WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 300 religious leaders and activists protested outside the White House on Wednesday to bring attention to administration policies they say are immoral. The U.S. Secret Service repeatedly interfered with the protest, first closing off Lafayette Square and then gating off access to the front of the White House an hour later.
The protest, called “Moral Witness Wednesday,” was led by Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a Protestant minister, social justice advocate, and president of Repairers of the Breach, a non-profit organization that “seeks to build a moral agenda… to redeem the heart and soul of our country.” Barber was joined by a 17 other religious leaders of different faiths, as well as activists of different religions.
Activists were attempting to deliver a petition signed by more than 5,000 people calling on the White House to abide by the 14th Amendment, stop mandating a census question on immigration status, end its attack on the Affordable Care Act, focus on providing clean air and water, create a humane immigration policy, and end child detention.
The day began at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Barber and Rev. Dr. Robin Tanner and Rev. Rob Stevens, who also work with Repairers of the Breach, welcomed activists and stressed the covenant of nonviolence. The church served as the downtown headquarters for the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington in the spring of 1968, making it a symbolic place for Barber, who is leading a new Poor People’s Campaign, to gather activists.
Tanner told ThinkProgress that this Moral Witness Wednesday coincides with holy days in several religions, including Eid al-Fitr in Islam, Shavuot in Judasm, and Pentecost in Christianity. “We feel it’s our call during one of the times of injustice to go to one of the seats of injustice,” she added, referring to the White House.
Barber also told activists that this event follows several religious leaders’ vision to have a Jewish seder in a mosque, with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian activists all speaking.
“This president, his administration, and those upholding him in Congress … are extremist leaders, driven by the idols of racism, greed, and power,” said Barber, adding that Trump and his ilk “have broken the two covenants — the deepest values of our religious traditions and the moral commitments of our Constitution.”
Barber stressed that the protest was meant to push back against unjust policies, not any individual. He decried inadequate health care and basic living wages. He also called for more social safety programs and policies to ensure clean water and air. Barber also condemned voter suppression and a refusal by lawmakers in Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act.
“We must be conspicuous in the public square, rendering a public protest,” Barber said. “To cover and dress this extremism in the garb of religion, in an attempt to sanction and consecrate its wrong and its injustice, this administration breaks two covenants and is under moral indictment,” the minister said.
Protesters then marched to Lafayette Park in front of the White House. For about half an hour, they were not allowed in the park, which had been open earlier.
Barber told activists that the park had been closed off “at the request of the president” and reminded people that “we’re still together,” as he walked down the sidewalk full of protesters. Secret Service did not say there was a threat.
— Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani (@AdrienneMahsa) June 12, 2019
Shut out of the park, the religious leaders began speaking to the activists on the sidewalk.
“I stand before you today to declare that America is not well,” began Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive minister of Justice & Witness Ministries of The United Church of Christ.
“There is no greatness in a nation that fails to provide health care coverage to 44 million of its citizens. America is not well. Ours is a nation that has declared the death of children who have been forcibly removed from the care of their parents and placed in detention centers as an acceptable casualty of our quest to preserve white supremacy.”
Blackmon went on to talk about the ways gerrymandering, poverty, redlining, and anti-choice legislation are all affecting people’s health care.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D), a 2020 presidential hopeful, was also on the sidewalk outside of the park, but he did not speak.
“Love is radical, truth is radical, justice is radical.”
Speakers drew a correlation between Trump administration plans to add new question on the upcoming U.S. Census on immigration status, and the practice during slavery in the United States of counting enslaved individuals as three-fifths of a person. They also mentioned anti-abortion legislation sweeping the United States, and inhumane conditions at the Homestead detention center in Florida, where migrant children are being detained. (Some protesters later headed to the Department of Health and Human Services to protest the conditions at Homestead.)
Dozens of volunteers prepared to be arrested for non-violent civil disobedience at the protest while delivering the petition. But when activists and leaders approached the front entrance of the White House to deliver their petitions, Secret Service told them they would be committing a felony if they moved forward. Just hours earlier, the area had been open and other protests had taken place.
Because Secret Service would not let them advance, people taped their petitions to the barricade blocking them.
At today’s #MoralWitnessWednesday, Secret Service told hundreds of clergy it would be a felony if we set foot on Pennsylvania Ave to bring our petition near the White House.
While kidnapping and imprisoning children is evidently “lawful,” protesting that violence is a crime. pic.twitter.com/ZPX3dFKR3p
— Benjamin Perry (@FaithfullyBP) June 12, 2019
Barber and protesters were not discouraged, however.
“There is a phrase that says, ‘We need to be woke.’ But I want to add something to that, that said Nina Simone said. Nina Simone said, ‘It’s not the waking, it’s the rising.’ You can be woke and still in the bed. You’ve got to get woke and get up, out of the bed, out of the apathy.”
“Love is radical, truth is radical, justice is radical. Especially in the face in the time of peril,” he added.
“And so brothers and sisters, just because they did that little trick, that did not stop us. Let me tell you what that means. How many of you all would be willing to come back if we need to?” Barber asked the crowd.
People began to cheer.