by Kimberly Hunter
“O home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play,” echoed down the halls of the capitol building in Topeka, as the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) made its way to Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer’s door, knocked, and – after receiving no answer – sat down.
“O Kansas is the land where folks lend a hand, porque juntos estamos aquí; where we open our doors and empower the poor, ‘cause Kansas was meant to be free,” continued their state song — recently rewritten by Ana Marcela Maldanado Morales, a Kansan proud of her Guatemalan heritage.
Within minutes, though neither the governor was present nor the legislature in session, capitol police began shouting, “No singing in the capitol!” and forcibly escorted the choir outside and locked the doors behind them.
That Monday afternoon, June 4, marked week four of 40 Days of Moral Action, a national relaunch of the PPC originally begun in 1968 by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Before his assassination, King began organizing a coalition to win economic justice by opposing poverty, systemic racism, and the war economy. Fifty years later, the new PPC is not only still intersectional, rooted in faith communities, led by people of color, and aiming for those same goals, but it is also actively opposing environmental degradation.
Building from the recent Moral Mondays Movement, the new PPC’s 40 day strategy called for coordinated, nonviolent, direct actions at state capitols across the nation every Monday for six weeks.
And week four of the relaunch specifically called for health justice, linking people’s access to affordable health care with stewardship of the Earth’s natural resources. Thus a few hours after capitol police disrupted the Kansas rally, sixteen singers were sitting in jail because they had refused to move. Police held two of them overnight. One of these, Kansas City environmentalist Katie Green, reflected after her release:
“Being in jail made me aware of freedoms I didn’t even know I had… For example, the freedom to sleep in the dark. Who knew they always keep a light on in jail cells?… And using the toilet… I shared a cell with three other women, and the toilet could only flush once every 30 minutes. But we made the best of it by waiting to take a dump until the officer entered our cell for the head count. ‘Cuz even in jail you have to protest when you can, right?”
Unlike her cell mates who could neither post bail nor access a special lawyer, Green was released the next morning.
Her crime? Misdemeanor criminal trespassing. Her victim? The Kansas State Capitol.
Kansas law gave “victim” status to a statehouse bought and built by taxpayers and then issued a restraining order against those taxpayers, prohibiting them from entering it.
Meanwhile, no boss or landlord was charged with extortion when a Kansan was forced to work 79 hours a week to afford a market-rate, 2-bedroom apartment. Likewise, no law enforcement officer shouted “no taxation without representation” when undocumented immigrants in Kansas were denied the right to vote after contributing $67,843,000 in income taxes last year. So the PPC choir returned the following Monday and continued to sing:
“O give me a place that is loving and safe, a beautiful sanctuary. May I be there for you, y tu para mi, and together we’ll fight fearlessly.”
But those lyrics were not mere words; they sowed seeds that have sprouted solidarity. In Kansas, the PPC now includes Veterans for Peace (though it cannot yet rival the Gainesville VFP’s peace scholarship program); Food not Bombs; CAIR; SURJ; Indivisible; DREAM Activists; Black Lives Matter; low-wage workers; disability rights groups; LGBTQIA and mental health care advocates; unions like National Nurses United; and individuals from First Nation, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Unitarian, pagan, atheist, feminist, socialist, and anarchist traditions.
In Kansas, people are remembering their state’s radical roots and showing up for each other again. Sometimes support has been as simple as providing food, carpools, and child care; other times it has required a 3:45 a.m. drive to the local ICE detention center, raising funds for Black Mama’s Bailout, or helping a Black Panther elder escape a predatory loan and pay her utility bill.
In Kansas, whatever the need, neighbors will sing: “People flocked here one time on their last nickel and dime, to fight for the slaves to be free. To the stars we will rise with no compromise, to continue our rich legacy.”
In Kansas and across the United States, the PPC is bringing back movement music, using personal testimony as consciousness raising, and teaching youth about people’s history heroines like immigrant labor organizer Dolores Huerta and historically effective campaigns like strikes, boycotts and nonviolent, coordinated, civil disobedience.
In fact, if the Sunshine State squints and leans west, it might glimpse strong, stubborn stalks from the Sunflower State swaying in the breeze, singing: “Where the people are kind, pay hatred no mind, en la tierra de mi corazón. The Heartland is vast with a message that lasts, which is, ‘Viva, la revolución’!”
To find out what’s next for the Poor People’s Campaign and connect with a state chapter, visit www.poorpeoplescampaign.org. D