Against tall odds—a slurry rain and a disruptive man shouting epithets not least among them—a crowd of around 20 activists rallying with the Rhode Island Poor People’s Campaign gathered resolutely in front of the Rhode Island State House on Monday afternoon to give voice to the grievances of Rhode Island’s poor and disenfranchised.
Representing a national “Call for Moral Revival,” the gathering was part of the fourth week of 40 days of nonviolent direct action and voter mobilization, and one over 30 actions planned for the campaign across the country. The campaign stands as a demand for “new programs to lift up the 140 million Americans living in poverty, immediate attention to ecological devastation and measures to curb militarism and the war economy,” according to a press release by the campaign on May 12.
Commenced nationally last month by Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the campaign also serves to memorialize the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, in which demonstrators marched on the National Mall in the weeks following King’s assassination in a call for a guaranteed annual income and increased low-income housing. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Sanitation Workers’ Strike, in which over 1,300 workers opposed abusive conditions for Black government employees in Memphis, Tennessee. The campaign also aims to reflect the multiple facets of King’s activist legacy, including his opposition to white supremacy, his support of organized labor, and his deep belief in the intersection of religious and progressive conviction.
This legacy also entails decrying contemporary conditions of neglect and violence which are equally varied, and illuminating the ways racism, militarism, and healthcare inequality, among other concerns, often overlap with devastating consequences in the lives of low-income people.
At the State House this week, of particular concern was “Ecological Devastation and Health Care.” In a speech at the rally, environmental activist and University of Rhode Island physics professor Peter
Nightingale warned listeners of the consequences of barring low-income people from accessing medical care in conditions of climate change, in which the poor are also the most vulnerable to injury and illness due to pollution and environmental damage. “Climate change will have its greatest effect on those who have the least access to the world’s resources and who have contributed least to its cause,” he said.
Previous demonstrations have centered around the intersection of poverty with conditions such as the proliferation of gun violence, barriers to voting, immigration, and xenophobia.
In a letter hand-delivered to the State House by Campaign co-chairs Camilo Viveiros and Rev. Ebony Grisom on May 14, organizers declared, “We are the poor and disenfranchised, clergy and moral leaders from across Rhode Island… We have come to say clearly that a politics that ignores the poor has gone on far too long. And we will not be silent anymore.”
The Poor People’s Campaign will be holding its next speak-out, titled “Everybody’s Got the Right to Live: Education, Jobs, Income, and Housing,” on Monday, June 11 at 2pm on the State House lawn. Those interested in attending can find more information on the Campaign’s Facebook page.