Over 300 people gathered in Greenfield, Massachusetts last week for a rally with The Poor People’s Campaign: A Call for Moral Revival.” While in the church that held the rally, it was easy to forget that we’re living in a country with a cruel racist as president, where people sleep on the streets, as billionaires avoid paying their fair share of taxes.
People who have been fighting for years spoke at the rally, which brought folks together from all over New England, including Spare Change News Co-Founder James Shearer. Shearer was the last speaker of the night, and drew applause throughout his speech, despite the crowd having been told to hold their applause.
“Why does this country cater to the rich while allowing working class men and women who work multiple jobs with long hours live in places that are unfit for humanity? Why do they allow children to sleep in cars with their parents, in graveyards, and under bridges, at times sacrificing their dignity to survive. Nelson Mandela said, ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.’ Maybe this country is losing its soul.” (For James’s full speech, see page three of this issue of Spare Change News).
Kirsten Levitt has been involved with the Poor People’s since June of 2019, after they came to speak to a local group. She’d already been working to improve the lives of poor people in Franklin County, and signed up to continue the work of the Poor People’s Campaign in the area. “I started calling meetings, and we started small, 10 -12 people, now we’re up t, I don’t know, 8- something people on our list.”
The group’s growth really started to grow in the fall when she began using social media to bring people together.
“Franklin County is the second poorest county in Western Massachusetts…behind Hampden County [which is] very densely populated, and has a lot more services than we do. Franklin COunty is one of the larger counties, it’s very rural. The county seat, where we are right now, has about 17,500 people, but the smallest town has about 104.”
The transportation infrastructure is sorely lacking in the area, making it difficult for poor people to find and keep a job. “We’re the only county in Massachusetts that doesn’t have public transportation at night, and we have zero on the weekend,” Levitt pointed out. This makes it nearly impossible to survive without a car, something that many poor people simply cannot afford. “Can you imagine just getting a bus to be able to do your shopping on a Saturday? If you don’t have a car here, you are already at a disadvantage. We have a two to three year wait for subsidized housing, and all of the subsidized housing here is hugely limited, and aging.”
Debbie Opramolla has been working with the Poor People’s Campaign since late 2018. She is the Executive Director of a startup disability right organization in New Hampshire called Action Community Together. “It’s a very small group right now, but we’re growing, and we organize system changes around disability.”
Opramolla got involved with disability rights because one of her three children has disabilities.
“Just because one has a disability, you shouldn’t be marginalized, you shouldn’t be thought of as less than. Some good people, good intentions, think my deaf, blind son, who has an intellectual disability also, is less than. And I will tell you right now, he’s the star in our family. We have the same expectations of him that we have of our other children. You have to learn to the best of your potential…you have to work. People who devalue that because of what they perceive is who he is, it’s so wrong.”
The church was bustling in activity throughout the sanctuary and the kitchen, where volunteers and locals gathered for a meal before the rally. While Rev. Dr. William Barber was unfortunately unable to attend the rally due to health issues, the local speakers who got up in front of the crowd inspired everyone in attendance, and it felt at times like the building shook with their energy. Rev. Liz Theo Harris got the crowd riled up in the best way possible, encouraging people not to allow the state of the country at this moment get them down.
“In times like these we have to go back to movement leaders who lived through moments of oppression,” Harris said. “We’ve learned from our brother and sisters in South Africa that a dying mule kicks the hardest…what if what’s happening right now are the dying kicks of a broken system?”
James Shearer closed out his speech by letting everyone listening know that we aren’t going anywhere: “We’ll go away when you tear down the shelter industrial complex and build safe affordable housing with decent jobs. We’ll go away when attacking homeless people is made a hate crime. We’ll go away when youth are allowed to live as youth and not forced by the streets to find a way to survive. Until then, we will be right here, there are more of us than there are of you. We are the Poor People’s Campaign, We are the National Union of the Homeless and we will rise!”