Rev. Barber: ‘Systemic racism is choking the life out of American democracy’

Rev. Barber: ‘Systemic racism is choking the life out of American democracy’

Protesters in Nashville hold up “I can’t breathe” signs, in memory of George Floyd, on Saturday, May 30. RNS photo by Bob Smietana

On Pentecost Sunday, after a night of unrest that swept the country in the wake of the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of police, the Rev. William J. Barber II delivered what he called “a pastoral letter to America” urging that leaders hear — and heed — the calls for justice from blacks and other minorities.

Barber, a North Carolina Disciples of Christ pastor and co-leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, said Pentecost, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ apostles, is a time of discernment.

Floyd’s May 25 death is a moment when Americans ought to wake up to the ways systemic racism is “choking the life out of American democracy,” he said. He urged immediate reforms to make America more just, including universal health care, a living wage, sick leave and affordable housing — part of the platform he has long championed with his Poor People’s Campaign.

Speaking from the pulpit of an empty Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Barber delivered a 40-minute message to cameras, connecting the death of the unarmed 46-year-old African American man from Minneapolis to the

The Rev. William Barber II, co-founder of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, speaks on Feb. 4, 2020, at the Congressional Black Caucus’ 2020 National Black Leadership Summit in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately killed African Americans and led to widespread unemployment and economic hardship.

“More than 100,000 people have said, ‘I can’t breathe,’ as this disease choked them to death,” Barber said, linking Floyd’s last words as he lay dying while a white police officer pinned him to the ground and pressed his knee to his neck.

Over the weekend, images of Floyd’s death captured on video sparked anger, protests and vandalism as clashes have erupted between the police and protesters in dozens of cities.

Barber said the image of the police officer with his knee to Floyd’s neck reminded him of game hunters posing in photos kneeling on their prey, triumphant in their success.

Over and over, he returned to the metaphor of gasping for air in referring to the protests that have wracked the country, describing them as “the inevitable reflex of a people who cannot breathe because their life is being systematically snuffed out.”

Barber urged prosecutors to file charges not only against the officer who directly caused Floyd’s death, but the other officers who stood by and watched.

But more urgently he reminded political leaders that moments of crisis require structural changes — such as those that ended slavery, gave women the right to vote and extended voting rights to African Americans.

He ended his talk urging elected officials to take the time to see and listen to the people’s cries rather than urge a quick return to order.

“We cannot try to hurry up and put the screams and the tears and the hurt back in the bottle, just to get back to some normal that was abnormal in the first place,” Barber said. “Hear the screams. Feel the tears. The very people rejected over and over again are the ones who have shown us the possibility of a more perfect nation. They are telling us these wounds are too much. This death is too much.

“If we listen to America, if we listen, then now is the time for us not to stop mourning, but to mourn and refuse to be comforted, to unite our collective moral power and demand transformative change right now.”

Rev. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign calls for resistance to reopening plans

Rev. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign calls for resistance to reopening plans

The Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, speaks on the National Mall, June 23, 2018. Fellow co-chair the Rev. Liz Theoharis stands on the right. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

The Poor People’s Campaign, a grassroots group with branches in more than 40 states, is urging resistance to or noncooperation with state plans calling for the reopening of the economy just weeks after the coronavirus put most of the country on lockdown.

In its new slogan, the campaign, co-chaired by two Christian ministers, is asking its followers to “Stay in Place, Stay Alive, Organize, and Don’t Believe the Lies.”

The campaign urges Congress, the president and state governors to follow the recommendations of public health experts and not risk a resurgence of the virus, which is disproportionately affecting poor, uninsured, low-wage laborers, many of them “essential workers” who have no alternative but to go to risky jobs that make them vulnerable to the virus.

“These plans to reopen show no regard for human life,” said the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, during an online news conference on Wednesday (May 13). “They’re prioritizing the profit of the few over the needs of the majority.”

The Poor People’s Campaign has long demanded that the government provide health care and paid sick leave for all. Theoharis also called for a universal guaranteed adequate income for all.

The campaign is planning a day of action on May 21 that will include a call-in to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, urging them to provide more relief for the poor in any future stimulus bills.

The campaign also announced that a previously scheduled June 20 March on Washington will be an online event.

Multiple studies have shown that the pandemic has been devastating economically, especially in nonwhite communities where people live in more crowded conditions and are more likely to be employed in public-facing occupations (such as food service, transportation and home health care) where they are more susceptible to becoming infected.

The latest available COVID-19 mortality rate for African Americans is 2.6 times higher than the rate for whites, according to the APM Research Lab, which tracks coronavirus deaths by race and ethnicity.

More than half of states have started to reopen their economies and loosen restrictions on businesses.

The Rev. William J. Barber II, who co-chairs the campaign with Theoharis, said that he and other leaders are suspicious of governors, especially in the South, who are pushing to have their states reopened. He criticized governors who have refused to expand Medicaid and who have pushed for what he called “voter suppression bills.”

“They have no credibility for us to believe them that things are fine,” he said.

