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We Can’t Be Silent Anymore: Rev. Barber & Poor People’s Campaign Push Presidential Debate on Poverty

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Image Credit: Fusion Films / Repairers of the Breach

As the final Democratic debate ahead of the Iowa caucuses took place Tuesday night in Des Moines, Iowa, more than 100 protesters gathered outside the debate venue at Drake University to demand a televised presidential debate on poverty. Led by Reverend William Barber, demonstrators carried a coffin to honor the 250,000 people who die every year from the impacts of poverty. According to the Poor People’s Campaign, 140 million Americans — over 43% of the population — can’t pay basic living expenses. In Iowa, 630,000 workers — 45% of the state’s workforce — make less than $15 an hour. We’re joined by Reverend William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and president of Repairers of the Breach. Last night, he and the Poor People’s Campaign hosted a mass meeting on poverty in Des Moines. “We cannot enliven the electorate as long as we keep having dead silence on poverty,” Barber says. “We’ve had nearly 30 debates since 2016 alone, and not one of them have focused on poverty.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to look at endemic poverty in the United States. As the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses took place Tuesday night in Des Moines, Iowa, more than a hundred protesters marched to the debate venue at Drake University to demand a televised presidential debate on poverty. Led by longtime civil rights leader Reverend Dr. William Barber and Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, demonstrators carried a coffin to honor the 250,000 people who die every year from the impacts of poverty. This is registered nurse Mary Jane Shanklin.

MARY JANE SHANKLIN: The Poor People’s Campaign demands that the presidential candidates have a public debate on poverty. We want poverty and the systemic attack on poor people to be acknowledged. And we demand to hear concrete plans on how they are going to lift all Americans out of poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the Poor People’s Campaign, 140 million Americans — over 43% of the population — can’t pay basic living expenses. In Iowa, 630,000 workers — 45% of the state’s workforce — make less than $15 an hour.

Well, for more, we go to Reverend Dr. William Barber. He is in Iowa right now. Last night, he and the Poor People’s Campaign hosted a mass meeting on poverty in Des Moines. The night before, they were right there at the protest at the debate, outside, marching in the cold, in the snow.

Reverend Dr. William Barber, you are calling for a televised national presidential candidate debate on poverty. Talk about what you want to see. And what kind of response are you getting to it?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Thank you so much, Amy. We cannot enliven the electorate as long as we keep having dead silence on poverty, when 43% of this nation is living in poverty and low wealth. And we’ve had nearly 30 debates since 2016 alone, and not one of them have focused on poverty, an issue that, as you just said, is affecting 140 million people.

There is not a county in this country where a person can work a minimum-wage job and afford a basic two-bedroom apartment. Six hundred people are dying every day from poverty. Seven people died from vaping, and we called it a national emergency. We are seeing, in Iowa alone, more than 1.1 million people living in poverty. The majority of them, over 600,000, are white, in Iowa, 100,000 people without health insurance. These are not hyperboles. This is factual. It’s empirical.

And we cannot continue to have debates and conversations that just deal with the middle class and the poor. Last summer, we had a congress, when people came together, and a thousand people, and nine presidential candidates all said they would fight for a full debate televised on poverty. Hasn’t happened yet. Republicans tend to racialize poverty. Democrats tend to run from poverty. We must deal with the reality of poverty. We can talk about everything else, but we have to deal with the reality of poverty.

And we not only want a debate; we have put forward a moral poverty justice budget. There’s no scarcity of money. We know how to find the money. We know what happens if we invest in living wages, in healthcare, in education. And we know that we can challenge the fact that we spend 53 cents of every discretionary dollar on defense and less than 15 cents of every discretionary dollar on healthcare and education and things that would uplift society.

Which is why, lastly, Amy, we are on a tour called the “We Must Do M.O.R.E.” — mobilizing, organizing, registering, educating people for the movement who vote. And we’re going to have, on June 20th, 2020, a Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington. Thousands of people are coming, poor and impacted people, more leaders, right after the primaries, just before the convention, because we must change the moral narrative in this nation and deal with this issue that is affecting 43% — almost 50% — of this nation’s population.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Reverend Dr. Barber, I mean, those are remarkable figures: 250,000 people die from the impacts of poverty every year in the United States, which is, of course, the richest country in the world. So I’d like to go back to the 2020 Democratic presidential debate, when Pete Buttigieg said — he was one of the only — one of only two candidates who mentioned the Poor People’s Campaign directly.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Something that hasn’t come up very much tonight but deserves a lot of attention: poverty. You know, the Poor People’s Campaign is marching on Iowa right now, calling on us to talk about this issue more. They are driven by their faith, I think, because even though in politics we’re supposed to talk middle class, they know there’s no scripture that says, “As you’ve done unto the middle class, so you’ve done unto me.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Reverend Barber, that’s Pete Buttigieg. Your response to the way in which poverty was discussed — or not discussed — at Tuesday night’s debate?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, we, first of all, thank the mayor for saying that very clearly. Tom Steyer also said it. But we are disappointed that the other candidates, who have promised that they would do this, haven’t said it. We’re disappointed at media, mainline media.

We’re talking about 43% of this nation. We’re not talking about, you know, just a few people. We’re talking about 38 million children, 66 million white people, 26 million African Americans. This is serious business. Thirty million people without healthcare. We’re talking about people who are dying because of government policies, not because God has called them home.

