Story at a glance

  • The Poor People’s Campaign planned a People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington for June 20.
  • Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, D.C. has banned mass gatherings of more than 50 people.
  • The campaign is now using digital tools to organize including video conferences and social media.

Harriet Tubman had the north star. Dr. King had telegrams. Reverend William Barber has the world wide web, and he’s using it to call for a moral revival during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Epidemics emerge along the fissures of our society and what they do is they further expose our patterns of marginalization,” Rev. Barber said. “We cannot act as though the emergency and the crisis around the pandemic is the beginning.”

Before the pandemic, almost 30 million people in the United States didn't have health insurance. Poverty, he said, is a preexisting condition. It existed before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and certainly before the Poor People's Campaign began planning the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington for June 20. And it still exists, even though the nation’s capital has banned public gatherings of more than 50 people. So they’re taking their activism online. 

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The movement is necessary now more than ever, Barber said, when it seems only NBA players and politicians have access to testing for COVID-19 as minimum-wage workers continue to put their health at risk. 

"The germ does not know race, color, community or economic status," he said. "If you don’t protect the bottom it’s like not protecting the foundation of the house."

Instead of meeting in sight of both the White House and the Capitol, at 3rd and Pennsylvania NW, on June 20 like previously planned, the campaign is asking people to meet on social media. Three tour events leading up to the march have been cancelled and are being replaced by digital mass meetings in March, April and May. The first of these was held on March 26 through a Facebook Live featuring testifiers from Arkansas, Washington, Kansas and Missouri as well as a sign language interpreter. The video post had more than 18,000 views and 1,200 comments by the next morning. 

“It allowed [activists in] Washington state, where you have poverty and the pandemic raging, those people organizing there are going to be able to connect with Missouri, connect with Arkansas. We are going to be able to share with the whole nation," he said. "We couldn't connect these four states if we were physically meeting."

For his part, the Reverend is planning to use his ability to reach people through preaching and prayer virtually. 

"We also want to use these town halls as a place for people to be in community together, because isolation can be dangerous,” Barber said, referencing the shelter-in-place and social distancing orders in place across the country. 

Still, the digital divide poses a major threat to a movement built on uniting those who are underserved. Partnering with MoveOn, a progressive public policy advocacy group and political action committee, the campaign is organizing meetings on different platforms, including by phone, and also reaching out to radio stations to broadcast their programming. They’re also getting creative with different mediums, including art, music and poetry, and putting together a newspaper to distribute on the day of the assembly. Through it all, Barber is trying to focus on what is gained, rather than lost, by moving the march online. 

“We intend to use every form in the midst of this crisis. It has forced us to be creative and forced us to be creative for the good,” he said. “We will not quit, we must have it now even more than we had already planned.”


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Published on Mar 27, 2020