the health and economic crises it has revealed and deepened.
It has already been established that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the same people in our society who were already marginalized before: women, people of color (particularly Black Americans) and the poor. Women and people of color in particular are facing record unemployment, and those women who have not been laid off are disproportionately employed in the industries with the most risk.
When looking at the numbers, COVID-19 has been the exact opposite of a “great equalizer” for our society: It has only deepened the inequities that already existed. And the threat of worsening circumstances looms large, as mass homelessness, hunger and poverty exist on the other side of mass unemployment. All the while, the rich have exploited our pain and gotten significantly more wealthy, profiting off of a pandemic that is making the rest of us poorer.
At the Poor People’s Campaign and Women’s March, we believe that the solution to this pandemic – and to so many intertwined injustices – is a massive, unprecedented restructuring of society that challenges all the forces that have marginalized millions of people since our country’s founding. We need to enact a moral agenda that recognizes that our broken health care system, police brutality and so many other injustices are connected. Singular reforms are powerless against the machine of systemic oppression; we desperately need an overhaul.
Over the past several months, we have seen in stark terms how, when left to its own devices, the federal government will continue to prioritize bailing out the wealthy and corporations over helping the most vulnerable. If those in power continue to ignore the poorest and most marginalized among us, these failures will only continue. Real change must come from the bottom up.
That is why millions of people directly impacted by oppressive systems are rising up. They and we are calling on our leaders to adopt a policy platform that invests in that which gives life: health care, housing, welfare, education, voting rights, climate protections and more.
Our own histories as movements remind us that this will require new and massive waves of people taking action together. In the midst of so much death and danger, we have an unprecedented chance to change the way our society looks and works, and who it works for. We have to do it now.
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and director of Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. Rachel O’Leary Carmona is the chief operating officer of the Women’s March.