Poor People's Campaign

Message to the nation on July 5, 2021, by Bishop William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach

Prepared Remarks

Democracy vs. autocracy is the battle of our time. We must engage and escalate the nonviolent moral direct action struggle for a Third Reconstruction.

When we commemorate the pivotal moments in human history, we rarely remember times of peace and tranquility. No, it has always been in the face of adversity and challenge that we have come together to find a better way forward. The future is forged by those who recognized the fierce urgency of a necessary struggle.

Since I’m a preacher, I can tell you that this is true of the biblical record. The prophets of ancient Israel cried aloud when leaders grew callous, and the poor suffered. “Woe unto you who legislate evil and rob the poor of their right,” Isaiah proclaimed in his day.

“Woe unto you hypocrites who nit-pick about religious minutia but forget the weightier matters of justice and mercy,” Jesus said. 

We remember the prophets because they understood the urgency of the moment in which they lived. Things could not continue with the imbalance between those who abused power and those who suffered at their hands. No, something had to give. And the prophets are the ones who saw that change is non negotiable. It must happen now. Continued compromise with evil is not an option.

This is also true in our more recent history. The holiday we pause to celebrate does not simply commemorate the birth of the idea of America or the grand vision of democracy. No, we pause to remember how, after a “long train of abuses,” some imperfect men recognized the urgency of the moment and risked everything by signing their names to a writ of rebellion against a government that did not recognize them as equals.

They did not declare their independence because they were certain they could win. They did it because they recognized the urgency of the moment. Compromise with the British Crown was no longer an option. 

Likewise, the truest patriots America has known have been those who saw, in their own day, how they could no longer accept the compromises that denied their full humanity and right to live as equal citizens in this land. The abolitionists. The women’s suffragists. Labor activists, welfare rights unions, LGBTQ activists and today’s young climate advocates. Each in their own day stood up to say, “Now is the time. We cannot compromise. This moral crisis demands our action.”

Well, I want to call a couple of witnesses today to testify to the reality we face. Democracy vs. autocracy, I’ve said, is the battle of our time. But don’t simply take my word. Listen to these experts.

The Institute for Policy Studies has issued a report that lays out how the wealth of U.S. billionaires has grown tremendously during the pandemic, and the increase in their wealth alone could pay for a majority of President Joe Biden’s new infrastructure and jobs plan.

Between March of 2020 and now, the 719 U.S. billionaires’ collective wealth has grown by 55 percent. Their combined wealth grew from $2.95 trillion to $4.56 trillion, a growth of $1.62 trillion. Just the increase in their wealth could cover almost 70 percent of Biden’s $2.25 trillion proposal to create jobs and invest in infrastructure across the U.S.

“Billionaire wealth growth has perversely accelerated over the year and half of the global pandemic. But the piling up of fortunes at the top has proceeded at a rapid clip for decades, even as the net worth of working Americans lagged, and public services deteriorated. In fact, another report from the RAND Corporation last year estimated that in a “normal” year, $2.5 trillion is transferred from the bottom 90% of Americans to a portion of the top one percent. Since 1975, the richest Americans have rigged the tax system to take more than $50 trillion from most of us.

Back in 1990, the bottom 50 percent of the U.S. had more collective wealth than billionaires, by a $140 billion margin. But, because of the continued accumulation of wealth at the top, U.S. billionaires now own over 4.5 times the amount of wealth as those who make up the bottom 50 percent of the economic scale, or roughly 165 million Americans.

During the pandemic, we’ve watched this scheme turn into a bonanza. The wealth of people worth over $100 billion grew hand over fist during the pandemic. Elon Musk’s wealth increased nearly sixfold during the pandemic to $172 billion; the wealth of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos grew by 74 percent during the last 13 months to total nearly $197 billion; and Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth more than doubled in a little over a year to $113.5 billion.

Meanwhile, some of the CEOs who have profited the most from the pandemic treat their workers the worst. The Brookings Institute found that, of 13 major retail companies that have experienced pandemic windfalls, Amazon and Walmart are among the companies that compensate their workers the worst while forcing them to work through dangerous conditions as frontline workers. 

This level of greed is obscene. All by itself, it demands that we act and act now. But it is not all, because at the same time we are seeing this grotesque and pornographic grabbing of wealth, we also see the same people who are consumed by greed publicly undermining democracy politically. Listen to this in-depth analysis by my friend, Ari Berman, which I must recount in its fullness because of the urgency of now.

