Chanting, “Money ain’t speech, corporations aren’t people!” and “We are the 99 percent!” around 425 protesters were arrested Monday in a mass sit-in on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and more have returned to face arrest Tuesday. The demonstration, called Democracy Spring, is advocating a set of reforms the organizers have dubbed the “democracy movement,” demanding Congress amend campaign finance laws and restore the Voting Rights Act, among other actions.
For about five hours under the windy shadow of the looming Rotunda, at least eight police buses roll across the sandstone Capitol plaza to haul away the last of the peaceful protesters, where participants — some costumed in green dollar-bill suits and Lady Liberty garb — have overwhelmed a Capitol Police processing center, sending protesters to a nearby overflow facility. Police records suggest Monday was the largest spate of mass arrests in at least a decade at the U.S. Capitol, and close observers of Washington activism say it may have been the largest since the Vietnam War.
If movement organizers have their way, there will be more. The event is mobilizing a week of sit-ins at the Capitol building — over 3,500 have pledged to be arrested — in what organizers hope will become a series of intensifying waves of protest meant to highlight the influence of money in politics. In an election cycle that’s already seen Black Lives Matter and other protesters change the conversation among candidates, Democracy Spring is billing itself as 2016’s first full-stage activist production. Organizers tell Rolling Stone they think they’ve deciphered a riddle that’s long vexed left-wing activists: a way to succeed where another historic protest, Occupy Wall Street, supposedly failed.
“This is the beginning of the end for corruption and inequality in our democracy,” says Kai Newkirk, one of the movement’s leaders, speaking by phone from behind a police cordon, where reporters are barred from access under threat of arrest. Newkirk has spent the last few years campaigning against moneyed interests in American politics, once confronting Supreme Court justices inside the Court before being hauled away. “Occupy is a part of the tradition that we’re following, although that tradition goes back much further,” Newkirk continues, adding, “This is a movement that turns the tide on issues of political inequality, in the way that Occupy did for economic inequality.”
The demonstration is meant to highlight four bills already before Congress, Newkirk says, a departure from an Occupy culture often criticized for lack of focus and concrete goals. Two involve campaign finance — expanding public financing for federal campaigns, and a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision, a deeply unpopular Supreme Court ruling that granted First-Amendment rights to corporations. The other two bills would end gerrymandering — the practice of drawing congressional districts to favor political parties — and restore the Voting Rights Act, also struck down by the Supreme Court in recent years.
Besides a renewed focus, the demonstration boasts another creative flourish: a sequence of themed “march days” — students, labor and racial justice, culminating in a climate justice day on Saturday — designed simultaneously to bring in warm bodies from far-flung activist groups, and convey that the issues are related. But the march might offer a larger, simpler contribution: After years of underwhelming false-starts in the democracy movement following Citizens United, Democracy Spring will try to add much-needed sex appeal to an issue typically dominated by older, white public interest lawyers.
To that end, the event received attention on its first day, trending on Facebook and hovering near the top spot on Twitter, and has already garnered the support of a few celebrities, like Law and Order star Sam Waterston, Transparent actor Gaby Hoffmann and Academy Award nominee Mark Ruffalo, who was absent Monday but is expected to join the sit-ins. Cenk Uygur, a YouTube star from the left-wing show The Young Turks, joined those arrested Monday. “Clearly we’re on the side of democracy, we’re on the side of principles of this country and the Constitution,” says Uygur, who has started his own initiative, Wolf PAC, to try to overturn Citizens United. “There’s no way we don’t win.”
The demonstration is largely the brainchild of the organization 99 Rise, an activist group formed in the aftermath of the Occupy protests earlier this decade and co-founded by Newkirk.
“This is a 2.0 version of Occupy,” says Van Jones, a veteran activist of the left and former Obama administration official. “It’s a lot fewer functions, trying to focus on this one issue, and yet still bring that same spirit forward.” Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and a frequent activist in campaign finance who briefly ran for president this year on the issue, largely agrees. “What excites me about this movement is that it’s talking about things that Congress can do tomorrow,” Lessig says.
Marchers met Sunday afternoon after a 160-mile march that began in Philadelphia and ended at D.C.’s Union Station, where a crowd of about 150 sung, chanted and waved signs reading “Protect Voting Rights” and “No Buying Elections.” “I should be exhausted, but I am exhilarated,” says Elise Whitaker, a demonstration coordinator and co-founder of 99 Rise who walked most of the march with a sprained ankle. “We’re out here to change the political weather on these issues.”
Activists slept in two churches. In one, St. Stephen’s near Columbia Heights, would-be marchers behind darkened pews tucked into sleeping bags amid echoes of shuffling feet and the lingering odor of burnt incense. In the next room, under the pallid fluorescent lights of the church’s wood-paneled recreation room, five marchers in their 20s talk about their decision to travel out-of-state with the goal of being arrested. One, Ian Westfall, a roguish, bleach-blond 25-year-old car retailer from outside Chicago, says he hadn’t followed politics until two months ago, and what he’s learned convinced him to fly to Washington to get arrested.
“I was busy hanging out and partying, doing the college kid thing,” says Westfall, who adds that he recently came online to politics through the Bernie Sanders campaign. “Bringing it back to elections fueled by the people rather than by billionaires and millionaires, that really is something that I’m interested in.” This would be his first arrest, Westfall says, a sentiment reflected widely among marchers under 30. Also like Westfall, many say they were politically activated by the Sanders campaign.
