US President Donald Trump | Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II (Getty Images/Salon)

Rev. Dr. William Barber II: Only a "major moral revival and revolution" can defeat Trump

Leader of the Poor People's Campaign on Trump, the George Floyd protests and America's "political Pentecost"



Chauncey DeVega
June 19, 2020 11:00AM (UTC)

America has been brought low, knocked down into a pitiable state and embarrassed before the world by Donald Trump and his regime. The United States, once the world's indispensable leader, now appears to be an obsolescent also-ran, with American exceptionalism replaced with the authoritarianism and neofascism associated with failed countries in other parts of the world.

As shown by public opinion polls, the American people know that something is very wrong. The George Floyd protests and people's uprising is one more indicator that a growing number of Americans are finally waking up both to the dire existential crisis of Trumpism as well as the deep systemic and cultural rot that spawned Trump's presidency and political movement.

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The Age of Trump is an ongoing policy crisis in which democracy is imperiled, the presidency and Constitution are being defiled, the rule of law is being dismantled, more than 120,000 people are dead because the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic has been malevolently mismanaged, gangster capitalists have been almost totally freed to rob the public coffers while destroying the environment, and the civil and human rights of nonwhites, Muslims, disabled people, women, the poor and working class and other marginalized groups are being rolled back.

In all, the Age of Trump is the apotheosis of a plutocratic, white supremacist kakistocracy.

The following juxtaposition exemplifies such a reality.

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This Saturday, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Donald Trump will host his first "rally" (more of a mass political cult meeting) since the coronavirus pandemic forced a nationwide public quarantine.

Trump originally scheduled his comeback rally for Friday, June 19, known as "Juneteenth," the day commemorating when black enslaved people in Texas learned they were legally free in 1865. Trump supposedly moved the rally to June 20 out of "respect" for Juneteenth. Needless to say, Trump is not to be believed. 

Tulsa is also the location of one of the worst white-on-black racial pogroms in American history when white mobs killed hundreds of black people in 1921. Why? Black prosperity, excellence, independence and success in the community informally known as "Black Wall Street" was a personal affront to the lies of white supremacy and its tenets of Black inferiority and subhuman status. The psychological wages of whiteness are very fragile. When threatened, violence against Black people and other nonwhites is the default.

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A president informed by white supremacy choosing Tulsa and Juneteenth for the site and date of a massive rally is no coincidence: It is a clear signal to the Trump movement's followers. The change of date — but not location — is of little importance. The message has already been sent and received.

On that same day, June 20, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II and the Poor People's Campaign are convening what they call the Mass Poor People's Assembly and Moral March on Washington. This digital justice gathering will be streamed live online at https://www.june2020.org/

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The goal of the Poor People's Assembly is to highlight the misery and death caused by social inequality and injustice in America on both sides of the color line — and to offer a set of plans and goals for how to create a social democracy where all people are valued and the country's many societal illnesses can be healed.

Ultimately, to cleanse America of Trumpism will require much more than voting Donald Trump and the Republicans out of office in 2020 and beyond. It will require a great moral reckoning across all areas of society.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival. He is also the architect of the Forward Together Moral Movement and the author of several books, including "Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing," "The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear" and "Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation." His new book is "We Are Called to Be a Movement."

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Barber is a frequent guest on MSNBC, ABC and CNN, as well as the Democracy Now! His essays and other writing have been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time magazine and other leading publications.

In this conversation, Barber explains what America's moral reckoning must entail and how a culture of death and pain helped to birth Trump's presidency. He reflects on the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and how that event symbolizes a democracy that cannot breathe in the Age of Trump — as well as a culture of massive death caused by the coronavirus pandemic, poverty, police thuggery, environmental devastation, white supremacy and social injustice more generally.

Barber also explains how the George Floyd protests and people's uprising are a sign that the American people still have faith in their country and at great personal risk are now uniting across the color line to rehabilitate the country's democracy and society against powerful and entrenched forces of cruelty and injustice.

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You can also listen to my conversation with Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length, and it took place several days before Donald Trump announced that he was moving his planned Tulsa rally to Saturday, June 20.

How are you feeling in this moment, with the murder of George Floyd, the protests and people's uprising, Trump as president, the pandemic and so many other things? How are you navigating the day-to-day?

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When I saw what happened to George Floyd, I experienced a range of feelings.

Derek Chauvin, that white police officer, the way he posed was something I have seen a hundred times — it was how people pose over dead animals. I have seen this many times with white men who kill animals for sport. They just kill them for trophies, ride them around in their truck all day, and then they would pull the dead bodies out in front of these country stores and put their knee on them and then hold a gun and take pictures. I saw that in Derek Chauvin. He looked right at the camera as he posed.

