TIME 100 Talks
June 4, 2020 8:40 PM EDT

Protests that have swept the U.S. the past week have grown beyond a response to George Floyd’s murder, Reverend William Barber, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and the president of the activist group Repairers of the Breach, told journalist Katie Couric during a TIME 100 Talks discussion on Thursday.

When people saw the footage of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, dying in police custody in Minneapolis, and heard him say “I can’t breathe,” “it was as though people took up that and said ‘I know. I can’t either. We’re dying too,’” Barber told Couric. “Just like that cop had his knee on the neck of George, all these policies’ knees are on top of us.”

Demonstrations have since been held in every U.S. state. With their protests, Barber believes people are saying “wait a minute. We’re not ready yet to give up on this democracy.”

And President Trump’s response to Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests has “poured salt in the wound,” Barber continued.

On Monday, law enforcement officers cleared peaceful protesters out of Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square Park with tear gas and rubber bullets so the President could cross the street from the White House to St. John’s Parish and stand for photographs. Barber told Couric it was “a gross form of public idolatry and a form of heresy that he would use the military to run people away.”

“The only reason he needed to go to that church was to repent,” Barber added. “And he didn’t do that.”

To move forward, Barber said people must acknowledge the ways systemic racism and poverty permeates American life. “We have to see this moment as a time for fundamental shifting,” he explained. “What made that cop think he could do that to George is still a part and parcel of society, where too many people think they can use their power to crush people rather than lift people.”

“If poor and low wealth people organize around an agenda and vote, they can fundamentally shift politics,” he continued. But he stressed that any political policies or candidates poor people are asked to rally around must champion large systemic change, akin to a New Deal or a third Reconstruction. On June 20th, the Poor People’s Campaign will hold a digital and social media gathering outlining their demands.

People may have to risk their lives to vote due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So Barber said his message to politicians has been, “If you want people to risk their lives to vote, you must give them an agenda worth risking for.”

This interview is part of a special series produced in collaboration with Katie Couric. See more from TIME Reports with Katie Couric, and sign up for her weekday morning newsletter Wake-Up Call with Katie Couric.

Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com.

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