In the Fight Against Money in Politics, Democracy is in the Streets
The movement to roll back the influence of big money in U.S. politics got a significant boost in April, as two allied coalitions converged on D.C. with a range of tactics and progressive demands centered around democracy, or the lack thereof.
By the time the demonstrations were done, more than 1,400 people had been arrested on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Moreover, a growing sense had been forged that this was a movement with depth, unity and real potential.
The two coalitions that organized the events–Democracy Awakening and Democracy Spring–had started independently. But as the two groups realized they were planning similar mobilizations around similar sets of issues, they worked more and more closely together–on publicity, tactics, and supporting each other’s street actions.
The two groups had similar demands: 1) eliminate or reduce the influence of big moneyed interests in American politics, and 2) guarantee all voting-age citizens the right to vote and have their votes counted. That has become a pressing issue after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, leading to Republican-led voter suppression initiatives. Later, they added a third demand: that President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court get a fair hearing and a full vote in the Senate. (A popular chant at the Capitol was “Do Your Job!”–as in, Senators, do your constitutional duty and vote on a Supreme Court justice.)
The two groups had an ambitious action plan, and they did everything they set out to do. It was an impressive accomplishment lasting more than two weeks. That included:
- A march from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.–about 140 miles, from April 2 to April 10. More than 100 people marched the entire distance, and some 300 more joined in for part of the distance. It was a tough logistical feat, including finding places for the marchers to bed down along the way, and the Democracy Spring organizers carried it out really well. Arrests of marchers headlined most mainstream media coverage–as with USA Today, CNN and Salon.com–but campaign finance reform was the headline at NPR.
A march and sit-in on the Capitol steps April 11, with over 400 people arrested. For the next five days, Democracy Spring repeated the actions (and hundreds more demonstrators were arrested). By and large, the U.S. Capitol Police made the arrests without unnecessary force, and demonstrators went peacefully. Most demonstrators were released with a citation within three to four hours, and had to pay a $50 fine. A number of people were arrested on more than one day, but authorities did not make penalties stiffer for repeat offenders.
- Teach-ins and forums on a range of related topics April 16, sponsored by Democracy Awakening.
- A rally at the Capitol Sunday April 17 (the biggest of the week), with speakers and music, followed by a march past the Supreme Court. This writer estimates the crowd at about 2,000, but some event sponsors said 5,000 attended.
- Monday April 18 saw another mass sit-in, sponsored by both Democracy Awakening and Democracy Spring. More than 300 were arrested on the Capitol steps. That same day, hundreds more activists joined in a day of congressional lobbying.
Even though the turnout was relatively modest, taken together, the 1,400 arrests make the combined mobilizations one of the biggest civil disobedience actions in a generation.
Success, Failure or Both?
There’s no doubt that April’s double-barreled democracy mobilization was an impressive, energetic effort, but this is an appropriate time to evaluate it in terms of what went well and what could have been done better. Here’s one participant-observer’s view:
- First, like many readers of The Amendment Gazette, I strongly support passing a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, declaring that money does not equal speech and corporations do not have the same rights as people. On that count, this mobilization was somewhat disappointing. While many amendment activists took part, and overturning Citizens United was often mentioned in speeches, the nuts and bolts of how to do that were omitted. (In fact, your reporter offered to organize a forum on amendment issues as part of the day of teach-ins, but that offer was declined.)
The joining of two loosely related issues (money and politics, and protecting the right to vote) has been a big plus for advocates of both issues. Defending the right to vote adds a considerable moral weight to the amendment issue, which can otherwise seem kind of wonky and inside-the-Beltway. It also helps to build bridges to people of color, immigrants and poor people. The NAACP played quite an active role in the D.C. demonstrations; that might not have happened if that connection had not been made.
- Leading activists in the two coalitions, including Aquene Freechild and Jonah Minkoff-Zern (Public Citizen), and Kai Newkirk and Elise Whitaker (99 Rise), showed an exemplary willingness to be flexible, build trust, and work with a new set of partners in the other coalition.
Democracy Awakening and Democracy Spring both built very impressive lists of endorsers, including the AFL-CIO, the Communications Workers of America, Greenpeace, the NAACP, the Sierra Club, NOW, MoveOn, WolfPac, USPIRG, Friends of the Earth, the Unitarian Universalist Church, the U.S. Student Association, and hundreds more. But most of these organizations did very little to inform their memberships, organize buses, send out emails or otherwise encourage participation. Can this be improved on, or is it just a fact of political life?
- Media coverage was very light, with the exception of NPR, which did several good segments on All Things Considered. The New York Times and The Washington Post, when they covered the demos at all, focused on the celebrity connection. See, for example, the Times on ice cream provocateurs Ben and Jerry.
- Outreach before the April events was not intense enough to achieve the desired turnout. More than 10,000 people signed up at the Democracy Awakening website, saying they wanted to participate, but far fewer showed up. Media coverage during the buildup period was almost nonexistent. On the streets of DC, posters and leaflets were seldom seen. Nonetheless, groups of demonstrators came from the Midwest, Florida, even California.
- In theory, some conservatives and libertarians are opposed to the corruption of crony capitalism and corporate welfare. John Pudner (Take Back Our Republic) did turn out for a day of marching but his organization either failed or didn’t try to ramp up any meaningful support among conservatives, and democracy activists were unable to connect with populists on the right (admittedly, this is a problem of long standing).
Overall, though, the mobilizations organized by Democracy Awakening and Democracy Spring must be considered a great step forward for the movement to get big money out of politics, as well as the movement to protect and defend the right to vote.
Whether it’s also a step forward toward a constitutional amendment remains to be seen.
[Thanks to Ted Majdosz for allowing the use of his photos. You can see his entire democracy events archive here.]