As I sat quietly in the back corner of the lofty courtroom, attempting to casually observe the ornate sculptures that rimmed the chamber’s high ceilings, I fingered the little scrap of yellow paper folded in my pocket. My lifeline. I moved my hand as naturally as possible to rest on my lap. I glanced at the two security personnel stationed in the central aisle, not letting my gaze rest on either for longer than what I hoped would be perceived as benign curiosity. They looked like secret service agents: white, 40ish, dressed in black suits and equipped with transparent coiled ear pieces.
I focused on physical sensations, how it felt to breathe and sit and wait. It was just after 10 am when the Supreme Court justices entered the chamber through a door behind the bench and were introduced with various ecclesiastical slogans, ending with “God save the United States and this honorable court!” Our cue.
As the rest of the attendees took their seats, a young woman stood up. “I rise on behalf of our democracy . . . one person, one vote!” Security officers collapse on her in a rush, grabbing and lifting her vertically out and over her row before literally throwing her out of the courtroom. Another woman stood, “Overturn Citizens United!” I don’t see what happens to her. There is what feels like an interminably long pause. Justice Roberts cracks a joke, “Our second order of business this morning . . . ” General laughter. Not quite.
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“Money is not speech. One person, one vote. Separate wealth and state.” I don’t process what happens to the speaker. I’m up. I become aware of myself rising out of my seat and hear myself reciting the words on that yellow piece of paper: “We rise to end corruption and get money out of politics. One person, one vote.” I raise my index finger in the air and look up toward the front of the chamber, not seeing any one person or locking eyes with any one justice. I wait.
An officer scrambles over to detain me. They’re taking a lot longer to get to us now. Three more rise in succession, “One person, one vote; we rise for political equality; We are the 99%.” “Nosotros somos todos los 99%. Si se puede.” “We are 99Rise. Join us and reclaim democracy! 99 – Rise!”
We did it; it’s done. Those were among my first thoughts as we were escorted into the bowels of our nation’s highest court to be processed, transported, jailed, shackled and tried over the next 30-odd hours.
But it’s far closer to the truth to say that we’re just getting started.
If you would have told me three years ago that I would be organizing for a pro-democracy movement to get money out of politics, end systemic corruption, and institute free and fair elections, I would have been dubious, maybe incredulous.
Democracy? Corruption? I think we’ve got some bigger fish to fry. Or have you not heard about climate change, ecological collapse, American empire, the billions who live in poverty or are systematically exploited and oppressed because of their class, race, or gender?
These were (and still are) the kind of deep-rooted social realities that consumed my thinking, realities that I was made continuously aware of during my two years serving in the Peace Corps, living and working in a small rural community of sustenance farmers in southeastern Paraguay. I farmed, gardened and visited with neighbors by day and read Chomsky, Zinn, Berry and Dillard by night.
Out of the mass of critical analysis, historical reflection and my own lived experiences, some key concepts, or targets, began to emerge: capitalism, neoliberalism, industry, empire, patriarchy, white supremacy. These were the ultimate enemies, the politico-economic systems and cultural pathologies we needed to dismantle and replace if we were to take seriously the universal moral project of diminishing suffering, establishing justice, securing freedom and protecting our living world into perpetuity.
By the time my service was coming to a close, I had developed some kind of coherent worldview to explain the devastating facts that I was reading about and observing first hand: 1 percent of Paraguayans own 77 percent of the country’s arable land; half of the planet’s tropical rainforests have been destroyed; species extinction continues at over 1,000 times the natural background rate; 800 million people worldwide don’t have enough to eat, while a third of all our food is wasted; the 85 richest people on the planet control the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion, or half the world’s population; topsoil and groundwater essential to global agriculture will be depleted by the end of the century; one in five women in the United States are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, while one in three African American men can expect to be incarcerated at some point in theirs. There is five times more extractable carbon in the ground than can be burned without risking catastrophic climate damage to both our species and our planet.
The extent and depth of our world’s problems and our dominant culture’s crimes are harrowing, enraging, maddening, stupefying, frustrating. But at least they were beginning to make sense, in some emergent fashion. I, like many (though not nearly enough) before me had adopted a politically radical analysis of the status quo: that things are the way they are because of vastly asymmetrical power relationships, which are not accidental or incidental, but deliberate and systematic.
But what do we do about it? What could I do about it? It’s one thing to have a coherent, holistic – if never totally complete – analysis of “the problem.” It’s something else to have a sensible and compelling program for how to rectify it, a plan of action that gets us from where we are to where we want to be.
