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Can the Poor People’s Campaign Change the Outcome of the 2024 Elections?

The grassroots movement known as the Poor People’s Campaign aims to turn the exploited into a giant electoral force.

Poor People's Campaign participants march to the U.S. Capitol on June 21, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Suppose 53 million low wage workers across the United States seized control of politics. See the hotel maids washing bedsheets and migrants in blood-splattered aprons at meat plants mobilizing for their interests. See baggy-eyed nurses and fast-food staff take part in mass uprisings. Now imagine millions of poor people standing in long lines to vote. America would marvel at this sleeping giant, now awake.

The Poor People’s Campaign, an anti-poverty protest and now voter drive movement led by William J. Barber II and Liz Theoharis, is hoping to make this vision a reality as it mobilizes the poor and low-wage voters to elect candidates committed to the issues they care about.

“There is a favorite Bible passage that I think about: If this happens when the wood is green, imagine what happens when it is dry,” Theoharis told Truthout. “People are already living in an emergency. People are telling stories of losing family members because of the lack of health care, people becoming unhoused because of a lack of wages, hearing about death by poverty in the richest country in the world.”

“Right now, people are already suffering, let alone criminalizing the poor, let alone when you eliminat[e] health care, let alone attach[ing] work requirements to welfare,” Theoharis said. “Already poverty is the fourth leading cause of death in one of the richest countries in the world.”

If the campaign succeeds, it will position the poor as a force in politics. Workers saving democracy from right-wing authoritarianism can make it possible to dismantle the structural violence of poverty that kills roughly 800 citizens per day in the U.S.

“We launched the Poor People’s Campaign in 2018, with the largest wave of civil disobedience in the 21st century. And that happened across more than 30 states. We have been building since then. After that wave, leaders started coordinating committees.” Theoharis told Truthout that on March 23, there were “actions happening in 32 state capitals and bringing together low wage workers, poor, people without health care.” Adding: “We have the power of shifting the political calculus. If poor and low income people were to vote at similar levels as higher income people, even if just 20 percent, in some cases 4 percent, it could shift election outcomes.”

Theoharis laid out her vision for the Poor People’s Campaign, arguing that this updated version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign can be the deciding factor in the presidential election of 2024, and perhaps become the bedrock of a new Progressive Era.

“The problem at the get-go of the Poor People’s Campaign is the five interlocking injustices; systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, denial of healthcare and militarism,” she told Truthout. “Always there is this Christian Nationalism, and the Moral Revival is an antidote to Christian Nationalism.”

Faith of the Encampments

Oftentimes no one knows the unhoused die. They are ignored as they appear to sleep on New York City subway trains until an MTA worker tries to wake them and finds no breathing. In 2022, the numbers of dead spiked. Last year in Los Angeles’s Sherman Oaks shopping center, three homeless persons were found dead in their tents. In the United States almost 600,000 people are homeless.

Theoharis was raised in a family committed to social justice, with a mother who was “a full-time faith-based activist.” During college in the 80s, she connected with National Union of the Homeless, which became her “church community.”

“Their faith was not ‘good things always happen,’” said Theoharis. “Nothing good had happened in their lives, but their faith was that something better could. I remember doing security at the encampments and having wrestling sessions with my faith and with God. I was in conversation with unhoused families on ‘where is justice and mercy?’ and also hearing a profound message that Jesus led a poor people’s campaign. It is now my theology. It is not because I studied it in books but because I lived it.”

One rung above the dying poor is the exhausted and dying working class. It could be the customer service rep who often faces rude customers, who lives with her parents because of debt. Or the Walmart employee, buried under student loans, who needs an EBT card to eat. Or the many working families who are struggle to survive without health care.

The United States is the wealthiest nation in the world and also one of most unequal. Of its 340 million citizens, 140 million are low-income and poor and nearly 600,000 endure homelessness. The everyday suffering is not visible because the conventional idea of violence is of a direct physical act. In order to see the daily destruction of the lives of the poor, one needs another way of seeing.

