The Rhetoric of the Poor People's Campaign

At the time I'm writing this, the dust is still settling on the well-attended Poor People's Campaign rally in Washington, D.C. on June 18. Thousands attended the spirited event. The recent gathering was also the largest digital and social media gathering the campaign or comparable campaigns of the poor have had, according to the Religious Action Campaign of Reform Judaism's web site. 

The Poor People's Campaign, an antipoverty movement led by Reverend William Barber II and theologian Liz Theoharis, is suited for both classical and contemporary communication analysis. Its discourse, argumentation, and messaging (its ideographs) echo and build upon hundreds of years of impassioned rhetoric. Its media and social media strategies offer lessons for the digital age. Its rooting in the language and praxis of the American Civil Rights movement is both a strength and a potential limit, but it's all complicated, because the nation has wandered into a very volatile and acerbic period--a  "pathological period"--and this makes civil rights activism dangerous for the activists, and thus more powerful.  

Legal scholar Vincent A. Blasi analyzed the "pathological periods" in a 1985 essay centered around the first amendment. "The central empirical proposition of my thesis is that certain segments of time are of special significance for the preservation of the basic liberties of expression and inquiry because the most serious threats to those liberties tend to be concentrated in abnormal periods." Those are periods where the constitutional order itself is in danger, and when institutions would do well to reaffirm certain core commitments, particularly around the Bill of Rights and the "general welfare." 

Here in 2022, we face rollbacks of many civil and human rights gains, widespread economic insecurity, dangers to the "order" itself as illustrated on January 6, 2021, and an increase in white supremacist violence, including several assault rifle massacres by self-professed racists.  That's the context from which the morally-grounded Poor People's Campaign emerges. We also see union victories and a growing collection of unapologetically pro-worker electeds around the country. It's in this context, when more moderate political thinking might suggest we put poverty on the backburner while trying to stop fascism, that the PPC declared on June 18: "We – the thousands gathered here in active declaration of a rapidly growing front of organized moral fusion power – and in deep solidarity with those rising up across this country, who are demanding a reconstruction of this democracy and a reconstitution of the policy and legal priorities of this nation – say: we are in a time of emergency." Here are the demands of the movement.

Let's dwell on the concept of "moral fusion power," the PPC's imagining of reconstruction, and "emergency." A moral focus is a better unifier than "revolutionary theory" or other radical rethinking of the political. A wide array of church groups organized the event, and social action-oriented religious activity on the left doesn't scare off as many non-religious people as its right-wing counterpart does. Data-driven mass politics is impatient with little Trotskies having all-night arguments trying to take control of a universal revolutionary telos. Those groups exist but they aren't the target audience of the Poor People's Campaign. In fact, besides grounding itself in morality, the PPC invokes themes of reconstruction and reconstitution, of repairing the country while charting a new course. Its proximity to left Christianity allows people to take political action and organize as a leap of faith rather than requiring them to adhere to a method. 

Moreover, we're in "emergency." Whether the establishment or rebellion uses it, emergency rhetoric builds immediate solidarity. The work of influential linguistics professor Jonathan Charteris-Black has influenced other scholars writing about everything from foreign leaders' declaration of state of emergency to anti-immigration rhetoric, where, Chateris-Black suggests, natural disaster metaphors are "mapped onto" descriptions of immigration policy and its challenges. 

Of course, in this case, the emergency rhetoric is justified: According to the latest Census, 11.4 percent of Americans are in poverty--up a full percentage point over the last three years. Poverty is incredibly bad by itself, and incredibly worse for different communities in the United States, with Blacks having the highest rate (19.5 percent) and Hispanics only less severe at 17%. Non-Hispanic Whites have an 8.2% rate, both a discrepancy worth exploring and addressing and still an alarming percentage; it's almost as if defenders of the status quo are prepared for somewhere around ten to twenty percent of Americans in poverty (but let's not forget that even those not below the poverty line live in economic insecurity, lacking savings, being a few bad days away). 

With its emphasis on a kind of "traditional" American morality, its grounding in the Civil Rights movement, its "restoration" language, its urgency, and its emergence in a "pathological period," the movement for poor people stands out--and is creating at least incremental change. In 2020, according to a new report, the PPC reached out to more than two million low-income voters, targeting key states like Georgia, undoubtedly contributing to a string of victories from the presidential on down. Shailly Gupta Barnes of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice was one of the authors of that study, and recently said that "the path to electoral victory in this country goes through the 140 million poor and low-income people—ignoring them is impossible."

[My consulting firm, The Adriel Hampton Group, works with nonprofit organizations to identify and organize constituencies, and with phone append data provider Accurate Append to reach specific audiences.]

Governor Gavin Newsom's Failed Promises and the #OurCalifornia Way

Lauren Keyes-Scott, Universal Housing Policy Director
Adriel Hampton for California Governor

We understand Governor Gavin Newsom's desire to move the state to firmer economic footing, but believe his haste to transition to his Phase 2 is significantly risking the successes that the People of California, and all front-line and essential workers have already achieved.  Governor Newsom’s Phase 1 was already found to be superficial and inadequately addressing the needs of ALL #OurCalifornia. Newsom’s policies are not the way.

As Newsom has promised to transition to Phase 2 in the coming weeks, he has yet to accomplish or fulfill his own Phase 1 for the State of California. Thus, we have the following responses and urge Governor Newsom to adopt the following policies to ensure that all Californians are covered and capable of transitioning to Phase 2.

