Reposted from the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign, January 26 2021

On November 23, 2020, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival coordinated car caravans across the country to mourn more than a quarter of a million lives lost to COVID-19 in the United States, to demand a smooth and open transition of power and to call for an urgent moral policy agenda from the new presidential administration. In 25 states and the District of Columbia, poor and dispossessed people, advocates and religious leaders gathered in masked and socially-distanced caravans to remember the lives lost and to commit to organizing in their honor for a future where everybody has a right to live.

The Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign joined this national day of remembrance in Harrisburg, with a car caravan at the State Capitol, and joining a protest led by former prisoners and family members of prisoners outside the Governor’s mansion.

UPDATE January 2021: We continue to push forward the demands of poor and dispossessed people at the state and national levelwhich remain as urgent as ever under the new administration. US lives lost to COVID-19 have nearly doubled in the two months since the Day of Mourning. Nationally, the Poor People’s Campaign has put forward 14 Policy Priorities to Heal the Nation: A Moral and Economic Agenda for the First 100 Days, which already has the support of over 100 members of Congress. Stay tuned for upcoming Moral Mondays car caravan actions starting in February.

We invite you to contribute a remembrance to the online Memorial Wall, a collective place to mourn and remember our friends, family members, and community members who have been lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic and poverty.

And please be in touch with us to get involved with the ongoing work of deepening and broadening the PA Poor People’s Campaign through working groups and organizations across the state: email or fill out this involvement formForward Together, Not One Step Back!

Folks from across the state converged in Harrisburg, decorating cars and gathering at a safe distance.

Mourning in Public

Mourners came from near and far, including Allegheny, Berks, Blair, Butler, Dauphin, Lehigh, Philadelphia, Washington, and York counties, and other areas to represent the more than 5 million people in Pennsylvania who are poor or near-poor, and the 140 million people in the U.S. who are just one emergency away from being on the streets. Participants held up the national demands for a just COVID-19 relief package and called on the Pennsylvania Governor and state legislature to protect and expand policies that support poor and low-wealth people, including in the state budget and by releasing aging and vulnerable people held in the Pennsylvania prison system.

Throughout the day, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival hosted a live broadcast that brought together national faith leaders as well as participants from Moral Monday caravans across the country. We heard from veterans suffering lack of health care, immigrant leaders with family members held in ICE detention, parents demanding transparent care plans for children with disabilities, and so many people who have experienced in their families and communities the disproportionate toll this virus has taken on the lives of the poor and dispossessed. Speakers from every participating state honored the names and stories of loved ones lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, and gave testimony to the ongoing pandemics of poverty, racism, ecological devastation and militarism that claimed precious lives long before the coronavirus crisis began and have worsened its deadly toll. Rev. Dr. William Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, introduced the day by underscoring the significance of mourning in public, lifting up that to gather and grieve together is a refusal to normalize the failures of the government’s response to this public health crisis.

Since the current national leadership has not stopped to have a day of mourning and eulogy, we will do that. We say to the nation: you will not pass over these lives easily.
— Rev. Dr. William Barber II

The Moral Monday national broadcast rallied mourners to carry their grief for those who have been lost into a moral mandate for change. Rev. Dr. Theoharis reminded us,

“Out of 257,000 who have died [as of January over 400,000], 210,000 did not have to die… We will commit ourselves every day to making their memory be a blessing, a blessing on a movement that is growing in power and scope.
—Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

The organizers shared a petition to call on the president, Congress, and the president- and vice president- elect to enact a comprehensive, just COVID Relief bill now, and pointed to the Poor People’s Campaign Moral Justice Jubilee Policy Platform as the next steps and blueprint for the new administration’s first 100 days.

Thirty cars circled that Capitol building in Harrisburg for two hours, honking and drawing attention to our urgent demands.

The state budget must not be balanced on the backs of the poor and dispossessed

In Pennsylvania, mourners also tuned in to a local broadcast with the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign. Jacob Butterly, PA theomusicologist led the mourners in song and the Jubilee Justice Platform was read aloud as scores of vehicles circled the State Capitol. Signage and decorations on the cars echoed the national demands for a “Full and Just Stimulus Relief Package” on the federal level, and also focused on what Pennsylvania’s Governor and state legislature can do to end this crisis on the state level. Speakers sounded the alarm that the state budget must not be balanced on the backs of the poor and dispossessed. They called for a continued moratorium on evictions and the enactment of a budget that supports the needs of the working class in Pennsylvania, and demanded there be no cuts to Medicaid or any welfare programs. They also highlighted COVID-19 crisis within the prison system, and demanded the release of elderly and vulnerable people incarcerated in Pennsylvania.