The Supreme Court upheld two Republican-backed voting restrictions in the state of Arizona on Thursday, giving a green light to Republican efforts to make it harder for Democratic-leaning constituencies to vote. 

The court gave its blessing to two laws passed by Arizona’s GOP-controlled legislature—one preventing anyone but a voter’s family member or caregiver from returning a mail-in ballot and another one throwing out votes cast in the wrong precinct—that had been struck down by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in January 2020 for discriminating against Native American, Latino, and Black voters.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a 6-3 conservative majority, argued that disparate impact among racial or ethnic groups isn’t enough to make voting laws illegal. “The mere fact that there is some disparity in impact does not necessarily mean that a system is not equally open or that it does not give everyone an equal opportunity to vote.”

Seventeen states have passed 28 new laws this year restricting access to the ballot, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In response, Democrats have filed a flurry of lawsuits to block them. Republicans have already admitted they are passing such laws for partisan gain: During oral arguments in the case, Michael Carvin, a lawyer for the Republican National Committee, said that striking down restrictions on voting “puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.” The decision on Thursday signals that a conservative- dominated judiciary—which includes three Supreme Court justices nominated by Donald Trump—will not stand in the way of the greatest rollback of voting rights since the end of Reconstruction.

As nearly 200 scholars of democracy warned in a dire letter for the think tank New America in June, “our entire democracy is now at risk” as hundreds of Republican-sponsored bills in states across the country threaten to either block or exhaust voters to the point of surrender. The letter’s authors warn that “the recent deterioration of U.S. elections” means that “several states…no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.”

In the long run, the experts argue, the United States could soon become a country of “extended minority rule,” which calls “into question whether the United States will remain a democracy” since majority opinion will be increasingly unable to shape government decisions. And without aggressive federal intervention, Republicans could “reverse the outcome of a free and fair election,” making the sloppy attempt by Trump and his backers to overturn the 2020 results look amateurish by comparison. 

This is bleak stuff for a country that democracy experts have already labeled a “civil oligarchy” in a Cambridge University Press study, where “economic elites” and “business interests” enjoy massive influence over policy “while average citizens…have little or no independent influence.”

The success of the Republican Party depends on banishing voters they don’t like from the political landscape. The reason is straightforward: they know that, essentially, no one likes their ideas. The GOP has failed to persuade a lasting majority of Americans that corporations should answer to no one, that inequality is a natural phenomenon, and that weaker nations must be strong- armed into obediently serving American interests. The only remaining option then, as the country becomes increasingly repellent to Republicans’ ideas, is to make sure that the majority who oppose them can’t govern. As the New York Times’ Ezra Klein says, “Republicans are setting off a ‘doom loop’ for democracy.”

Democracy vs autocracy is the battle of our time.

We must escalate and engage the nonviolent moral struggle for a Third Reconstruction:

  • Mass nonviolent direct moral action
  • Mass voter participation
  • More litigation
  • Meaningful legislation in the fight for a Third Reconstruction

Now is the moment we must remember. When those who came before us faced trying times, they met the challenge by recognizing that urgency demands action. We cannot back down. We cannot compromise. We must act now. 

Democracy’s defenders can defeat today’s attempts to subvert the will of the people by using the same tool used to overthrow its Jim Crow forefather: “federal action to protect equal access of all citizens to the ballot and to guarantee free and fair elections,” the scholars write. That will also require abolishing (or at least reforming) the filibuster — the Senate rule that makes it essentially impossible to pass anything without a 60-vote majority.

Now, Joe Manchin says he’s not changing the filibuster. But those who think Manchin is immovable forget that he’s still a politician who responds to prevailing political winds. Seventy percent of West Virginians don’t agree with him, and if we mobilize in nonviolent direct action, we can make him hear them. Same with Sinema in Arizona.

Right now, they can hold their allegiance to the national Chamber of Commerce because they have not faced the full force of nonviolent moral direct action in the street and in the suites.

We don’t want an insurrection, but a moral resurrection. The only reliable way to change the political terrain, and how policy makers behave, is by taking demands to the streets.

It’s no surprise that GOP politicians and their corporate backers tremble at the thought of genuine democracy. But every time progress has been achieved, it’s because popular movements have exerted enough pressure to make elites comply.

There’s no time to waste. Democracy vs. autocracy is the battle of our time. We must escalate the nonviolent moral struggle for a Third Reconstruction.

  • It’s time to make ending poverty a top legislative priority.
  • Updating the poverty measure to be inclusive of the 140 million!

