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Reflections on the 2023 New York State Poor People’s Campaign’s People’s Assembly

Written by Deb Schwartz

Arriving at my first People’s Assembly, I didn’t know what to expect, and right away was struck by the warmth, openness, and dedication of my fellow attendees. I chatted with Saquanna, who works in advocacy and with clients at Housing Works; Karen, who works with children and families as an activist and organizer in Chinatown; Anthony, a veteran and lifelong saxophonist; and Michael, a theology student from Rochester. Once we all gathered together in the main auditorium, I was struck by the incredible diversity of the group. A lot of activist organizations talk about building a multi-racial movement, but that doesn’t mean it actually manifests. But as I could see, with the Poor People’s Campaign, it’s truly happening.

And the music! Watching footage of Civil Rights-era protests, and listening to interviews with participants in it, I have always been struck by the way protestors used music. It lent such power and depth to the protests. I’ve participated in different kinds of protest with different groups but never have I been part of a group that used, as Civil Rights activists did, music as a source of power, of sustenance, education, and communication. Street protest of any kind is risky—it’s always accompanied by, for me, some feelings of vulnerability. Because there you are up on some sort of stage, delivering a message that by definition goes against the grain, pushes back against mainstream thought. And to have not only people at your back, but music—it’s so sustaining. I’ve always been baffled by people whose lives don’t involve music, who don’t listen to music—TBH, as the kids say, I feel sorry for them. And in protest contexts, when I get weary of chanting, I have often thought if only we had a song to sing, together. And together is the essential word. Like sharing food, music is an essential way we come together, and celebrate our togetherness and our vitality. “Ahhh,” I thought, as the room filled with song and the sounds of the tambourine, Jamel and Arelis’s beautiful voices, and Anthony’s sinuous sax, “I’m in a room with people who know how to eat.”

I loved the way the political education was handled—all of us reading various texts, discussing, and then breaking into groups where we all taught one another. The ways people learn, what strikes them, what moves them, and how they communicate it: everyone has their own style, their own vocabulary. It was beautiful to see. At mealtimes, I got to know my fellow members of the campaign and heard their stories. The travails Trinidy had gone through in terms of healthcare; how Rev. Mira first came to religion via missionaries in Hong Kong; how Earl, living in Marin, California in the 1960s, helped the Black Panthers buy radio equipment. This year, the U.S. Surgeon General declared loneliness a new public health epidemic. So many of us feel this and see this. And at the Assembly, for those few days, we built and lived an alternative: a community where everyone was welcome, everyone was ready to hear one one another’s stories, share their own, and come together to build a path so that more and more of us can experience this, be reminded of our shared humanity, and use this warmth to kindle a fire of collective power.

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