Rev. William Barber Says Biden Admin Must Not Sacrifice Racial & Economic Justice for False Unity

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We look at how COVID-19 has increased economic inequality with anti-poverty campaigner Reverend William Barber, who delivered the homily at the official inaugural prayer service. Barber says President Joe Biden’s focus on unity cannot come at the expense of major reforms needed to fight systemic racism, poverty, environmental destruction and more. “It cannot be just kumbaya. It has to be fundamental change,” he says. “We cannot be the wealthiest nation in the world, where billionaires in this country made a trillion dollars between May and November during COVID, while poor and low-wealth people of every race, creed, color, sexuality have suffered and continue to suffer.”

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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 Quarantine Report. To get our daily digest emailed to you, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

As the number of U.S. COVID cases tops 25 million, we turn now to the Reverend William Barber to discuss the challenges ahead for the new Biden administration, from the pandemic to poverty to growing inequality. Reverend Barber is president of Repairers of the Breach, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. He gave the homily at the post-inaugural prayer breakfast as President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris began their first full day in office.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: The only way to ensure domestic tranquility is to establish justice. It is pretending that we can address the nation’s wounds with simplistic calls for unity. That is not how we can close the breach. The breach is telling lies when we need truth, greed when we need compassion.

AMY GOODMAN: Part of Reverend Dr. William Barber’s homily at the official inaugural prayer service last Thursday. The Poor People’s Campaign has launched a platform of 14 policy priorities for Biden’s first 100 days in office. Reverend Barber joins us now for more from North Carolina.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Reverend Barber. Well, continue on the theme, why you chose this issue of unity to take on. And you take a very critical look at it. What do you want to see accomplished?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, ,thank you so much, Amy, for having me on this morning.

You know, I was asked by the administration to preach this once-every-four-year, interfaith inaugural service, that was streamed out from the National Cathedral. And interestingly enough, they chose the Scripture, Isaiah 58, which is a very powerful Scripture, recognized by Christians, Jews and Muslims. And it actually says that there is a way to be what we call repairers of the breach, repairers of the gaps in societies, the inequities of society. In fact, the Scripture actually says we have to. And the first step is, you have to repent of the sin of how we got here. That Scripture was written in a time of narcissistic, mean, lying and greedy leadership. But then it actually says you can be a repairer of the breach if you stop unfair practices, if you lift from the bottom, if you care for those who have been marginalized by oppressive politics and oppressive leadership.

So, the reason why it was important to say — and I think this is really what the president is saying, if we listen closely — is, unity does not mean unanimous. Unity, in this sense, has to mean enough of us, enough of us who come together and believe there is no way to heal the soul of the nation, i.e. the attitude of the nation, if you don’t heal the sickness in the body of the nation. And that means enough of us have to decide that we have to address systemic racism in all of its forms, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, denial of healthcare, the war economy and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism.

So, we cannot say we are unified. It cannot be just kumbaya. It has to be fundamental change. And what I talked about in that sermon was a third Reconstruction and facing the issues that divide us. It is public policy, that we must have enough of us unified to actually move the nation forward. It’s not unanimous. We don’t have to have unanimous. It’s not even unanimity, not everybody. It’s enough of us who believe that we have to go forward.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you spoke to the Biden domestic policy team in December. Did you speak with President Biden, Vice President Harris? I know you hosted president — well, candidate Biden when he was running for president. And what did you say?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Yes, we did. He actually — we invited Trump, as well. And President Biden spoke to over 1.4 million people in September, when he was a candidate. And he actually said something very interesting. He said that ending poverty would not be an aspirational thing for his administration, but a theory of change. A theory of change. And we took him seriously at that.

After the election, we didn’t really want to meet with the president and vice president after the election. We wanted them to get their team in place. We wanted to meet with them after they were inaugurated, in the White House, with poor people, economists, lawyers, public health officials and moral leaders.

And what we met with was the domestic policy team, where Ambassador Susan Rice is leading it. And it was a very powerful meeting. I did not just meet with them alone, and Reverend Liz Theoharis. We actually took in 32 people — white Kansas farmers, Black fast-food workers, undocumented persons. We took in people from Appalachia to Alabama, along with lawyers, economists and others. And we presented a 14-point policy for the healing of the nation, a moral and economic agenda for the first 50, 100 days. And what we said were these 14 things. I can do them real quickly.

They must enact comprehensive, free and just COVID relief, that lifts from the bottom. We must have guaranteed quality healthcare, that leads to universal healthcare. We must expand Medicaid immediately, regardless of any preexisting conditions. We must have a raise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour immediately. We must update the poverty measures, so we are actually getting a real picture of poverty in this nation. We must guarantee housing for all. We must enact a federal jobs program to build up infrastructure, and investments in public institutions, climate resilience, energy, in poor and low-wealth communities especially. We must protect and expand voting rights now. We must guarantee safe, quality and equitable public education, that supports protections against resegregation of schools. We must have comprehensive and just immigration reform. We must ensure all of the rights of Indigenous people. We must enact fair taxes and repeal the Trump tax cuts. We must use the power of executive orders to undo all the negative executive orders. And namely, we must redirect the bloated Pentagon budget towards the priorities of real national security, like education, healthcare, infrastructure and wages. And we ask for a meeting at the White House with poor and low-wealth people. That’s the agenda that we believe will heal the nation, because it will deal with the sickness in the body of the nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this issue of the $15 minimum wage? You do have President Biden signing an executive order to move towards $15 an hour for federal workers. But why just federal workers? And what is the path you actually see forward? And then comment on this $1.9 trillion COVID relief package and the battle it will face, and what message for those, you have, who are opposed to it. Do you think it goes far enough?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, in 1963, at the March on Washington, one of the agenda items, in addition to the Civil Rights Act, was a $2 minimum wage, which is transposed to today would be $15. We are 50-some years late.

