On the surface, it looked like another indication of the backlash against Trump. Approximately 80 people gathered in the pouring rain near Philadelphia’s City Hall Saturday, marking the first day of the March on Harrisburg. A roster of speakers, standing under a tent in Thomas Paine Plaza — named after famed British-turned-American radical and author of Common Sense, the quintessential pamphlet of the Revolutionary Era — emphatically proclaimed that this is a do-or-die moment for our nation. Unless we act now, our democracy, the fundamental lifeblood of our political system, may no longer exist.
Approximately 40 attendees soon left the plaza to start an arduous march all the way to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital, a distance of 100 miles. The torrential downpour quickly dampened their clothes, but not their spirits.
It will take nine days to get there. And when they do, they will make an ultimatum to the state’s legislature: Pass three fundamental, much-needed democracy reforms — automatic voter registration, gerrymandering reform and a gift ban for legislators — or they will risk arrest in front of the statehouse.
The march has been a year in the making, well before Donald Trump took office. March on Harrisburg organizer Michael Pollack began planning this event on last year’s Democracy Spring march from Philadelphia to Washington DC. Inspired by the sense of community and perseverance that formed during the event, the March on Harrisburg replicates Democracy Spring’s general model: a long march culminating in civil disobedience, a marker of sacrifice and drama to elevate democracy issues on the national, or in this case, state level.
A focus on Paine and civil disobedience, though, can belie the deeper significance of what is transpiring in the Keystone State. Here in the birthplace of the US Constitution, March on Harrisburg participants are attempting to highlight bipartisan consensus that democracy in Pennsylvania is broken and that the time to fix it is long overdue. The marchers emphasized that failure to appeal to a broad base would be a failure for any and all reform efforts.
Kyle Moore, logistical coordinator, explained as much: “Our duty is not to focus on the left or the right, but rather to build grass roots power for those at the bottom in order to challenge the political corruption at the top.”
Pollack, a soon-to-be-graduating rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, emphasized how critical it is for the March on Harrisburg to be non-partisan. The state legislature is controlled by a sizable majority of Republicans. The governor is a Democrat. To get a bill through the statehouse in the near future, both parties have to be pressured. And, as many organizers have been quick to note, Republicans, not Democrats, are the ones who introduced the gift ban. And there was bipartisan introduction of gerrymandering reform.
Let that sink in: Democracy reformers, including a number of anti-Trump and pro-Bernie Sanders activists, are walking across Pennsylvania to raise awareness of the efforts of Republican legislators.
“Whether conservative or liberal, Americans prize their heritage of ‘one person one vote,'” explained Rachel Murphy, chair of the march’s art committee. “Politics in Pennsylvania violates this core principle. And these common-sense reforms would go a long way toward restoring citizens’ voice in our democracy. They should not be controversial.”
Although I live in Boston, I flew down to join the Pennsylvania-centric march. Playing the role of protest carpetbagger, I wanted to support the organizers and participants — many of whom I had developed bonds with at Democracy Spring — and help publicize the events. I wanted to find an answer to a burning question in the forefront of my mind: Is it possible to sustain grass roots efforts for democracy reform at the same time that half the country is focusing on stopping President Trump’s agenda?
One telling answer to this question is that while there are many familiar, enthusiastic faces from Democracy Spring among the marchers, so too are there faces new to the Democracy Movement. And, they were willing to organize and march long distances in horrid weather conditions, intending to stay with the effort for the long haul.
“A few months ago, I joined March on Harrisburg as a consultant for their website. I stayed involved because I found March on Harrisburg’s approach compelling. I was totally energized after my first citizen-lobbying day. A lot of people say they don’t have time to do something like this, and I might have said the same thing in the past; once you start doing it, the time makes itself available.” said Sean Leber, March on Harrisburg’s director of website development and operations. “Seeing everyone march today was simply amazing. I am so proud of everyone who came out today to fight the conditions for democracy.”
So at least in the first few days of the March on Harrisburg, the lesson is clear: despite all the anti-Trump activism, democracy reform in and of itself is still capable of enlivening and mobilizing Americans who feel their voices are drowned out in our political system. For many, Trump is a threat, but also merely a symptom of our broken democracy. Restoring trust and proper representation in our government is a pre-requisite of future activism.