We look at the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Black, Brown and poor communities, and the next steps officials should take, with Reverend William Barber, who is organizing an online Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, D.C., on June 20. “We’re not going to just die. We’re going to stand up and fight back,” says Rev. Barber. He also discusses voter suppression ahead of the November election.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to look at the disproportionate impact the coronavirus pandemic continues to have on Black, Brown and poor communities, and the next steps officials should take.
Our next guest is Reverend William Barber. He’s calling for people to stay in place stay alive and organize. He’s organizing a Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington online on June 20th. This comes as four of the 10 worst current confirmed outbreaks in the U.S. are now in rural Southern counties, have been driven by an outbreak in a prison. According to Facing South, the online magazine for the Institute for Southern Studies, quote, “Covid-19 has hit counties with prisons and meatpacking plants particularly hard, along with majority-black rural counties across the Deep South.” The three counties in the rural South with the highest death rates from COVID-19 are majority Black and in Southwest Georgia.
For more, we’re going to Raleigh, North Carolina. Reverend William Barber is back with us.
Welcome to Democracy Now! You co-chair the Poor People’s Campaign. You’re president of Repairers of the Breach. Reverend Barber, if you can start off by talking about this disparate impact on communities of color and the poor, White and people of color, and what you’re doing about this?
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, Amy, thank you so much. These are hard times. And what we’re seeing in America now, a lot of the pain is by choice. It didn’t have to be. It’s not because of the virus, per se. It is because of the pandemic of greed and lies and trickle-down economics that, in this situation, caused us to move in the wrong direction from the beginning.
Now, what we know is, even before COVID hit, too many people in power were too comfortable with other people’s deaths. We have 140 million poor and low-income people in this country, 43% of the nation, 700 people dying a day from poverty and low wealth, two-and-a-quarter million a year, even before COVID hit, and 80 million people either uninsured or underinsured before COVID hit.
And what all of the public health officials tell us, that pandemics exploit the fissures in the society and the wounds in the society, the open wounds, and that America had a whole lot of open wounds as it related to systemic racism and poverty, because when you break down those numbers, 61% of African Americans were poor and low-wealth before COVID. Sixty-six million White people, in raw numbers, were poor and low-wealth in COVID. From the mountains of Appalachia to the Delta of Mississippi, you had extreme disparities. And COVID hits. And what we have now, as I just heard you mentioning, is the disparity among Black people and — and really, it’s low-income African Americans or poor African Americans, and then Whites and Latinos. And we don’t really know how bad it is, because the data is so spotty. But what we do know is that the pandemic is exploiting those fissures.
And our response, from the beginning, has been terrible, both from the White House and, dare say I, from the Congress, and from particularly the McConnell Congress, since he has blocked so many things, because it’s kind of our imagination has been limited by this Reaganism, this trickle down. So, what happened? We passed three bills up front, and 83, 84, 85% of all the resources go to the corporate heads, go to the top. The bills did not start at the bottom up. It did not — think about it. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. We’ve had three so-called rescue bills. Not one bill provided healthcare for everybody and the uninsured, in the midst of a pandemic. Not one bill provided living wages, in the midst of a pandemic. Not one bill guaranteed that your water couldn’t be cut off and your utilities, in the midst of a pandemic. Not one bill ensured the protections that you need in terms of personal protection and the ventilators. Not one bill significantly dealt with all the homeless in this community, in this country. Not one bill focused on the undocumented workers.
And so, what we’re saying is this is the moment that you have to stay at home. Don’t you believe these lies these governors are telling us about the time to open back up the society. Stay at home. Stay alive. Organize. Organize. And we’re demanding that all the things that were not done up front that should have been done, they have to be done now, in order for us to move forward and possibly overcome this pandemic. Otherwise, the pandemic is going to still have root in our society. And it’s not just going to hurt poor people; it’s going to exploit poor communities and the fissures, but it’s going to continue to spread throughout the rest of the society.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Reverend Barber, I wanted to ask you especially about the institutional populations in the face of this pandemic, both in nursing homes and in prisons. Just as the virus does not respect national borders, it also doesn’t respect institutional borders in this, so that you have this enormous spread in nursing homes, in long-care facilities, as well as in prisons and jails, The New York Times reporting today that over 1,200 correction officers at Rikers Island have tested positive, six have died. And in several Southern states, where there have been hot spots, it’s usually around a prison or a meatpacking plant. The impact on the African American and Latino communities, who are centered in many of these institutions?
