From Detroit to D.C. and Back Again — Here’s What Makes the New Poor People’s Campaign Truly a “New, Unsettling Force” That Just May Help Liberate Us All

Ready to March: Members of the Michigan Poor People’s Campaign assemble on the National Mall on June 23. All photos by: Dawn Wolfe

“I’ve got two extra water bottles.”
“We have chips to share.”
“We brought grapes…”
“I have ‘Black Panther.’ Does the bus have a DVD player?”

During hundreds of direct actions in forty states over the past six weeks, and again in Washington D.C., thousands of activists in the New Poor People’s Campaign have chanted: “Forward together. Not one step back!” Over roughly thirty-five hours during our trip from Detroit to D.C. this past weekend, fifty-plus PPC Michigan activists made it abundantly clear that they also mean: “And not one single person left behind.”

This dedication to taking care of each other was immediately apparent beginning on Friday night when the activists, most of whom started out as strangers to each other, started sharing food and other resources from the moment they boarded our bus.

The New Poor People’s Campaign summed up on a sign.

No one stood at the front of the bus and told people to do this. The email with instructions for the trip didn’t suggest that participants bring more than would cover their personal needs. But no one has to tell the people in this movement that sharing is a good idea — doing so is as natural to them as marching.

From Muskegon Heights to Monroe, a Michigan State Representative to a Novi Imam

The overnight bus ride turned out not to be all that conducive to journalism — or to good intentions. I was certainly well-prepared to do the job I’d set out to do. My supplies included four waterproof flip notepads, several pens, and a larger notebook where I planned to start writing my account of the march on the trip back up. With an extra seat next to me on the journey south, I was even set up to interview anyone who cared to stop by for a chat.

Our volunteer Bus Captain, Tad Wysor of Ann Arbor

But instead of announcing myself at the beginning and getting down to business, I was instead lulled by the miles and by “Black Panther,” and distracted by the difficulty of making a bus seat built for someone of average height work just a bit more comfortably for my five-foot, fifty-five-year-old body. By the time “Black Panther” was over, it was after midnight and time to try to get some sleep.

Fortunately for me, our volunteer Bus Captain — Tad Wysor of Ann Arbor — asked everyone to do a round of introductions between our last rest stop and our final destination. During those introductions, it became apparent that the Michigan Poor People’s Campaign has inspired an widely diverse body of people to take action.

There were, of course, the “usual suspects,” of activism including union organizers, a Michigan State representative from Detroit (whose name I sadly missed), and people who were struggling in the anti-poverty and Civil Rights movements long before the Snyder and Duggan administrations started poisoning and turning off people’s water.

Getting off the bus in D.C.

What was different is that we also had artists, musicians, and individuals running the economic gamut from struggling single moms to comfortably middle-class people like myself. There were also a lot of first-time demonstrators like Heather, a 40-something mom from Monroe who sat across the isle from me on both legs of the trip. Geographically we were from all over Michigan; from Muskegon to Detroit and Washington Township to Flint. While not everyone mentioned a religious affiliation, it was impossible to miss the number of clerical collars being affixed to shirts as we got ready to disembark — not to mention Imam Steve Mustapha Elturk, a Novi resident and leader of the Islamic Organization of North America’s Warren mosque.

It’s challenging to feel anything like a “new, unsettling force” after twelve hours on a cramped bus. As we climbed down from and got ready to take the Metro to the Smithsonian stop and onward to the National Mall, though, it would have been impossible to miss the rising energy and determination in the voices, postures, and faces of the people around me.

While each of us had received both printed and verbal instructions for getting to the Mall and back from our drop-off point, the Michigan delegation did our best to stick together. As a group, we followed the directions of national volunteers who were risking missing the opening of the event to make sure others would get there on time. We stayed together to get our Metro cards, stayed together on the escalators, and looked out for each other to make sure everyone boarded the correct train and disembarked at the Mall on time.

Heading to the rally: Michigan Poor People’s Campaign at the National Mall

That togetherness partially broke down in the excitement of the rally, and later during the march. When it came time to leave, though, Tad and others went several extra miles to insure that each Michigan marcher made it back to the bus on time.

Forty states, thirty countries, and the people speaking for themselves

As I write this, it’s already more than forty-eight hours after the end of the national Poor People’s Campaign rally and march. That’s ancient history in the life of a news story these days, so I’m not going to try to write the usual report about who said what and who did what and when. You can watch the entire rally here if you’re not one of the over 50,000 who were reportedly live-streaming the event as it happened. Or, watch accounts from the rallies and events in the thirty countries worldwide that participated in solidarity with the Washington D.C. action.

After attending, and taking it in, and seeing Americans from as far away as Alaska and Puerto Rico and as supposedly red as Texas join in this national call for a true moral revival, this is what I will add:

The New Poor People’s Campaign is something different. The New Poor People’s Campaign is something powerful. This new, revived, reincarnated edition of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s last life’s work may actually be one of the forces that drags our country back from its current brink.

I don’t think this because the movement’s national leaders, the Rev. Dr. William Barber and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, are brilliant, charismatic, speakers and organizers. They are. But after years of organizing and thousands of hours of work, both Barber and Theoharis limited themselves to roughly seven minutes each at the podium during an almost two hour long rally.

At the culmination of all of their work, these leaders were more interested in giving a microphone to others than in being in front of it themselves.

This Poor People’s Campaign isn’t new and different because it has spiritual leadership. It’s new and different because that spiritual leadership welcomes people of every faith and people of no faith — openly, publicly, and from a national stage.

The New Poor People’s Campaign is also unique because, by design, it insists that poor and disenfranchised speak for themselves. Yes, everyone from leaders of the original Civil Rights movement like the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. and union presidents had a chance at the podium. But the bulk of the speakers were the very people who are suffering the effects of our country’s unequal policies — including a very young, very inexperienced, former drug addict who was helped through her speech by Dr. Barber himself.

This was a national event, taking place through Internet streaming on a virtual worldwide stage, but even with such a large audience the national Poor People’s Campaign was doing the exact same thing I witnessed in Michigan while covering the Lansing and Detroit actions.

Here’s the thing about the Poor People’s Campaign — being “human again” isn’t just a button on a hat to these folks. It’s their way of life.

Perhaps the most powerful testimony about what makes the New Poor People’s Campaign unique and potentially revolutionary, though, is the thing I experienced starting at eight in the evening on Friday night. Over fifty people, mostly strangers to each other, filed onto a bus and immediately began sharing what they had with each other.

“I’ve got two extra water bottles.”
“We have chips to share.”
“We brought grapes…”

Before heading for home, the Michigan Poor People’s Campaign stops in front of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.