‘You don’t want this smoke’

Poor People’s Campaign peaceful protest for voting rights, living wage, sees 200-plus arrests

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Poor People’s Campaign co-Chair the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is arrested at a Moral Monday action at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 2, 2021. The Rev. Jesse Jackson observes. (Photo by Steve Pavey/Hope in Focus)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — The Poor People’s Campaign‘s month of Moral Monday actions ended Monday with a march to the Capitol launched with some fiery rhetoric calling on Congress and the White House to secure voting rights and living wages.

“President Biden, Democrats and Republicans, the culture will put in like this: If you come for us, and we didn’t send for you, you don’t want this smoke,” the Rev. Dr. Freddy Haynes III of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas thundered. “You don’t want this smoke because we are a moral army. You don’t want this smoke because we are fighting for the soul of this nation. You don’t want this smoke because we recognize we will wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against spiritual wickedness in high places. You don’t want this smoke, so go ahead, pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Make sure you finish it in his spirit, but make sure you pass the For the People Act as well, because you don’t want this smoke.”

Hundreds of protesters joined the Poor People’s Campaign Moral Monday action in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 2. (Photo by Steve Pavey/Hope in Focus)

Monday’s action came after a late week and weekend event in Haynes’ home state of Texas where activists marched 27 miles to protest proposed voting laws in the Lone Star State that would, among other things, ban or curtail many early voting practices such as ballot boxes, allow for partisan poll watchers, impose fines on election officials and workers who do not follow procedures, and allow courts to overturn elections.

The legislation is like new laws and bills before legislatures across the country. Proponents say they are to protect the integrity of the vote, though there is little evidence of voter fraud, and opponents say the legislation is designed to suppress votes, particularly from marginalized communities. The state-level moves have prompted calls for the U.S. Senate to pass new federal voting legislation, including the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which is what the Poor People’s Campaign has been rallying for in the past month.

The Rev. Dr. Pamela Anderson of Parkview Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, California participates in the Poor People’s Campaign action in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 2, 2021. (Photo by Jimmie Hawkins)

Haynes’ comments were part of the prelude to a march that included the daughter of the president who signed the original Voting Rights Act, crippled by a 2013 Supreme Court decision and a Civil Rights icon.

According to Religion News Service, the event constituted “one of the largest mass-arrest nonviolent protests at the Capitol in recent memory.” Among those arrested were Poor People’s Campaign co-chairs the Rev. Dr. William Barber II and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister.

Speaking before the rally, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was also arrested, called Barber “the most moral voice of our time,” and led a call-and-response of his familiar chant “I am somebody.”

Taking to the microphone, Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, said, “On January 8, 1964 … my father declared war on poverty, saying we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.

“Today we are in crisis. The vote gave Americans of all backgrounds the opportunity to redress the inequities of our country. Those seeking to limit access to that vote will strangle liberty and justice for all. The For the People Act and the John Lewis Act protect the right to vote for every American. It is time to ensure that they become the law of the land. There could be no more fitting tribute to liberty and justice.”

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, Associate Director of Advocacy for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) participates in the Poor People’s Campaign action in Washington D.C. on Aug. 2, 2021. (Photo by Jimmie Hawkins)

After remarks, including several from low-wage workers, marchers made their way toward the Capitol, where more than 200 protesters were arrested. Organizers urged people who could not be in Washington to march to sign an open letter to President Biden and senators and to call their senators.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has maintained a close relationship with the Poor People’s Campaign since it reformed in 2017 under Barber and Theoharis’ leadership. It was originally conceived by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. In addition to Theoharis, a number of PC(USA) leaders participated, including the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, Associate Director of Advocacy for the PC(USA)’s Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries. He participated in most of the events over the past month, including Monday’s march, and the Office of Public Witness on Capitol Hill provided office support.

“The culminating rally for the Poor People’s Campaign Season of Action was an appropriate ending to lifting up a prophetic voice concerning issues of injustice in the nation,” Hawkins said. “To be amongst the thousands gathered at Union Station and to march together in silence and then while chanting was reminiscent of the 1960s (without the fire hoses and dogs). Capitol police were out in force, watchful, but very restrained and approachable.

Poor People’s Campaign co-Chair the Rev. Dr. William Barber II is arrested at a Moral Monday action at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 2, 2021. The Rev. Jesse Jackson observes. (Photo by Steve Pavey/Hope in Focus)

“There was interesting interaction between marchers and the officers as this was a very peaceful march with a large contingent of officers and vehicles. They provided safety as they blocked off streets and to some degree, protection. Everything went off without incident. It was a march to continue the yet unfinished work of justice.”

Hawkins has said numerous times that the aims of the Poor People’s Campaign align closely with the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation to dismantle structural racism and eradicate systemic poverty.

Though he is not Presbyterian, Haynes continued his warning to the president and legislators in distinctly Matthew 25 terms.

“You don’t want this smoke because you don’t want to hear Jesus in the judgment seat to say to America, ‘I was disenfranchised because of your voter suppression laws. I was hungry because you would not give us a living wage of $15 and a union. I was thirsty and you gave me leaded water. I was in prison because of your prison industrial complex.’ And Jesus will say to America, ‘When did I do this,’ and America will discover that Jesus will say, ‘If you do unto the least of these, you’re doing it unto me.’ So, I hear Jesus right now saying, ‘You don’t want this smoke.’”

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