In the richest country in the world, poor and low-income people are disproportionately harmed by everything from economic inequality and climate change to COVID-19 and gun violence, yet they are disproportionately excluded from the process of addressing any of these crises. That is why, on June 18, tens of thousands from around the country are expected to descend on Washington, DC, for the Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls, organized by the Poor People’s Campaign. In this installment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc is joined once again by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign to discuss this historic march on Washington and the need to channel the pain, anger, and struggles of the nation’s poor into a powerful force that can drive systemic political and economic change.
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is co-director of the Kairos Center, as well as a founder and coordinator of the Poverty Initiative. She is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival, and author of Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor. She is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a biblical scholar in New Testament and Christian origins.
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Pre-Production/Studio: Adam Coley
Post-Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Hello. I’m Marc Steiner, and welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. It’s always great to have you with us. This coming weekend, tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people will be coming to Washington DC for the Mass Poor People’s and Low Wage Workers Assembly as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, a national campaign for moral revival. And people will be coming from across America, representing the 140 million poor and low income workers in our country. We all know that COVID is ravishing the nation. And it’s ravishing poor people, working people, especially.
At the same time, corporations are making record profits and those that exploit the workers the most are making the most, as are their executives. In the midst of the rise of the racist right wing in our country, the Poor People’s Campaign stands out as a leading force organizing across America to say we can have a more equitable nation, which is why we bring their voices to the air so often. And as we approach June 18, we once again bring Reverend Liz Theoharis to our airwaves. She’s co-director of the Kairos Center, co-founder of the Poverty Initiative, national co-director of the Poor People’s Campaign, and author of the book Always With Us: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. She’s an ordained minister with the Presbyterian church, spends her life battling for social, economic and political justice on the front lines of many grassroots groups. And Reverend Liz Theoharis, welcome back. Good to have you with us.
Rev. Liz Theoharis: It’s so good to be with you, Marc. Thanks for having me.
Marc Steiner: So here we are just days away from this massive march on DC. Tell us a bit about what you expect and where we are right now with all this.
Rev. Liz Theoharis: Well, I mean, we’re living in a nation at a time when, as you said in your intro, there are 140 million people who are poor or one small emergency away from absolute economic ruin. We’re seeing gun violence, climate crisis, we’re seeing war and the devaluing of life. And yet after a million plus deaths, two to five times the number of poor people dying from COVID than richer people, after gun violence, mass shooting after mass shooting, after these attacks on abortion and on trans youth and on homeless people, we’re saying that our nation has to stop, pay attention more on what’s going on, hear the cries of those that are impacted by this and then turn another way. Because we have the wherewithal, the resources to actually address all of the problems we’re talking about. We can expand healthcare, we can raise wages, we can lift from the bottom so everybody rises. And so that’s why on June 18 we’ll have thousands of people on Pennsylvania avenue crying out that somebody’s been hurting our people for far too long and we won’t be silent anymore.
On June 18, we’re going to have poor and low income people from every state across the country talking about the stories, the problems that they’re experiencing, that their families are experiencing, the loss of loved ones, just all of the problems that people are having. But they’re also going to put forward our demands and the solutions that are there to solve these very problems. And it’s so important when the Poor People’s Campaign gathers that we build a stage and a mic for poor and low income people. We’re talking about having to shift the narrative in this country about who is poor, why people are poor, and to do that we have to shift the narrator. And so we have to hear from and we have to see those who are most impacted, who come from every region in this country, are of different races and ethnicities and genders and sexualities and sexual orientations, and speak different languages, and have different abilities, and who all are saying that it doesn’t have to be this way, that there are solutions at hand. And we have to build the kind of power that it’s going to take to actually enact policies that lift people up.
Marc Steiner: So a couple of things that I was really thinking about when I was thinking about this campaign, I mean, this is really different in many ways, and we’ve talked about this before, than the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, which I was really happy to be an organizer for and part of. But very different in that you actually have a consistent organization that’s organizing across the country in communities. It’s not just about marching in DC on this day, though it’s important and I want to come right back to that. But it’s about the organizing effort that crosses racial lines, that brings people together in struggles around in all 50 states. Let’s just talk a bit about that. I think that’s really important given this kind of surge, as I said earlier, of this kind of really racist right-wing power in America and how you confront that.