The news conference included three people considered essential workers who talked of their fears in going to work without health care or paid sick leave.

“We’re not really essential, we’re expendable,” said Denita Jones, a mother of two who lives in Texas.

The call also featured Mary Bassett, director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, who was commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene until two years ago.

“The virus is invisible and it spreads silently,” Bassett said. “But it is not imaginary. We have to use the public health tools at our disposal to bring this under control. Wishing it away will only cost more lives.”

Reform Jews call for reparations for slavery

Reform Jews call for reparations for slavery

Attendees of the Union for Reform Judaism biennial meeting gather in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

Delegates to the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial meeting in Chicago on Friday (Dec. 13) voted overwhelmingly to advocate for the creation of a federal commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to African Americans for slavery.

The resolution is the first such effort on the part of an American Jewish organization but has precedent among some Protestant groups.

The text of the resolution not only urges the federal government to act; it also commits the movement’s 850 congregations in the U.S. and Canada to redress the effects of historic and ongoing racism and evaluate institutional efforts to promote racial equity.

The Reform movement is the largest Jewish denomination in North America, comprising more than a third of the total U.S. Jewish population.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the movement’s Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the resolution went through a rigorous vetting process. It was drafted by the denomination’s Commission on Social Action and sent out to its member congregations for discussion and debate. The denomination crafted a vehicle for congregants to consider reparations called Reflect, Relate, Reform that allowed them to study and consider ways to get involved in advocating for an end to mass incarceration and fighting white supremacy.

“In the context of the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and the emergence of a reality that we had a painful resurgence of racism and white supremacy — Charlottesville, etc. — many of our rabbis and lay leaders were asking what should we be doing at this moment in American history to fulfill our legacy as a movement committed to racial justice?” said Pesner, referring to the names of black Americans killed at the hands of police.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, center, speaks at Greater Grace Church in Florissant, Mo., on Aug. 17, 2014, during a rally for justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed teen shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. Photo by Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Reform movement has had a storied history of social justice activism, especially during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. One of its members, Kivie Kaplan, served as the national president of the NAACP from 1966 to 1975. Several others had a hand in drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Black and brown Reform Jews helped guide the movement on the issue of reparations, Pesner said. But as the resolution itself notes, the idea of reparations is not new to Jews. Since 1952, the German government has paid more than $70 billion in reparations to more than 800,000 Holocaust survivors.

“It’s time for the country to have a national conversation about what effective, strategic reparations would look like that would both address systemic racism but also be good for America as a whole,” he said.

With passage of the resolution, the movement will now advocate for HR 40, a bill that establishes a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The bill has not yet come up for a vote.

(Adelle M. Banks contributed to this story)

Reform Jews call for reparations for slavery

Reform Jews call for reparations for slavery

Attendees of the Union for Reform Judaism biennial meeting gather in Chicago, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

Delegates to the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial meeting in Chicago on Friday (Dec. 13) voted overwhelmingly to advocate for the creation of a federal commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to African Americans for slavery.

The resolution is the first such effort on the part of an American Jewish organization but has precedent among some Protestant groups.

The text of the resolution not only urges the federal government to act; it also commits the movement’s 850 congregations in the U.S. and Canada to redress the effects of historic and ongoing racism and evaluate institutional efforts to promote racial equity.

The Reform movement is the largest Jewish denomination in North America, comprising more than a third of the total U.S. Jewish population.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the movement’s Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the resolution went through a rigorous vetting process. It was drafted by the denomination’s Commission on Social Action and sent out to its member congregations for discussion and debate. The denomination crafted a vehicle for congregants to consider reparations called Reflect, Relate, Reform that allowed them to study and consider ways to get involved in advocating for an end to mass incarceration and fighting white supremacy.

“In the context of the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and the emergence of a reality that we had a painful resurgence of racism and white supremacy — Charlottesville, etc. — many of our rabbis and lay leaders were asking what should we be doing at this moment in American history to fulfill our legacy as a movement committed to racial justice?” said Pesner, referring to the names of black Americans killed at the hands of police.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, center, speaks at Greater Grace Church in Florissant, Mo., on Aug. 17, 2014, during a rally for justice for Michael Brown, an unarmed teen shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer. Photo by Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The Reform movement has had a storied history of social justice activism, especially during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. One of its members, Kivie Kaplan, served as the national president of the NAACP from 1966 to 1975. Several others had a hand in drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Black and brown Reform Jews helped guide the movement on the issue of reparations, Pesner said. But as the resolution itself notes, the idea of reparations is not new to Jews. Since 1952, the German government has paid more than $70 billion in reparations to more than 800,000 Holocaust survivors.

“It’s time for the country to have a national conversation about what effective, strategic reparations would look like that would both address systemic racism but also be good for America as a whole,” he said.

With passage of the resolution, the movement will now advocate for HR 40, a bill that establishes a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The bill has not yet come up for a vote.

