Rev. William J. Barber II: America is now at the “most critical time, between life and death”/ by Chauncey Devega

Rev. Dr. William Barber: Founder of Poor People’s Movement says focusing so much on Trump and racism was a mistake — but “the fight is on” / (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

CHARLESTON, W. VA.—The Poor People’s Campaign and his own West Virginia constituents are turning up the pressure on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, the self-styled “moderate” who’s proving to be the key vote blocking aid to the poor and the downtrodden nationwide, as well as the rest of the progressive agenda.

In a Sept. 20 zoom video press conference, broadcast mostly from the West Virginia state capital of Charleston, campaign co-chair, the Rev. William Barber II, reiterated Manchin is not following the Bible, particularly the prophet Isaiah. Co-chair, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, said Manchin’s defying his own church’s Catholic Social Teaching.

And in new emphasis, Barber warned of dire societal consequences if the U.S. does not reach down a helping hand to raise up the poor, the downtrodden, “the denied and dismissed” by “building from the bottom up.”

Otherwise, “Voters would turn to demagogues”—agitators and haranguers like former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump. Democratic President Joe Biden must join that fight, too, Barber declared.

“The problem is not Trump alone.  The problem is so-called moderate Democrats and Republicans who refuse to confront the threat. The problem is not liberal versus conservative, but the people versus greed.

Time for a moral reset

“It’s time for a moral reset,” he preached. “Which side are you on? And if we don’t lift America from the bottom, we create the ground from which autocratic leadership arises.”

The point of the preaching by Barber and Theoharis and the demands from his constituents is to get Manchin to change his mind and vote for the progressive agenda, including aid to the poor and low-wealth people. They constitute 40% of the U.S., and a similarly high proportion of West Virginians. And passing the program would restore people’s faith that government can help them, the campaign declares.

Its platform also includes fully restoring and strengthening the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which U.S. Supreme Court rulings drastically weakened. And it includes creating a more just society in a wide range of ways, as the U.S. Constitution promises.

The campaign stepped up its pressure on Manchin as Congress moved towards showdowns on the comprehensive package of legislation crafted to implement Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, and the $3.5 trillion needed to pay for it. Votes on it are expected by the end of September.

That money, to be spent over ten years, would go for aid to schools, expanding Medicare to cover vision, dental and hearing care, making paid family and sick leave permanent, expanding Medicaid to four million more people, replacing the nation’s lead-lined water pipes, raising the pay of child care workers and investing more in day care centers, expanding the child care tax credit, and rehabbing or replacing the nation’s rundown public schools—a hot topic in West Virginia—among other causes.

Manchin opposes all of that. He says it costs too much. The senator “needs to stop seeing the positions of the Chamber of Commerce” and the billionaire “Koch Brothers as his agenda,” Barber commented.

And despite rampant child poverty in West Virginia and the U.S., Manchin’s dubious about all of them, Theoharis said, even the child care tax credit. The senator wants to force parents to work for the credit.

Sen. Joe Manchin of W. Va. is the main obstacle to passing the reconciliation bill, ending the filibuster, and many more items on the progressive agenda. | AP

“He’s gone back” to making a distinction “between the deserving and the undeserving poor,” she added. “There’s a moral critique and an economic critique about how the wealthy benefit off the rest of us.”

The $3.5 trillion would be paid for by—among other ways–cutting military spending, repealing the Trump-GOP tax cuts for the rich and corporations, imposing new taxes on oil and gas interests and much higher fines for labor law-breaking, a point of particular interest to West Virginian workers long exploited, repressed and left to die in dangerous mines by coal barons.

If one press conference, plus prior sit-ins, arrests and demonstrations, won’t move the senator, “a flood of phone calls” might. Manchin’s D.C. office phone (202) 224-3954 was posted on constituent Pam  Garrison’s podium.

Barber promised there would be future peaceful civil disobedience, including sit-ins and arrests, to increase the pressure, following up full-page ads in the Sunday, Sept. 19 editions of all of West Virginia’s major newspapers.

End the filibuster

And if Manchin’s vote and that of the other Democratic holdout, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., aren’t enough to bring Senate Republicans along, then both should join the other 46 Senate Democrats and both independents to end the filibuster. That’s the racist and pro-corporate tactic the 50 GOPers use to kill everything in the evenly split Senate.

Answering a reporter’s question, Barber said the campaign’s Arizona chapter is working with the PPC national office on new ways to try to get her to change, too.

West Virginia constituents Jean Evansmore, Garrison, Molly Linehan and the Rev. William Lipscomb said their senior senator hurts his own people.

Evansmore particularly lashed Manchin on voting rights. The senator recently co-authored a stripped-down version of the Democrats’ signature For The People Act. It incorporates the proposed John Lewis Act, to restore and enhance the powers of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But it also legalizes so-called “Voter ID” laws.

Rulings by the Supreme Court’s right-wing GOP-named majority took the Voting Rights Act’s clout away, opening the way for rampant state-level GOP voter repression.

“You want your name on it,” Evansmore said scornfully. “You think it’ll help you in your next venture—going for governor.” Then Evansmore, who is Black, reminded Manchin he won his last Senate race in deep-red West Virginia by three percentage points, and that 3% of state voters are Black.

That led Barber to declare to Manchin: “It’s time to stop playing games.”

“He blocked the $15 (federal) minimum wage from the Covid relief bill. He’s also still blocking the modest $3.5 trillion economic reconstruction budget” Biden, organized labor, and Manchin’s fellow Democrats—except Sinema, too—want. Even that figure was a compromise, Barber preached. The original sum sought was $6 trillion.

The Trump tax cut, after all, cost the country “more than $2 trillion,” all into the pockets of corporate interests and the 1%.

“This is no game for poor and low-wage people,” Barber said.

“We’re not buying your garbage” an impassioned Garrison declared from an outdoor podium in front of the state Chamber of Commerce’s building. Gesturing at the structure, she challenged Manchin: “That’s where the money comes from” for his campaigns.

“We’ve heard this propaganda” before about social programs costing too much and voting rights don’t need protection and enhancement. “We’re not stupid.”

Author: Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon.

Source: Salon, September 20, 2021, https://www.salon.com/2021/09/20/rev-william-j-barber-ii-america-is-now-at-the-most-critical-time-between-life-and-death/