WASHINGTON (RNS) — Hundreds of faith leaders and activists protested outside the U.S. Capitol in support of the Build Back Better bill on Monday (Dec. 13). The demonstration ended with the arrest of the head of the Unitarian Universalist Association and other participants after the group marched into the streets and intentionally blocked traffic.
During a speech to the crowd, the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, which largely organized the event, expressed support for a number of liberal causes, ranging from voting rights to ending the use of the Senate filibuster rule.
Barber vented frustration with lawmakers — Republican and Democrat — who have held up the passage of bills such as the Build Back Better Act, a sweeping social policy bill that includes provisions such as expanding Medicare and providing support for universal prekindergarten and child care.
“What’s wrong with political leaders when 800,000 people have died from COVID today, some 20 million lost their jobs and 8 million people more went into poverty while billionaires made $2 trillion?” Barber said. “What’s wrong with you when you get up in the morning and all you can think to do with your power is to hurt more people?”
He added: “You are an abuser. You’re full of sin. We’ve come to help you get free — but if you don’t want to get free you’re going to get your foot the hell off our necks.”
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Barber, a Disciples of Christ minister from North Carolina, also announced plans to host a sit-in protest at the Washington office of Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, sometime on Tuesday.
He was followed by speakers from more than 30 states, including many low-income Americans who told stories about living in poverty. Many expressed support for the For the People Act and the John Lewis Rights Advancement Act, voting rights legislation that has stalled in Congress.
The group included union representatives and members of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate change advocacy group.
The Poor People’s Campaign has staged a series of dramatic protests in Washington and elsewhere throughout 2021 in support of Build Back Better and other bills, with leaders often chiding Democrats such as Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema for failing to support the legislation.
At one point during Monday’s protest, Barber led the group in a chant: “Stop the war on the poor!”
The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, told the crowd, “I’m here representing 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country who hold democracy, the right to vote and the quality and dignity of every single life as sacred. We demand that the Senate pass the Build Back Better Act for all people. All children and families deserve a healthy life, economic stability and the opportunity to thrive.”
In an interview with Religion News Service, Frederick-Gray said she was participating in the demonstration because of her religious tradition’s support for voting rights, democracy and human dignity. She said such things are viewed as “sacred” by Unitarian Universalists because they reflect the tradition’s seven principles.
“That is what is on the line today — in fact, equality, democracy and opportunity are all at threat right now,” she said.
Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, also connected the Build Back Better legislation with her spiritual tradition.
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“In Judaism, Kevod HaBeriyot, or human dignity, trumps almost everything else as far as Jewish values, and Build Back Better has the opportunity to bring dignity back for those who are really suffering,” Katz told RNS.
The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better bill last month, with many celebrating provisions to extend the pandemic-era child tax credit and combat climate change. It is part of President Joe Biden’s broader Build Back Better agenda that was spun off from a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package signed into law last month.
“We passed an infrastructure bill,” said Katz, “and I’m here to say that the human provisions in Build Back Better are just as important as fixing our roads and bridges.”
But the bill faces steep odds in the Senate, where Manchin has voiced concerns about its cost. Pressure on the senator is mounting: Biden met with Manchin on Monday in hopes of securing his support for the bill.
The Poor People’s Campaign, for their part, has protested Manchin for months, accusing him of obstruction and hurting the poor. The group secured a meeting with Manchin earlier this year during a fight over whether to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour but left frustrated after the senator floated a lower figure.
After the speeches concluded at Monday’s protest, the demonstrators at the Capitol marched down the street before moving in front of traffic and chanting. A short time later, police arrived and arrested people who refused to leave, including Frederick-Gray and Poor People’s Campaign co-chair the Rev. Liz Theoharis. Organizers say around 70 were arrested.
Frederick-Gray, still wearing a yellow stole that is a sign of her ordination, raised her fist as her arrest was being processed.
The crowd chanted back: “Thank you! We love you!”