The Poor People’s Campaign Goes to Congress

How does a campaign led by the poor and dispossessed engage with elected officials without the politicos stealing the spotlight for partisan purposes? That’s a question the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has grappled with since they launched a series of actions in May.

One rule has been clear: no politicians at the podium at campaign-organized events. Instead, the weekly rallies that have taken place over the past month in more than 35 states have featured ordinary Americans speaking from their own experiences about the campaign’s inter-related targets: systemic racism, poverty and inequality, militarism and the war economy, and ecological devastation.

But several members of Congress remained eager to support the initiative, which marks the 50th anniversary of a similar effort launched by Rev. Martin Luther King and other leaders in 1968. This past week, they found two powerful ways to do that while maintaining the campaign’s non-partisan focus on the most vulnerable.

On June 14, several Democrats skipped the Congressional Baseball Game and spent an hour on the House floor reading testimonials by campaign activists who are facing severe economic hardship, from homelessness to predatory lenders to paychecks that don’t cover basic needs. (Full video)

“We are appealing to people across the political spectrum, at this time of a roaring stock market and trumped-up claims of great wealth and bounty in this society, to look at the cost of social and economic inequality,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland), as he opened the session. “We need to look at the situation of wealth in America “not from the top down but from the bottom up.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal read testimony from Mashyla Buckmaster, a young woman from Washington’s impoverished Grays Harbor County: “I wasn’t homeless because I was stupid and lazy. I was homeless because our country has no problem with pregnant mothers being homeless in the dead of winter while just two hours away, in Seattle, the founders of Microsoft and Amazon have made themselves the richest individuals on the planet.”

Buckmaster’s story resonated with Jayapal, who represents the city of Seattle. “It has been breaking my heart that my community — so tolerant, so wonderful, so inclusive — has unfortunately been turning anger of inequality in our system against people who are experiencing homelessness just like the testimony I just read.”

Japayal also read the story of Deanna Butler, a 31-year-old restaurant server and single mother active in the Fight for $15 campaign in Boston, a city with sky-high rents. “I don’t understand how these multibillion dollar corporations are able to build an empire on the backs of low-wage workers and get away with making millions in profits while we have nowhere to live and have to depend on brothers and sisters to help us make it through,” Butler wrote.

Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin read the testimony of military veteran Brock McIntosh, who described a heart-wrenching encounter with an Afghan boy who’d been injured while attempting to set off a roadside bomb. “We need to demand opportunities for working class folks that don’t require killing other working class folks,” he wrote.

Earlier in the week on the other side of the Capitol, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) co-hosted a hearing with Poor People’s Campaign Co-Chair Rev. William Barber and affected people from several states across the country.

Rep. Ro Khanna, who attended both events, said he’s been to a lot of hearings on Capitol Hill but had “never been more moved, not just as a politician, but as a human being,” as he was while listening to their testimony.

Over the past month, hundreds of people have been arrested for acts of civil disobedience at Poor People’s Campaign actions at state capitals around the country. On June 23, the campaign will be back in Washington, D.C. —this time outside the halls of Congress, with a mass rally on the National Mall.

Khanna said he hoped members of Congress would listen to the voices of the people who will be marching in the streets and “take some inspiration from their courage — courage far exceeding any of ours in this body — and be inspired to do the right thing and fight for economic justice.”