On Saturday April 27, 2019, Allison Cook of the DC Poor People’s Campaign delivered the following speech at the Stand Against Racism Rally at Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC:
Greetings from the DC Poor Peoples Campaign.
We are pleased and proud to stand today with our partner organizations against racism in general and for fairness to and respect for immigrants in particular. We are the local chapter of a nationwide campaign that was born in late 2016, after the last election.
This campaign is co-chaired by Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a minister based in Goldsboro NC and founder of Repairers of the Breach, and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, founder of the Kairos Center in New York.
The core concerns of the Poor Peoples Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival (PPC) are poverty, systemic racism, militarism and ecological devastation. While our primary focus is on people in the United States, the urgency of climate change as a global problem is not lost on us.
The Poor Peoples Campaign is rooted in a moral analysis based on our deepest religious and constitutional values that demand justice for all. We also are committed to changing the narrative; rather than blaming poor people for their problems, we want to empower those impacted by these issues, lift these people up, and enable them to speak for themselves, thereby gaining a wider audience on these issues for us all.
OK, but what have we done in DC? So far we have made a set of demands intended to help and support people here in particular, lower income people in general, and we intend to follow up on them.
Our demands are centered around:
- Supporting affordable housing for lower and middle income citizens in DC, particularly in neighborhoods facing gentrification;
- Support for viable and effective public education and access to hospitals, particularly for DC residents who live East of the River;
- Support for gun control and less violent means of policing;
- Support for the City Council’s efforts underway to reduce the City’s energy consumption and carbon footprint;
- We also support a living wage and lawful and respectful treatment of immigrants, both in our city and in general.
- Last but not least, the DC Poor Peoples Campaign knows that statehood, and the nullification of our voting rights, is effectively a form of voter suppression, and so we support Statehood for DC.
Many states in the PPC will do a poverty tour in April and May, which will include talking to individuals who are directly affected by poverty, documenting their concerns and getting press coverage to shine a light upon their situation. The DC Campaign will be doing that in our city, in May.
In June we will convene a Poor Peoples Moral Action Congress. Representatives from the campaign will come to Capitol Hill to frame the national political narrative around issues and emergencies of concern to poor and low-income people.
In terms of framing why these issues matter at this point in our history, I would like us to reflect together on the parable of the wicked tenants, as told by Jesus of Nazareth (at least according to the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke). You most likely remember how this parable goes: the owner of the vineyard needed to obtain his rent (it was past due), and he sent two representatives out to collect. The wicked tenants abused and killed the two representatives, one after the other, and then the owner sent his son, but by that time the tenants were so callous, corrupt and thoroughly self-centered that they also brutally murdered the son, in order to steal his inheritance.
A bit of a tough parable from the Master, but again, these are tough times.
I think that it is also fitting that in this place, the very place that slaves were bought and sold in the nation’s capital for many years, that we reflect a bit on the words to the traditional spiritual: “No more auction block for me, no more, no more. Many thousands gone”. You heard Paul Robeson sing a few lines at the beginning of my speech.
The founding fathers were first warned that the institution of slavery was wrong before and during the Revolutionary War. Benjamin Banneker, the biracial surveyor and naturalist born in Maryland and Thaddeus Kosciuzko, the military man and freedom fighter from Poland, gave the first warning, as undoubtedly others did as well. They both told George Washington in the 18th century that they thought he should free his slaves, and that slavery was incompatible with American democracy. They said this more than once, and they did not mince words; copies of the letters are still available. A statue of Kosciusko stands beside use here in this park. But unfortunately, President George Washington and other founding fathers ignored this first warning. So thousands more people were bought and sold in the years up to the Civil War, their lives cruelly degraded by the plantation system and ultimately brought to untimely deaths by the savage conditions of chattel slavery. Many thousands gone.
Then, after the Civil War was won, a whole new generation of reformers, both black and white, lit their lamps with high hopes for establishing full democratic rights and civil and economic opportunities for black citizens across these United States. People like Frederick Douglass, Alexander Crummell, and Ida B. Wells worked tirelessly for the abolition of slavery and then for the improved material comfort, and economic opportunities and rights for the newly enfranchised. They walked these streets that we know so well, they traveled, they lectured, they strategized and they advocated. But ultimately this generation’s warning was also rejected by those in power, particularly in the Southern states. Voter suppression, segregation, economic apartheid and even conscript labor were on the ascendant there for decades after that. Many more thousands gone.
When I think of this time period, I also think of the Native chiefs riding from the Midwest to the Capitol to sign treaties of peace and cooperation, and to counsel our leaders to protect Mother Earth and think of the future, even to the seventh generation. But as you know, in the long run none of these treaties were honored. None of them.