RE: Actions needed to get from Stage 1 to Stage 2 that Governor Newsom still needs to accomplish to address the needs of #OurCalifornia

  • A #SaferAtHome statewide mandate must be centered on ensuring every Californian has a safe home to stay in.  It is within the Governor’s power to provide #HousingForAll, Repeal Costa-Hawkins, #CancelRent, and provide an eviction moratorium
  • Ensure the public can reduce community spread w/ free masks, testing and #MedicareForAll
  • A People's Bailout
  • Making the essential workforce environment as safe as possible*
  • Rebuilding with the #GreenNewDeal
  • Taxing the top 2% accordingly for wealth redistribution and taxing corporations fairly
  • Releasing needed funds to city and county government departments
  • Ending government subsidies immediately to any corporation that benefits from offshore accounts
  • Ending government subsidies to any corporation that has significant CA labor violations, class action suits or outstanding and unresolved labor infractions (i.e., SpaceX and Tesla lost class actions over work breaks, hazardous conditions)
  • Encouraging environmental justice and stewardship - advancement of indigenous land reclamation, protection and stewardship to ensure our lands, air, and water have the opportunities to continue healing (as a result of our temporary shutdown) for future generations

* Real time consistent communication and collaboration with unions, labor leaders, and essential workers in relative sectors, as above groups will be involved in policy, planning, opening, and maintenance of business and sectors re-opening.

RE: Governor Newsom opening schools earlier in the school year    

We believe this mandate is a policy failure lacking real-time consistent communication and collaboration with unions, labor leaders and essential workers both in the school system and childcare sectors.  Their lack of inclusion and involvement for the policy, planning, opening and maintenance of their sectors re-opening is troubling.

  • Did labor unions in those sectors agree to opening earlier?
  • Did this coincide with state-approved contracts?
  • Will the state finally fund districts appropriately to meet the needs of their communities?
  • Does this include hazard pay salaries, classroom necessities (textbooks, computers, etc.)?
  • Did Governor Newsom convene with teachers and staff across the state who will be on the front lines?
  • Did these teachers and staff approve of opening early?

Newsom's latest press conference leaves #OurCalifornia with more questions than answers, and inequities that will further compound these unnecessarily trying times as the pandemic continues.

We believe in:

  • Expanded workforce safety net: same expanded workforce protections, minimum non-essential worker living wage increases (gov't assistance for small business compensation), wage replacement and state mandated sick day allotment provisions
  • Educational programs opening based on their standard start dates (if all necessary safety benchmarks are met to relax phasing)
  • Free childcare available to all workers returning
  • Work with all unions and labor (esp CSEA, SEIU Local 99, CTA, AFLCIO) to ensure their work spaces and needs are met and schools, staff are appropriately funded and ready to reopen
  • Class size reduction based on social distancing needs
  • Hazard Pay for all teaching, custodial and maintenance, admin staff in schools, childcare staff
  • State providing 3:1 masks to studio ratio available, and masks will be provided for every student registered if needed
  • Identify best ways to address learning loss and gaps for students with potential to review California education standards and flexibility to meet them during pandemic/crisis
  • Ensure standardized procedures statewide for students, staff and parent safety minimizing harm, risk and potential spread

We believe these measures will ensure the safety and well-being of workers and their families, allowing a broader workforce to return to work.

RE: Governor Newsom’s Statewide Surveillance

We believe in #MedicareForAll and #HousingForAll for ALL Californians: this is #OurCalifornia... We do not support or endorse #SurveillanceForAll. We believe that the State of California can accurately report the ebbs and flows of COVID19 without a “statewide surveillance program.”

The vagueness of Newsom’s “Statewide surveillance” program is troubling and as it's written, we do not feel we need our rights to privacy and security further violated under the guise of a State government COVID-19 response. Without voluntary tests, testing results the State is obligated to provide, there is nothing to review. Surveillance is not what #OurCalifornia needs during an epidemic. #OurCalifornia needs to be given the resources, tools and adequate space to thrive.  Furthermore, surveillance programs with local/regional support often entail police/court use. Given how California’s data shows the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the same populations and neighborhoods that are most susceptible to health disparities, income inequality and structural racism hardest, we vehemently oppose any state sanctioned local police/court presence in Newsom’s “statewide surveillance program w/ regional/local variation” in those communities.

As previously mentioned in #OurCalifornia Phase 1, we would release needed funding to ensure city and county government departments were ALL appropriately staffed and equipped to address these essential reporting needs for #OurCalifornia. Unlike Newsom’s plan, we would require ALL counties to adhere to uniform standards for data published and it needs to be made available online weekly: tests completed, tests positive, tests positive and hospitalized or in ICU beds, and COVID19 deaths (including death count updates/corrections from weeks/months prior).

Measurements already released by the California Dept of Public Health include the number of people in each county who are hospitalized or in ICU beds. We believe that releasing accurate information in a timely fashion reduces disinformation campaigns, can calm general public’s anxiety or fear with how our actions are flattening curves and alert populations most in need to be as vigilant and careful as they can be in these unnecessarily trying times.

County and city offices can continue to detail all test results as they received and report publicly. We agree that counties should be able and empowered to relax #StayAtHome orders at their county’s pace and based on needs once Statewide safety benchmarks are achieved.