Roiled by Racism & Pandemic, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II Says 'the Only Way We Make It Through Is Together'
"The only way we make it through this — and we come out better — is if we find our way together, we lift up everybody," he says
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II — an orator and activist whom Dr. Cornel West has likened to Martin Luther King Jr. — recently spoke with PEOPLE about poverty, racism, President Donald Trump's administration amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and national unrest after George Floyd's death.
Barber's conclusion? People need to rise up together and push for change.
"If we cannot shift in this pandemic as a nation, and become more merciful and less greedy, and more just and less unjust, then God help us," says Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign. "One germ, one little germ has shown that it can shut down this whole nation and the world. One little germ, united with itself, has shown what it can do. And if we can't see that in this moment, there's not a bomb that can blow it out, there's not a bullet that can shoot it out, there's not a stock market that can buy it out. None of that. The only way we make it through this — and we come out better — is if we find our way together, we lift up everybody."
Barber is a leading voice of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and is preparing for two major events.
On Tuesday, his book inspired by one of his most acclaimed sermons, We Are Called to Be a Movement, was published by Workman Publishing.
And on June 20, Barber will guide the nation's first digital Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington to, in his words, change the narrative about America's poor and interlocking issues like racial inequality, the lack of police accountability and voter suppression.
More than 100 organizations will participate, along with national figures and celebrities including Al Gore, Danny Glover, Wanda Sykes, Debrah Messing and Jane Fonda.
"We're in a nation where 140 million people live in poverty, 43 percent of this nation," Barber tells PEOPLE. "So when [the coronavirus disease] COVID-19 hit, America had all these wounds, these fissures. And pandemics, by their nature, exploit fissures and expand themselves through fissures. So it might hit the people in the fissures: the poor, the low wealth, black, brown, poor white communities, native communities, first nation communities. But it doesn't stay in the fissures. The pandemic might be in the fissures among the homeless for instance, in the fissures among poor black communities, but that same pandemic will make its way eventually to the White House and to the palace."
So far, in Barber's view, Trump has failed in his leadership role. Quoting a newspaper editorial, he says the president — who has fiercely defended his strategy in dealing with the virus — "has blood on his hands."
Below are highlights from Barber's wide-ranging interview, which has been edited and condensed.
PEOPLE: What do you think of the current administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic?
Barber: Our response to the pandemic from the White House and the Senate was inept and impotent and deeply irresponsible. We did not do the first thing we should've done, which is put our eyes on it by going where the pandemic was and then isolating it and then tracing it and tracking it and testing for it. Instead, we had denial and lies and blame. The White House surgeon general, who happens to be African American, in a grossly cynical way [said] if just black people had it, they needed to stop doing drugs, alcohol and smoking. Rather than own the fissures. This historic denial race [is not causing] black people to have more percentage incidents of the virus, it is racism. It is the systematic injustices.
[Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, has apologized for his remarks, which he said were not intended to offend.]
What do you think about the "rescue bills" passed by Congress?
They were not rescue bills, they were redistribution of money upwards. They were bills where both sides of the political aisle were locked into the political imagination of Reaganism and trickle-down economics. Now think about that. In the midst of a health crisis, the first response of our government was to give more money to corporations. And [they gave] essential workers, poor brown and white low-income workers, we changed them from service workers to "essential workers." We gave them a title change, but did not give them the essentials they needed.
How do you view President Trump's leadership during the pandemic?
I think that the results of Trump's leadership, if I was talking from the scriptures, is that the result of his leadership would be called evil. And I say that not biting my tongue at all, because there's a scripture in the Bible that says, "Woe unto those who legislate evil, and rob the poor of their rights." Isaiah chapter 10. And I would call his leadership hypocrisy because Jesus said, "Woe unto those who go through religious motions but [are] hypocrites because they leave out the weightier matters of justice." I would also challenge Democrats. While they have been better, they have not gone far enough.
But Trump and [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell working together, you can never speak of them separate, have shown in this pandemic that they are too comfortable with other people's deaths. [Trump] has promoted policies that at best were inappropriate and at worst were intentionally inadequate. They know what they're doing. They know what the experts say ought to be done and he's not doing that. And when you do that, that is wrong. The 100,000 deaths we know now, thousands of them never had to happen if we had acted in a different way. But [the president] is so caught up in his own narcissism, greed and racism. And McConnell has gone right along with it. And so, in a sense, like The Boston Globe said, he has blood on his hands.
["The Radical Left Lamestream Media, together with their partner, the Do Nothing Democrats, are trying to spread a new narrative that President Trump was slow in reacting to Covid 19," Trump tweeted on May 27 in response to criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. "Wrong, I was very fast, even doing the Ban on China long before anybody thought necessary!" That same day, reports confirmed more than 100,000 people had died of the disease in the United States.
The president, who faced intense scrutiny for his changing tone about the seriousness of the virus, has long touted his travel restrictions and insisted other problems, such as those with coronavirus testing kits from the federal government, were being exaggerated.]
VIDEO: At George Floyd Memorial, Brother Says: 'Everybody Wants Justice for George. He's Going to Get It'
Do you see former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running against Trump, as part of the solution?
So we don't want to talk about just going back to normal, because normal is 700 people dying a day from poverty and low income. Seven-hundred people die from poverty and low income and the Republicans tend to racialize poverty and Democrats tend to run from poverty. And so what Vice President Biden has the opportunity to do is to step up and say, "My goal now is to not be a Democrat or be a Republican, but to be a moral leader." To stand up and say, "There are things that America has not done, and it has hurt far too many people. And this pandemic has exposed us to how weak we are when we're not caring for everybody."
What do you want people to learn from George Floyd's death, after he was killed in police custody with an officer kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes?
America is going to really have to wrestle with two questions: One, what does it say when a black man can be downtown and end up choked to death by a cop? The second thing is, that in this moment, while racism is certainly [tied] to George Floyd, and his death, we cannot forget the policies that kill people every day as well.
What I mean by that is, there are thousands who die from the lack of health care. Thousands who die from poverty. Thousands who die from ecological destruction. Many of them are African American and brown people. They die just the same. They just die slower [than George Floyd] and we don't see the crushing [weight] of policy violence on their necks. If we're going to deal with racism, we cannot be a society that just talks about racism when somebody is shot or somebody has a knee on their neck. Then we talk about it a little while and it goes on. We must look at racism and classism. Somebody asked me, "Is it race or class?" I said, "It is."
We must examine race and class in every issue before this nation. Until we do that, we're not truly dealing with the wounds and fissures that race and class continue to cause in this American experience.
How have your own struggles with ankylosing spondylitis, which prevented you from walking for 12 years, affected your fight?
I know what it's like to fight against deep, serious, chronic pain. I didn't get up because I got up. I got up because of the community that came together. I got up because someone who had been formerly incarcerated, when I was in a wheelchair, took the time to help me. I got up because someone who had been in the military chose to provide a deep assistance to help me.
[I think about] how people can come together in their rejection. I remember one day, when I happened to be going somewhere and I found myself missing, somebody blind was holding onto my other arm. What interested me about it, though I was cripple, and they were blind, together we were able to go forward.
We Are Called to Be a Movement is on sale now.
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
• ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.
• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.