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Repair & Revive: Rev. William Barber on Fighting Racism, Poverty, Climate Change, War & Nationalism

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The Poor People’s Campaign offered a counterpoint to President Trump’s sparsely attended Tulsa campaign rally with a mass digital gathering that unveiled a policy platform to spur “transformative action” on five key issues of systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and the threat of religious nationalism. “We have to repair and revive,” says Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “That has to be a part of if we’re truly going to ever be the democracy we claim to be on paper.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Hours before President Trump spoke Saturday at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Poor People’s Campaign offered a counterpoint with a mass digital gathering, where the campaign unveiled a policy platform to spur “transformative action.” In minute, we’ll be joined by one of the key organizers, Reverend Dr. Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach, but first we turn to a part of his speech on Saturday, watched by millions.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: In recent weeks, we’ve heard the media ask, “When will the protests stop?” Since we’ve launched this campaign, people have asked, “What one demand is your top priority?” Well, we say, when you decided to do COVID response, you gave $2.5 trillion, nearly $3 trillion, to the banks and the corporations. If they can have 3 trillion things, don’t ask us what is our one thing.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! You were speaking there on Saturday.

He’s joining us now from Raleigh, North Carolina, where COVID-19 cases are surging. Governor Roy Cooper has issued an executive order for people across North Carolina to wear masks or other face coverings in public to fight the spread of COVID-19. And President Trump has moved the Republican convention from North Carolina to Florida because he didn’t want any limitations or requirements that masks be worn at the convention or that there be social distancing.

Reverend Barber, welcome back to Democracy Now! If you can start off by talking about where you go from here? What was this mass march on Washington, virtually, that you held, and what you’re demanding now?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, thank you so much, Amy. And, you know, you opened with that song, that was written and designed by Ms. Yara Allen, one of our theomusicologists, and it really tells a story. For more than three years, we’ve been moving across this country organizing the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival. We now have 45 coordinating committees, more than 200 partners. We have more than 19 religious denominations and various groups that are part of this effort, and many others.

And what happened on Saturday, we had planned to be in D.C. on Pennsylvania Avenue, but because of COVID-19, we couldn’t. But our people said, “We have to still do this.” And so we did. And when you heard me, for instance, speaking there, that was after 50 people, at least 50 people, impacted people from across this country, poor and low-wealth, had told their stories and made their demands. More than 2.5 million people turned out for the Mass Poor People’s Assembly, Moral March on Washington, a digital affair — 2.5 million just on Facebook. Now, that doesn’t include what happened on other networks and CNN — I mean, excuse me, C-SPAN and radios across this land.

What it was, was people, poor and low-wealth people, counterintuitively — coal miners from Kentucky, with poor folk from Alabama, white women from West Virginia standing with Black women from Mississippi, and so forth and so on, farmers from Kansas standing with fast-food workers from North Carolina — saying that there are five issues that we have to address: systemic racism in all of its form, Black people — how it affects Black people, Brown people, First Nation people; systemic poverty; ecological devastation, the war economy; and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism. And we must do it out of our deepest moral traditions, constitutionally, religiously. We must do it with deep love, but also with deep truth.

And they decided, “We want to tell our story. We want to show America herself. We want to put a face on these issues. And then we want to put the facts around these issues. And then we want to put forward an agenda.” And so, that’s what we did on Saturday, and it was overwhelmingly, beyond our expectations, received.

One of the things our agenda says to people is, “Do you realize that when voter suppression is put in place, that it suppresses the vote, targets the Black vote, but what it does, it also allows people to get elected who then block healthcare and block living wages?” And that hurts all of us, regardless of your race, your creed, your color.

Our agenda also says, “Do you realize, if we took 1 million — if we took one military contract, we could fund every state that has refused to accept the Affordable Care Act, the insurance there?” Just one military contract could give preschool to all the children we need. If we just took the money that we spent since 9/11, we could have had a green grid for our country to deal with new kinds of energy. Do you realize that if we spent $15 — we raised the living wage to $15, 40 million people could come out of poverty and low wealth? If we had a housing wage, 83 million people could come out of poverty and low wealth.

