On Mother’s Day morning, 2018, I thought back on my two extraordinary grandmothers who raised me, on my own mother who followed me into the War Resisters League as together we became peace activists, on my life partner and mother of my children, and on that justice movement mother, civil rights icon Dorothy Cotton, who I had recently visited with my family and paid tribute to in a Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) message of hope. We were, after all, preparing to embark on the birthing of a new movement, a national call for moral revival coalescing around a Poor People’s Campaign that may have sounded like a fifty-year-old homage to the past and Dr. King, but was very much a 21st century endeavor.
On the morning of May 14, 2018, the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign’s (PPC) first major nonviolent moral fusion direct action, I rejoiced to hear the powerful voice of Rev. Erica Williams, national social justice organizer of Repairers of the Breach and one of the key PPC figures. “We have to go out there with our most serious faces on and be there for one another. My MOM is going out there today, she’s risking arrest too!” When applause greeted Erica’s call and personal sharing, she quickly withdrew a bit, stating that she wasn’t looking for applause. Someone quickly shouted a reply: “We’re applauding for your mom!!”
Later that morning, gathering in a nearby church to train and prepare for the civil disobedience, someone from the Campaign asked all those assembled planning to risk arrest—about 150 of us, plus many more supporters—how many had been previously arrested in nonviolent protests. Perhaps about half of the room stood up, as those who remained seated were encouraged to applaud those of us veterans who were once again going into the breach, putting our bodies on the line. As the appreciation died down, the same spokesperson asked the crowd how many were risking arrest for the first time, and the predictable other half of the room stood up, accepting our excitement and respect for joining a glorious tradition of militant social change. It was nothing short of wonderous to be in a room filled with diversity on inter-generational, inter-racial, inter-faith, international, and many other levels.
The afternoon was sweltering. That was not what made it hard, however, to hear the wailing cries of a mother who held her dying child in her hands as she slipped away due to a poverty and a nation whose health care priorities mean first class facilities for some and genocide for others. To keep our messaging clear and consistent, many of us wore signs with the latest statistics; mine said “More than half of our children are poor” (shown in adjacent photo, worn by former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger). Another read: “Over 65 percent of Latinx people are poor.” Still another: “Up to 40 percent of the homeless youth population are LGBTQIA.” As hot as the day got, standing for hours awaiting arrest and processing, the intensity was always focused on the issues at hand. The war on the poor is immoral.
As the U.S. Capitol Police led us away, the poignancy of Rev. Dr. William Barber’s words became clear as he started a chant that there were “too many of us” to be carted off on a prison bus. Outdoor stalls on the side of the park were set up to contain us in groups of a dozen or so, as a make-shift row of tables and chairs were put together to fill out tickets which we would be issued before release.
This gave us time to sing, chant, meet, organize, and even take a few photos (for those who had not left their cell phones behind). A photo of Dr. Barber, my friend Carmen Perez & Muslim leader Linda Sarsour of MPower Change (both of whom are national co-chairs of the Women’s March), myself, and many others—fists raised and smiles on our faces—suggest the less-than-repressive conditions during our time in custody. (Visit my Facebook page for an album of more photos from the day.) We made clear note, however, of the much more bleak and dreadful plight of the majority of people incarcerated in today’s lock-down plantations of legalized slavery.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow faced one of the day’s few low moments. Running out of breath on a day when ample water, chairs for the elders, and other support services were in too-short supply, our dear Rebbe and founder of The Shalom Center could not quite make it to the street and wait under the sun to get arrested as he had planned. For those of us in FOR—myself and co-chair Sahar Alsahlani, Interim Executive Director Max Hess, Program Director Ethan Vesley-Flad, Senior Bayard Rustin Fellow David Ragland, Program Assistant Mori Hitchcock, Development Counsel Michael Taylor, Truth Telling Project allies Mark Lance & Katie Johnson, and others—it was an honor just to sit with this life-long campaigner for peace, justice, and a heart-and-soul approach to environmentalism and social change that can only be described as “world-healing.”
Waskow, Sarsour, and Barber all remarked throughout the day about the horrific news that was coming out of Gaza. Experience shows us that we must have a long view. No matter what the inadequacies, no matter how imperfect, we are not “in” this work expecting the world to be made right in one day or even seven.
We cannot wish for perfect organization, but we can celebrate an extraordinary launch, with 1,000 people risking arrest in unified actions covering dozens of state capitals as well as DC. We can feel confident that a strong and diverse grouping of people from the grassroots up are assembling to build something not to last a weekend or even a forty-day period, but to birth a many-year movement to turn the United States around. As many in the Jewish contingent reminded the gathered groupings of folks (via a sticker made by the human rights group T’ruah), some of us have been “resisting tyrants since Pharaoh!”