Kansans caravan in mourning for COVID-19, demand legislators reject ‘politics of austerity’

Kansas participants in the Poor People's Campaign caravan of mourning lament the death of 1,400 people in the state and the tens of thousands at risk of losing utilities or housing. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A caravan of cars circled the state Capitol building in mourning Monday for more than 1,400 Kansans who have lost their lives to COVID-19 and to demand state legislators act to curb the growing number of people who are facing utility shutoffs.

A line of six cars adorned with signs and messages of remembrance participated in the proceedings organized by the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign. The group sought to highlight the fissures of inequality that those living in poverty face and how the pandemic has exacerbated these difficulties.

Organizers of the caravan said legislators must reject “politics of austerity” and address critical human needs.

“With the holidays coming up we know there are many people who will not be able to spend time with loved ones like usual because they have lost them to COVID,” said the Rev. Jessica Williams, an organizer for the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign. “We are hoping that people who are mourning during this time will hear that we are honoring their lives and losses due to not just COVID but also the preceding pandemics of poverty and systemic racism.”

Kansas is one of 24 states participating simultaneously in a nationwide caravan of mourning under the umbrella of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Collectively organizers hope to bring attention to the factors that contributed to the nearly quarter-million Americans who have died amid the pandemic.

In Topeka, signs on the cars advocated for a full and just COVID-19 stimulus package. Some called for a smooth transition of power or a morally sound political agenda.

Participants also emphasized issues with utility shutoffs and threats of eviction. According to Build Power MoKan, a partner of the Poor People’s Campaign, more than 31,000 Kansans have experienced utility shutoff through September.

In August, Kansas Gas Service reported 75,000 residential customers were more than 30 days past due or had signed up for a yearlong payment plan. Evergy reported 105,000 residential accounts were under similar conditions.

During the caravan, the Rev. William Barber II and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the national Poor People’s Campaign, broadcast testimony from each of the participating states. Oshara Meesha testified on behalf of Kansans losing their lives or housing to the pandemic.

“We definitely mourn the lives lost but we also have a lot of people getting their utilities cut off right in the middle of the pandemic,” Meesha said. “We would really love to have COVID relief because some people are losing their housing and people are dying.”

Barber and Theoharis spoke about how the pandemic has disproportionately affected poor and disadvantaged communities in this country. Barber lamented the fact that while data on the pandemic is available by race, ethnicity and gender, little information exists on low-wealth people.

Even without data, Barber said, the disastrous reality for poor people amid COVID-19 is clear.

“They’re afraid to go get tested because they can’t afford it. They’re afraid to go to the doctors because they can’t afford, and that is horrific,” Barber said. “We will remember them, and we will mourn this unnecessary death, but the remembering of them requires that we live for justice and righteousness in their memory. We must demand and never give up on this nation doing the right thing.”