From policing to climate change, a sweeping call for a 'moral revolution' in the US

A protester hangs a US national flag after being stopped by police at the entrance to a Donald Trump rally on June 20, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - A national coalition to address the challenges of the working poor released a sweeping legislative platform in a three-hour virtual rally on Saturday (June 20), including proposals to address mass incarceration, healthcare and wealth inequality.

The policy agenda by the coalition, the Poor People's Campaign, seeks to offer a concrete road map for tackling the systemic injustices that have captured the nation's attention in recent weeks after the police killing of Mr George Floyd.

"The worst mistake we can make now, with all the marching, the protesting in the streets, would be to demand too little," said Reverend William Barber II, a co-chair of the campaign along with the Rev Liz Theoharis.

"We are here today to say together, 'It's time to choose life, America,'" Rev Barber said at the end of the rally, which was streamed online. "It's time for us to do it together. It's time for a moral revolution of values."

Although the organisers said their coalition - inspired by Martin Luther King Jr's Poor People's Campaign, an effort that was cut short by his assassination - was nonpartisan, it offered a boldly liberal agenda.

Among many other proposals, it called for ending cash bail and predatory fines and fees; ending military training for law enforcement; investing federal funds into efforts to desegregate schools; and moving immigration oversight out of the Department of Homeland Security.

The virtual rally was held on the same day that President Donald Trump, seen widely as divisive on issues of race and inequality, planned to return to the campaign trail with a political rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Earlier on Saturday, the politically divided state Legislature in Minnesota, where Mr Floyd was killed, failed to agree on a single measure for overhauling the police, despite sweeping platitudes from Democrats and Republicans that change was needed.

"We as a nation, as a movement, must break through the lie that only small changes on one issue at a time are possible," Rev Theoharis said. "We demand justice and will do so until we claim all of our rights."

The policy platform released on Saturday was divided into five parts: justice and systemic racism, health, promoting people's general welfare, ensuring employment opportunities and workers' rights, and directing spending away from the military.

As part of the efforts to ensure justice and end racism, it calls for the creation of a National Truth Commission on Mass Incarceration and Police Violence that would highlight the experiences of people affected by incarceration and police violence and identify solutions to those issues that would inform federal policy.

There are familiar proposals to address things like climate change through a reduction of the use of fossil fuels but also more sweeping demands like funding rental assistance programs and the creation of affordable housing by levelling financial penalties against Wall Street institutions that profited from the housing crisis.

There also are proposals to rewrite the formula for determining how social welfare programmes like cash assistance and Social Security are allocated, to create a federal jobs program to help people acquire skills and employment, and to give "baby bonds" to all newborns to help close the racial wealth gap.

Saturday's event was the culmination of a two-year effort that began when Rev Barber and others started the new Poor People's Campaign 50 years after King's assassination. While the rally was planned before the coronavirus shut down public gatherings and before Mr Floyd died after a white officer pinned his knee to his neck for more than eight minutes, those realities only increase the urgency of what is being proposed, Rev Barber said.

"His 'I can't breathe' in some ways becomes a kind of sociological shorthand for what people are feeling," he said, referring to some of the final words Mr Floyd cried.

The rally featured Mr Al Gore, the former vice-president turned climate activist, who said the country was at a crossroads.

"We already know that poverty and systemic racism are completely and tightly linked with the climate crisis," he said. "The climate crisis is already causing massive human suffering around the world and in our country."

King's campaign sought to develop a multiracial coalition, stressing that some challenges of poverty transcend race. That, too, has been a central message of this modern effort, as Rev Barber has argued that the struggles of white coal miners overlap with those of black factory workers.

The testimonies of dozens of people most closely affected by issues of race and poverty were played during the rally, including a Native American woman who spends half her household income on housing; a daughter of Indian Hindu immigrants who lost her housing, healthcare and income; and a black mother of five from Arkansas who has been living in unsanitary conditions because landlords refused to make basic repairs to her housing.

"These dangerous, unempathetic practices are part of a system that has been set up by the privileged and wealthy to the detriment of me and all working-class poor people," said Ms India Donald-Ford, the woman from Arkansas.

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