Rev. Liz Theoharis: So indeed, the Poor People’s Campaign and National Call For Moral Revival has coordinating committees in more than 40 states across the country. Those coordinating committees are led by poor and impacted people, moral leaders and clergy, activists, advocates across a great diversity of people. And the idea behind these coordinating committees is that we’re pulling people together, organizing, mobilizing, registering people, engaging folks for this larger movement. We’re living in a moment that requires a movement, and movement requires mobilizing and organizing. And so, we get from some brothers and sisters at the US-Mexico border this idea of permanently organized communities. Folks that are there at the ready when some regressive policy is passed, when you have the rise of authoritarianism and white supremacist violence. We have people organized to respond.
And then also, folks are organized to be able to win the kinds of policies and structures that it’s going to take to not just fight back when there are these cuts, but to actually put forward a vision and then build the kind of power it’s going to take to enact that vision in our states all across the country. And so we say the Poor People’s Campaign, it’s not an organization. There are two organizations: the Kairos Center that I direct and Repairers of the Breach that is led by Reverend Dr. William Barber II, who is the other co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. Our two organizations help anchor the campaign. But the campaign is an organism, it has a structure. And that structure is really about nationalizing the state and local coordinating committees and work and struggles that people are waging.
So when there’s a whole series of attacks in Texas that are still going on today around voter suppression, around public education, around immigration, around women’s right to be able to choose, these kinds of attacks, as they happen, the Texas Poor People’s Campaign is able to connect up with other struggles and fights, and then try to build a long lasting for the future kind of movement and structure and fusion alliance of people, coalition of people, that actually is there to show up for each other’s different issues, and to put forward that the way we’re going to be able to address all of these problems is through an intersectional fusion movement from the ground up. And so, so much of the work that’s happening, the buses that are being organized that come on June 18 and what people will return to after that powerful assembly and Moral March will be that continuous organizing in states across the country.
Marc Steiner: So I want to come right to the march, but as you were speaking, I was thinking about, I’m very curious what you think what forms this will take. I mean, and this is what I mean by that. I mean, on the one hand, we’ve seen in the last week a couple of elections in America where you saw progressives really under attack, and you saw people like Chesa Boudin having this campaign against him in a recall election in San Francisco, the progressive state’s attorney there. And I raise those issues because we see how difficult the struggle is.
And I’m curious, when you think about the work being done across the country, in the 40 states you mentioned of the Poor People’s Campaign, when you see that 26 state legislatures in this country are really controlled by the really rigid right in America that would take away a woman’s right to choose, that would cut off voting rights for people, poor people, and people of color in this country, make it more difficult to vote. So what front do you think this struggle takes, post this demonstration, what has to be done to confront that and build against it?
Rev. Liz Theoharis: Well, poor and low income people actually make up a very significant percentage of the electorate. Poor and low income people make up a third right now, and in battleground states it can be 40, 50% of the electorate are actually poor and low income people. So when folks are able to vote around an agenda, an agenda that talks about living wages, around healthcare, around all of the issues, the priorities, the demands that we’re hearing, then that has the potential of actually shaping, changing the entire political landscape. We’ve been talking about poor and low income voters as really a sleeping giant that’s out there.
And part of the reason… People do vote, but maybe don’t vote in as high of numbers or in as organized of a way as some other constituencies, because we’ve been going through decades of election cycles where neither party actually talks enough about the actual needs and priorities of poor and low income people. And we see then when folks start to, when there are ballot initiatives around living wages, or when what’s on the ballot is something to do with healthcare, even when it’s around systemic racism, even when it’s around voting rights. I mean, what we’re seeing is that people show up, including poor and low income people. In the 2020 election, the Poor People’s Campaign reached out to more than two million poor and low income, what they call low propensity voters.
We did a study of our election kind of work. We didn’t reach out to them in any kind of partisan way, but we did talk to them about the kinds of issues that are a part of our agenda, and that we’ve heard from other poor and low income people are the very kind of demands that people have. And what we found in that election is that poor and low income people made all the difference. So what has to happen, and the work that we plan to do, part of the reason the June 18 gathering is called a Mass Poor People and Low Wage Workers Assembly, a Moral March on Washington and to the Polls, is because we see these midterms and other future elections as very important, as an important strategy for being able to shift this political landscape.
And again, when you start to see poor and low income people insisting that our politicians actually take on these issues, insisting that we put forward solutions to the problems that people are facing, and then holding people to it, holding feet to the fire, not letting on our demands and on our raising our voices, we know that’s actually how change happens. One of my favorite quotes from Rev. Dr. King, he says “It would be the height of naivete for those in power, the administration, for us to expect that the administration is going to implore us for our programs.” And he’s talking about the idea that folks aren’t going to come and say, what do you want? But we have to be out there. And that’s what June 18 is about.
