Environmental justice and health care take center stage for anti-poverty movement

The Poor People's Campaign turns its attention to climate issues.

Members of the Poor People's Campaign and the movement's allies gather on the Capitol lawn, Monday, June 4. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden
Members of the Poor People's Campaign and the movement's allies gather on the Capitol lawn, Monday, June 4. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As temperatures climbed on Monday, a gathering on the U.S. Capitol lawn also grew in size, bolstered by singing and the occasional boisterous chant.

“We’re fighting for health care!” one woman called out from a podium a few dozen feet from the Capitol building. “We’re fighting for clean air!”

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A banner proclaimed the event’s association with the Poor People’s Campaign, a modern revival of a 1968 civil rights effort led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent figures. Asked how many people were expected at the rally, one reverend estimated, “Several hundred, maybe?” with minimal certainty.

Her concerns were slightly less centered on crowd size and more on determining who was slated to be arrested. After a rousing series of speeches on ecological issues and their overlap with a broken health care system, one group would sit down to engage in “civil disobedience”, she explained, at which point they would be arrested — par for the course these days.

Over the course of the past month, the Poor People’s Campaign has elevated a different topic each week. Throughout the first full week of June, that focus is shifting to ecological devastation and health, highlighting their intersection. On Monday, representatives from some of the country’s leading environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, assembled alongside members of the broader campaign effort, though it was the latter group that dominated the podium.

“Bodies count [and] everything is connected,” emphasized Rev. Beth Johnson, one of the first speakers to take the stage on Monday. Like many leaders in the Poor People’s Campaign, Johnson is a member of the clergy, and she addressed the crowd with a preacher’s energy. Off to her right sat a large casket placed in front of the podium, meant to commemorate the various lives lost to, among other things, limited access to health care and the onslaught of environmental degradation.

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“Here in D.C., y’all have been drenched with too much rain. Well in California, we long for the blessing of such thirst-quenching balm,” she sermonized. “Across this land, there is evidence of climate change and the ecological devastation that targets first and most severely the most vulnerable.”

Johnson went on to detail the strain staggering water utility costs have placed on a number of households across the country, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color. Moreover, the prioritization of pipelines and fossil fuel extraction over the health of such communities, she said, has created a crisis.

A February study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that air pollution overwhelmingly impacts communities of color. That report noted that Black Americans are exposed 1.54 times more to fine particle pollution than the overall population in the United States. Low-income communities were 1.35 times more exposed to such pollution. Moreover, areas populated by Black, brown, and poorer populations across the country have disproportionately suffered the impact of oil and gas drilling.

“Environmental racism” and “ecological devastation”, Johnson underscored, have compounded with a “lack of health care” to harm some of the most vulnerable people in the United States, including coal miners and indigenous communities.

“Shame! Shame!” cried the crowd in unison.

Other speakers expressed similar sentiments. Rev. Mark James, whose congregation is in Baltimore, addressed the ongoing water utility struggles the church has faced. Rising costs have put the community in a precarious position, a story that has become familiar across Baltimore and elsewhere in the country.

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“Water is a basic human right,” James roared, to thunderous applause. Utility bills, he said, serve as a “segue-way into gentrification” — something that has impacted his church.

In the midst of the speeches, a group of volunteers carried away the casket.

“They’re making us move it,” one man muttered, gesturing at a small group of police officers standing at the edge of the lawn. When asked the rationale behind the request, he gave a knowing grin. “I imagine they don’t want to acknowledge the truth,” he said.

The modern iteration of the Poor People’s Campaign began in April, launched with gusto by a group of organizations and activists including co-chairs Rev. Liz Theoharis and Rev. William Barber II, who is the founder of the non-partisan movement Repairers of the Breach. At the time, the movement, officially titled Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, unveiled a sweeping six-week agenda meant to culminate in a massive rally in Washington, D.C.

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Prior weeks have focused on a range of topics including disability issues, immigration, voting rights, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, along with the proliferation of gun violence in the United States. All have emphasized the interconnecting nature of such issues and the ways in which they interact with poverty.

The campaign’s current spotlight on the intersection of climate issues and health does much the same, elevating the impact of ecological devastation on communities already lacking access to health care and other vital resources.

Much of the Poor People’s Campaign revival is rooted in a lengthy study spanning more than 100 pages. The Souls of Poor Folkauthored by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and published the same day as the campaign’s launch, offers an analysis of poverty over the course of the past 50 years through various issue-specific lenses.

Climate and environmental issues take a central role in the report. Of the 20 counties with the least access to plumbing, the report notes, all are rural and 13 are home to Native American and Native Alaskan communities. Scarcity of water and the hazards posed by encroaching pipelines and abundant fossil fuels are also named as key issues.

So is climate change. The report spotlights the tragedy facing the island of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which struck last September. Scientists and climate experts have argued that warming waters worsened the 2017 hurricane season, allowing disastrous storms like Maria to do unthinkable damage. Maria sparked the longest blackout in U.S. history and left much of Puerto Rico without steady access to electricity or potable water, to say nothing of functioning schools and hospitals.

The 2018 hurricane season began last Friday and Puerto Ricans haven’t forgotten.

“Hurricane Maria is [one of] the deadliest ecological devastation events” in U.S. history, Rev. Damaris Whittaker said Monday. Recent estimates put the death toll at more than 4,600 people.

A Puerto Rican minister based in New York City, Whittaker told the crowd that, “I have seen for myself the impact of this devastation.” Traveling across the island in the time following the hurricane, Whittaker recounted, she saw numerous communities struggling in the face of an unprecedented disaster.

“What we are witnessing is the public crucifixion of the Puerto Rican people,” she declared. “Crucified on a lynching tree of capitalism and racism.” Whittaker went on to push for the “sustainable and green reconstruction” of Puerto Rico, implying a rejection of efforts to gentrify and develop low-income areas on the island in favor of so-called disaster capitalists.

Afterwards, standing away from the podium, Whittaker told ThinkProgress the Poor People’s Campaign has sought to make climate issues a core pillar of its efforts. Puerto Rico’s crisis, she said, is part of that overarching conversation.

“When you look at Maria, for example, it brought up many things,” she said. “It brought up the issue that this is an unprecedented event [and] that our infrastructure, it’s really poor, and it couldn’t sustain it.”

Volunteers take away a casket meant to symbolize the death toll issues like ecological devastation have caused. Activists were asked to remove the casket by police officers. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden
Volunteers take away a casket meant to symbolize the death toll issues like ecological devastation have caused. Activists were asked to remove the casket by police officers. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden

Moreover, she said, the hurricane drove home that “we have a government that has not acknowledged that climate change is an issue, that has not taken the necessary steps to build the infrastructure to [withstand] it.”

“If you look at the reports of global warming, you see how Puerto Rico, as an island, has just gotten hotter and hotter. I mean, that is scientific evidence that is factual,” she continued.

While the campaign will soon turn its attention to a new host of issues — per the group’s agenda, education and living wages will take center-stage next week — organizers emphasized that “everything is connected and everything is at stake.” Conversations surrounding ecological devastation, environmental racism, and climate change will continue to be a priority, several representatives for the group said, especially with regards to their intersection with health issues.

“This is a movement, not a moment,” emphasized Rev. Johnson.

Some time later, the crowd parted, and members of the campaign engaging in civil disobedience sat down, awaiting arrest. More than 100 activists were ultimately arrested or blocked from entering government buildings across the country in connection with the campaign.