Nijmie Zakkiyyah Dzurinko, state co-chair of the PA Poor People’s Campaign & National Steering Committee member, speaks to the media. Lorraine Haw of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI) stands by.

Pennsylvania speaks out against state violence and family separation

Pennsylvania’s testimony to the national broadcast was given by Jennina Rose Gorman, coordinator of the Altoona Healthcare Rights Committee with Put People First! PA, who spoke to the connections between forms of state violence that have put incarcerated and many other marginalized people at grave risk during the pandemic.

“I am here today because my son contracted COVID-19 in a foster care facility four hours away from me. I am here for all the families separated from loved ones whether through the child welfare system, through incarceration, or through immigrant detention. Staff who tested positive for COVID-19 cannot afford the time off and are allowed to return to work, which puts all of our loved ones in danger, and in rural PA, where I am from, the few hospitals that haven’t been closed are overflowing with COVID-19 patients.
— Jennina Gorman, PPF-PA Member

Jennina Gorman, Put People First! PA, speaking to the National broadcast.

Governor Wolf, Free the Vulnerable!

Later in the afternoon, mourners moved to the Governor’s mansion to join an action led by the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI), an organization on the PA Poor People’s Campaign State Coordinating Committee, and the Abolitionist Law Center. People stood vigil in front of the mansion with signs remembering the names of over 20 incarcerated people who died from COVID-19 in Pennsylvania prisons, and with banners calling on Governor Wolf to expand the use of his power to grant reprieves in order to release non-violent, elderly, and medically vulnerable prisoners.

The action lifted up the urgent release of Russell Maroon Shoatz, a political prisoner who has been held in PA prisons since 1970, is currently battling cancer, and has tested positive for COVID. “He is 77 years old. It is inexcusable that he is still in prison and we are asking for him to be immediately released,” said Saleem Holbrook of CADBI and the executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a former juvenile lifer who won his freedom a few years ago. Saleem shone a light on the desperate situation for prisoners across the state. “Right now as we speak SCI Houtzdale has over 300 prisoners who have tested positive for COVID-19. That is over half the population of the prison. And this is the senior citizens home of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.”

UPDATE January 2021: The number of state prisoners who have died of COVID-19 since November has more than tripled to over 70 people. Governor Wolf and other officials continue to refuse to release vulnerable and elderly prisoners, and the state Department of Corrections is defending their policy of not always informing family members of prisoners who are sickened or killed due to COVID-19.

Outside the Governor’s mansion remembering prisoners killed by COVID-19.

Lorraine “Ms. Dee Dee” Haw, another leader with the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration and the Nonviolent Medicaid Army whose son is facing life without parole, directly addressed the Governor, the state legislature, and the Department of Corrections with a list of demands to alleviate the COVID-19 crisis in the prisons.

Governor Wolf, we need you to stop worrying so much about saving breweries so that people can go out and drink. Start worrying about our insiders, who are losing their lives to COVID-19 unnecessarily.
— Lorraine Haw

She called for immediate decarceration to reduce the prison population and enable social distancing within overcrowded facilities, which could be done by prioritizing the release of elders, expediting commutations, and expanding compassionate release, parole, commutation and early release.

More than any time in our lifetime, the government’s response to COVID-19 has shown that we live in a failed state. We are here to make sure that people who are inside the prisons are not only protected, but that those that are charged with protecting them are held accountable for their failure in this moment.”
— Saleem Holbrook

Lorraine Haw, Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI)
Saleem Holbrook, Abolitionist Law Center. Rally organizer Yusef Jones of CADBI looks on.

We light candles in remembrance, but also in deep commitment

At the end of the day, the National co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign led a virtual Interfaith Memorial Service. 2,500 candles were lit on the steps of National City Christian Church in Washington DC, each one representing one hundred lives lost to the coronavirus. Mourners from across the country contributed to a digital Wall of Remembrance with names and pictures of loved ones lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to the underlying pandemics of poverty, racism, ecological devastation and militarism that have taken so many lives. (You can contribute remembrances to the memorial wall here.)

We light candles in remembrance, but also in deep commitment. Because to mourn is to care deeply and to care so deeply that you seek to do something about the situations that cause the mourning in the first place.
— Rev. Dr. William Barber II

Please be in touch with us to get involved with the ongoing work of deepening and broadening the PA Poor People’s Campaign through working groups and organizations across the state: email or fill out this involvement formForward Together, Not One Step Back!

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