The nation’s unemployment rate is approaching pre-pandemic lows, but all is not OK in New York, said Volney Gordon, an artist and native New Yorker who spent a year living on the streets.
“I had no idea where my health was going, where my next meal was coming from,” the Bronx native said, adding in an interview with Gothamist that he was eventually “priced out” of the city and moved to Vermont.
He was among a large throng of activists who descended upon the financial district late Monday, marching and singing along the way, as part of what organizers say is a national campaign to demand a more equitable society.
“39 Million Workers Earned Less Than $15/Hr in 2021: We Demand a Living Wage Now,” read a sign held by a demonstrator, one of hundreds who took part in the march, which ended with an evening rally at Trinity Church.
We continue to hear the lies of scarcity. There’s no scarcity in a country where you have a $22 trillion gross domestic product.
Dubbed the “Moral March on Wall Street,” the event was organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, a national organization that takes its name from a similar initiative launched by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 that aimed, in his words, for “poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.”
On June 18, activists in buses are scheduled to converge on Washington, D.C. for what’s billed by the Poor People’s Campaign as a “a generationally-transformative declaration of the power of poor and low-wealth people,” with participants arriving from as far away as Waco, Texas; Moab, Utah; Tuscaloosa, Ala.; and Waterloo, Iowa.
The initiative comes as the nation continues to battle back from the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 3.6% in March, nearly matching the pre-pandemic mark of 3.5% for February 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment in New York, however, is more than a full point higher – at 4.9% in February.
The Rev. William J. Barber II, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said in an interview that the organization had 14 policy priorities.
“Living wages must be a must, fair housing, good housing, healthcare for everybody,” said Barber. “A fairness for everybody.”
Barber said the country’s politics overwhelmingly focus on the needs of “the middle class and the wealthy” while ignoring the needs of the poor.
“We continue to hear the lies of scarcity,” said Barber. “There’s no scarcity in a country where you have a $22 trillion gross domestic product.”
One speaker at the rally, Kelly Smith, prompted loud cheers while pointing out what she saw as skewed political priorities, including the New York State Legislature’s agreement to contribute $600 million in state funding to a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills.
“I’m sick and tired of living in a city and state that can find money for a sports stadium, but can’t find money for housing, can’t find money for healthcare,” she said, while also noting that the police under Mayor Eric Adams were “violently evicting homeless camps around the city.”
Rally speaker Gordon described himself as an artist who played in “various metal bands” over the years. In 2019, unable to deal with the high costs of New York, he moved to Vermont, where he now works on a mushroom farm and serves the Vermont Poor People’s Campaign.
“I felt helpless and incapable of taking control of my life before I started organizing with other folks and saw that it wasn’t just me, that it was systemic," Gordon said. "There is a real boot on my neck.”
He’s now in remission from cancer.
The hurdles, he said, “can’t be overcome by putting your nose to the grindstone. There are both medical and economic hurdles that are intentional in many ways.”
New Yorkers, he said, had to fight for change.
“Our class needs to flex and show that we won’t put up with it.”