I mean, we follow the steps of nonviolent direct action. And one of those steps, a very important one, is to make your demands known. And then when you’ve made your demands known, you’ve been very clear about it, then you can keep on moving along those steps and you can keep on coming back and you can keep on insisting and then you can call to escalate that action in a nonviolent way, saying this has to happen. This is what we’re seeing and what we’re experiencing as absolutely necessary. The fact that we have the levels of poverty and inequality in this rich nation are just immoral and unacceptable. And so we’re going to organize and push and keep on pushing until we’re able to win the kind of change that people need.
Marc Steiner: So, one of the things I know that you were pushing for in Washington coming up is a meeting face to face with President Biden. There’s a lot of talk about him as well, he’s just not going to be there. But so talk a bit about that part of the strategy, whether you think it’s going to happen, and what happens if you do get to sit with Biden and talk to him about what needs to happen?
Rev. Liz Theoharis: Well, before he was even elected, President Biden came onto an online program that the Poor People’s Campaign was organizing back in September and said that if he was elected, that ending poverty would be more than just an aspiration, it would be a theory of change. And so we had heard early on right when he was elected after Reverend Dr. Barbara, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign preaches that inaugural sermon, that there was interest in a meeting. Not just with a couple of leaders, but with poor and low income folks, with economists, with faith leaders, but especially those that are impacted by and could be lifted up by things like The Build Back Better plan, by raising wages, by some of the very policies that we know that there are folks in the administration and in Congress that really want to see happen.
And so we have been asking for that meeting, we continue to ask. At the same time as we’ve been asking for that meeting, we’ve been trying to really put pressure on Congress, on the Senate in particular, on Joe Manchin, on Kyrsten Sinema, on the 49 Republican senators who block living wages, who block voting rights, who block so many of the things that people need. And our strategy is this: It’s to pay attention, to listen to those that are most impacted. The conversation over the past year has been, oh, no, we can’t afford this. This just costs too much. Well, that is the wrong question. The question that we should be posing to this nation, the richest nation in human history, that has seen more death from COVID, more death from healthcare loss and low wages than other comparable economies, is look at what it’s costing our nation to have the level of poverty and inequality.
And to then ask the president when we meet and if we get to meet to lift up the voices and the stories and the solutions that he hears from those poor and low income leaders. And to get the nation talking about, how is it that a couple of months after they failed to extend the child tax credit that had lifted four million kids above the poverty line, and now half of the people that were receiving the child tax credit are saying that they have food insecurity in their homes. They do not have enough food. This is in a nation that throws out more food than it takes to feed every hungry person. And not just in this country, but around the world. And yet, half of the families that were receiving that one policy, that one program, are hungry now.
Now, that shows that we have the solutions, and they’re at hand, and we know what it’s going to take. And then if our administration, if our Congress refuses to do what we know works, then that’s where we have to keep on pushing, keep on organizing, keep on protesting and putting on the pressure. Because it’s one thing if you don’t know and you don’t have the resources, but when you do know and you do have the resources, then what you’re committing is an act of violence against the people.
Marc Steiner: So on this day, on the 18th, talk a bit about what… I mean, there are people coming from all across America, and I said, tens of thousands, could be even more. Who can predict? But I mean, there’s going to be a lot of people in the streets of DC. And I’m curious, which… I mean, I remember clearly being, as old as I am, I remember the March on Washington in the beginning in the early ’60s and the Poor People’s Campaign of ’68, and the differences seems to me, about what you all on the Poor People’s campaign now are bringing to DC and bringing to this nation, is that you actually are organized in the sense that you’re organizing all the time. So all across America, this is not just a one shot deal, we’re going to DC and we’re going to have this rally. But let’s talk about the importance of what’s going to happen on the 18th then in that context, what you expect.
Rev. Liz Theoharis: I mean, I think what we’re calling for in this Mass Poor People and Low Wage Workers Assembly, and it’s called an assembly because it’s a bringing together of poor and low income people and advocates and activists to put forward this third Reconstruction agenda and to put forward very clearly the 14 policy demands that come out of the life and experiences and organizing of the people that make up the Poor People’s Campaign. And those demands include living wages, and include expansion of things like a child tax credit and earned income tax credit, and other strong social welfare programs. Those demands include immigrant rights and Native and Indigenous sovereignty in the protection of lands and air and water. Those demands include voting rights, and really doing something about this impoverished democracy and these attacks on our democracy that are taking place, and sees the connection between all of these and so many other issues.
