Rural Illinois’ Stake in the Poor People’s Campaign

Holly Ann Stovall July 5, 2018

On the first Monday of the campaign, activists gathered in front of the Illinois Capitol to share stories of their struggles with disability and health care

I live in a place called For­got­to­nia. Oth­ers call it McDo­nough Coun­ty, Illi­nois. Four hours south­west of Chica­go, 3 hours due north of St. Louis. An hour from the mighty Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er. With 23 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion liv­ing below the pover­ty line, we are one of the most impov­er­ished coun­ties in the state and no one seems to care out­side of the 30,000 peo­ple who live here. Some who live here don’t care either.

To raise aware­ness of our plight I trav­elled to the Spring­field Capi­tol, and once to Chica­go, every Mon­day for 40 days, as part of the Illi­nois Poor People’s Cam­paign for Moral Revival. We are a move­ment that chal­lenges sys­temic racism, pover­ty, the war econ­o­my, and eco­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion. We took our inspi­ra­tion, as the 50th anniver­sary of Dr. Mar­tin Luther King’s Poor People’s Cam­paign approached, from Rev. William Bar­ber of North Car­oli­na and Rev. Liz Theo­har­ris, Co-Direc­tor of the Kairos Cen­ter. They picked up the cam­paign where King left off.

We ral­ly and risk arrest to pres­sure state leg­is­la­tors and the gov­er­nor to attack pover­ty. Most of the activists in Spring­field came from Chica­go, but pover­ty and its inter­sect­ing fac­tors plague rur­al towns, as well, so I, also, made the 75-mile drive.

We began most Mon­day actions in Spring­field with a march from the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union office to the Abra­ham Lin­coln stat­ue in front of the state house. We sang: Somebody’s hurt­ing my peo­ple and it’s gone on far too long. We car­ried signs: Sys­temic pover­ty is immoral.

After we gath­ered on the steps, those among us who are poor told their sto­ries about hard times. Try­ing to pay for health care and rent while work­ing for min­i­mum wage. Par­ent­ing chil­dren, keep­ing fam­i­lies togeth­er. Heav­en for­bid, they also want to drink clean water, breath clean air, and avoid gen­dered vio­lence, gun vio­lence, and police brutality.

After lis­ten­ing to these sto­ries again and again, we marched to an inter­sec­tion or entrance to gov­ern­ment offices. Rev. Theo­har­ris and Rev. Bar­ber have encour­aged cam­paign­ers to train in non­vi­o­lent civ­il dis­obe­di­ence. Bar­ber writes, When we get arrest­ed, we do it to arrest the con­scious­ness of the state and to guar­an­tee that what we are doing will not be done in the dark” (quot­ed in Jaffe, p. 164.). In order to demon­strate our will­ing­ness to sac­ri­fice for a bet­ter future for all, some 2,000 poor peo­ple, cler­gy, and allies from rur­al and urban areas in 40 states pre­sent­ed our­selves for arrest. On the mall in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Rev. Liz Theo­har­ris asked how many of us had risked arrest, and I, like most of the thick crowd around me, raised my hand. 

3 hour ral­ly on the Mall in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., after 40 days of moral revival. (Image: Hol­ly Ann Sto­vall / Laid Off Blog.) 

In Illi­nois, moral wit­ness­es sup­port­ed those who blocked inter­sec­tions and entrances with chants: Ain’t no pow­er like the pow­er of the peo­ple cause the pow­er of the peo­ple don’t stop, or, my favorite: Rauner vetoed $15, Veto Rauner 18, but civ­il dis­obe­di­ence did not always result in arrest.

In fact, most Mon­days, Illi­nois author­i­ties refused to arrest us. For exam­ple, the first Mon­day in Spring­field, Il, when activists blocked the inter­sec­tion, capi­tol police trained to han­dle civ­il protest blocked the streets lead­ing to the inter­sec­tion, allowed the action to pro­ceed for an hour, then tick­et­ed pro­test­ers. Anoth­er Mon­day in Illi­nois, dozens of Fight For $15 pro­test­ers risked arrest by block­ing the entrance to the sen­ate gallery for over an hour, but left peace­ful­ly when indi­vid­u­al­ly warned by police. But in states such as Min­neso­ta, Indi­ana, South Car­oli­na, and Ken­tucky, author­i­ties arrest­ed activists from the first Mon­day of the campaign. 

