Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works and what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same.
Liz Theoharis: My name is Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and I am the co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. I am co-chair with Rev. Dr. William J. Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, A Call for Moral Revival.
Sarah Jaffe: You have been part of a couple of actions now around trying to stop whichever version of Trumpcare is moving through the Senate and to fight against cuts to Medicaid. Can you tell us a little bit about the actions?
Liz: Many folks have been coming together in lots of different ways, including impacted people. Last Tuesday in Washington, D.C. in front of Senator McConnell’s office, [there were] clergy and other impacted folks who are very upset both about the proposed cuts and changes as well as the lack of faith leaders standing up against this kind of devaluing of life. Folks decided to do civil disobedience in front of McConnell’s office. Folks were led by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber from the Forward Together Moral Mondays movement, Rev. Traci Blackmon from the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministry, as well as Rev. Jennifer Butler of Faith and Public Life, people of various faiths and those that will be impacted if the ACA is repealed and if more healthcare cuts are done. They staged a demonstration and took Communion saying that we can’t be silent anymore around these things, and we are joining with others across the country who are speaking out about how these cuts are killing people.
Sarah: You said that part of the motivation was to call on faith leaders to speak up about this and talk a little bit more about why it’s important as faith leaders to be part of the movement to stop Trumpcare, the movement for universal healthcare and all of that.
Liz: I think that part of why we see it as important for faith leaders to step up is because healthcare and all of these issues are moral issues. For too long, morality has been confined to a very small number of issues, many of which are barely discussed in faith traditions and texts. They’ve been in the hands of folks who are trying to exclude and oppress. Instead, we’re saying that if you look at various religious texts within the tradition of Christianity that I come from, Jesus traveled around the countryside healing people for free. Clearly, Jesus had a universal healthcare system. In this time, these kinds of healthcare cuts, this kind of repeal of the ACA, is all being done in the name of and with the support of many Christians and politicians who claim to be Christian.
And so it’s really important for faith leaders to say, “No, this is a moral issue. It’s a moral issue whenever you kill people because you deny them Medicare and Medicaid. Whenever you deny people healthcare because they have preexisting conditions, that this is not okay in any of our sacred texts, and it is a responsibility of everybody.” Especially our moral leaders in our clergy [need] to not just talk a good talk, but to be out there with people who are impacted fighting for the kind of healthcare system that we want.
Sarah: The Republicans are not going to stop trying to kill the ACA. But tell us what comes next for you, both around healthcare and on a broader scale?
Liz: Obviously, we’re not sure what’s going to happen around healthcare. We are sure that people are very motivated to try to stop bad things from happening. We have to keep the pressure up and make it very clear to our politicians that healthcare is an issue that unites a lot of us and we are committed to fight around it.
We are also trying to link the issue of healthcare to other social justice issues and things that are impacting people. Just the day before I was arrested with others [recently], we were participating in a tenants’ rights march and, in jail, we actually connected up with folks who were committing civil disobedience around anti-militarism. Then, on Monday, Rev. Barber and others led a group of clergy around a press conference, and then we actually had a meeting with the high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations, making the connection between voter suppression and the attack on our democracy that is taking place right now, including with this election integrity commission that has been set up by President Trump and is being vice chaired by someone who the Senate minority leader has called the most racist person in the country
We are trying to see these connections between voter suppression, the denial of healthcare and the low wages that people are fighting. We are trying to pull all of this together into what we’re seeing as the need for a poor people’s campaign, a national call for moral revival. We are connecting these different issues and the groups that are impacted directly by these issues and pulling them together into a large, a fusion movement that works across race and geography. We are doing something that can be a powerful force and finish some of the unfinished work that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was doing in the last year of his life. Fifty years later, we see that need to connect systemic racism, poverty and ecological devastation into a large movement and campaign to bring people together.
Sarah: I was struck the other day at the press conference, where Rev. Barber and other folks were connecting the dots to voter suppression and the lack of Medicaid expansion, which is already denying a lot of folks their medical care. It seems particularly relevant to note the way political disenfranchisement leads to these actual material consequences for people.
Liz: Exactly. Part of the reason we went and met with the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who is gravely concerned about systemic racism and poverty in the United States, is because we were trying to show the country and the world that these are linked. A central pillar of the work that we’re doing with the poor people’s campaign will be the indivisibility of these rights. The fight against voter suppression is for our democracy, because when you suppress votes, people get into office because of racist voter suppression. They pass policies that have a detrimental impact on the poor and working people of all races. This kind of divide-and-conquer that has been a part of US politics since our founding. We from the bottom are going to unite and build and see the connections between voter suppression and the attack on the ACA and all of our healthcare. The budget right now will be, if passed, the largest transfer of wealth from the bottom up since the Civil War.
This is all connected. If we don’t just see voter suppression over there and healthcare over here and housing cuts over there, and don’t actually see that the same people who are denying us healthcare are suppressing our vote and are making us homeless, then we will never be smart enough to come together and do something that will change the conditions in the United States and make the majority of us who are poor or one or two paychecks away from being poor, into something that’s a powerful force in this country.
Sarah: How can people keep up with you and the campaigns you’re working on?
Liz: Folks can check out the Kairos Center, kairoscenter.org, on social media and our website, as well as poorpeoplescampaign.org. There will be more and more announcements about sixteen public events that the Poor People’s Campaign is doing in the next couple of months all over the country. In December of this year, we’ll announce the major plans that we have for the spring of 2018 to do a massive mobilization in states across the country and in the nation’s capital.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The New Republic and New Labor Forum. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous book is Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.