I've had the feelings of deep anger and grief — and that grief is from where we still are as a country. I've cried with my son. My sons had the same feelings when Trayvon [Martin] was killed. They said, "Dad, they want to kill us all." One of them is well over 25 and is a lawyer now, and I see him still cry over this violence against black people.

I've been in the space of deep lamenting. I don't want us to stop mourning, the lamenting that needs to go on, not just over the death of George Floyd, but this culture of death. I describe it using something I call the "death measurement," a state of affairs that is so much a part of this American experiment. The death measurement consists of the five interlocking injustices of systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, substandard health care, the war economy, militarization of our communities and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism. Once again, we are seeing that these realities cannot be separated from one another. We have to see them as interlocking evils and interlocking injustices.

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In this moment I have wept quite a bit over where we are. I've wept for that young girl, who's the real hero. That baby, that 16-year-old that stood there and kept that phone open. The police report was not accurate. If it was not for that 16-year-old girl, the world would not know the truth of what happened to George Floyd. We must avoid making the death of George Floyd into a spectacle. This is systemic police violence. It is a pattern of behavior as we have seen with brother Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and our dear sister Breonna Taylor, who was shot inside her house. Police violence is a form of death that is caused by racism.

George Floyd's killing happened in a season of great death. Seven hundred people are dying each day from poverty, a quarter million a year. There are 140 million poor and low-income people in the United States. Sixty-one percent of African Americans are poor and lack financial wealth and are dying at disproportionate rates.

Then COVID-19 hits. It is like a type of contact dye which exposes the wounds of racism and poverty. It opens them wide open for all to see. In response, Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell basically decided that corporations are more important than people living and surviving this pandemic.

George Floyd's killing and death symbolizes so much about America. He had COVID-19. He lost his job. He didn't have decent unemployment or sick leave. He left Georgia and moved to Minnesota trying to find a job. George Floyd got a service industry job that we now call an "essential worker" job. George Floyd was being suffocated even before that cop finished the job. George Floyd was being suffocated by the classism and the racism and the poverty in this nation.

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Why has the murder of George Floyd resonated so much with so many people in this country and around the world? And why do think that so many white brothers and sisters have made the choice to march and protest? The police killing of an unarmed black person is nothing new in America. Why the reaction now?

Because it happened in such a season of death, and it was so vivid and it was so open. We've seen death before. We've known about death before. Even with Eric Garner, we saw when the police choked him to death. But in this instance, we saw what happened to George Floyd from the very start of his encounter with the police to how it ended up with his death.

Floyd's death is resonating so much because it happened in the midst of so much government-sponsored death. In the case of George Floyd, we watch the state, via that police officer, literally murder somebody. We are watching in real time the United States government kill people through an inept response to the COVID pandemic. Studies show that 90 percent of those who died would have been alive if the response was competent.

When he said, "I can't breathe," it touched something deep in people who are also experiencing not being able to breathe. That's been the cry of people who died from COVID when they didn't have their ventilators, "I can't breathe." That's been what people are saying who I've met all over this country, who feel like they are just being suffocated and destroyed, not because it's their time to die, but because of policies and choices that are being made, where we are dealing with so much death and so much negligence by the state. With George Floyd, we the people were able to see what happens, with our own eyes, when the state is both out of control and under the control of racism.

We've seen so much racism from Trump's White House. Right now, white people are starting to see and feel the tremors in our society that come into being when there are white and black and brown people working together for a common goal. The white folks who are coming out to the protests and marches sparked by George Floyd's killing may not know everything about social injustice, but they do know something is terribly wrong in America.

What the American people and others are learning right now with Trump is that his racism also comes along with being an anti-health-care person, an anti-LGBTQ person. Trump and McConnell and those other Republicans who share such racist values are also anti-union and against a living wage. The American people are realizing, "Wait a minute. This guy may have run for office by saying he was against Mexicans and Latinos and Muslims, but he is fundamentally against democracy. Trump is fundamentally against the things that would help all Americans. Trump may have started talking about Latinos and Mexicans being rapists, but he will not even protect the country from COVID-19 which is killing everybody."

There are too many journalists still chasing the horse race about Donald Trump, the election and his movement. The Fourth Estate still largely fails to understand the great existential danger that Donald Trump and his movement represent because of an inability to grasp the moral dimension of the crisis. In the end, America needs a moral reckoning to purge itself of Trumpism. What does Donald Trump represent to you? How do we defeat him?

If we are talking about a moral reckoning in America, we cannot just isolate Donald Trump and call him the problem alone. That is the thing that I worry about the most. Trump got elected because of an audience that had been cultivated ever since Richard Nixon decided to take all of the racist tactics of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater and just make them palpable by using dog whistles and code words. The Southern strategy was the Republican Party's way of pushing racism without sounding racist. The moral reckoning must be about much more than just getting back to a time before Trump, what I like to call "BT." We must confront the type of societal values and norms and structures which produced Trump and his movement.