And people can’t survive on $7.50, and particularly in a time when, during COVID, billionaires have made almost a trillion dollars. Only 39% of the people in the United States of America can afford a $1,000 financial emergency. We have 62 million people in this country that make less than a living wage. If we actually had a living wage that kept pace with inflation, the living wage would be $20-some an hour. The minimum wage was not minimum when it was passed years ago.

And so, right now in the midst of COVID, where we had 140 million poor and low-wealth people, going into COVID, and millions more have been added because of COVID, we have to have $15 an hour. And it can’t be five years from now, 10 years from now. It must be immediate. Now, the president can sign an executive order for federal workers now, but what we must have is legislation that passes $15 an hour.

And it’s amazing to me that some of the people are talking against this, particularly these Republicans that come out of the South. They live in the states that are the poorest and have the lowest wages, which should always let us know that people who come out of the South, many of them, they use racial tactics, like voter suppression and second primaries, to get elected. But once they get elected, they actually pass bills or block bills, that benefit corporations. So there’s a connection between racism and greed that we must always understand.

Now, when it comes to the COVID relief plan, the comprehensive $1.9 trillion, it’s a powerful beginning. There are some things that are not in there that we’re evaluating now. But that needs to pass, and it needs to go through reconciliation. We don’t need to allow a filibuster that can stop that. It’s a trillion dollars too late, in a real sense, because the first CARES Act that was passed, 84% of that money went to corporations and banks. And then they held up passing the next $900 million. McConnell did.

So, we need that kind of — we cannot get out of this COVID pandemic and the economic problems without deep investments. And we have to remember, it must be investments from the bottom, because when we talk about who’s dying, it’s not just that Black and Brown are three and five times more likely to die. Poor people, whether they be Black, Brown or white, are the ones that are dying. Poor people, low-wealth workers, those who work those face-to-face jobs, construction and food services, they are the people that are getting the sickest, and they are the people that are dying. And there’s no way we can come out of this economically, unless we have investments.

So we think that 1.9 is great. It’s not final. We’re evaluating it now. What we are glad about — the $1.9 trillion, excuse me, not million — is that we see a call for $15. We see the call for more moneys to schools and more moneys to cities. We see the call for healthcare. We see the call for free and just COVID relief. But what we must do is we have to say, as a nation, we cannot be the wealthiest nation in the world, where billionaires in this country made a trillion dollars between May and November, during COVID, while poor and low-wealth people of every race, creed, color and sexuality have suffered and continue to suffer, the very people who are holding this economy up. And that’s what I tried to say in that sermon, what the Scripture said. Unless you lift from the bottom, you can never really have unity and never really repair the breaches and the divisions of the nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Barber, the Senate is receiving the article of impeachment against Donald Trump. The trial will begin the week of February 8th. Your thoughts on what you believe justice would look like for President Trump, of course, charged with inciting the insurrection of neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, white supremacists on January 6th?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: I have a number of opinions on that, Amy. You know, we had six weeks of nonviolent civil disobedience in the capital, just trying to deliver to McConnell, because he wouldn’t meet with us like other — like Nancy Pelosi and others. Six weeks, we tried to deliver a position, a policy agenda, for poor and low-wealth people, tried to meet with him. And when we went to the offices to try to meet with him and deliver, we were arrested for praying. We were arrested and charged and put in handcuffs in that same Capitol building. I was arrested with clergy and poor and low-wealth people, in those same areas, for praying. So there’s no way in the world you’re going to arrest nonviolent protesters — in fact, when we came, the police were already there. They had the long guns. They had the zip ties. They met us. When we tried to go on the plaza just to pray at the steps — not to go up the steps, but pray at the steps — hundreds of us were arrested. In fact, over 5,000 people were arrested over six weeks across this nation, from May of 2018 to — excuse me, from March of 2018 to June of — May of 2018 to June of 2018.

Secondly, when it comes to Trump, he should have been found guilty long before this. The Senate didn’t do its job. McConnell didn’t do his job. McConnell has proven that he was more interested in putting — getting people on the seats on the Supreme Court than protecting people from caskets and dying in COVID, that he’s more interested in his own power than finding a president guilty that time and time again has violated and engaged in high crimes and misdemeanors.

There must be punishment for this. And I’m a preacher who believes in mercy and love. But love has to also include justice, has to also include justice This was dangerous. And in my tradition, theological tradition, it was demonic. Did you see the people climbing the walls and foaming? This was a mob mentality. Now, the talking heads kind of messed up when they said we’ve only seen this twice in America. No, Black people and Brown people, Indigenous people and women and labor movements through history have seen this kind of mob mentality, that will destroy whoever is in its path, that will hurt whoever is in its path, that will burn churches and hang bodies. We’ve seen this before. What happened is, it just spilled over to the Capitol. And it’s not just Trump. He is the latest one to come along. He lit the match of gasoline that’s been poured for years. But he has to be prosecuted. We have to have this trial. And it will expose — it will expose the Republicans, if they do not act.

And here is just one simple way of looking at it. What would they do if it was Obama? What would they do if it was William Barber? What would they do if it was my new friend, Raphael Warnock? What would they have done if it was Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer? What would they do if it was Amy Goodman that led a violent insurrection, or encouraged and incited a violent insurrection? We all know the answers to those questions. And nothing less can happen to Trump. If they don’t do it, we actually endanger the democracy even more, because it says that some people can skirt the law, and other people will always be prosecuted, even if they are nonviolent.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Dr. William Barber, I want to thank you so much for being with us, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach.

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