And so the idea when we assemble and when we have this Moral March and Moral March to the Polls, too, is about the building up of power to be able to enact policies that make a difference in people’s lives. And so, yeah. This is not just a day, it’s a declaration of the kind of power we have to build, that we are building with the demands that we have and the agenda that we’re putting forward. We often say in this work we’re not just cursing the darkness, we’re not just pointing out everything that’s wrong, but we’re shining a light on what’s possible and what’s needed and necessary for us to actually lift the load of poverty and to address all of these issues. And so the purpose of June 18 and what that assembly is is about making very clear the pain, but also the power and demands that we have, and putting that to the nation and having people from all over then go back…
I mean, much like the message of Dr. King in ’63, it was about going back. Go back to Alabama, go back to Mississippi, go back to New York and keep on building and organizing and bringing people together across and uniting people together across all of these lines that historically have divided us. But we know when we’re able to build something like a fusion movement that then we have the possibility of really transforming life for everybody. And so that’s what we’re about. We gather in DC. And Dr. Barbara has been saying this is not a commencement, this is a commencing of it. This is let’s get to work. Let’s keep on working. Let’s keep on building. And let’s keep on crying out to the country that we’re not going to be silent.
Marc Steiner: He also says, and anyways I love this, we talked about this before we were on the air together, this moment is not about left versus right but about right versus wrong. What does that mean to you? What does that mean to people who see themselves as very partisan in America? What does that line mean?
Rev. Liz Theoharis: Well, I mean, I think one of the things that Dr. Barbara points out and I think our campaign has been able to show is that issues around housing, issues around healthcare, around living wage jobs. I mean, these are not partisan, these are not liberal or conservative issues. These are issues that affect the majority of people. And so we get too narrow. We get too small when we start to try to put things into the boxes of liberal versus conservative or right versus left. Instead, it is wrong to have the resources to end homelessness tomorrow and then not to do it. It is wrong to value a gun more than a child. It is wrong to, as Dr. Barbara has been saying around the attack on Roe, to give more power to a rapist to control a woman’s body than that woman herself.
I mean, these… We have to put these questions out in those ways. And our experience in this movement is that people are ready to see what’s right and what’s wrong and prepared to move in very bold and visionary ways towards what is right. Because we’ve been sold a bunch of lies. We’ve been told that this is as good as it gets, that we have scarcity, we can’t really solve these problems. We’ve been told that we should just blame each other and others for all of the problems of society. But the truth is that we live in abundance, that we have the power to change. The only thing that has ever been able to change societies for the better has been the people and movements of people. And the truth is that we know what we want, and so we’re going to build the kind of power to be able to win that.
Marc Steiner: I mean, very specifically about some of the things I’ve been reading recently about the things you’ve been demanding as you come to DC are everything from establishing a civilian climate corps, to ending the filibuster, to passing the For the People Act, which we can talk about, to restoring the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which is, I mean, a battle. And a huge battle, raising the minimum wage. And you see this now in the context of the whittling away of everything that created the stuff you’re trying to say has to be strengthened. I mean, this is a real battle for the future of America, for the future of the people, for our children, grandchildren.
Sitting here talking like this, I might say, oh Steiner, you ought to be more nonpartisan. No, no, I can’t be nonpartisan about this because we’re talking about the future of the world here, the future of everything we hold dear. And that takes a huge amount. I mean, because they’re pushing back so hard on the state level. Right now, as you just said, we’re facing both the end of reproductive rights for women, and we are facing all these horrendous mass shootings across the country. I mean, and so America is obsessed with that. And somehow what you’re talking about has to reach that, break through that and connect it. Which is not just impossible to do, but it’s a struggle.
Rev. Liz Theoharis: It is. But it’s also clear. I mean, those that are being hurt first and worst by all of the different calamities that are happening in our society are poor and low income people. And who is going to be hurt the most when their access to an abortion is taken away? It’s poor women, it’s poor families, it’s Black and Brown and Indigenous women and Indigenous families. Let’s look at Buffalo, let’s look at Uvalde, let’s look at Tulsa. These communities where this massive violence and shootings are taking place are low income communities. In Buffalo, as Dr. Barbara was pointing out, it was a food desert. The reason there were so many people in that grocery store is it was the only grocery store for miles around.
If we look at the poverty and low income rates of Uvalde, it’s a place that is hurting. And again, in this rich nation, that’s just totally unacceptable. And so it’s possible to make these kinds of connections because they’re there. What communities are being most impacted by these extreme weather events and storms? I mean, again, it’s poor and low income people who do not have the resources to deal with those kinds of disasters. And so it all connects, and you can see almost exemplified in poor and low income people all of these injustices that are this perfect storm of impoverishment, attacks on a kind of democratic way that just is hurting people so much, and doesn’t have to be.
