Nothin to Lose but my Chains: Poor People’s Campaign in Springfield

On Mother’s Day I went to bed early and read a magazine article that felt life changing. The Reverend William Barber, along with Liz Theoharris, has reignited Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign.  Barber is a minister trained in the tradition I grew up in, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). (The Disciples church in Macomb sits across from the Police Station.)

Barber’s theology fuels his tireless efforts to address poverty, and he has inspired folks all over the country—rural, urban, north, south, black, white, male, female—to join the Poor People’s Campaign.

Since I was laid off from my tenured professor position in Women’s Studies last year, I’ve struggled with insecurity and self-doubt, but after learning about Barber, I felt certain that I would walk with the Poor People’s Campaign. OPPC

I woke up early Monday morning, searched the web, and found that the first event of a 40-day campaign for moral revival was set to begin that afternoon in dozens of state capitols across the country. The theme of the week is one I’d taught in my Women Studies classes for more than a decade:  “Somebody’s Hurting Our People: Children, Women and People with Disabilities Living in Poverty.”

Even with the two-lane roads and the occasional monster tractor ahead, I could get to Springfield in an hour and a half. New-Banner Outside of Beardstown, IL, I passed a billboard: “Elect John Curtis.” John has walked my congressional district door to door and he’s seen for himself the extensive poverty (nearly one third of the people) that plagues McDonough County.  Though Curtis is a politician, not an activist, his walk through the poverty of our district reminds me that King did the same—choosing to begin his Poor People’s Campaign by marching out of Marks, Alabama, the most destitute town in the country.

IMG_2765                               In Springfield, the Lincoln Statue was hot and sleepy.

img_2744.jpgThe steps around the statue were empty, but I began to hear voices singing and tambourines ringing—and then a procession of marchers emerged from behind the capitol.

img_2746.jpgSinging in a minor key: “We are a new unsettling force for liberation and we’ve got nothing to lose but our chains.”

IMG_2785We gathered around the Lincoln statue, and Jade Mazon (purple shirt) told the crowd that poverty and PTSD from domestic assault have erected obstacles to her role as mother of Kiki, an honors student who stood by her side. Jade works two jobs and two “hustles,” (informal work). From Mazon’s perspective, Kiki’s school tends to punish Mazon for being poor and disabled with PTSD.  Our society has made parenting while poor a crime.

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A close-up with Jade Mazon and her daughter Kiki. Jade is a mother struggling to raise her daughter, and the the speech she delivered was as clear and compelling as anything I’ve ever assigned in a Women’s Studies textbook. Jade and Kiki wore purple t-shirts that read “Rebel Bells,” a mother-daughter group the fights the storage and emissions of neuro- and lung toxins on Chicago’s Southeast side.

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Poverty and toxic air and water are rural problems, as well as urban.  The Illinois Poverty Report ranks McDonough County as approaching a 30 percent poverty rate—one of the worst in the state.  One report ranked air quality around Macomb’s Elementary school very low. In addition, neuro toxins from agricultural fertilizers and other sources may poison drinking water in rural areas, such as McDonough County, IL.

Poverty and environmental destruction are UNIFYING factors because they affect every racial/ethnic category:  for example, most poor people are white and many LGBTQ folks are poor. And everyone needs clean air and water.

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The War against the poor is immoral.

After speaking truth to power, we moved . . .

img_2794.jpgEvent leaders told us to march in twos, which we didn’t quite pull off.

 

 

Keeping the mood positive.  All but the red arm-banded will move to the sidewalk corners.

IMG_2835At the intersection of Monroe and 2nd St, three white women, three white men, and one woman of color, all wearing red armbands they had earned in civil disobedience training, stopped in the box and linked hands.

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Most of us kept to the sidewalk corners. To encourage and support those who were risking arrest, Rev. Saeed Richardson led chants:  “We love you.”

A 93-degree sun beat down on the red-arm-banded protesters in the middle of the intersection.  Nearly a dozen police vehicles surrounded us.

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“Prisoner Transport,” arrived last.

 

 

Police trained to address civil disobedience talked to protesters, escorted each one to the sidewalk, and ticketed them. The two women above graciously took selfies with me after coming off the protest line to wait for their tickets.  (Ticketing the poor??? Doesn’t solve much, but raises public funds, at least).

Afterwards, one of the ticketed protesters sat on the curb in the shade.  She was a woman who didn’t look that different from the white women who’ve recently made the news for calling police on black folks for engaging in completely appropriate activities.

She smiled, her face sweaty.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Hot, but I’m from Southern Illinois, near St. Louis, where white people hardly ever get arrested for petty crimes.  I wanted to take my turn, take a stand.”

“Thank you for putting yourself out there,” I said.

“I’ll be glad to see my kids tonight,” she said.

I went home and signed up for a civil disobedience training webinar.

I’ll return to Springfield each Monday in May to campaign with the poor people.

 

 

Note:  even the police officer, left, can’t resist jamming a little, smiling, and taking video.