It’s time.

  • Expanding democratic participation and protecting the right to vote, including from the recent flood of voter suppression laws passed leading up to and after the 2020 elections.

It’s time for: 

  • Protecting the Constitutional rights of assembly and free speech, including from legislation and other anti-protest legislation that have been passed in multiple states that create or expand criminal penalties for protest activities.

It’s time for: 

  • Ensuring that the legislation that improved the conditions of the 140 million that was passed in response to the pandemic, including expanded protections for frontline and essential workers; guaranteed income expansions of unemployment insurance, resources for childcare and social welfare programs like SNAP, WIC, CTC and EITC; and moratoriums on all evictions are made permanent and further expanded to include undocumented people.

It’s time for: 

  • Raising the minimum wage to a living wage and guaranteeing the right to form and join unions for all workers.

It’s time for:

  • Enacting fair taxes on corporations, Wall Street and the wealthy, by, among other actions: 
  • Repealing the 2017 tax cuts that reduced the corporate tax rate and the top marginal tax rate.
  • Instituting a wealth tax; and
  • Taxing investment income the same as income from work.
  • Using the power of deficit spending to meet these pressing needs of the 140 million so as to end poverty by investing in programs that lift from the bottom, rebuild our economy, strengthen our society and heal our nation. 

It’s time to go to work. 

It’s time for: 

  • Guaranteeing quality health care for all through the expansion of Medicaid, securing Medicare and enacting universal single payer health care,

It’s time for:

  •  Guaranteeing safe and quality housing for all
  • Guaranteeing the right to water by ending water and utility shut offs and making clean water and sanitation available to all;
  • Implementing a federal jobs program to ensure good jobs and increase public investments, infrastructure and institutions in poor and low-income communities that prioritize green and socially beneficial industries and address inequality in both rural and urban areas.
  • Guaranteeing quality, safe and equitable public education and accessible education infrastructure from pre-k -12 for all children, including children with disabilities; ensuring that higher education is free to everyone who wants to attend; and protecting and expanding public resources for students with disabilities
  • Enacting relief from student debt, medical debt, housing debt, utilities debt, and other household and personal debt that cannot be paid.
  • Enacting comprehensive and just immigration reform that demilitarizes the southern border and immigration enforcement; repeals mandatory detentions, deportations, child detentions and family separations; reunites families, ensures a regular and timely access to legal documentation and residency and expands eligibility for public welfare programs to include immigrants.
  • Ensuring all the rights of indigenous peoples and tribal nations, including the right to the free expression of their religion and the right to native lands, and otherwise protecting against legislation or land transfers that violate these sacred rights.
  • Embracing a bold agenda to transform the economy away from climate chaos to a green renewable energy economy that prioritizes poor and low-income frontline communities and builds up publicly owned and controlled green energy infrastructure;
  • Demilitarizing U.S. foreign policy by cutting budgets and other actions to end current and prevent future wars,
  • Cutting the military budget by 10% immediately, with all those funds redirected to health care, education, green infrastructure, jobs and other anti-poverty programs;
  • Ending unjust mass incarceration and violent policing, based on the demands of grassroots organizations and communities who are most egregiously impacted by these injustices;
  • It’s time for more than emails and text. If we moved nonviolently in the street because of police killings and murder
  • We must even the more when politicians’ greed and money are trying to kill and murder the hope and possibility of our democracy becoming a more perfect union.

And to set the example, the PPC:NCMR and our major partners have decided to launch a season of non-violent moral direct action.

This loving militancy aims to apply pressure and call others to do the same, joining us not only in rallies and marches, but also in non-violent moral direct action and if people choose to want to arrest us for engaging in our constitutional rights, then we will submit to civil disobedience to move the US Senate.

We must engage in moral direct action to demand that the Senate do its job as outlined in Article I, Section 4, Clause 1:

“The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators.”

We must:

  • Stop the filibuster.
  • Push for the full John Lewis For the People Act and full Voting Rights Act restoration.
  • Push passage of $15minimum wage.
  • All of this should be done and must be done by August 6th, the anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, 56 years ago.

Our Moral Mondays will be: 

  • On July 12, a massive national call-in to every senator, to shut down switchboards if necessary. 
  • On July 19, the anniversary of the Women’s Convention at Seneca Falls,  nonviolent moral direct action in DC led by women from all over the country. 
  • On July 26, in all Senate offices, regardless of party, in at least 45 states, people will engage in nonviolent moral direct action
  • On August 2, a mass number of clergy and religious leaders with poor and low-wage workers will engage in nonviolent moral direct action focused on the US Senate.

