McKibben takes a stand at ‘Poor People’s’ rally

MONTPELIER — Health care access and climate change were at the top of the agenda Monday during an unseasonably chilly afternoon outside Vermont’s Statehouse, where the state chapter of the national Poor People’s Campaign held its fourth protest in as many weeks.
“Seems a little disconnected, right, health care and the environment?” Kate Kanelstein, co-director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, asked approximately 75 protesters gathered on the capitol steps, clutching brightly painted banners being buffeted by the wind.
This week’s theme was “ecological devastation and the right to health.” The protest is part of a nationwide revival of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, which he began in 1968.
The protests have been met with multiple arrests as participants have staged sit-ins after Statehouse closing time.
Speakers at the rally, including Ripton author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, highlighted the connection between an unhealthy environment, an unhealthy populace and the economic system they say has fuelled both.
Sylvia Knight, a Burlington resident who has spent over two decades working to ban pesticides in Vermont, pointed out the irony that pharmaceutical companies can profit off diseases linked to environmental toxins produced by other chemical companies.
“So if we eat food, drink water or breathe air contaminated with (herbicide) atrazine, then AstraZeneca has a remedy if we get cancer,” said Knight.
McKibben, founder of climate justice organization 350.org, talked about the disproportionate impact of climate change on the world’s poor, as far afield as Southeast Asia, where global warming is accelerating the spread of Dengue fever, and closer to home. When Hurricane Irene swept through Vermont, the poor got the worst of it, McKibben said.
“In Vermont, when the temperature got too high and the water off the Atlantic seaboard got too warm and we had our hurricane in 2011, one of the things we learned…was who lived in the floodplain,” he said. “And who lived in the floodplain were people who lived in trailer parks, and that’s who got washed away in our greatest natural disaster.”
Kanelstein of the Vermont Workers’ Center has been working since 2008 to push for publicly financed universal health care in Vermont, an effort that the group says has been reactivated in light of threats from the Trump administration.
Kanelstein referred to former Gov. Peter Shumlin’s abandonment of single-payer health care law, which he signed on the same steps in 2011, as the “elephant in the room.”
Elissa LuCozzi, pastor at the United Community Church in St. Johnsbury, incised the crowd with the fact that medical debt is the number one cause of bankruptcy in the country.
“Do you know what it’s like to sit with somebody who says ‘I’d rather die than have to put my family through bankruptcy,’” said LuCozzi.
Hannah Burnham, an educator from Newark, said she came to Monday’s protest because she feels the Poor People’s Campaign focuses on the “intersectionality” of sometimes disparate social movements. Burnham went to Standing Rock with 350Vermont, where she saw indigenous leaders fight to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline’s intrusion onto their land.
“There are a lot of white, wealthy environmentalists who don’t understand that it’s also a system of oppression,” said Burnham. “The whole organization (of the Poor People’s Campaign) has been educating people in all of these different factions.”
Kanelstein, towards the end of the rally, read a lengthy quote from Martin Luther King that ended with the admonition “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
“Not quite an accident, some of the stories we’re hearing today,” said Kanelstein. “It’s one system that creates an immense amount of wealth for a powerful few while leaving the rest of us fighting for crumbs and under attack.”
Ten protesters were arrested at last week’s protest for refusing to leave the statehouse once it closed.
Five protesters who were previously arrested on the same trespassing charges in connection with the Poor People’s Campaign were arraigned last week at the Washington County Superior Court, which referred them to Montpelier Community Justice Center’s reparative program, according to a statement released by state’s attorney Rory Thibault.

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