MLK-Inspired 'Poor People's Campaign' Disrupts Montpelier In Bid To Eradicate Poverty

Jun 13, 2018

Inspired by the organizing tactics of Martin Luther King Jr., a coalition of Vermont activists is using 40 days of nonviolent protest in Montpelier to launch the “fusion movement” they say is needed to alleviate poverty.

On the afternoon of Monday, June 4, about 75 people marched into a mostly empty Statehouse to demand action from policymakers. They snaked through the halls of the building, chanting and singing as they walked.

They eventually congregated in the main lobby, where Mark Hughes, founder of the racial justice organization Justice For All, addressed the group.

“Every single one of us were written a check … as Dr. King said, and we’re here today to cash in on that check,” Hughes said. “We’re here to say, ‘Hey, you know, we need to get paid today. Hello?’”

King, whose name was invoked frequently at the demonstration, is best known for his work as a racial justice activist. Toward the end of his life, however, King turned his attention to the issue of poverty.

Poverty, he said he realized, was the true wellspring of inequality. In a 1967 speech at the Victory Baptist Church in Los Angeles, King said the fight against it would his toughest yet:

“In other words, we are in a period where there cannot be a solution to the problem without a radical redistribution of economic and political power,” King said.

King’s final act was dedicated to something he called the "Poor People’s Campaign" — a mobilization of economically disadvantaged Americans, across racial lines, to attempt to bring about that “radical redistribution.”

King was assassinated before the campaign’s culmination on the National Mall in 1968. But 50 years later, a new wave of anti-poverty activists across the country is reopening King’s playbook.

"All over the nation, people are standing up, saying together, that we are not going to take it anymore." — Mark Hughes, Vermont Poor People's Campaign co-chair

“All over the nation, people are standing up, saying together, that we are not going to take it anymore,” said Hughes, one of three people chairing the Vermont Poor People’s Campaign.

The event on June 4 was the campaign’s fourth week of nonviolent disobedience in the state capital. The week prior, 10 participants were arrested at a Statehouse sit-in; the week before that, 14 were arrested by Capitol Police for refusing to leave the building after its scheduled closing time.

And just this past Monday, the Capitol Police Department arrested seven people for holding a sit-in at the Vermont Statehouse.

But back on June 4, protestors departed the Statehouse without incident, opting instead to use their numbers to block traffic on a well-traveled thoroughfare in downtown Montpelier.

The campaign isn’t holding back on its demands: They say they want an end to poverty, systemic racism, ecological devastation and what they call the "war economy."

Only by drawing attention to the plight of the poor, they said, will people demand the action needed to fix it. On that particular Monday, that meant shutting down State Street in Montpelier.

Members of the Vermont Poor People's Campaign occupied the lobby of the Statehouse in early June to call attention to economic inequality.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

Montpelier Police arrived in relatively short order. Not to arrest anyone, it turned out, but to politely request they shut down an alternative intersection, so as not to congest traffic.

The group decided instead to take its numbers to the Pavilion Building, which houses the governor’s office.

The protestors were upset that security had locked the Pavilion door. Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos, who’d arrived to talk to one of the campaign’s leaders, did not sympathize with their outrage.

“Well, that’s a wise thing for them to do obviously, because you know, this isn’t cooperative dialogue you’ve been trying to have,” Facos said to the demonstrators.

While Facos said he appreciates the protestors’ sentiment, he said he thinks their action might be better targeted at institutions in Washington, D.C.

“There’s been progress that’s been made, you know, in moving the ball forward, especially here in Vermont,” Facos said. “In Vermont we’re pretty — generally speaking — united on, you know, improving ... a lot of the poverty issues — you know, social justice equity, all those things.”

Standing outside the Pavilion, Katrina Battle, a 25-year-old woman from Milton, said the struggle is as real in Vermont as it is in other parts of the country.

“This is the movement, as I’ve been saying to a lot of people in my life, this is the movement we’ve kind of all been waiting for,” Battle said.

Battle said the element that differentiates the Poor People’s Campaign from past activist movements is its inclusivity — black, white, young, old, able-bodied, disabled, Christian, Muslim and agnostic.

She said members of the campaign are united by the common understanding of what it means to be poor.

"It has to be all of us together, or none of us. For years, for decades, we've tried to do it one at a time, to do it individually, but that's not how we can actually make any progress." — Katrina Battle, Milton

“It has to be all of us together, or none of us. For years, for decades, we’ve tried to do it one at a time, to do it individually, but that’s not how we can actually make any progress,” Battle said. “As we’ve seen, things continue to get worse and worse.”

Karen Topper, another of the three people chairing the Vermont Poor People’s Campaign, said the final protest will come on Monday, June 18. She said the initial 40 days of action is “really about building relationships.”

But she said the 40 days “is just the start.” While the campaign is nonpartisan, and won’t be endorsing or promoting candidates for office, Topper said the goal is to get more Vermonters engaged in the elections process.

“I think just increasing participation, and for people to feel like that is actually a viable option for them to promote change,” Topper said.

She said the campaign hopes to encourage people to promote that change “by putting a face on the poor people in this state and throughout the country.”