If our actions result in the system believing it has to arrest us, then so be it. Civil disobedience is a badge and banner we will proudly wear.

The time is now! We cannot declare the immoral reality that democracy is in peril and then not engage with the moral challenge of non-violent direct action.

They say in the climate justice movement we have nine years to take action before irreparable damage is done. Well, in the justice movement we don’t have any more time. Irreparable damage is being plotted and pushed tighter now and we must escalate the nonviolent moral struggle and direct action for a Third Reconstruction. Now, right now!

And This is no time for moderation, unjust compromise and non-constitutional filibustering.

One of my great historical heroes is Rev William Lloyd Garrison, a white brother who was a true Christian evangelical who knew that Jesus and justice were synonyms! Garrison was once arrested for refusing to accept the evil laws of slavery and on his jail cell wall he wrote, “I, William Llyod Garrison, was arrested for preaching the damnable gospel that all men are created equal.”

He edited a newspaper in the 1840s and ‘50s. 

In the very first issue of his anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison stated, “I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. . . . I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I cannot be moderate, No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”

Why? Because he knew there are times when the fierce urgency of justice demands that we act now and without compromise. For more than three decades, from the first issue of his weekly paper in 1831, until after the end of the Civil War in 1865 when the last issue was published, Garrison spoke out eloquently and passionately against slavery and for the rights of America’s black inhabitants

In speaking engagements and through the Liberator and other publications, Garrison advocated the immediate emancipation of all slaves. This was an unpopular view during the 1830s, even with moderate northerners who were against slavery. What would become of all the freed slaves? Certainly, they could not assimilate into American society, they thought. Garrison believed that they could assimilate. He believed that, in time, all Blacks would be equal in every way to the country’s white citizens. They, too, were Americans and entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Garrison was unyielding and steadfast in his beliefs. He believed that the Anti-Slavery Society should not align itself with any political party. He believed that women should be allowed to participate in the Anti-Slavery Society.

If Garrison rejected moderation then, we must reject it now.

There is no moderate position on voting rights. No one, no state, no law can deny or abridge the right to vote.

Every person has a right to equal protection under the law. When these things are altered, we do not have a democracy. Our true Independence Day was when the 14th and 15th amendments redeemed the Constitution from its pro-slavery compromise and made a way for America to be born again and again through the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Labor Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement. 

No democracy can be true to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness until the worker is paid a living wage, has the provision of education and health care.

If a mean Mitch McConnell can put Supreme Court justices on the bench for lifetime appointment with 51 votes, surely, we must demand that 51 votes be used to save the democracy, ensure protection against voter suppression, and pay people a 15 dollar minimum living wage.

Manchin and Sinema, which side are you on? We cannot let them stay on the wrong side. It’s time for non-violent moral direct action and civil disobedience, if necessary. Things must change by Aug. 6 or we know what we must do all the way through the midterm election.

It’s time right now! Forward together, not one step back!

We must raise the alarm and engage the battle. We must sow the seeds of a movement that refuses to accept autocracy. 

This was never about one person. It’s really about the principles of a people. This was never just about an individual; it’s a system that people built, and it must be reconstructed.

We have witnessed bloodletting from a thousand cuts, but it is now clearly evident that the life blood of this democracy could soon run out. It’s time to call the code. We can’t tolerate business as usual. Clear the way, and let the ambulance drivers through. We must stop the bleeding and make a more perfect union.

Sitting Bull, Fredrick, Harriet, William, Mother Jones, Cesar, Ann, Dorothy, Rosa, Fannie Lou, Martin, Joshua…the list is too long! They fought for a more perfect union.

They created reconstructions…it’s our time now. Right now, we must engage in their memory, the needs of the moment, and in the hope for our children right now!

Democracy vs autocracy is the battle of our time.

We must escalate and engage the nonviolent moral struggle for a Third Reconstruction. 

Now! Now! Right now!

If you desire to join, go to 3rdReconstruction.org to commit and demand a Third Reconstruction. If you believe in moral nonviolent direct action it our time Right now. Forward together. Not one step back

And when we save and improve this democracy, our children’s children will retell the story of how we didn’t back away or give up our principles but engaged the moral battle and stood on the right side of love, justice and truth. The right side of history itself.

Forward together. Not one step back