(Adelle M. Banks contributed to this story)

High-Intensity Workout and then Prayer

High-Intensity Workout and then Prayer

On a Tuesday evening under the roof of a public picnic shelter, a group of women ages 20 to 55 groaned through a series of high-intensity exercises in the 88-degree heat and humidity.

Cheered on by their leader, who yelled, “you’re getting stronger,” and, “you’re going to feel like Popeye,” the women press on with  jumping jacks, burpee box jumps and a set of other cardio exercises with inventive names: “dying cockroach,” “ski moguls,” and “sparky crabs.”

But the intensity of the boot-camp-like drill ended on a quieter, more reflective note 45-minutes later as the women came into a circle, their faces still flush from working out, to close with a prayer:

“Lord, thank you for the time we’ve been able to be together and just exercise,” said Julie Swift, one of the women. “Please bless all these ladies and sustain them through their week. In Jesus’ name we pray.”

After a unison “amen,” they roll up their mats, give each other a hug and head home — until the next workout.

A host of modern exercise groups have sprung up in the last decade that aim to create fitter bodies, minds and hearts: CrossFit, SoulCycle, Pure Barre, Orangetheory.

All promise to empower, strengthen and transform while creating a sense of community.

The latest is Females in Action, a Southern-style fitness program designed to make women stronger and develop friendships. The FiA brand is the female equivalent to F3  —  its larger male counterpart, which aims to build men up through fitness, fellowship and faith.

But unlike the for-profit studios that cater to urban millennials willing and able to pay $40 a class, Females in Action (like F3) is free. Workout sessions are peer-led. They most often take place outdoors, in public parks or school fields. And they typically end with a spiritual high five.

“We are focused on fitness, but it goes beyond that,” explained Catherine Butler, who leads one of three Charlotte, North Carolina, FiA groups. “We are a community of women that lifts each other up.”

Started six years ago, FiA has grown to 53 regional workout groups spread across multiple states but heavily concentrated in North and South Carolina. Many are located in the suburbs and appeal to churchgoing working women whose husbands oftentimes participate in the male counterpart.

FiA estimates 5,700 women work out at its exercise sessions, and many say the biggest draw is the camaraderie and support the women offer one another.

“There’s nothing ever negative here,” said Caroline Uenking, 20, who accompanied her mother, Heather, to a recent workout. “It’s all positive.”

Caroline, who has some problems with her calves, and Heather, who has a hard time touching her toes, are never singled out, they said. Instead, they’re encouraged to do what they can, altering a particular exercise to meet their abilities.

Like the F3 male-only version from which it borrows extensively, the workouts have a certain military style that stems from one of its founders, David Redding, a former member of the Green Berets. Although some workouts incorporate yoga and others running, the typical session features aerobic exercise sets in which participants push themselves as hard as they can, rest and repeat.

In keeping with military nomenclature, participants are required to have nicknames, too. Stephanie Walton, the leader of the Apex group, is known as Peachtree; Janice Azeveda, who leads a group that meets in Cary, is known as Van Gogh.

But although the exercises are hardcore, the female-only environment makes it more inviting for some women.

A list of exercises drawn up by Stephanie Walton who leads the Females in Action workout in Apex, N.C. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Swift, 55, said she felt overwhelmed attending gym classes alongside men.

“I would prefer women who can influence each other,” she said.

The gender restriction may be part of FiA’s more traditional appeal. If some of the newer fitness center brands draw millennials with no particular faith, FiA draws people who tend to be more religiously conventional.

Though not explicitly Christian, FiA promotes the idea of a belief in a higher being, whatever that might be called (a formula that also echoes the second Alcoholics Anonymous step, “We came to be aware that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”).

Walton, a mom now studying for a degree in health and fitness science, said FiA made her a better person.

“Since I’ve been doing FiA I’ve been going to church more,” she said. “I’ve been doing more soul-searching. It’s just part of it. You start caring about people. You see their children being born. You do things for their husbands when their husbands are sick.”

Not everyone in F3 is religiously devout, and not all sessions end in prayer.

But the group leader, called a “Q,” is expected to end each workout with what’s called a “Circle of Trust,” intended as a short time to reflect.

Azevedo, who leads a 5:30 a.m. workout in nearby Cary, tends to keep things strictly nonsectarian. She concluded a recent session by reading a quote from personal coach Cheryl Richardson about the importance of self care.

A 58-year-old preschool teacher, Azevedo said she nearly fainted the first time she attended a FiA workout. She was never very athletic, she said, and gyms did nothing for her.

“If you decide not to go, nobody at the gym is going to say, ‘Hey, I missed you. Where were you?’” she said. “With this particular group, if you’re not there, somebody checks in with you and asks, ‘Are you OK?’ That’s a beautiful thing, having relationships of support. That’s really important.”

Through FiA, she’s lost weight and gained muscle. Best of all, FiA empowers women and cheers them on.

“It’s a life-changing group,” she said. “Physically you change because you’re taking care of your body. Mentally you change because you’re meeting new people and establishing new relationships and spiritually you change because you’re taking time out to reflect on your life. It’s a good thing.”