Back in the states, I spent months trying to answer this question in the abstract, grappling with different strategies, reading up on different radical organizations and social movements, cursing myself for being abroad during the whole of the Occupy Movement, which seemed to be the most promising display of popular resistance that I could remember since I’d become politically aware. I didn’t know where to get started, how to plug in, or what it meant to be an “activist” or “organizer” or “ally.” I just wanted to get into the fight and to be on a team that wasn’t satisfied with treating symptoms of our modern pathology, but aimed to combat its underlying disease.
Driven foremost by environmental concerns and the knowledge of how close we are to so many ecological tipping points that will overwhelmingly determine how habitable or inhabitable this planet is for our species, I looked at a number of groups focused on climate change, conservation and curtailing the fossil fuel economy. Progress seemed to be coming slowly, when it came at all, at a moment in history when there was – and still is – no time to spare. We need an energy, environmental, and agricultural paradigm shift today. We needed it yesterday.
Aware of the limitations of most mainstream environmental groups, I looked more closely at the critiques and recommendations of radical environmentalists, committed to principles of deep ecology and to an action program that ultimately called for the dismantling of industrial civilization itself. Here was a proposed solution that struck at the foundations of so many problems, with a cogent strategy of how to get there: tactical sabotage of industrial infrastructure paired with fostering a broad-based culture of resistance.
But could that really work? How would the public respond to acts of destructive sabotage, however well-intentioned? How would the media respond? How would the government respond? The answer seemed to be: very badly. There would probably be an all-out crackdown on those responsible, labeled as “eco-terrorists” by the government, dutifully demonized by the corporate media, and readily dismissed as dangerous or misguided by the public. The strategy could even be used as an excuse to swing heavily toward a new totalitarian paradigm, unleashing the full military and intelligence capabilities of the already well-established surveillance-security state against the entire domestic population.
The only wildcard I could see in preventing those kind of outcomes would be if there were tremendous success in advancing a broad cultural shift legitimizing the use of militant resistance. But given where we are now as a culture, given our popular allegiance to law and order and our proven susceptibility to narratives of fear, such a shift would take time, decades at least. And we don’t have decades.
Money in Politics
Grasping to find a promising path forward, I plunged into the internet, watching and reading everything I could that might point me toward a way to get involved in the struggle for a just and equitable world. At some point I came across Prof. Lawrence Lessig’s TED talk, “We the People, and the Republic We Must Reclaim,” which concisely, thoroughly, and compellingly describes the problem of money in politics, a problem that can be boiled down to a basic corruption of our representative democracy, a problem that lies at the root of nearly every other social, political and economic issue that our country struggles to rectify.
In a sentence: The system isn’t broken, it’s fixed.
Lessig spells out the commonsense argument that a handful of corporations and billionaires, a tiny fraction of the wealthiest 1% of all Americans – about 0.1% – are essentially buying our public elections with privately sourced campaign contributions, creating a profoundly undemocratic dependency between political candidates and an economic elite. The results of this dependency are glaring and ubiquitous, as elected officials routinely forsake the wishes and well-being of their constituents to please and appease the wealthy donors who keep them in office.
On issue after issue, our government contradicts the will of the people (and the facts of science) to maintain power and promote the agendas of its financial backers. Climate change deniers pack the halls of congress, despite the scientific consensus on the existence, anthropogenic origin and serious dangers of accelerating global warming. A majority of Americans want some form of universal health coverage, yet 12.9 percent remain uninsured, even after a complete overhaul of the health-care system. Over 70 percent of Americans want to raise the federal minimum wage to $10/hour and hike taxes on the rich to redistribute wealth, cut the deficit and improve the fairness and health of the economy, yet Congress holds the line on $7.25/hour poverty wages and rock-bottom tax rates that coddle the superrich.
The bottom line is that our elected representatives do not represent the electorate. They represent the monied class of political donors who use Washington as a battleground to protect and promote their own private interests: profit and power. When policy makers deny climate change – big oil, coal, gas, auto and agribusiness win. Just about everyone else on the planet loses. When they keep workers’ wages crushingly low despite record productivity, and corporate taxes marginal – big business and the wielders of capital win. Just about everyone else loses.
In a sentence: The system isn’t broken, it’s fixed. The way we legally and institutionally fund campaigns and facilitate private lobbying in this country is structured to result in a government that works for, and represents, the wealthy elite, that brings politicians into power and keeps them there. This fundamentally contradicts and corrupts any attempt we might make to exercise a true and equal representative democracy.
A Way Forward: Civil Resistance
After watching several of Lessig’s talks a number of times, I remember at some point becoming cautiously hopeful. I moved from thinking about money-in-politics corruption as not just “one more thing” that was messed up with the world, which I had to work into my radical analysis, but as a potential opportunity for substantive transformation, a chink in the armor of those “ultimate enemies.”
