Originally published on The Climate Reality Project.
By Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis
“The truth, then, is that on the other end of this crisis we cannot return to normal. Normal was already a nightmare for so many of us.”
On a swampy stretch of land along the Mississippi River, there is a place called Cancer Alley. Right between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the River Parishes were once home to some of the nation’s wealthiest slave plantations. Now, they are home to over 100 petrochemical companies. For many years, locals have called these parishes Cancer Alley because of the high rate of cancer and respiratory disease. The industry that has carved up their fields is now rotting their bodies at crisis proportions.
Sharon Lavigne is known around St. James Parish for her affinity for telling the truth. The daughter of Civil Rights activists, she saw the first industrial plant arrive in the 1960s. Half a century later, she has auto-immune hepatitis and aluminum in her body; her grandchildren have breathing problems and develop rashes if they play outside for too long. In the last five years alone, she’s watched 30 of her neighbors die from cancer.
In 2018, Sharon learned that Formosa Petrochemical is planning to build a multi-billion-dollar plant in her district. When completed, it will produce plastic products and become one of the state’s largest emitters of ethylene oxide and benzene, both of which are known carcinogens. In response, she quickly helped form Rise St. James to fight Formosa and build power in her mostly black and poor community. Where she lives, people don’t have the luxury of deciding what issue to care about, from health and the environment to racism and economic issues. When the stakes are between life and death, it’s all or nothing. And now, amidst this new crisis, things are getting only more dire. A recent study from Harvard confirmed that people with long-term exposure to air pollution are 15 percent more likely to die from COVID-19, and that black people are exposed to 21 percent more air pollution then white people in this country.
Across the US, there are thousands of places like Cancer Alley and countless leaders like Sharon who are sounding the alarm of a nation in political, economic, and ecological crisis.
Before a single case of COVID-19, there were 140 million poor and low-income people living in the richest country in the history of the world. Meanwhile, just three men held more wealth than the bottom half of the country, making their fortunes off of the labor of others and the destruction of the planet. Now, this pandemic and economic collapse are revealing the deep fissures of a society that was already on the brink of what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called “spiritual death.”
In many ways, the historic failures of our government over the last couple of months are the evidence of decades of disastrous and immoral leadership. They are also a warning sign of what is to come if we don’t confront the widening of poverty and inequality and the deepening of climate change in the coming years.
In 1968, Dr. King, the National Welfare Rights Organization, and many other organizers from Appalachia to California came together in the Poor People’s Campaign. This political project, the last of Dr. King’s life, was determined to force fundamental structural change by uniting poor and dispossessed people across the country. At the time, Dr. King had identified three evils in American society: poverty, racism, and militarism (today, the destruction of the climate could rightfully be called the fourth). At the root of their efforts was a theory of organizing called “fusion politics.”
At that time, it meant building a movement that could connect poor communities across race, gender, age, religion, geography, and issue. The idea behind “fusion politics” goes at least all the way back to the radical history of the Fusion Party after the Civil War in Reconstruction North Carolina — where thousands of former slaves linked up with poor whites and others to wield far-reaching political power for a decade and secure major protections in the state constitution that still exist today.
In our own time, we’ve seen what is possible through fusion politics. Almost 150 years after the Fusion Party, the Moral Mondays Movement began in 2013 as a small series of protests in front of the state capitol building in Raleigh, North Carolina. In just a few months, it grew into a broad fusion coalition and inspired the largest state-government-focused civil disobedience campaign in US history. The movement helped to defeat an extremist governor, elected a progressive majority to the state Supreme Court, forced a federal court order for special elections to address racial gerrymandering in state legislature districts, and turned the tide on a monster voter suppression law that targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision,” according to a federal court.
Seven years later, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (of which we are the co-chairs) takes inspiration from this and many other movements from history. It is our belief that this nation will only change when poor and low-income people come together in a moral fusion movement.
In the Campaign, we understand that there are interlocking injustices in this society that must be confronted together: systemic racism, poverty, militarism and the war economy, ecological devastation and climate change, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.
Each of these injustices depend on and feed one another. They also demand that we come together in new and unexpected ways to advance a transformative agenda that centers the needs of the poor and most impacted. This is why we organize for universal health care, the right to housing, programs of social uplift, expansive environmental protections, the end to the militarization of our budgets and communities, and more.
When people in power criticize us by saying that we are asking for too much, we remind them that when the wealthy are in trouble, they get everything they need and want. Why should we expect anything less?
A Radical Redistribution of Political & Economic Power
The current moment is an ugly mirror for this country. During this dual crisis of COVID-19 and an economy in freefall, we are seeing clearly a society riven by poverty, racism, and unprecedented inequality; a government that continues to cater to the rich and in the same breath claim there is not enough for the poor; and entire generations who, because of the pause on industry, are learning for the first time what a clear sky looks like. This is not an anomaly – it is the intensification of life as it already was. The truth, then, is that on the other end of this crisis we cannot return to normal. Normal was already a nightmare for so many of us.
That is why the Poor People’s Campaign has broadened its efforts in the last two months and why we are organizing the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington.
On June 20, millions of people will come together in an historic digital justice gathering to build a stage for the voices, struggles, and solutions of our people. We know that in this moment we must seize the moral narrative on what is necessary and possible. And in order to change the narrative, we must change the narrator.
The narrator, the protagonist, of our national politics can no longer be the rich and powerful. It must be the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the immigrant, the incarcerated, the climate refugee. It must be those, like Sharon Lavigne in Cancer Alley, who can rally our society to demand a radical redistribution of political and economic power.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is the president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival. The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is the director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
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