Five miles away, in a capacious suburban house in Takoma Park, Maryland, organizers scurry to handle last-minute preparations — about 20 young people have been living here, with the median age about 25. Organizers debated before the march into the early morning hours how best to spin the strong turnout of Sanders supporters like Westfall, rehearsing talking points that deflected questions of whether the movement was an outgrowth of the Sanders campaign or George Soros. After finding themselves the target of a Bill O’Reilly sketch on Fox News last week (perhaps something of an honor), movement spokespersons were sharpening their insistences that they remain nonpartisan.
The Sanders campaign has proven a relatively benign conundrum for the democracy movement. On Monday, at the height of the arrests, Sanders sent an adulatory tweet — “Glad to see people taking action to restore democracy.” (Clinton has not publicly weighed in.) Echoing the message of demonstrators, organizer Adam Eichen says of the tweet, “While we’re very happy that Sanders used our hashtag, we still maintain that we’re completely nonpartisan.
“We welcome all presidential candidates to join in standing with our movement.”
A different Democracy Spring organizer, speaking on background while emphasizing the protest’s nonpartisan ethos, does acknowledge the intellectual debt the democracy movement owes to Sanders; he’s “the puzzle piece that fits in between Occupy and us,” she says.
On nonpartisanship, the demonstration remains diligently on message. Yet the challenge of Republican turnout seems still to perplex the democracy movement, inside and out: Public antipathy for Citizens United remains high as ever, with 77 percent of Americans, and 80 percent of Republicans, agreeing it should be overturned. But two days of roaming through the march produce just one Republican and one libertarian. One woman wearing a “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt of Tea Party aesthetic has come, she says, to represent the cross-partisan appeal of the movement (but eventually confesses she identifies as a progressive). The Republican, a middle-aged professor named Bill Lewis, waxes earnest that the protesters’ ideals are compatible with conservatism, before lamenting, “It’s true there don’t seem to be many of [us] here.”
On Monday morning, protesters meet for the civil disobedience training, where latecomers trickle past an organizer celebrating on the sidewalk — rapper Talib Kweli had just signed on — and into a pallid, charcoal sarcophagus directly across the street from the Supreme Court building: the marchers’ primary antagonist. At least 200 people pack the pews in the standing-room crowd, as hands go up to ask about bail fees and jail time. Sixteen-year-old Julia Frisch asks what might happen to minors; she says she skipped high school in Bethesda that day to get arrested. (Her parents know, she insists.)
The march is underway within hours, a colorful sea of union shirts, climate justice signs and Bernie Sanders paraphernalia. As the crowd approaches the Capitol, a small phalanx of officers line up across the steps, arms crossed and in wide stance. The shrinking gap between the steps and march froth with energy as protesters pack the plaza and unfurl banners. “For those joining the sit-in,” shouts an organizer through a bullhorn, against countervailing warnings from a police megaphone, “please sit down now.”
Political scientists and government experts overwhelmingly agree that the landscape of campaign finance and voting rights law has changed dramatically in the last five years, a shift that has largely blindsided progressive advocacy groups. Political operatives on the left have suggested that Democracy Spring’s core innovation might be to take issues as disconnected as First-Amendment, voting-rights, campaign-finance and redistricting law — the four horsemen of boring, good government advocacy — and recast them into a single issue.
“What these kids are doing is saying, ‘Hey, this is all one thing: Big money in, little people out.’ And by recasting all of these, they’re synergizing something that’s much more exciting,” says Van Jones.
Jones adds that the influx of Sanders supporters isn’t surprising (“It’s definitely in harmony with some of the things that Bernie Sanders has been saying”) but rather illustrative of a looming internal dilemma for Democrats. The left-leaning democracy-reform movement’s insistence of nonpartisanship — an idea whose constituency of believers largely consists of themselves — doesn’t just paper over an inter-party divide, but an intra-party one as well. This year, the Sanders campaign has levied charges of corporate capture on Hillary Clinton, met with rejoinders of self-righteous hypocrisy from Clintonland.
“Sen. Sanders is part of the big-money system, too,” says Paul Begala, a Clinton campaign strategist and an advisor to one of the first Democratic super PACs, Priorities USA, an entity made possible by the Citizens United ruling. “He’s attended lobbyist-filled fundraisers for the DSCC… the nurses’ super PAC has spent significantly in support of him, and Wall Streeters and right-wing Super PACs have spent millions attacking Hillary in the primary — which of course benefits Bernie.
“I would like nothing more than to work myself out of a job. Even though I advise a super PAC, it is one that is committed to a Supreme Court that will overturn Citizens United,” he says.
Monday evening, protesters trickle out of a jail holding cell in Southeast Washington, greeted by a makeshift welcoming party on a dimly lit street corner. The mood seemed jovial, with an air of apprehension about the rest of the week’s protests. One officer who had previously been tossing a Rubik’s cube between protesters on the Capitol steps is now visibly riled, as he paces the sidewalk and braces to process protesters well into the early-morning hours.
“The clever idea here is that each day there’s the same type of action, ultimately culminating in the same arrest,” says Lessig. “The question is, what will the police do when they realize there’s a pattern here, and whether they’re going to take other steps.”
Sauntering out of the holding cell into the humid night air is Westfall, the 25-year-old first-time protester and Sanders supporter. He’s still glowing after spending five hours in a white concrete garage refashioned as a holding cell, before heading back to Illinois (after paying a bail-related fee to the police). Was it worth the $500 plane ticket?
“Absolutely,” he says, grinning. “I figured if I was here, I was one more person added to the numbers. We need to deliver this message to the American people: This has begun.”