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: You’re exactly right. And I have to, because of the nature of our campaign, say, yes, we have a large number of African Americans, of poor and low-wealth African Americans — and I keep wanting to make that point — but also Latino and also poor Whites, as well. And what you have is these institutions have become like Petri dishes. Right?
So, in the prison system, people can actually now be imprisoned, let’s just say, or be incarcerated, for bouncing checks, and it becomes a death sentence. And some people in power are OK with that. They will just say, “Well, they’re in prison.”
In nursing homes, we found that not only is it hurting the people who are residents of those nursing homes, but we’re finding out every day that the nurses’ aides, the people we call essential workers — essential workers, that’s — many of them feel like that was a title change, because a few months ago we called them service workers. But what “essential” really means now is expendable, because they’re essential, but none of the bills have given them the essentials they need, the protections they need, the healthcare they need.
And so, what happens? We had one lady named Polly, and she’s a nurse’s aide in New York. She said, “I feel like we’re engaged in mass murder. We’re being led to mass murder.” She said, “We have to buy our own garbage bags to try to have some covering. We don’t have the masks that we need. None of this was done up front.” And so, what happens is, not only are the residents, which is horrible and ugly and evil enough for them to catch the disease because the controls weren’t put in place; it then spreads outside of the nursing homes and outside of the prisons.
I live in a county where we are the fifth — one of the five highest areas in our state, and the majority of our infections are inside the prisons. And then what we hear is, once that happens, people can’t call out. They’re not allowing the prisoners to talk to people on the outside. But again, the public health officials say that something like 25 people — one study says something like 25 people could potentially be impacted because of one or two prisoners on the inside that have the coronavirus. They could actually pass it to the guards, administrators. Then they pass it to their families and others outside. This is horrific.
And it is a dereliction of duty, really, by the White House and by the Congress, when you think about what the president did, which, in the biblical sense, it would be called evil. When he said, “I’m going use the Defense Authorization Act to make meatpackers go to work. I’m going to make them go to work. I’m going to say that they have to go to work,” but he wouldn’t use that same Defense Authorization Act to make sure that they had the PPEs that they needed, that they had the protection that they needed and the insurance that they needed and the sick leave they needed, it’s really sick. “I’m going to make you go back to work” in a lethal situation. And that’s what we have here. People are feeling like they are being sent into lethal situations.
And it didn’t have to be like this. When we see the long lines of 10,000 people standing in line for food, it didn’t have to be like this. You could have expanded SNAP. We could have made sure that everybody had what they needed. Even in some communities where many of these institutions you’re talking about are, many of them have had the closures of hospitals over the last few years. That should have never happened, but we could have used the Army Corps of Engineers to put field hospitals in place and testing in place. That’s the problem. Our response to this virus, what we have seen has been a dereliction of duty and a damnedable — a damnedable dereliction of duty, and people are dying needlessly. People are being infected needlessly. And it did not have to be this way.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Dr. William Barber, you’re participating in a rally organized by the ACLU and Fight for 15 in support of McDonald’s workers. They’re walking out in at least 20 places all over the country. They cite a survey of more than 800 McDonald’s workers, from March 31st to April 6th, in which 42% reported being told not to wear masks and gloves by management. The survey also said almost half came to work feeling sick, because they were afraid they would be disciplined or penalized. Now, the company is disputing these figures. But can you talk about McDonald’s?
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: They can dispute them all they want to, but these are real figures. These are people who we’ve talked to and we continue to talk to. I’m standing with Mary Kay Henry, SEIU. I mean, again, what we’re talking about, from a constitutional standpoint, is basically the failure to have equal protection under the law. You say you’re going to make workers go in. You’re not going to give them what they need in the time of a pandemic. In fact, it shows, Amy, how immoral some of our politicians and business leaders have become, that they would rather make people go into lethal situations than address the problems that exist.
