Bright and raucous sounds of percussion pierced the humid, balmy skies on Monday afternoon in downtown Durham, where a battery of drummers led a march of low-wage workers walking off their jobs as part of a nationwide strike for Black lives.

The peaceful demonstration and rally were part of the 200-city “Strike for Black Lives,” where thousands of workers from coast to coast demanded “corporations, government take action to confront the triple threat of white supremacy, public health emergency, broken economy,” according to a press release from NC Raise UP/Fight for $15 and a Union.

The national strike was organized by the Poor People’s Campaign founded in 2018 by Reverend William J. Barber II. The event began at the intersection of Rigsbee Avenue and Morgan Street where the striking workers used roller brushes to paint STRIKE FOR BLACK LIVES in giant red lettering on the roadway in front of McDonald’s. The workers then marched to Corcoran Square for a rally that was in concert with striking fast-food, nursing home, and janitorial workers across the country. 

Less than 24 hours later, the lettering was scrubbed from the intersection.

The Fight for $15 press release announced that striking workers nationwide would be “joined by thousands more who will walk off their jobs for eight minutes [and] 46 seconds to remember George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and other Black people killed by police and demand an end to the systemic racism that led to their murders and that also exists in our workplaces.”

“We are here to make it very clear that Black Lives not only matter, but they are sacred and they will get the dignity that they deserve,” Reverend Erica Williams, who is a member of the North Carolina chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign, said at the event. Williams said that even after more than 400 years, the country hasn’t addressed the issues of white supremacy and economic exploitation.

“We are beyond sick and tired. We are furious,” Williams said. “[We live] in a country that made its wealth off the backs of enslaved Africans and continues to kill us each day by poverty, police brutality and [by] not [giving] us what we need in a pandemic.”

In addition to those from the Triangle, workers arrived from Charlotte and Fayetteville for the Durham protest.

Shanna Lee, a Waffle House employee from Charlotte, took corporations like the one she works for to task for issuing public statements about how Black Lives Matter. Such sentiments are “empty words,” she said. 

“Waffle House, McDonald’s, all these huge companies already have the power to make life better for millions of Black people,” Lee said. “All they have to do is treat their workers like human beings. They could pay us at least $15 an hour—and I’m talking about servers, and tipped workers, and domestic workers too. We all deserve $15.”

Keenan Harton, a black landscaping worker from Durham, says he risks his life to work for poverty wages. Harton said he is not allowed paid sick days and works without health insurance or even adequate personal protective equipment. He added that he’s been fighting for safe working conditions, a living wage, and union rights since before the pandemic.

“As a Black man, the injustice I face doesn’t end with my job,” he said. “I’ve been a hard worker all my life, and corporations have been treating me like my life doesn’t matter for many years.”

Faith Alexander works as a nursing assistant with Cape Fear Valley Health in Fayetteville. Alexander says frontline workers’ demands mirror the greater societal call for substantive long-term changes by the government.

“We need the government to dismantle the racist policies that exist in our legal system, our criminal justice system, our school system, and our healthcare system,” Alexander said. “Re-write these laws to give everyone an equal playing field, and make it easier for Black workers like me to join together in unions. It’s time for our government to listen to the voices of Black workers.”

Well over 50 major labor organizations connected with social justice groups in support of the Strike for Black Lives.

Rachel Katz, a member of Carolina Jews for Justice in Durham, said she supported the strike not only because of the Jewish mandate for “repairing the world,” or Tikkun Olam, “but also, and most importantly, for my life and the lives of Jews who look like me,” added Katz, who is Black. 

“Jewish law says that our society’s regulators cannot be gamblers,” Katz said, “but currently our politicians and corporations are gambling with Black lives.”

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