On Monday Kentucky State Police were instructed to bar entrance to the state Capitol to a peaceful gathering of local clergy, people seeking health care, and citizens who were concerned about the health of their neighborhoods, their water and their air.
In 40 states where clergy and poor folk have held rallies, only Kentucky has refused them entrance to the hall of the people's laws. When asked, KSP officers could not say who had made the rule. When asked why other men and women were being admitted, ministers were told it was a rule specific to this gathering. Other individuals were allowed in, but members of this lawful, peaceful demonstration were not.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. organized the Poor People's Campaign 50 years ago it united moral outrage over the treatment of ordinary citizens. In our own time, not only has the scourge of poverty and racism not been erased, too many leaders are trying to silence those who are crying out as rights are abridged, services rescinded, and state government is put at the disposal of greed. This should outrage persons of every political persuasion and every religious affiliation. Democracy cannot be limited to just the wealthy, and to disregard, let alone attempt to discredit the poor, is a subversion of patriotic American principals and universal moral conduct.
A large number of clergy from every corner of the state and every religious tradition would like to know why we of all the groups who rally at the Capitol building each year had to be met with armed police officers. We would like to know who authorized such a limited exclusion to state public property, and we would like to know why the voices of peaceful citizens seeking to voice concerns cannot be accommodated or are seen as so threatening.
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Members of the rally were not allowed in to use restrooms, either. Instead people walking with canes, with disabilities, often with caregivers needed for support were directed to port-a-potties set out for the purpose. Though in possession of a permit for a sound system, we were told “routine maintenance” meant there would be no working outlets.
That so great an effort seemingly went to inconvenience a peaceful gathering of those advocating for the welfare of poor Kentuckians is shameful. Equally shameful, however, all of our culpability to have tolerated the intolerable treatment of society's most vulnerable for so long. Nine of the 30 most impoverished counties in the United States are in Kentucky, yet tax breaks to the rich are the feeble cry of too many politicians.
Health care, education, and social services are on the hit list of lawmakers when cutting budgets, but there is plenty of money for corporate greed, tax cuts to benefit those of us in the upper crust, and the reduction of ecologic safeguards. Kentucky has the highest cancer rates, ranks near or at the bottom in nearly every health metric, and 47 percent of our children live in poverty, many in fear of not enough food for their families.
The need for a moral revival is clear and cuts across party, race, age, gender and locales. To quote the Rev.William Barber, present at Monday's gathering, "When the air is poisoned, it isn't black air or white Air. It's not rich people's cancer or poor people's cancer. Everyone needs health care. Everyone needs a clean environment. Everyone deserves an opportunity to thrive and work and raise their children out of poverty. Everyone suffers when we don't care anymore."
And everyone deserves the constitutional right of access to their government, so that we might bring both moral, physical, and economic health to all our citizens. We may not agree on everything, but that doesn’t mean we have to tolerate the intolerable. By coming together in sound, open, democratic conversation and process, we can make Kentucky the “common wealth” it was intended to be. For all.
The Rev. Kent H. Gilbert is president of the Kentucky Council of Churches.