And then we must examine public policy. Morality in the Bible is never just about feel-good. Morality in the Constitution is never just about feel-good. Morality in the Bible says, if you want a moral reckoning, you got to turn around how you treat the poor, how you treat the sick, how you treat the hungry, how you treat the least of these and how you treat the immigrant. You have to turn from lies to truth and from injustice to justice. In the Constitution morality is establishing justice, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare and equal protection under the law. Those are the moral principles. Those are the values and framework we're supposed to use to critique every policy and to guide the direction of the nation.  

To have a true moral reckoning in America, it must consider those who have felt the sting and pain of racism, the rejection of poverty, the rejection of being LGBTQ, the rejection of being sick without health care. All of those forces must come together and decide that we are not accepting this society as it is anymore. That goal is much bigger than defeating Donald Trump. America needs a major moral revival and revolution of values. That is the only force and outcome that can defeat Donald Trump and what he represents.

Donald Trump is scheduled to go to Tulsa, Oklahoma — the site of one of the worst instances of white-on-black ethnic cleansing in U.S. history – on June 19, the day we know as "Juneteenth" when black people in Texas learned that they were formally free from the tyranny of slavery in 1865. This was not a random date or location. How do you make sense of such an abomination?

What Donald Trump is really trying to do in Tulsa is to create a major distraction. Now, it's ugly what he's doing. God knows it is. Having a rally where literally planes dropped bombs on top of black folks, killing them, is a very ugly thing to do. Yes, we should be upset if Donald Trump is going to Tulsa, especially if he is doing it on June 19, Juneteenth. Trump is, again, doing such a thing to distract from the protests and the unity of the American people in this moment after George Floyd's killing. Trump, of course, is also trying to distract the American people from the COVID pandemic and his failures. The news media should not take the bait and should instead focus on how, if Trump is in Tulsa, what is also happening on that same day with Black Lives Matter and what the Poor People's Campaign are doing for example. Highlight the policies of the Trump administration and how they are hurting the American people.

The news media should also show the juxtaposition between what Trump is doing at his rally with thousands of people in a stadium with how Black Lives Matter has so many more people doing good work all over the United States. If Donald Trump is going to Tulsa, he should be made to own it by showing all of his administration's policies of racism and death.

In these weeks of protests sparked by the police murder of George Floyd I saw something beautiful. There were hundreds of thousands if not millions of people protesting and marching against social injustice. So many Americans of conscience literally risked life and limb to march and protest against rubber bullets, tear gas, clubs and other violence from police and under Trump's threat to use the U.S. military to enforce martial law. How do you making sense of these events in the context of the Black Christian prophetic tradition of struggle, resistance and justice?

I will not offer an observation from a Black prophetic tradition but rather one that is grounded in a straight-up orthodox Christian prophetic tradition. If people say that they have not seen such events before then that means they do not know how the abolition of slavery happened. That means that we have forgotten how Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King and James Reeb and Viola Gregg Liuzzo and Rosa Parks worked together. Of course, we must always acknowledge and honor the martyrs Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.

We cannot have a moment that is this big, with the protests sparked by George Floyd's murder, because it's on camera and then somehow forget that we've always had those moments throughout our history as a country when people of deep moral conviction put down the things that divided them and came together for justice.

We cannot forget that the Selma to Montgomery March happened because there came a point where people came from everywhere, such as white nuns defying their bishops and going to the South to participate in the civil rights movement on the front lines.

Second, the mourning we are seeing in America right now is a sign of hope. The worst thing that could be going on in America right now is for us to see all this death from COVID-19, all this death from poverty and all the brutal violent deaths caused by America's police, and then just say, "Oh, well." The fact that people are both mourning in the street and marching in the street and nonviolently facing rubber bullets is the hope of this nation and this world.

The very fact that people are protesting means they haven't given up on this society. This kind of protest means hope is still alive and people are willing to fight for it. Because you don't protest what you think is done and finished.

I literally, as a minister, believe that what we are seeing in America with all the people coming together because of George Floyd's killing and the marching and protesting to make a better country and world is a kind of political Pentecost. It is, in fact, the spirit of the Lord, grabbing people from all different directions and saying, we will refuse to be comforted. And we are not ready to give up, not just on this democracy in America, but we are not willing to give up our humanity.

With this movement out here in these streets we are in a real sense seeing this American democracy trying to breathe. Justice is trying to breathe. This is the breath of the people and the breath of God resisting the suffocation, resisting the lynching and resisting the death. And in a real sense, when George Floyd breathed his last breath, that breath came into us. And now all those breaths of the past, all those sufferers and martyrs of the past, when they give their last breath it does not go away, it comes into us.

Right now, in America with this movement there is love and truth and justice breathing, the American people are resisting the suffocation and resisting the death. And thank God it is happening.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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