Police sur­round­ed the direct action, but only arrest­ed activists on week four, when we blocked the entrance to the Depart­ment of Health­care and Fam­i­ly Ser­vices, a state insti­tu­tion that — along with pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties — received no funds due to Gov­er­nor Bruce Rauner’s gun to the head” style of nego­ti­at­ing” with the state legislature.

The pre­am­ble to the Illi­nois Con­sti­tu­tion specif­i­cal­ly artic­u­lates the state’s vital role in pro­vid­ing for health, elim­i­nat­ing pover­ty and inequal­i­ty, and assur­ing legal, social, and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. Both down-state and in Chica­go, how­ev­er, Illi­nois is fail­ing to real­ize its stat­ed val­ues. Rauner’s rad­i­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive agen­da is respon­si­ble for much of this failure.

In 2015, when Rauner became gov­er­nor, he prompt­ly forced West­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty (WIU) (and oth­er state uni­ver­si­ties) out of the state bud­get, and cut tax­es. The pover­ty rate, of McDo­nough Coun­ty, already high, climbed to almost 24 per­cent. WIU cut jobs and now, at ‑1.8 per­cent from July 2016 to July 2017, McDo­nough Coun­ty has one of the high­est depop­u­la­tion rates in the state. Since 2004, WIU enroll­ment has dropped 40 per­cent from 13,558 to a pro­ject­ed 8,000 for Fall, 2018. When enroll­ment drops, both stu­dents and WIU employ­ees leave the region. 

A con­clud­ing pho­to of Fight for 15 hold­ing the ban­ner out­side of Gov­er­nor Rauner’s man­sion dur­ing week five of the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign. Rauner vetoed the bill to raise min­i­mum wage to $15. (Image: Hol­ly Ann Sto­vall / Laid Off Blog.)
This month, WIU fired 24 more fac­ul­ty (sev­en of them tenured!) two aca­d­e­m­ic affairs per­son­nel, and, in addi­tion, elim­i­nat­ed 62 teach­ing posi­tions. This is not only a brain drain of the area, it’s an attack on tenure, the tax base, and on our qual­i­ty of life, not to men­tion a goad into even high­er pover­ty levels.

As pro­fes­sion­als are laid off and forced out of the region and the state, we strug­gle to recruit enough vol­un­teers to stock the local food pantry. More than 40 per­cent of stu­dents in the school dis­trict qual­i­fy for free or reduced lunch. Local busi­ness­es fal­ter or fail. Home­less­ness is worse than I have seen since I first moved to Macomb 30 years ago. Health and social prob­lems plague the area: news­pa­pers report unprece­dent­ed vio­lence, and drug sales appear to have replaced law­ful work.

For more than a decade I worked as a pro­fes­sor of Women’s Stud­ies at WIU, in Macomb, the McDo­nough Coun­ty seat. Two years ago, WIU elim­i­nat­ed the depart­ments of Women’s Stud­ies and African Amer­i­can Stud­ies (along with Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gious Stud­ies), con­ferred me with tenure, and fired me, all in one month.

Just as our cur­rent Poor People’s Cam­paign is an inter­sec­tion­al move­ment — because pover­ty affects peo­ple in var­i­ous sec­tors of soci­ety — Women’s Stud­ies is an inter­sec­tion­al area of study. More than 90 per­cent of the stu­dents in my class­es were women. Most of them could not afford books. Many were so finan­cial­ly pressed that they often missed class to work. Most were women of col­or. Many of them came from Span­ish-speak­ing homes. Many were LGBTQA. These are the voic­es the PPC seeks to amplify.

When WIU fired me, I no longer could teach my stu­dents, no longer could guide them in the study of social inequal­i­ties: sex­ism, racism, and a host of oth­er inter­sect­ing fac­tors that block their — and our — pur­suit of hap­pi­ness. I was the only fac­ul­ty mem­ber at WIU who taught class­es on His­pan­ic Women and Women and Cre­ativ­i­ty. WIU stu­dents no longer have access to these classes.

While the Women’s Stud­ies depart­ment was killed, WIU expand­ed its Law Enforce­ment pro­gram, includ­ing a minor in Home­land Secu­ri­ty, named for the depart­ment that hous­es ICE.

