Our government is corrupt. Not corrupt in any criminal sense. But corrupt in a perfectly legal sense: special interests bend the levers of power to benefit them at the expense of the rest of us. Both parties are part of the problem. Both have become dependent upon the campaign funding of the tiniest slice of the American people — not to mention the funding of corporations and other non-citizens. That dependency is this corruption.
~~From About Rootstrikers
“Rootstrikers began in April 2011 as a project of Fix Congress First, an organization founded by Lawrence Lessig and Joe Trippi. They now exist as a grassroots project of Fund for the Republic, a nonprofit foundation that seeks to broaden, strengthen and unite efforts to reduce the influence of money in politics through grant making, convening, thought leadership, and catalyzing new initiatives.”
The Amendment Gazette interviewed Rootstrikers’ National Campaign Director, Szelena Gray this week to better understand Rootstrikers and its relationship to the broad coalition aiming to amend the U.S. Constitution.
The Amendment Gazette: “Rootstrikers.” Explain that word.
Szelena Gray: Henry David Thoreau said “For every thousand hacking at the branches of evil there is one who is striking at the root.” In one sense, it means that for every issue challenging our society [better schools, fiscal responsibility, climate change, affordable housing] the root causing those problems is the undue influence of money in politics. In another sense, for me, personally, the phrase serves as a constant reminder to challenge my first instincts and to know before I act that my actions have the right consequences. Striking at the root has a more formidable impact than hacking at the branches.
AG: What are the organizing goals of Rootstrikers?
SG: Rootstrikers are first and foremost teachers. Only the people can force lasting change on this broken system, and that change begins with understanding. In this sense, we work across the movement with a variety of organizations, and one of our primary goals is to build its overall capacity.
AG: What are the policy goals of Rootstrikers?
SG: This video might help clarify our position on policy:
AG: During his talk at the Money Out, Voters In conference at UCLA, Professor Lessig distinguished between formal illegal corruption (money in a brown paper bag) and structural corruption (perfectly legal, financial influences in elections and in Washington, pay to play, etc.) When you use the term “anti-corruption” to describe Rootstrikers’ movement, do you see the risk of confusing people about what you’re addressing?
SG: On the contrary, the term is essential because it resonates beyond partisan lines to the widest possible audience.
AG: Part of what Rootstrikers is working toward is a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, but you’re goals are much broader. How much effort, when the time is right, do you think the Rootstrikers teams will be offering the broad coalition pushing to get it passed in Congress and ratified in the needed 38 states?
SG: This is an interesting question, but hard to answer at this point given the long road ahead in such a process. If we came to this historic circumstance, we wouldn’t decide on a course of action until we had a chance to consult our members for feedback on what we could accomplish given our resources.
AG: Meanwhile, there is a push to support the American Anti-corruption Act with grassroots signatures with the goal to get Congress to pass it. Once the goal of 1 million signatures is reached, do you believe that it has a chance of getting passed in the next Congress?
SG: The last Congress passed a mere 176 laws — that’s nearly one fourth of Harry Truman’s infamous “do nothing” Congress. We face a looming fiscal cliff, rates of homelessness are still appallingly high, and rampant inequality and poverty that should absolutely not persist in this century continue without challenge… the question is not ‘do we have a chance?’ but instead, do we have a choice? In my view, the answer is clear.
AG: The Amendment Gazette is going to run until we get an amendment (or two if necessary) passed and ratified that 1) ends corporate constitutional rights and 2) end the doctrine that money is speech. Once ratified, our mission will be accomplished. How will Rootstrikers know when their mission has been accomplished, or is the fight against the influence of financial interests in Washington and state capitols eternal?
SG: I expect that Rootstrikers will challenge corruption as long as they see it, because that’s the sort of people we are. Along the way, we certainly have some important milestones to accomplish, but I think the most important things we could do is prepare a new generation of activists with the tools, dedication, and knowledge needed to keep government dependent upon the people.
AG: What inspires or motivates you as a leader in this movement?
SG: We often measure corruption in dollars, but I think its real impact only adds up when counted in lives. I met a woman at a conference in Los Angeles who was formerly homeless after surviving an abusive marriage, and was just getting on her feet with the help of a local women’s organization. She said her encounters with government as a battered woman and as a homeless woman left her feeling sure of its inadequacy and blatant disregard for her well-being, but until hearing about our cause [I was speaking with Mary Beth Fielder], she didn’t think she could do anything about it. She asked how she could help, and I told her to keep telling her story. People like her are why corruption matters, and also why I have hope it can be stopped.
For Questions and Answers on reform from the Rootstriker perspective, click here.
Szelena Gray became an advocate for anti-corruption activism while working with Lawrence Lessig, though her first cause is social rights. Gray began her career as an activist as a campus organizer for the Feminist Majority Foundation, during which she was appointed by the dean’s office to serve on its council for the status of women—she was pleased to find that neither the progressives nor the conservatives thought she fit in well enough. After a brief foray into the politics of gender and international development, Gray is excited to turn her attention to saving the democracy dearest to her heart [this one]. She oversees the execution of Rootstrikers’ grassroots, networked strategy, and is passionate about coalition building and its importance for sustainable reform movements.