And what we are saying is you can’t just have a question about poverty or say you’re going to address one area. You have to look at the interlocking injustices, systemic racism like voter suppression and mistreatment of immigrants, mistreatment of Native people, and systemic poverty and ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and this false moral narrative of religious nationalism that suggests that — that tries to moralize poverty and say, well, if people would just do better, live better, and churches and mosques and synagogues can take care of the issue. No, this is a moral — American moral crisis. And so, how is it that we are not discussing this issue and demanding that?

We have put together, as I said, a budget. We’ve done an audit of America. We need a full conversation, not just one. We’re saying we ought to have at least one. We’re putting together an omnibus bill to put before the Congress. And last night, one of the reporters asked us — night before last — “Well, how long would it take to fix this?” Well, it didn’t take long to give $2 trillion of tax cuts to the wealthy. It doesn’t take long for us to bail out companies where the leadership failed because of their own corruption. But when it comes to the poor, suddenly we want to slow down.

On the other night, we had a white farmer from Kansas talk about how farmers are still having to purify their own water. We had a poor Navy veteran who’s a trans sister now, Sophia, kicked out of the Navy, living in poverty. We had people who work for less than living wages, who live in their cars and work every day. This is a travesty in America. And that’s why we’re not going to be silent anymore. That’s why people are rising up.

And we also have one other thing that we’re putting before these candidates. Poor and low-wealth people hold a political calculus in this country. They can change it. For instance, in Iowa, Trump only won by 150,000 votes, but there are 1.1 million poor and low-wealth people in this country. A third of all the poor people live in the South. A third of all white poor people live in the South. If poor and low-wealth people of every race, creed and color connect together, as Dr. King said in 1965, that’s the great fear of the aristocracy and the Bourbon class — poor and low-wealth people forming unions together that can transform the political calculus.

And we know that is possible. That’s why we’re not just marching and asking. We are registering people for the movement who vote. We intend to build power. We now have 43 states, 43 coordinating committees across this country that are organizing people, that are registering people for the movement who vote. We tend to connect at least 1.2 million people, 30,000 per state. And in many states, like in North Carolina, for instance, the electorate for our governor turned on just 10,000 votes. We know the counties where if we can just have 2 to 3% of the poor and low-wealth people organizing, politicizing around an agenda, they can fundamentally shift the political calculus in this country. We are serious about poor and low-wealth people recognizing their power and changing the narrative in this country and refusing to be ignored.

So we are thankful for a mention, but we’ve got to go further, much further, than a mention. And I ask this question: How is it that we have less voting rights today than we had in 1965, and we haven’t had a full debate on how that impacts poverty and people who get in place, and once they get in place politically, they pass policies that hurt the poor and working people? How is it that we’ve not dealt with this issue? We can’t be silent anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we’re talking about this in the period between Dr. King’s birthday — he would have turned 91 yesterday —


AMY GOODMAN: — and the federal holiday, that is Monday, which goes to a second point, Reverend Barber, and we just have a minute. I wanted to ask you about what’s happening in Virginia. The governor has just declared a temporary state of emergency there ahead of a gun rights rally that was called for the state Capitol of Richmond for Monday, Martin Luther King Day. Virginia Governor Northam said authorities believe, quote, “armed militia groups plan to storm the Capitol,” unquote. As part of the state of emergency, Virginia has temporarily banned individuals from carrying firearms on Capitol grounds. Can you talk about who’s behind this, and the significance of this in Virginia?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, when you look at these militia groups, when you look at what’s happening across the country, you look at what the NRA has done and how it has sown into the national consciousness this need for guns and this need for violence, you look at the violence of our president, you look at how when people were in Charlottesville he said there were good people on both sides when we had the riot in Charlottesville, what we are having is an intensification of violence. And a lot of times what also is stirring up the people in that particular genre is many of them are hurting, and they’ve been taught to blame everybody else for their problem. You know, many of them are poor and hurting, and they think somebody is taking something away from them.

And it’s so sad, because what should be shown to them is, actually, instead of storming the Capitol, we should be joining and building coalitions among poor whites and poor blacks and storming the ballot box. That’s what really should be happening. But people have gotten convinced in their mind that the gun is going to save them. What they really need is food and healthcare and living-wage jobs.

But we see — again, Dr. King, in '65, said to us that every time there's this possibility for unity among poor folk, we see a rising of division and violence that is deliberately sown into the public consciousness as a way of dividing people and keeping them apart. I’m very concerned about this nation in violence right now.

But I will tell you that, as Coretta Scott King said, violence is not just guns. Violence is ghetto housing. Violence is poverty. Violence is a lack of healthcare. Violence is the lack of living-wage jobs. And violence is an apathetic attitude that refuses to address these other issues. And right now we have a lot of violent public policy that’s happening at the same time we see these attitudes and mentalities of violence that is raising in this country. And it’s very serious, and we better address it as a nation and bring people together.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Reverend Dr. William Barber, we thank you so much for being with us, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, carrying the torch from Dr. Martin Luther King. On Monday, Democracy Now! will bring a special playing the speeches of Dr. King.

When we come back, we continue to talk about poverty, in the form of homelessness in Oakland, California, where unhoused mothers were just evicted from a home they were occupying that had been vacant for two years. Stay with us.

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