In his 2016 mem­oir, Rev. Bar­ber writes, King’s turn against the war in Viet­nam and towards the Poor People’s Cam­paign in the last year of his life was an acknowl­edge­ment of America’s deep need to rec­og­nize how mil­i­tary spend­ing abroad was con­nect­ed to pover­ty at home.” Today, the Unit­ed States. has extend­ed mil­i­tary spend­ing to weapons and sur­veil­lance at home, even in Macomb, Ill.

This pat­tern of cut­ting pub­lic funds in the lib­er­al arts while spend­ing more in mil­i­tary, police, and sur­veil­lance, is a prime exam­ple of the cri­tique Dr. Mar­tin Luther King espoused in the late 1960s: We invest in war and vio­lence at the expense of the com­mon person’s abil­i­ty to pur­sue hap­pi­ness and ben­e­fit from domes­tic tran­quil­i­ty. Dur­ing Mon­day actions for the PPC, we car­ried signs that read, The War Econ­o­my is Immoral.”

In Macomb, while there’s mon­ey for weapons, we strug­gle to ful­ly fund our K‑12 schools. We have not been able to pay for sex­u­al assault pre­ven­tion train­ing for our teach­ers, prin­ci­pals, staff, and stu­dents. The Macomb school dis­trict faces a $10-mil­lion-dol­lar sex­u­al assault law­suit. If the dis­trict los­es, it is not clear how they would pay out. We could lose our school and be forced to bus chil­dren to anoth­er rur­al school that suf­fers even more than we do. With ade­quate invest­ment in sex­u­al assault pre­ven­tion, of course, this law­suit might have been prevented.

In my last few years at WIU, I fre­quent­ly dodged leak-catch­ing trash­cans in class­rooms, hall­ways, and bath­rooms. Even STEM fields are under­fund­ed: the UPI has report­ed that our sci­ence labs des­per­ate­ly require safe­ty updates.

When the state invests in rur­al West­ern Illi­nois, our com­mu­ni­ty thrives, hous­ing is afford­able, pub­lic-school stu­dents can excel, and we give back to the state. In some ways, the qual­i­ty of life here is very good: Traf­fic is light, so our com­mutes are short, and thus we have time to cook din­ner most nights and share a meal with oth­ers. Because the town is safe and small, our chil­dren can often walk to school; so can WIU employ­ees. We have a farmer’s mar­ket, a food co-op, and two Com­mu­ni­ty Sup­port­ed Agri­cul­ture programs.

None of this is pos­si­ble with­out WIU, our region’s eco­nom­ic engine. WIU and its employ­ees pro­vide an afford­able uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion to stu­dents from all across Illi­nois (half our stu­dents come from the Chicagoland area), the Unit­ed States, and the world. In addi­tion, WIU offers plays, musi­cals, recitals, and sports events that the com­mu­ni­ty can enjoy.

While the pover­ty rate in rur­al Illi­nois is climb­ing, pover­ty is not inevitable. With ade­quate state fund­ing for WIU, along with the abil­i­ty to ful­ly fund our pub­lic schools and health­care for every­one, we can low­er the pover­ty rate.

We will not be for­got­ten! That is why I trav­eled to Spring­field, where I joined with oth­er peo­ple from across Illi­nois who refuse to accept the sta­tus quo. The rich­est coun­try in the his­to­ry of the world does not have to have any poor people.

We are a fusion coali­tion move­ment: Rur­al and urban, black and white, women and men, queer and straight — pover­ty exists among all these Amer­i­can groups and many oth­ers. Like the Rev­erends King, Bar­ber, and Theo­har­ris remind us, pover­ty is a moral mat­ter. We shall not give up our fight to ensure that poor peo­ple in our rur­al, down­state com­mu­ni­ties — even in For­got­to­nia — are not forgotten!

Hol­ly Ann Sto­vall is the only rur­al Illi­nois res­i­dent attend­ing all six of the cur­rent Poor People’s Cam­paign actions in Spring­field. She was a pro­fes­sor of Women’s Stud­ies at West­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty for over ten years where she focused her teach­ings on social inequal­i­ties. She cur­rent­ly blogs about her lay­off at https://laidoff.blog.
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