And then we come to the late 1950s’ early 1960s, and a third warning, a third moral analysis and critique with the eloquent, non-violent movement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King and his movement stood up for voting rights and registration, especially in the Southern States, and against the military industrial complex and the war economy. We have mentioned that the original Poor Peoples Campaign arose out of this effort. But the economic and political powers that be, or a certain portion of them, felt affronted and blindsided. They were not morally nimble enough to respond properly to the movement. Perhaps the reality of the unvarnished sins of slavery and Jim Crow, and even the tenacity of poverty in the midst of plenty, were an embarrassment. Or perhaps they feared that the transition to a peace economy would threaten their back pockets. For whatever set of reasons, ultimately the third warning also fell on deaf ears, at least in some high places, and this refined and eloquent servant, this good man Dr. Martin King, was also brutally slain by the tenants in the American vineyard.
The hopes and dreams that he espoused at this critical time were postponed yet again, arguably, and concerns about the growing racial divide, and its importance to all of us and to the strength and viability of our democracy were sort of neglected and driven into second rank status at this time. Again, many many more thousands gone, perhaps not in body as before, but this time lost in spirit.
Racism is not only morally wrong, but it represents an enormous waste of human potential. It always has done. When a whole group of people are kept down, in kaffir type jobs and kept from becoming educated and moving up on the social ladder, we are not really a merit- oriented society.
It is fundamentally undemocratic, and yes, immoral, to talk of full representation, freedom and liberty and our economic strength on the one hand, and keep people of color here down, decade after decade, on the other hand. The question has to surface, liberty for whom, justice for whom? And economic strength for whom?
The wise ones, the prophets and knowing leaders will tell you that moral omissions are like a double- edged sword. They hurt those who carry them out as well as those against whom they are committed. The well -to-do who perpetrate white economic dominance and mastery at the expense of racial and economic justice often expect to have success handed to them. As a consequence, they sometimes become comfortable with corruption, with rotten deals in order to earn a living, due to a high sense of entitlement, expensive habits, and having never really been forced to master key life skills.
And lest we forget, democratic suppression is transitive. As people of color, black and brown citizens whose families have lived in this country for decades face suppression of their voting rights, problems making a living and often little or no public transit, women, who have only been voting here for about a century are also finding themselves forced out of campaign meetings, publicly demeaned, their point of view ignored and violence against them condoned. All of us here today will agree that immigrants are being denied asylum, targeted for their religious beliefs. Anti-Semitic slurs and actions are multiplying, as we know from the eleven deaths at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October of 2018 and similar actions. Many people of all ages in this country are becoming very disgusted with this cruel, winner take all type of politics, and disengaging from society, which also carries its own hazards.
At this critical time, we need more democracy, not less. We need more transparency and accountability in government, not less. We need more attention to racial justice and fairness, not less. We need more thinking about the whole country and all of its inhabitants, not less. And we need more protection of our rights, everybody’s rights, not less.
Leaders throughout our society need to learn how to operate in a manner that encourages people and respects differences, including differences in race and religious affiliation, but not in a manner that is self-serving and opportunistic. This is the best way to really solve problems, to really be productive. We do not need the type of management that serves top echelon primarily, lets them do pretty much whatever they want, and keeps subordinates servile, unquestioning and poor.
Let me close by saying that I hope in hindsight, we will finally listen to the warnings that the wise men, knowers and prophets have tried to give us all along, and particularly when our nation was younger. (I include the wise indigenous chiefs when I say that). I hope that that one day we will be able to look back and say that under the threat of loss of our democracy, of dysfunction in our economy, and collapse of our planetary life support system, that the American people rose to the challenge and decided to stand up for our Constitution, to stand up for our democracy, to stand for our rights, including the rights of immigrants, to repudiate systemic racism, and to do our part to protect Mother Earth. I hope that we will be able to say that at this time, under considerable duress, we began to resolve to protect our precious vineyard, first by listening to one another, and then working cooperatively to meet one another’s needs. That we resolved to say, “No More, No More. No More thousands gone, no more lives diminished by poverty, unconcern, and oppression. No more”.
I hope we can say we started to re-assess our values and through that process, we started to feel better, both individually and collectively. The obligation of service, of compassion and moral alignment is the rent for the vineyard that is past due. I hope that we will say that Americans started to create a politics and economics that works for the whole country, and respects other countries too. We cannot turn back time, and we cannot bring back the many thousands gone. Those things are not within our power. But it is still possible to embark on a better path, together.
To echo Rabbi Hillel, the Jewish scholar who was likely a contemporary of Jesus, “If not now, when?” And to add to that statement, “If so, why not here in DC?” What better place to take this stand than together in our nation’s capital? I believe that somewhere, on some plane, that people like Thaddeus Kosciuzko, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and so many other light bearers, reformers and helpers of the centuries will be pleased when we turn that corner. Along with so many everyday people, of all races, creeds, and classes, who lived and died in this country, with real and undiminished hopes for a better day.
Thank you all very much.