The Struggle Continues
by Derrick Knox Jr.
February 8, 2021
This interview with Derrick Knox Jr., Chair of the Michigan Poor People's Campaign, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Derrick | The Poor People's Campaign was started in 1968 by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with the goal to eradicate poverty.
He wanted to wage a war against poverty, instead of a war against poor people.
The campaign focused on improved housing and living wages.
He started this campaign in what would become the last two months of his life. And actually, he was in Memphis, where he was assassinated, because he was marching for living wages for the sanitation workers during the Poor People’s Campaign.
Fast forward to 2018, Reverend Dr. William Barber II and the Reverend Dr. Liz Theo Harris reignited the Poor People's Campaign. I got involved with the Michigan chapter in 2019, and specifically in Lansing, where I live.
frank | What are the parallels between the original movement and this newest iteration?
The same things Dr. King was fighting for in 1968 are the same things we're fighting for today: for a living wage, healthy affordable housing, an economy not driven by war, and equity. King started the Poor People's Campaign because he saw that even though there are civil rights issues, the root of the issue was capitalistic greed. Racism is an issue, and greed is what helps drive racism in this country.
He was about pursuing community over capitalism because ultimately, we are social beings. In our essence, we are not materialistic beings, but we've gotten to a point where that is what a good portion of our politics have become. We, the Poor People’s Campaign, are focused on building power from the ground up. We're not trying to be just spokespeople for poor people, but rather, advocating and organizing resources and movement for the poor.
We want to use any and every resource that we have to amplify the voices of the people that are directly affected by the abuse of our countries economic realities. Too often institutional plans don't involve the people that they're actually meant for.
In America, we have a top-down mindset. We think that we know what is best for people.
We think, if I made it in life, I must know what you have to do in order to succeed. We end up with these monolithic plans that fail to take into account sustainable plans for things like mental health, childcare, employment, education, food assistance, and community.
What do your local initiatives look like?
I’ll give you a few examples. For one, the standards for affordable housing are very low. In Lansing, there are 98 families that live in a low-income development that is infested with bed bugs, roaches, rats, mikes. They've been living in those conditions for over eight years. They've gone to the city, they have reached out to other municipalities, and yet they have received no help. We have been advocating for them, organizing residents, and holding meetings with HUD all in an effort to get them some type of relief.
The housing industry has been distorted and capitalized to the point that we tell people it's okay for them to live in homes infested with rodents and insects.
We literally had pictures of residents with hundreds of bites on their backs, on their arms, and on their hands, and the city still says, well that is not a health issue, so we can’t help. That makes no sense. We invited the inspectors and city officials to spend the night there for a couple of months. They have yet to respond or accept that invitation. People will force the poor to live in conditions that they themselves wouldn't want to live in, as long as they're getting paid. That sounds pretty mercenary to me.
If you go into any urban neighborhood in America, I bet you can count on both hands how many liquor stores you can find in that neighborhood while struggling to find a fresh market with healthy food. Here on a local level, we implemented a plan for a full lifecycle urban gardening program. Where we employ the people from the neighborhood to work in our healthy food markets, to do packaging, distribution, shipping, etc. It's also a cooperative where we invite other gardeners to grow on our land and a percentage of their proceeds or crop go to the Poor People's Campaign so we can offer free foods to those that need it the most.
And I'm sure you're aware of the Flint water crisis. The settlement that went down gave pennies on the dollar of what these people have dealt with and will continue to deal with, via lead poisoning for generations. But, the water company continued to charge residents for poisonous water.
Here in Michigan, they were cutting people's utilities and water off during the pandemic. The Fall and Winter seasons in Michigan can be extremely cold. To cut people's water or utilities off during those months because they can't afford it is almost essentially a death sentence. And if they survive that, by the time they can get their water back on, the pipes are now frozen and will burst, which causes even more damage and cost to the home. Then slap on a pandemic, unemployment, death, and burials of loved ones. More cost, stress, and anxiety on already overwhelming circumstances.
There is a story about a nurse who has low-income, living paycheck to paycheck, and her car broke down. She couldn't afford to pay all of her utilities because she had to prioritize getting her car fixed in order to continue going to work. She was behind just a few hundred dollars while continuing to pay it off, and the local utility company shut her utilities off in addition to charging her reconnection fees. We are talking about essential workers, not being taken care of during a pandemic. Capitalistic greed has so poisoned this country that the practices of these organizations have become so inhumane that they would cut an essential worker's power off in the middle of winter, in the middle of the pandemic?
I mean, I could go on all day long. We fight in all of these areas that relate to systemic racism and systemic classism.
You call your proposed national budget a “moral budget,” and your policy proposals are called “moral initiatives.” What role does religion and morality play on a wider level within the campaign?
We call The Poor People's Campaign an interfaith fusion movement. There are basic human necessities that are needed to live: a healthy place to live, access to food, access to healthcare. In any religion, from Christianity to Buddhism to Islam, there is some type of moral code as it relates to the needs of the less fortunate.
From a National Poor People's Campaign level we are pushing for comprehensive free and just COVID relief. Quality healthcare for all. Raise the national minimum wage to $15 dollars, and to update the poverty measure. Guaranteed quality housing for all. An acting federal jobs program to build investments in. We want a guarantee of a safe and equitable public education. We want comprehensive and just immigration reform. We want to ensure the rights of our indigenous folks. We want a fair tax structure. And we want the administration to use the power of executive orders to redirect the bloated Pentagon budget towards these priorities. We want to work to establish a permanent presidential council to advocate this bold initiative.
These goals should be ingrained within religion.
You mention creating a role within the White House – because there’s this back and forth that happens at the transition of presidents via executive order, it makes an impact over a long period of time difficult. It does seem critical to have sustained pressure from the public. How does your organization look to aggregate that sort of power and momentum?
Well, June 2020 was supposed to be when we set up camp at The Capitol to draw attention to the things that need to change in this country. COVID, obviously, disrupted that.
But since, we have done a lot of other action-focused work'. On July 11th, 2020, we had hundreds of cars converge onto the Michigan State Capitol. We had representatives from the community speak to things like utility cutoffs, unhealthy housing conditions, and lack of healthcare access, and homelessness. We wanted to raise awareness about the fierce urgency of these needs.
Another thing that we called to attention, in particular, was police violence against unarmed citizens. In Lansing, in April of 2020, there was a gentleman named Anthony Hulon that was suffocated the similarity to the way George Floyd was jusI one month later. There is a video of officers kneeling on him and suffocating him to death. He died right there in the city jail. However, neither our community nor his family knew what had happened until October. But the mayor of our city knew this happened in April and then the following month marched with the Lansing NAACP around the George Floyd in May.
But this isn't unique to just Michigan. That's the unfortunate thing. These are the injustices that people deal with in this country every day. And these injustices often don't see the light of day.
How can people get involved?
You can go to the website, poorpeoplescampaign.org, to sign up for updates.
There is also a Michigan specific website with a list of local demands. You can get involved in different projects that we have set up like phone banking, or letter writing for specific legislation that we are pushing through city council and state congress. We have many ways to get people involved anywhere they are.