Hundreds of Poor People’s Campaign Activists Got Themselves Arrested for Racial Justice

It’s been a busy several weeks on the bad news beat.

A white Yale grad student called the police on fellow grad student Lolade Siyonbola for napping while black. Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks for trespassing for sitting while black.

Native American teenager Thomas Gray and his brother were detained after a parent on the same campus tour at Colorado State University called the police because the brothers were “too quiet.” And Muslim woman Kathleen “Amina” Deady was verbally harassed by a middle aged white man in a coffee shop in Riverside, California.

Amid the torrent of videos and news stories about people calling the police on and otherwise mistreating their neighbors, it can be hard to hold on to the idea that American civil society has any redeeming qualities.The election of Donald Trump on a platform of divisiveness and hate seemed to solidify that fear in the minds of many decent people. It can appear, in many ways, that we are broken as a society.

That’s why the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is so important.

Led by Reverends Liz Theoharis and William J. Barber II, this national campaign is attempting to launch a multi-racial movement against systemic racism, poverty, militarism, and ecological devastation. It wants to end racist voter suppression, redress the moral crimes of the criminal justice system against black people, Natives, and Latinx people, and address the state of poverty affecting 140 million poor and low income people in the United States.

Systemic racism is one of the key focal points of the campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign calls for an end to racist redistricting laws, a just immigration reform that provides undocumented immigrants citizenship and the right to organize freely, and recognition of Native peoples as nations with all the rights thereby included. It would end mass incarceration and seek to establish equality before the law for all.

And those goals are indeed worthy. But it’s not just what the campaign is doing, but how it’s going about it that’s important.

As with the original Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-68, the new Poor People’s Campaign tries to bring together everyone: white, black, Native, Asian, Latinx, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, agnostics, atheists, straight, LGBT, disabled people, people of diverse genders, and everyone else of conscience.

It’s a bold — even brash — experiment in collective struggle in an age in which what niche we fall in still defines us more than any common sense of purpose.

Take, for example, the campaign’s second day of direct actions, on May 21.

Among demonstrations around the country, hundreds gathered in Washington, DC. White Appalachians stood with black Southerners in the intense heat, listening to music, faith leaders, and speakers from among the poor.

Dozens from the crowd, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, then proceeded to engage in acts of mass civil disobedience to raise up the issue of systemic racism and its connection to poverty — one of almost 30 such events at state capitols around the country. Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists stood side by side, willing to endure arrests in order to get their point across, together.

In Indiana, activists chained themselves to the gates of the governor’s mansion overnight, renaming it the People’s House. In Illinois, 400 rallied in the state capitol, including many members of the low wage workers’ rights campaign Fight For Fifteen. In South Carolina, protesters blocked the road with their bodies.

All told, thousands rallied across the country, with hundreds submitting to arrest.

Thus far, the campaign has received widespread news coverage. Through further demonstrations, teach-ins, music and the arts, and mass meetings, the campaign is continuing to tackle anti-black discrimination, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and other social evils. Through steps like these in the coming weeks, the Poor People’s Campaign’s leaders aim to start a movement.

We might still fall prey to white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, and other social ills, falling part from one another rather than as members of a common human family. But in seeking to improve our lives and radically improve the society we live in, we can act, think, and talk in a way that’s more mutually respectful and recognizes our symbiotic relationships. 

We might find along the way that we’ve eliminated the fears and prejudices of many white Americans who resort to the constant and dangerous intervention of the police to settle differences, which cropped up so many times in the last few weeks.

It seems like the least we can do.