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.