And so we’re seeing people make those connections. We’re seeing people wanting to link up. We’re seeing… We have some of the largest labor unions in the country, some of the largest environmental efforts in the nation, some of the different faith communities representing Muslims and Jews and Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists, we have hundreds of partner organizations. And we have all of these grassroots leaders who are all coming to the same conclusion, which is that we need a moral movement from below that can actually, as we say, lift from the bottom so everybody can rise.
Marc Steiner: And it can happen. But part of what I’m seeing in your movement, and we can conclude with this, Max Alvarez here at The Real News who’s the editor-in-chief has been interviewing low wage workers in their struggles around the country, and they’re part of the movement that is part of your movement. That it’s all part of this… That they’re there, they will be speaking to the nation. I mean, so it’s —
Rev. Liz Theoharis: That’s exactly right. I mean, we had a press conference earlier this week and we had Starbucks workers, we had Dollar General workers. I mean, there’s this new labor movement that is bursting out of essential workers who, working for these major corporations that have made billions and trillions in the midst of the pandemic, and yet workers that can’t afford the essentials of life. And to see then that this is connected to the attacks on immigrant communities, to the lack of clean water and clean air, and to be able to showcase that all of it is there. And be very excited about the powerful new organizing that is happening, and having that link up with some folks that have been doing organizing for a very long time and be able to learn from each other and build together. And for sure show, show to this nation, show to this world that change is happening, change can happen, and change must happen.
Marc Steiner: And that what you are building, I think it’s really important, the way you’re doing this is in a very positive message that it can be done. It can be.
Rev. Liz Theoharis: Absolutely.
Marc Steiner: You can win.
Rev. Liz Theoharis: It can be. Yeah. I mean, because we look back at history. And it doesn’t make it any easier, it doesn’t make it any quicker, but things that folks thought would always be with us are no longer. I mean, change can happen, and it happens in particular when those that are most impacted help to lead the charge. And that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing poor and low income people having the kind of… Finding the kind of hope in these hard times to push forward and cry out and then keep on organizing to be able to see the change that we need to see in the world.
Marc Steiner: So folks listening to this around the country right now and across the globe — It’d be kind of difficult to get here from across the globe, but around the country anyway. Is it… can they get more information at poorpeoplescampaign.org? Is that where they can go?
Rev. Liz Theoharis: That’s right. And people can still sign up for buses. There’s still some slots left in different buses. You can still actually sign on to be, if your organization or your faith community or your labor union wants to be a mobilizing partner, that there’s still time. We’re asking folks to push this out in your social media channels and just in your communities. If you’re in the Washington DC or DMV area, you can get banners to still put up in front of your business or your congregation or your organization. You can come and join some of the canvassing events that we’re doing. And that’s happening all over the country, and people are just letting people know.
And then also on June 18, hopefully you can join us on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. If you can’t, we will be live streaming it, and so please push that out and please help us cross post it and make sure that we make a strong noise into the world. And then sign up to help us mobilize and reach out to poor and low income voters and to others in the midterm elections and as we keep on organizing in our states across the country. Because, again, this is going to take a movement, a movement of millions to be able to really make life better for everybody.
Marc Steiner: And let me just say that we here at The Real News will be telling the stories of the workers around the country, people who are involved in this organizing to keep this going, to keep the message out so you can know what’s happening out there and hear the voices and know this momentum is building. We’ll be talking to people all across America after the 18th. And once again, Rev. Liz Theoharis, it’s always a pleasure and an honor to have you with us. Thank you so much for your work, and thanks for being with us today. It’s great to have you.
Rev. Liz Theoharis: Thank you so much, Marc.
Marc Steiner: And I want to thank everybody out there for joining us today. And you can find links and more to this March on Washington here at The Steiner Show site on The Real News. Remember it’s www.poorpeoplescampaign.org, and check that out and become part. And please let me know what you think about what you heard today. Let us know what you’d like to cover. Just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get right back to you. And once again, I want to thank the Rev. Liz Theoharis for joining us today. And I want to thank Cameron Granadino for running today’s program, making it possible, Stephen Frank for his post production editing genius, Kayla Rivara for producing this on the eve of her wedding, and all the hardworking crew here at Real News for the work that they do. And thanks once again for joining us, Liz, and thank you all for tuning in. I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening and take care.