'The Protest Is The Hope:' Rev. Barber And The Poor People's Campaign

Oct 6, 2020

Rev. William Barber has travelled to New Mexico and around the country, organizing with the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call For a Moral Revival. The movement extends from the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as Cesar Chavez, with a vision of poor and low-wealth people and their “moral allies” coming together to make systemic change. Reporter Russell Contreras spoke with Rev. Barber for New Mexico PBS and asked him why poverty should be on the agenda during the 2020 election in New Mexico. 

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: My question is, how can it not be? That's what we have said to candidates that are here: How in the world can you choose not to address an issue that's affecting almost 43 percent of the nation? How can you not address an issue where, for instance, if you just pay people a living wage of $15 an hour, you could bring 49 million people out of poverty?

RUSSELL CONTRERAS: What would you like to see both President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden say during the debates to address poverty? What kind of questions should the moderators be asking to bring the issue of poverty into this presidential campaign?

BARBER: One of the things I want them to acknowledge is these numbers: 58 percent of all the children, 49 percent of women, 58 percent of people of color, 35 percent of people that are white in New Mexico are poor and low-wealth. In New Mexico, you've got 230,000 people that are uninsured. So, first of all, I want them to acknowledge the numbers and the people represented by the numbers.

And then I want them to say how they will address these five interlocking injustices: systemic racism and all of its reality—the police violence, yes, but also voter suppression, also continued underfunding and resegregation of public schools and mass incarceration, and the mistreatment of our immigrant brothers and sisters, Latino brothers and sisters, mistreatment of Indigenous brothers and sisters. But then also address poverty, and the lack of living wages and ecological devastation. They have to address the issues, not talk around them, not just come up with nice metaphors: ‘We ought to be concerned,’ ‘We want people to have the opportunity.’ What does that mean, specifically?

We recognize that in any election, you have to make a choice, a practical choice. So poor and low-wealth people are saying ‘We're going to evaluate candidates. Then we're going to see who's closest to our agenda. We're going to vote for them. And then after the election, we're going to push them.’

You know, I wish that the media would decide that they're going to have one debate on nothing but poverty, on what's affecting 50 percent of this nation, and then have the questions come from poor and low-wealth people. So it can't be something that folks skate around.

CONTRERAS: Reverend, what do you tell activists who are overwhelmed by this poverty, they're overwhelmed by this injustice? What do you tell them to keep giving them hope to continue?

BARBER: Well, the ones that I meet are telling me that they can't give up. As we move around the country, you know, we're not organized from the top down. Every state we went to—in New Mexico, we were invited in. They invited us in. Because when people figure out that they have a right to be, to exist, and then they figure out they've been lied to. A lot of people have figured that out during COVID. ‘We've been lied to, every time! Seven months ago, people were telling us we didn't have money to do this, we didn’t have money to do this. Well how did you find all this money all of a sudden?’

And then when people find out that they've been told that their vote doesn't matter, and they found out: ‘Wait a minute, you mean to tell me just 2 percent of us could change this? 20 percent could change here? 1 percent could change here?’ It shifts the whole attitude of the battle.

People cannot continue to suffocate under the knee of police violence, under the knee of racism, and under the knee of poverty. There is something in the very inside of our soul that demands we have to fight to breathe. And that's what I think you're seeing in the streets. It’s BLM. But I think if people just understand that as Black Lives Matter, they're missing it.

It’s people who, in the midst of COVID, have experienced so much that when George Floyd said ‘I can't breathe,’ it was like shorthand for what many people are experiencing. It is actually the hope of America. People don't understand: The protest is the hope. It means people do not believe that this democracy is beyond being changed and fixed and being made better.

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This interview originally aired as part of Sunday’s episode of our show No More Normal, which is all about voting rights. Full episode below.