A Poor People’s Campaign invokes Dr. King in its call for economic equality

on April 8, 2019

Carey Whiteside, from Oakland, was walking past a local homeless encampment on a recent windy day. Tents blew apart, and people struggled to keep their belongings safe. The scene reminded Whiteside of when he, too, was homeless, he told hundreds of activists gathered Saturday at Taylor Memorial Church.

He remembered the shelter that kicked him and the other residents out at 5 a.m. every day, regardless of the weather. He remembered shelter staff laughing cruelly as residents left.  He remembered the Burger King workers who turned him out into a storm, and his jeans that never quite dried.

“I feel at peace now that I live inside, but it is not easy,” said Whiteside, encouraging the audience to have compassion for unhoused people in their community. As one of the speakers for thee Poor People’s Campaign, a revival of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967-68 campaign of the same name, Whiteside also asked the audience and leaders to do what they can to keep Social Security benefits intact.

California Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), renowned civil rights leader reverend Phil Lawson, and representatives from US Senator Kamala Harris’s office (D-California) also attended Saturday’s

two-hour hearing, one of the first stops on a statewide “Truth and Poverty Tour.”

Organizers said their main objective is to amplify the voices of people most affected by poverty, racism, and mass incarceration; to challenge the notion that the poor are to be blamed for their poverty; and to encourage more people to join their cause.

“It is a privilege to speak on behalf of seniors like myself,” said Whiteside, speaking softly into the microphone. He now receives a monthly Social Security check of $951, he said. He can afford rent, but just barely. He runs out of money for food halfway through the month and must rely on soup kitchens and food banks to make it to the next check.

The event included an energetic musical call-and-response by event emcee, Virginia Hollins-Davidson.

“Somebody’s hurting our people, and it’s gone on way too long!” sang Hollins-Davidson.

“We won’t be silent anymore,” responded people in the audience, who mostly listened raptly for the next few hours as speakers offered up eloquent, personal testimony about extreme suffering. They blamed the latter on how the United States treats its poor and the country’s failure to address systemic racism and inequality.

Speakers included immigrants, sex workers, people whose homes had been foreclosed on, and a community college student who spoke about high rates of housing insecurity and hunger amongst her peers.

Rabbi Dev Noily of Kehilla Community Synagogue cited a scathing report on global homelessness written by United Nations representative Leilani Farha last year, who described conditions at homeless encampments in Oakland and San Francisco as both “cruel and inhumane,” and compared them to slums in the world’s poorest nations.

Other religious leaders who spoke, including Pastor Anthony Jenkins of Taylor Memorial Church, referred to the faith community’s important role in “calling out evil.” Jenkins cited the case of Oakland’s largest homeless encampment being demolished in January as an example of evil, and said that if churches fail to call out injustices where they occur, “then we’re just a social club.”

“Our societies are to be measured by how we treat the poor,” he added, quoting Gandhi.

Anthony Prince, the campaign’s co-chair, reminded people of the legacy and wisdom of Dr. King—and the importance of joining together in the struggle for justice.

“Dr. King once said that when we sit down to make breakfast, the entire world collaborated to make that possible,” Prince said, pointing out that humans need each other to make even the simplest things possible. “We’re not here to just memorialize or honor Dr. King. We’re picking up that bloodstained baton, and we’re carrying on that legacy.”

“History is on our side,” he added.

To learn more about the Poor People’s Campaign, visit www.poorpeoplescampaign.org.

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