By Maynard Seider
On June 4, I joined four Jewish elders in their late 60s and 70s and traveled to Harrisburg. Two of us — my wife, Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, and myself — planned on committing civil disobedience.
The three others, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, Rabbi Linda Holtzman and Susan Saxe, who had already been arrested on a previous Monday, would bear witness to our actions. We wanted to be part of the revived Poor People’s Campaign, starting anew some 50 years after Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination kept him from carrying forward that work.
The current campaign, sparked by the success of Rev. William Barber’s Moral Mondays in North Carolina, began on the first Monday after Mother’s Day and for five successive Mondays brings Americans to 40 state capitals. The goals are the same as King enunciated at his Riverside Church speech in 1967 — to end poverty, racism and militarism — and now with the addition of bringing an end to our dependence on fossil fuels.
Each of the five Mondays had a specific focus. On our Monday, the demand was health care for all and an end to ecological devastation. The latter was particularly on our minds, as Pennsylvania is the nation’s center for fracking and natural gas pipelines.
When we arrived at our meeting place, the Lutheran church about three blocks from the capital building, we were briefed on the specifics of our actions, signed our commitment to be non-violent and began to form community. With hardly any paid staff, the volunteers who explained the day to us were superb. We all felt well-protected and cared for, on a strong moral, spiritual level.
After lunch, we marched to the Capitol, singing a spiritual all the way. Soon, the huge rotunda was filled with our bodies and our voices and, after 10 minutes or so, Rabbi Nina Mandel delivered a moving prayer and the speaking portion began.
The organizers deliberately asked state residents who have been harmed by inadequate health care and environmental dangers to speak to us. They were all articulate and powerful.
One woman with advanced periodontal disease faced further health damage because Medicaid doesn’t cover the deep-cleaning procedure she needs; another woman, a fourth-generation farmer in Lawrence County, couldn’t live on the farm she and her husband own because the water, pollution and earthquakes from neighboring fracking have destroyed her house’s integrity and compromised her health. Richard, a member of Put People First! PA, talked about the prison he served time at in La Belle, which was deliberately built on nearly 40 million tons of coal waste. His health deteriorated, his weight dropped from 225 to 170 pounds, and he thought he was going to die. When he went into the prison infirmary, they told him it was allergies and he received virtually no treatment.
Richard’s closing words inspired us all: “I believe that every person has the right to live a healthy life regardless of their economic situation, and regardless if they are a guard, an inmate or a local resident. … We have to as people learn to love each other. We have more in common than we have that divides us. … That is why I am fighting for health care as a human right, and that is why I am joining the Poor People’s Campaign.”
Led by the 31 people who chose to commit civil disobedience, we marched, perhaps 150 strong, singing along the way, to the back of the Capital. Those who were risking arrest laid down, a “die-in” symbolic of those who in fact have died from environmental hazards and poor health care. As we laid down in silence, two of the organizers read the names of many, many people who had, in fact, died. More names of lost friends and relatives were called out by the crowd as the roll call went on. Then, as we were partially blocking a door, the police came and arrested us, and we walked, cuffed, into the Capital police station.
We didn’t risk much; we were released a couple of hours later and had to pay a relatively small fine. It was a small commitment, and we thought about it and discussed it with each other afterward. We knew that the campaign had just begun and more would be demanded of us later.
This part of the campaign culminated on June 23 with a huge rally in Washington, D.C. But the project is building and will continue. The poverty, militarism, racism and environmental degradation are immense and show no sign of abating. Fifty years ago, after King’s assassination, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel referred to King’s mission as “sacred” and called “upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way.”
We are called upon to follow and invite many others to join us.
Maynard Seider is a retired university professor and documentary filmmaker. He lives in Philadelphia.
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