Sometimes an idea can save a life. In 1969, Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung published a landmark essay — “Violence, Peace and Peace Research” in the Journal of Peace Research — in which he introduced the concept of structural violence. We too often think of violence in a limited way. A cop punching a civilian or a Nazi ramming a car into a BLM rally is violent. But these physical, interpersonal expressions of violence are just the tip of the iceberg, whereas the bulk of brutality is in how institutions destroy us. Galtung made this clear. He wrote, “Violence here is defined as the cause of the difference between the potential and actual.”

So, let’s fill in the blanks of “the potential and actual” in the United States. We have the potential to feed everyone in the nation, but 44 million go hungry. The Green New Deal could potentially create 4.2 million jobs, yet we have 5.7 million without work. We have enough housing and the materials to make more homes, but hundreds of thousands are unhoused.

Another world is possible. It is the structural violence of racial capitalism that locks in place the invisible brutality. It is landlords and corporations, police and politicians, debt-creating hospitals and colleges that create an interlocking system of inequality. The question becomes: How can structural violence be made visible?

The Poor People’s Campaign

“Massive civil disobedience is a strategy of social change,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in a 1967 interview, adding: “The emergency we now face is economic and it is a desperate and worsening situation. There is a strangulation in the air. When you deprive a man of a living income you are telling him he does not deserve to exist.”

A year before his assassination, King and top leadership of the Civil Rights Movement intensified their focus on poverty. They organized the Poor People’s Campaign to push the Johnson administration to pass a $30 billion anti-poverty package. Using the tactics of mass civil disobedience honed in the South, King planned to lead a protest camp at the National Mall. In April, 1968, a bullet silenced King forever. The campaign hung in limbo. What would happen to the Poor People’s Campaign?

Hard-hatted men built a city. In May 1968, thousands of protesters raised a shantytown called Resurrection City on the National Mall to highlight the plight of the multiracial poor. The goal was to make structural violence visible. It worked but only for a while. Rains muddied the earth. Infighting set protesters against protesters. In June, police shot tear gas into the camp. Swinging batons at activists stumbling blind, the cops destroyed Resurrection City.

Nearly forty-five years later, Rev. William Barber “resurrected” the Poor People’s Campaign in the face of Republican attacks on the poor and voting rights. In 2013, he led the Moral Mondays protests in Raleigh North Carolina. Over 700 people were arrested.

In 2018, Theoharis and Barber led the 21st Century Poor People’s Campaign in a march and chanted for justice in the face of a line of cops. The two theologians met in 2013 at the founding symposium of the Kairos Center, a progressive religious think tank. Since then, Theoharis has organized rallies and took time to describe the uphill battle in making poverty visible.

“Poverty is not talked about and therefore what comes with it is blaming poor people,” Theoharis told Truthout, explaining that what results is the misconception that if poor people just worked harder, poverty would go away, rather than an awareness that poverty is “something structural” within our society and economy.

“Politicians get away with talking about poverty like it’s an isolated non-issue,” Theoharis continued. “We talk about it as a sleeping giant.” She added that her work is focused on “waking and organizing the sleeping giant, so poor people realize the power they have to change things, to activate them.”

“It’s not that poor and low-income [people] are apathetic or voting against their interests,” Theoharis told Truthout. “There’s voter suppression and problems around transportation and child care. The biggest reason is that poor people do not hear their issues represented.”

Five years later, they again led a massive campaign mobilization to get poor and low-income people to vote. The Poor People’s Campaign marched on state capitals waving banners and singing. In an interview, Barber announced the 42-week drive starting in March 2024: “We are the sleeping giant. We have power. It is time to use it.”

Theoharis drew attention to a biblical passage that she said is often misinterpreted.

“I have a love-hate relationship with ‘the poor you shall have with you always’ from Matthew 26, verse 11,” she told Truthout. “It has been used more than any other Bible verse to justify poverty. It is actually saying the exact opposite. It actually means poverty will only exist if we are being disobedient to God. It reminds people that when you cancel debt, pay workers a living wage, lend money knowing you might not get paid back and organize society around the needs of the poor, then you will never have anyone poor among you. Therefore, if poverty exists it is because we are out of sync with God.”

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