And so, yes, we’re standing with these workers all over the country, who — one of them said to me the other day, he said, “Reverend Barber, you know what?” I said, “What?” They said, “Today, our pens came in.” I said, “What do you mean, our pens?” They said, “McDonald’s provided us pens that says ‘essential workers.’” She said, “I don’t need a pen. I need paid sick leave. I need adequate unemployment. I need protective gear. I need to be insured. I should not have to work a job, which is already a low-wage, low-income job, and then come into that job and risk my life and my children’s lives and my spouse’s life.” This is no way to run a country.
But the problem is, Amy — and I want to drive this home — that even before COVID, we were allowing so much inequality, which is why the Poor People’s Campaign started long before COVID. There was so much inequality existing and so many people comfortable with it, and too many of even our politicians on both sides of the aisle have been locked into this kind of Reaganism, to trickle down. As long as we take care of the wealthy and the middle class, other people — everything is fine. And we’ve not done policy from the bottom up, from low-wage and poor folk, from low-wage workers and poor people, from the bottom up.
And this pandemic now is like a — what do you call it? — a contrast dye, that has now gone through the body politic of America, and it’s exposing — it’s exposing all of these inequalities. And poor and low-wealth people are having to pay the brunt of it. They’re having to die from this. And it is terrible, what is going on.
And so, yes, workers are saying, “We can’t just die. You know, we can’t just allow this to happen.” In fact, some of them have said to me, “Reverend Barber,” they’ve said, “we’re in a situation now where in 48 hours we could be on a ventilator. And so, we’ve decided that if we might be on a ventilator in 48 hours, we’re going to use our last breath to breathe new life into this society. We’re not going to just die. We’re going to stand up. We’re going to fight back. We may not be able to be in the streets because of coronavirus, but we can be on social media. We can organize.” We can do, on this coming Thursday — Wednesday, Thursday —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Reverend Barber? Reverend Barber, we —
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: — a hundred thousand calls to McConnell and [Pelosi]. Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Reverend Barber, we only have about a minute left, but I just wanted to ask you about the June 20th march that you’re planning.
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And if you could just briefly talk about your concerns about voter suppression, going into this next presidential election?
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: We want everybody to join poor and low-wealth people throughout this country on June 20th, 2020. You can go to PoorPeoplesCampaign.org or June2020.org. We are calling — we were going to be physically on Pennsylvania Avenue, but — and we were thinking about not doing it, and people said, “No, we have to do it.” We’re going to put a face and a voice on poverty. We’re going to lay out the demands that are going to come from people who are impacted and the experts and religious leaders. We’ve got 16 denominations, joining a hundred organizations, but, more importantly, 45 state coordinating committees made up of poor and low-wealth people, who are saying, “Somebody is hurting our people. It’s gone on far too long. We won’t be silent anymore.” We’re doing this to shift the narrative and build power. We’re going to build a massive voting power out of this, as well, because poor and low-income people hold the key to change the political calculus.
In terms of voter suppression, this president and the Senate Leader McConnell, even before COVID, they had done everything they could. They’ve refused to fix the Voting Rights Act. We’re going to have to have massive voting that — we probably won’t get mail-in voting, so we’re going have to turn out in massive ways. We need to stop saying that Donald Trump won. He actually lost in the popular vote. He won by 80,000 votes. There are the thousands and thousands and thousands of people, millions of people, who didn’t vote — 100 million people. It is time. We must vote. We must vote in massive numbers.
And we must — and Democrats, if they want to win, they need to speak to people’s issues. They need to fight for people’s lives, because people are going have to risk their lives to go vote. So they need to stop talking about being practical and moderate and all this other stuff and left and right, and just do what is right. Fight for people’s lives. Fight and show them you really care, and I believe the American public will turn out. But it’s going to be a battle. And the Poor People’s Campaign is going to be in it all the way.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we hope to be talking to you again soon, Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. The major march online is planned for June 20th.
When we come back, a largely immigrant public elementary school in New Brunswick, New Jersey, fights to stop its demolition. Stay with us.