This year, as the nation moved commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, a great many citizens entered the monthlong mark of a federal government shutdown that has threatened to unpin generations of financial and social stability. Informer supplement writers — with respect for the emotional anxiety being faced — sought to document both the crises and amazing acts of kindness created by it.
Dr. King wrote from the Birmingham jail (1963), and later, said in a 1964 speech: “I still believe that mankind will rise up to the occasion. In spite of the darkness of the hour, in spite of the difficulties of the moment, in spite of these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, I still have faith in the future, and I still believe that we can build this society of brotherhood and this society of peace.”
In addition to popular crowdfunding website GoFundMe launching its own campaign to raise money for federal workers harmed by the ongoing partial government shutdown, food pantries, shelters, and restaurants have worked ceaselessly to distribute money, hot meals, groceries, and household essentials.
“Government workers, through no fault of their own, can’t afford to put diapers on their newborns,” GoFundMe CEO Rob Solomon said in a statement released Jan. 19. “Employees of the most powerful nation in the world are being forced to work without pay and line up at diaper or food banks. It makes no sense.”
Outside of celebrity chef José Andrés’ Think Food Lab, a World Central Kitchen hamlet has developed announcing free hot meals and coffee for federal employees in need and their families. Using the hashtag #ChefsForFeds, and word of mouth, snaking lines grew from its entrance for more than a block.
Those in line spoke openly with the Informer about what it meant to suddenly face uncertainty on the eve of Dr. King’s birthday, and the many thoughtful acts of ‘right’ they’ve experienced.
“I have seen the very best from people — strangers who have literally seen me standing in this line and put money in my hand,” federal contractor Jerry Eccles told the Informer. “I did everything right, went to school, stayed on the straight and narrow, and I have worked hard in life for everything I have, so it feels embarrassing to have the bottom fall out through no fault of my own and not be able to find a quick remedy.”
Eccles said that his savings has depleted over the course of the shutdown as he manages both his own household and that of his 23-year-old daughter, also a contractor who had been out on maternity leave.
“In the middle of the callousness of elected officials, some very kind people — including Chef Andreas — are doing the good work that Dr. King spoke of and truly looking out for their neighbors. That has been the one thing that has kept my family from falling through the cracks.”
DeVawn Hamilton, a federal worker at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), said that because circumstances have become so financially strenuous, she journeyed from her home in Prince Georges County to receive free meals from inside the District.
“The shutdown has become serious because there appears to be no quick resolve in sight and the longer we are without work, the more uncertain we are about our incomes, our homes and our daily lives,” Hamilton said. “I would ask the people of Congress and the President to use Dr. King’s messages of love and humanity to separate the border wall issue from federal employees’ salaries. Reopen the federal government so that this misery keeps from snowballing into local businesses and communities.”
The shutdown, which began Dec. 22, has affected over 800,000 federal employees across several government agencies, including the Interior Department, Transportation Security Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security. Though these workers will likely receive back pay once the government reopens, those living paycheck to paycheck are struggling to make ends meet in the interim. Government contract workers will likely never receive retroactive pay. It’s unclear how many of these workers have been impacted, though estimates range from hundreds of thousands to millions.
U.S. Treasury Department employee Yarnell Alston told the Informer that Dr. King’s philosophy of human progress based on helping one another could not be poignant at this moment in history. The 40-year-old Northwest resident said he has received cash, gas cards, and grocery store gift cards from strangers who saw him in pantry lines.
“Dr. King said that time was often used destructively by people of ill will — which in my opinion is Donald Trump. The more time it takes for us to get back to work, the more likely they are to give in to his push for an unjust border wall,” Alston said. “Human progress comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God, were King’s words and I am grateful that many are doing that work to help me.”