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Whither the Poor People’s Campaign?


Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody
Turn me ‘round
Turn me ‘round
Ain’t gonna let nobody
Turn me ‘round
I’m gonna keep on walkin’
Keep on talkin’
Marching into freedom land

I joined the Poor People’s Campaign because I sensed that it has more transformative potential than anything that’s come along in over five decades. In a previous article I praised the PPC for its dynamic leadership, organizational skills, social media savvy, courageous and compassionate members and its palpable camaraderie. This left-wing atheist has felt welcome from the outset. I’ve gained this impression from participation in the movement, including recent civil disobedience actions.  My positive feelings were reinforced by the recent June 4th rally and direct action at the Capitol in Harrisburg, PA., in which 31 members were arrested for blocking an entrance to the building.

Drawing upon extensive research by the Institute for Policy Studies, the PPC is clearly exposing the “Four Evils” of poverty, racism, ecological devastation and our war economy, the most egregious maladies of our system.   Linking these indisputable facts with a potent social justice based moral message is an indispensable first measure.  There’s also an appreciation for the fact that morale is enhanced by getting out of oneself to observe or participate in small acts of rebellion in the streets.

Further, I’ve been impressed by the all-volunteer nature of the PPC at the state level, sensitivity to internal democracy and an awareness that the movement is composed of multiple currents across the country.
In my opinion the PPC is tantalizingly close to taking the next logical step. That is, it has focused critical light on the symptoms but for whatever reasons has been reluctant to publicly diagnose the disease.  For me, the pink elephant in the Capitol Rotunda is the capitalist system and its two parties.  Making this explicit connection to the Four Evils would be entirely in keeping with Dr. King’s own political evolution as he eventually embraced socialism and spoke openly about class struggle. I understand there are tactical considerations to bear in mind but this is a conservation worth having.
I agree with Patrick Walker, a longtime activist and someone well-disposed to the PPC, when he contends that the movement is “Too Important Not to Criticize.” Foremost in Walker’s own critique is the apparent reluctance to speak candidly about the national Democratic Party. Despite all evidence to the contrary, too many folks in the progressive movement still harbor illusions about this handmaid to maintaining the underlying structures of our economic system and its institutions. Talking with, listening to and attempting to recruit ordinary citizens is huge challenge in itself. Beseeching powerful officials who are bereft of conscience to suddenly act morally is a fool’s errand.
Over my 50+ years as a political activist and would-be radical scholar, I’ve witnessed many  promising efforts come to grief on the shoals of sectarianism on the one hand and totally unwarranted trust in the Democrats on the other. The PPC has avoided both of these fatal pitfalls. However, without some hard truth telling, the movement runs the risk of unintentionally sheep-dogging for the Democrats in 2018 and 2020, one of the two parties consistently betraying the American people.  It’s my sense that such a turn would not only be utterly demoralizing and contrary to King’s final dream but the PPC’s vaunted potential will be stillborn.
For me, the PPC’s endgame remains opaque but that might be a positive sign indicating an absence of rigid hierarchy and respect for across-the-board consultation with the multiple groups and new members joining this effort. I will say that barring a Saul to Paul conversion on the road to Damascus (Capitol Hill) the government will be even less responsive to the PPC’s demands than it was to Dr. King’s Resurrection City.  It’s more likely the authorities will double down on their inhumane agenda.
I offer these observations with the most constructive and supportive of motives and invite responses, including critical ones. If you find some merit in my comments please consider joining the Poor People’s Movement and giving voice to your views.
Gary Olson is professor emeritus of political science at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. Contact: olsong@moravian.edu

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