On April 2, more than a hundred marchers called for an end to big money politics set off from Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell toward the nation’s capitol. They will arrive in Washington, D.C. on April 11, where they will launch mass nonviolent sit-ins lasting through April 18. According to 99Rise, the organizers behind the actions, 3,355 people have pledged to risk arrest. The support is the product of years of coalition-building and public outreach, like the open letter signed by Zephyr Teachout, Joan Mandle, Lawrence Lessig and others calling for civil disobedience.
Democracy Spring, as this campaign is being called, has garnered the support of over 100 endorsing organizations and individuals — like the AFL-CIO and Umi Selah, formerly Phillip Agnew, of Dream Defenders — and its steering committee includes the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, United States Student Association, Avaaz, Energy Action Coalition, Democracy Matters, and MAYDAY.US. I sat down with 99Rise organizer Kai Newkirk to discuss this month’s actions and what is to come for this powerful new coalition.
Why the actions this April?
Strategically, we feel like we need to confront this crisis of corruption in our democracy in a way that exposes it, focuses media attention on it, moves people to take sides and activates the public. A vast majority of people are what you could call passive supporters — they haven’t been moved to active participation. We want to create a moment of confrontation and crisis that dramatizes the issue and moves people to take a stand, and to feel an emotional allegiance to one side or another. We want to shift the political weather around this subject, and in our view nothing is as effective historically for doing so as mass nonviolent direct action on a significant scale, and in a sustained manor.
Your materials say the action will “demand Congress immediately pass comprehensive legislation to end the era of big-money politics.” What will be your response if Congress does not pass legislation?
Conventional wisdom tells us that with the Republican leadership in Congress, nothing will happen. But we want to challenge that resignation or acceptance that that is something other than scandalous. When a vast majority of Americans, including Republicans, feel that money and wealth are far too powerful in our system and that they don’t have a voice, and when the leaders who are supposed to represent the people aren’t doing anything about it — we feel that’s unacceptable. We want to ask people if they think these people are fit to represent us. We want there to be a political price to pay for anyone who defends the status quo of corruption. We want to force them to defend that status quo out in the light of day, and under a media spotlight.
We feel that we can win regardless of whether they take action or not. Of course it’s a victory if they do act. But we think that even if they don’t act there’s a victory to be won by focusing the attention of the nation on this problem, on the fact that there are solutions, and exposing the resistance of those who refuse to do anything and who in effect defend the corrupt status quo. If they don’t have a solution to offer, are they saying that people do have an equal voice in our democracy?
If we can move people and candidates to take a stand on this issue in the midst of this election season, by mobilizing this historic demonstration of popular will for change, which it will be, then it will send a message that the American people demand change. We believe that we’ll be able to create a political cost of defending the status quo and a political benefit to those who step up and commit to fight for reform. The goal is not to move the public — they’re already on our side — the goal is to change the political weather. That’s a victory we can win regardless of whether Congress takes action. Because even if they do move to pass a reform, the fight won’t be over.
How are you planning on keeping the coalition together, and growing and strengthening it for the long haul?
First of all I think that we have already taken this huge step in building the coalition. There’s a breadth of the movement that’s perhaps unprecedented in recent history. The groups have different levels of comfort surrounding direct action, but we’re working closely together. If you look at the mobilization as a whole, moving so many groups to get on board is huge. We’ve consolidated much of the progressive movement’s organizations. We’re even bringing conservatives in. John Pudner from Take Back Our Republic is going to join the march and is publishing an article in defense of the campaign.
If we’re able to create this moment where the public is captivated by the issue, if we feel that we’ve begun to turn the tide for movement on this issue, then that is going to strengthen and solidify all the relationships that have already been built between the organizations, and make them feel excited about moving forward together.
The principles of unity that we’ve put together for Democracy Spring could be adapted to maintain a broader formation that continues to allow people to collaborate and be in relationship with one another, but we have to see how things go and take it one step at a time. Because had we insisted that there be a longer-term unity as a condition of participating in the campaign then it would have been much harder for people to buy in. So we wanted to get people to buy in and commit to take this big step together, and if that step goes well then we can figure out the rest.
