Q&A with executive director of Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington
June 18, 2020
The world is demanding justice.
Amid the coronavirus and climate crises, demonstrators are gathering by the thousands around the world, demanding racial justice, equity and reform after the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by a Minneapolis police officer.
The recent demonstrations highlight much more than police brutality and violence, though — they also show the disproportionate effects felt by low-income people and people of color, ranging from economic disparities to coronavirus infections to climate change impacts.
This weekend, millions will address these issues and more by participating online in the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, led by the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign follows in the footsteps of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 and the recent Moral Monday movement.
Organizers are labeling the moral march as “the largest digital and social media gathering of poor and low-income people, moral and religious leaders, advocates and people of conscience in this nation’s history.” Join the event and watch the livestream.
We recently spoke to the Reverend Dr. Alvin O’Neal Jackson, executive director of Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington. He shared his thoughts on the current crises facing the United States and offered insights on the ideals behind the Poor People’s Campaign and this weekend’s digital justice gathering.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Earth Day Network: For anyone unfamiliar with this campaign, can you describe the Poor People’s Campaign and what it stands for?
Reverend Dr. Alvin O’Neal Jackson: Bishop William Barber, of Repairers of the Breach, and the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, of The Kairos Center, got together about three years ago and started what’s called the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. They’ve been organizing in about 30 to 40 States across the country, around five big interlocking evils or injustices: systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war-based economy, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism. And everything culminates with this mass poor people’s assembly and moral march on Washington on June 20. That’s now become an online event because of the virus.
EDN: Can you talk a little bit about what we should expect for June 20 and what’s called a digital justice gathering?
AOJ: It will be a two-and-a-half-hour event, and the spotlight will be on poor and low-wealth people sharing their stories and speaking to solutions. This country spends about 53% of every discretionary dollar on the military. And if we just eliminated a couple of contracts, we could do all kinds of good things for poor and low-wealth people and really help the country keep its social contract with its citizens. We have a moral budget to show how all of this is done. For the 20th, we have a number of influencers, celebrities, artists, all who will be speaking to these issues. This includes people like Jane Fonda, Al Gore, Killer Mike, Danny Glover.
EDN: The Poor People’s Campaign is labeled as a national call for moral revival. Can you dive into what that means exactly?
AOJ: Well, it’s around the issues of systemic racism. But it’s really deeper than the police violence and what’s happened with the coronavirus. [The recent protests] have exposed some of the open wounds in our society for those folks who are poor and low wealth. They were service workers, and now we call them essential workers. But though we call them essential workers, they don’t have the essential things they need to live and make it.
And so, this moral revival is appealing to our constitutional values and appealing to our deep faith values. This is a spiritual problem, a moral problem, or as Bishop Barber likes to say, a heart problem. America needs a heart resuscitation. That moral revival seeks to speak to some of those deep, moral, spiritual issues.
EDN: As you mentioned, there’s a lot going on in the world right now. What kind of connections do you see between the current Black Lives Matters demonstrations and the social unrest and the Poor People’s campaign?
AOJ: We’ve been in conversation with [Black Lives Matter leaders]. They will be involved on Saturday as a part of the movement, and we’ve always been there to give them counsel and support. We really applaud the kind of energy and the passion that they have around these issues.
But we also feel that it’s deeper than that. Black lives matter, yes, but it’s poor and working people, it’s indigenous people, it’s brown people, it’s poor white folks. The Poor People’s Campaign is a moral fusion bringing all of these movements together under one big umbrella, saying, “Let’s turn this thing around together.”
EDN: What are some of the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign concerning ecological devastation, and how can the environmental community support these demands?
AOJ: The environmental community has been very much involved. We’ve done work in Cancer Alley in Louisiana where environmental devastation has just wreaked havoc on whole communities. It’s all related, and our contribution has been to remind the environmental justice community that we can’t be in silos. Environmental justice is important, and we’re committed and all in on that.
We stood there with Jane Fonda with the Fire Drill Fridays and were arrested with her and others some months ago. But it’s all of these issues together — it’s environmental justice, but it’s also racism and poverty, because environmental issues often hit those poor and low-wealth communities the hardest. We’ve got to deal with all of those evils and injustices and not just to be in a silo with one.
EDN: One of the issues a lot of movements are addressing right now is voting rights. How can we support and strengthen access to the polls, especially with a very important election coming up, and where does the Poor People’s Campaign fit into that?
AOJ: Just before the virus, we had started a 25-state tour — what we call the We Can Do More tour — where we mobilized, registered and educated. It started in El Paso, Texas, and we were planning to end it in Memphis, Tennessee, just before the June 20 event.
But largely, we’re trying to resource communities who are working around the issues of voter suppression and voter registration. And part of the action coming out of June 20 is spending some time in communities like Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky. We’re going to target some areas of the country where we’ve been organizing, and we’re going to try to work with locals there to move things in a different direction.
EDN: Much like Earth Day, June 20 is one day. How do we keep momentum going after these big events?
AOJ: It’s a challenge, but we keep reminding ourselves that this is not just about a big moment. We want to take all of the energy with this moment to build a movement and then ultimately to build a mandate for change.
It’s about changing the narrative, changing the building power and changing direction of the country. So, a lot of local organizing and folks are involved. People are coming to this day having done some real work, and we’re going to challenge folks with some actions beyond June 20. But, admittedly, it is a challenge to keep it going.
EDN: Is there any additional message you want to send, regarding June 20 or the Poor People’s Campaign?
AOJ: The message would be just encouraging everybody to go to www.June2020.org to sign up and help spread the word. We believe that this will be a generational, transformative gathering in our nation’s history, though it will be online. In some ways, we think it will be even more impactful because we expected maybe half a million people or so together in Washington, D.C., but there will be millions gathered online for June 20.
Learn more about the Poor People’s Campaign and its Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, taking place online June 20–21.