“Not really essential … just expendable”: Advocates describe the people that rapid reopening puts in harm’s way

By: - May 19, 2020 5:30 am
Mindy Bergeron-Lawrence (Photos courtesy of the Poor People’s Campaign)

Mindy Bergeron-Lawrence seemed to struggle with her emotions at times as she spoke into the computer that connected her to a national Zoom press conference. As she worked to maintain her composure, the host of the conference, the Rev. William Barber, offered occasional words of comfort and encouragement to the New England fast food worker as she struggled to explain the reality she confronts every day as a McDonald’s restaurant veteran of 17 years.

Bergeron-Lawrence described how her poverty wages and lack of access to paid sick leave had recently compelled her to go to work — despite battling a nagging and undiagnosed respiratory illness, where she was assigned to the drive-thru window — interacting with 50 to 80 people per hour. But what seemed to evoke the most anger and emotion in Bergeron-Lawrence was when she described how the McDonald’s corporate offices had brought in and distributed a shipment of “lovely little pins” to the restaurant employees that read “I am essential.”

As Barber observed, the pins constituted a pathetic and maddening token from a multi-national corporation that pays its front-line workers $10 an hour. The company has failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment to many workers, does not provide paid sick leave and has indeed, lobbied Congress to be exempt from a recently enacted requirement that required such leave in some workplaces.

Another worker forced to return to her high-risk service industry job – Denita Jones of Dallas, Texas – weighed in with a similar take. After emotionally describing the lack of assistance her employer provides to workers, she described her daily ritual of phoning her children at the end of her workday to warn them to lock themselves in their rooms until she has entered the house, cleaned up and deposited her clothes in the laundry room. As Jones put it, “we’re not really essential, we’re just expendable.”

Denita Jones

Last Thursday’s “Stay in Place! Stay Alive! Organize! Press Conference” held by the national Poor People’s Campaign that Barber helps lead served several important purposes.

For one, it helped to shine a spotlight on situations like Jones’s and Bergeron-Lawrence’s across the country – situations in which “leaders are putting millions of people, especially the poor, at great risk by reopening without the necessary safeguards.”

Second and perhaps even more important, the event helped put a human face on a reality that’s been repeatedly overlooked in the often frenzied and disproportionate coverage provided by many news outlets to the so-called “reopen” movement – namely, that the “reopeners” are a noisy but small minority.

Polls confirm that a significant majority of Americans, like the participants in last week’s Zoom event, “get it.” Indeed, even a large share of Trump voters understand that our best hope for quickly getting a grip on the pandemic was (and remains) to embrace an extended period of societal sacrifice: one that combines determined social distancing, extraordinary protective measures and extra compensation for indispensable workers, and a robust public safety net.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to organize a political movement around sober and rational sacrifice designed to keep pain and suffering to a minimum.

It’s easy, on the other hand, to push lies and conspiracy theories based on selfishness and fear. This is especially true when people are already anxious and being egged on by a preexisting network of cynical plutocrats, theocrats, ideologues and, as Barber rightfully labeled him, the con man in the White House.

Why grapple with facts, data and gray areas when it’s so much easier to simply wave a flag or a gun?

Rev. William Barber

And so it is that rational leaders like Gov. Roy Cooper find themselves in a pickle – trying to keep a lid on the irrational momentum that some have fomented for ending safety regulations without provoking the opportunistic zealots spoiling for any excuse to spread insane ideas like “nullification” and talk of religious and race wars.

Happily, that’s where another prong of the strategy pursued by the Poor People’s Campaign could be of great utility in the weeks ahead. As it so happens, Barber and his team had been working long before the arrival of the coronavirus on a major national event – a massive assembly scheduled for June 20 that had been intended as a march on Washington. Now, as a result of the pandemic, it will be held as a virtual event – a change that will make for some less powerful visuals, but that could provide for a vast expansion in the number of participants.

Indeed, the organizers are promising “the largest digital and social media gathering of poor and low-wealth people, moral and religious leaders, advocates, and people of conscience in this nation’s history.”

Let’s hope fervently that this prognostication comes true and that the nation’s silent and rational majority speaks up loudly and clearly next month and for the rest of the crisis to make clear that everyone in our society is truly essential.

For more information on the June 20 event go to www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/june2020/.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.