This is an opportunity to test our relationships with people “across the isle” by going into action with each other, even if it’s at a minimal level. Where we say we have these great disagreements but let’s try to work together on this issue, and we can fight the rest out on a fair playing field.
Local and state ballot initiatives to establish public funding for campaigns and to limit campaign donations are popping up across the country. This progressive issue however is not the only one now turning to the ballot initiative to make gains. Increasingly, 15 Now, the anti-fracking movement, those advocating for marijuana legalization and others are also using the initiative process. What do you think about working with these allies to protect and expand the very direct democratic processes these movements increasingly lean on?
I’m sure there is space to organize around that, but whether we would see that as a strategic priority is another question. We’re focusing on shifting the political weather around these issues, because when you do that you supercharge all the local fights. Look at Occupy Wall Street, and what that did for the moral issue of economic inequality. If you look at September 1, 2011 to December 1, 2011, and how the people and media treated the issue of economic inequality, it’s night and day — it’s a completely different world. Everything after that is different. Without that you don’t have the Fight for $15, you don’t have the millionaire’s tax ballot initiative in California, you don’t have the Bernie Sanders campaign and a slew of other things we’ve seen since then.
That’s what we’re trying to do on this issue. And if we do so, then the institutional fights that are happening right now will be dramatically accelerated and empowered, if we’re able to have that kind of success.
A lot has been written about the left’s failure to form powerful interstate coalitions to challenge the likes of the American Legislative Exchange Council. For example, many are hoping the progressive State Innovation Exchange, or SiX, will help to fill this void. How do you think the coalitions you are working to build can fit into this context?
Well, I think it’s a very different animal. We’re trying to bring people together as a vehicle to support campaigns of escalating nonviolent action. It’s about generating momentum. It’s totally complimentary to something like SiX, which is about building a long-term institutional infrastructure that connects resources with legislators, organizations and communities to advance a whole range of policies.
I’m not an expert on these efforts on the left to challenge ALEC at the state level, but I can say that one of our strengths is that we have more of a tradition of nonviolent direct action, civil disobedience and popular movements than the right does. And we need to play to our strengths: pursuing the truth and the moral high ground, mobilizing everyday people, and using our power through escalation and non-cooperation to challenge the status quo with a moral vision. That’s what we’re tapping into with Democracy Spring, because I don’t think progressive change can come in our country without leveraging the resources that we have. The Koch Brothers and Goldman Sachs are never going to have a passionate army of people that are willing to volunteer for them openly. Our movements do.
The momentum of the Bernie Sanders campaign has inspired a multitude of insurgent candidates to run for office across the country. How do you see this momentum as tied to your goals, and how can you work with these candidates?
First, I have to be clear that Democracy Spring is a non-partisan campaign — we’re open to all political parties and candidates. The movement has to be independent, not only from parties but from particular candidates. We’re trying to shift the political playing field on which all candidates are competing. That said, there’s no question that Sanders is speaking powerfully to these issues, and is doing something extraordinary. His campaign is kind of the defiant exception to the entrenched rule of big money-driven politics. I think he’s mobilizing in an incredible way, and many of the participants of our campaign are big Sanders supporters, including myself. But that’s my personal decision. The Democracy Spring campaign is bringing people from all political backgrounds together. From the left and right. And people who are committed to Hillary Clinton — whatever their reasons are, it doesn’t matter; if they’re committed to fighting on this issue, then we’re committed to working together. We want to move all candidates to our side, to endorse the movement.
We’re developing a tool for candidates to endorse the movement, a pledge or a statement, which commits them to supporting reform. We want there to be a standard for candidates to support the movement, so the movement can support them when it comes time for elections. But we’ll have to feel out how that will work as we move forward.
What happens after April?
The most important thing is to participate right now, to help us shift the political weather, help us change the game, because everything else will be easier after that.
We are inspired by the momentum organizing tradition, which is laid out in the book “This Is an Uprising.” We’ll take it one step at a time, and see where we are after the direct action campaign. We will be doing in-depth trainings for people who get inspired by the campaign, so they can lead teams of people that will continue to organize across the country. But we have to see — because it’s a coalition — which organizations want to continue to work together, and how we move forward from here.
But all that’s a moot point if we can’t create a trigger event.