By Charles Couch
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – A Richmond pastor was met by a ruckus of applause from more than 100 members of the African-American faith community and Occupy Richmond supporters as he stepped onto a small stage in Kanawha Plaza.
“We are here today to stand on behalf of those who have no voice and to give voice to their struggle,” Lance Watson, senior pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church, told the crowd gathered near the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. “We have a voice, and we have a vision of a more fair, equitable and just society.”
Watson’s words on Monday marked the start of the first demonstration of Richmond’s chapter in the new extension of the Occupy Wall Street movement called Occupy the Dream in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of civil rights, Watson said.
Pastors and ministers in 12 other cities nationwide led similar demonstrations near Federal Reserve Banks to protest economic inequality. Watson, two other local pastors and Richmond City Council member Martin Jewel took turns speaking to the crowd about the initiative and its mission to address economic inequality.
Watson said the new movement’s foundation began with conversations between Occupy Wall Street and two of Watson’s colleagues – Dr. Jamal Bryant, the founder and pastor of Baltimore-based Empowerment Temple Church, and Dr. Benjamin Chavis, an African-American civil rights leader and one of King’s former assistants.
Occupy Wall Street “asked the two of them to come on as national spokespersons to try to give a greater voice to the cause and bring organization without suffocating it in bureaucracy,” Watson said.
Bryant and Chavis then reached out to Watson and pastors in other cities with Federal Reserve Banks to help organize demonstrations on Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a symbolic beginning to the new chapter of the Occupy movement, Watson said.
“We agreed to do it provided we could interject our faith because we’re basically religious leaders.” He said the cause is “bigger than any denomination, any race or anything because poverty affects everybody.”
Watson said Occupy the Dream would give the national Occupy movement organization and direction. Those qualities have been lacking, and this has prevented the movement from gaining legitimacy, Occupy critics say.
During the Richmond demonstration, Watson laid out Occupy the Dream’s agenda, which calls for:
– The restoration of Pell Grant funding and low-interest student loans
– A moratorium on foreclosures until a program is implemented to help people return
to or stay in their homes.
– A constitutional amendment limiting corporate spending in political campaigns.
– An end to Bush-era tax cuts
– Tax breaks for employers who hire military veterans at risk of illnesses like post-
traumatic stress disorder
– An overhaul of the nation’s transportation and education infrastructure
“It will put people to work and permit America to demonstrate the ingenuity, cooperation, focus, and progressive thinking that has made her great,” Watson said.
Gloria Miles, a member of Watson’s congregation for 17 years, came to the demonstration to show support for her pastor as well as the national movement. Miles said the key issue she was protesting is the mass home foreclosures during the recession.
She said housing officials “misappropriated funds and they’re not being held accountable for it.”
Another Occupy the Dream supporter, Jackie Strater, said she wants the corporate money out of Washington, D.C. “What good does it do us to go out and vote if it’s all about the money?”
Occupy the Dream’s next move is “Love Your Community Day” on Feb. 14. The coalition’s goal for that day is to have 500,000 people open accounts of at least $30 with community and minority-owned banks, Watson said.
He said organizers hope to use the resulting $15 million as “leverage to talk to the five major banks about changing their policies when it comes to the poor and disadvantaged.”