That’s the focus of this agenda, to say the choices we are making are bad choices. That’s why we have 140 million people poor and low-wealth in this country, and 62 million people who work every day without a living wage, and 80 million people without insurance or underinsured. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Reverend Barber, I want to ask — you’ve just said that there were five demands, which you’ve listed, of things that need to happen. I’d like to turn to a lengthy piece for The New York Times Magazine headlined “What Is Owed” by reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who lays out the case for reparations, saying, most notably, that it is wealth, and not income, that is a “means to security in America. … But wealth is not something people create solely by themselves; it is accumulated across generations.” She goes on to say that American history has systematically robbed African Americans of this possibility and that the racial wealth gap is about the same today as it was in the 1950s. She says that reparations are the only means through which to compensate for the structures of inequality that have made it all but impossible for African Americans to achieve anything like the financial security that white Americans take for granted. She cites a Yale University study, which found that in fact most Americans have absolutely no idea of the extraordinary scale of this racial inequality. The report finds that Americans are under the impression that Black households hold $90 in wealth for every $100 held by white households, but the truth is that Black households have only $10 for every $100 in white households. So, could you respond to that and whether you support the idea that there should be reparations?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, what our dear sister is saying to us is that we have to deal with the reality of this country and how much inequality was sown into the very foundations — the economic foundations, social foundations — of this country. Yes, we need to deal with the issue of reparations.

And yes, she’s exactly right that it’s about wealth, and income, in some degree. But what that says to me is that’s why we can’t just talk about people having a job, because just having a job, if it’s a low-wage job, it does not allow you to deal with wealth. It does not allow you to accumulate wealth.

She’s also right that you cannot fix these inequalities, say, by just having Black businesses in the community or just by saying people pull themselves up by their own bootstrap. It was policies, government policies, intentional policies, that created disenfranchisement, that stole wealth, that built this country on the backs of people without them having to pay anything.

You think about it, 250 years of free labor. It’s no wonder that America has the greatest gross domestic product and is the wealthiest nation in the country. Two hundred fifty years of free labor and, on top of that, a hundred years of segregation, and now we still pay people less than a living — we pay people $7.25. For African Americans, that means it’s taken us 400 years to get to $7.25 an hour, if you work a minimum-wage job, because we started off at zero in slavery. Well, you can’t wait another 400 years.

What we do in the Poor People’s Campaign, though, is we also want to show that you — if you want to talk about reparations, you’ve got to talk about it for our First Nation brothers and sisters. You cannot leave them out. You cannot leave those people out who were the victims of genocide, as well, even before slavery. And you have to show how all of these systems have undermined so much possibility for people. That’s why we’re dealing with people in Appalachia, poor folk in Appalachia. And so, we point out that while there are 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this country, 66 million of them are white, 26 million are Black. Now, the 26 million Black are 61% of all African Americans. Our campaign says we cannot deal with these issues separately. So, just like we fight for reparations for African Americans, we also have to fight for the same thing for First Nation people, our Native American brothers and sisters. And we also have to show everybody else that racism is targeted at Black people and people of color, but it ends up undermining this democracy.

And one of the things we pointed out on Saturday is that every regressive policy has what I call a DM on the DL — that is, a death measurement on the down low. When we talk about, for instance, the death of George Floyd, which we have to, and police violence, but police violence is only one part of racism that kills and classism that kills. For every 500,000 people that are denied healthcare, 2,800 people die. Seven hundred people die every day from poverty, even before COVID. And we know we’re headed toward poverty going probably plus-50% in this economic downturn. Every regressive policy has a death measurement on the down low. And we’ve got to bring those things out. We even have to show people that racist voter suppression has a death measurement, because when people are allowed to get elected through racist voter suppression, and then, once they get elected, they block healthcare, they block living wages, they block reparations, they in fact are blocking policies that could cause people to live. And in blocking them, people die.

The first declaration this country made — we’ve never lived up to it fully — is the declaration to life — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Life. In far too much of our regressive policies, we have never dealt with the issue of life, because we’ve never dealt with how so many policies create death. Racism has always had death in it. Classism has death in it. And so, yes, we have to repair and revive. That has to be a part of if we’re truly going to ever be the democracy we claim to be on paper.

AMY GOODMAN: You co-wrote, Reverend Barber, a piece in The Appeal headlined “American Democracy Cannot Breathe.” In it, you link anti-police, antiracism protests to low-income work in America, writing, “[I]t is no coincidence that George Floyd was Black, nor that he was an unemployed restaurant worker.” Let’s end there. We just have 30 seconds. As we speak in this historic election year of 2020, at the moment, in the midst of this pandemic, Georgia trying to deny absentee ballots automatically going out, what do you think needs to happen by November?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, what has to happen is our lawyers have to get in the courts immediately now this summer and fight for more opportunities to vote. We have to make sure we overwhelm the system by registration and participation. We also have to make sure our people know about mail-in ballots and early voting. We have to fight for all those things. We’re going to have to have protection. And we’re going to have to keep doing what the protesters are doing and we are doing, and that is breathing, refusing to allow anyone to suffocate this democracy. I think that’s all what we’re seeing in the streets, is people are trying to breathe, justice is trying to breathe, truth is trying to breathe. And we have to make sure that at the ballot box there is — all of us are there, and we vote and vote and vote, until justice is revived and love is revived.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. We thank you so much, Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe.

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