I began to think about just how much more possible, how much more tractable a successful resistance movement might be if we could open up space in our political landscape for the needs of people and planet to come before those of power and profit. The fight for real democracy could be the prelude to systems-wide struggles for ecological permanence, a fair and equitable economy and social, environmental and racial justice.
But how do we get there? Even with this relatively limited objective of getting money out of politics come serious challenges and important strategic questions. Lessig himself poses that question to his listeners, “What the hell are you; what the hell are we doing?” I didn’t have an answer. But I did know what the answer couldn’t be, or at the very least, what it could not be limited to: gathering petitions in support of reform, writing letters and making phone calls to Congress, organizing a rally or march every so often, and hoping for the best.
The ordinary and legal tools of citizen protest would not convince politicians to strike or refuse the hand that fed them – and it certainly would not persuade corporate donors to forgo the billions in profits that flow in as a result of their campaign contributions and lobbying efforts.
An effective opposition to this systemic corruption would need a strategy that forced the issue to conclusion by imposing – or credibly threatening to impose – real costs on power holders. When the status quo becomes unsustainable due to overwhelming public opposition: when workers strike; consumers boycott; public officials refuse to execute their duties or everyday people disrupt or withdraw support from the daily operations of an intolerable political situation, then radical change can happen.
When political leaders have to choose between being constantly called out and condemned by the general public or swinging over to the right side of history, their calculus of what makes sense and what is in their best interest fundamentally changes. When the public can create an enforceable mandate around a specific and unifying demand, then we’re in real business to create a new democratic paradigm.
But to wield that kind of broad-based people power, we need a movement capable of skillfully planning and executing strategic campaigns of nonviolent direct action: We need escalating civil resistance that confronts money in politics.
99Rise: A Vehicle for Change
This is the theory of change adopted by 99Rise, a grassroots organization waging nonviolent conflict to end the domination of big money over American politics. I’ve been a volunteer organizer with 99Rise since I was trained in the summer of 2013 on the “DNA,” or fundamental elements of their movement-building strategy to reclaim democracy for the 99%. One of those elements is our Grand Strategy, which is a broad overview answering that basic, gnawing question: how do we get from where we are to where we want to be? It unfolds in four phases:
1. Build the movement through creative nonviolent actions, forming teams, doing trainings;
2. Escalate to mass civil disobedience to create a moral and political crisis;
3. Unite the movement around a common agenda of Constitutional and legislative reform; and
4. Escalate to mass noncooperation, if necessary, until the reform agenda is enacted.
Clarity at last! This was a plan of action I could get behind, and indeed it is one I have thrown my energies into realizing for the past 18 months.
Now I understand how one can easily read this and brush it off with an “easier said than done,” or with the critique that we are grossly oversimplifying a very complex, dynamic, and an unpredictable process. And though there is a narrow logic behind both of these points, we should not let them obfuscate the sound strategic reasoning built into these four phases.
Successfully executing the Grand Strategy is certainly (and obviously) more easily said than done. The fight for genuine democracy will be incredibly challenging as the growing movement encounters tremendous opposition from those who have a great deal to lose by our success. But that is no reason for despair or cynicism. Real, transformative progress for the oppressed majority is only ever possible through popular struggle, disruption and sacrifice. Civil resistance is nonviolent conflict. It will not be easy, but it must be done.
And yes, while the Grand Strategy reduces the multi-year, millions-strong, ever-changing and ever-adapting process of building and wielding the people power of a social movement to four simple phases, those phases are based on a remarkable wealth of experience, research and knowledge of how civil resistance works and how nonviolent movements achieve success.
In this country, popular civil resistance movements set the stage for the abolition of slavery, won women the right to vote, empowered workers to form unions and improve working conditions and ended Jim Crow segregation and voting discrimination against African Americans (nominally, at least). Internationally, mass nonviolent movements have been used to successfully topple brutal dictators, win independence from oppressive colonizers and facilitate state secession.
99Rise draws deeply from this rich legacy of American and international struggle to inform its own Grand Strategy, tailored to the present day. We aim to build a momentum-driven, decentralized movement that facilitates localized autonomy and creativity while providing unity and national direction around our strategic objective: a Constitutional amendment and federal legislation that guarantees political equality regardless of wealth, making it clear that money is not speech, corporations are not people. and public elections must be publicly funded.
Local teams will spread and intensive trainings will be held across the country and online, giving us the internal organizing capacity to escalate to mass civil disobedience, creating a moral and political crisis that can’t be ignored by the public, the press or our bought-and-paid-for politicians. We will then use that extended moment of crisis to rally the movement, backed by a critical mass of public support, behind a common and powerful reform agenda, while simultaneously preparing to escalate further to mass noncooperation, should the agenda fail to be enacted in full.
That is the vision. This is our strategy. And for me, it’s compelling not only because I think it can work on its own terms, but because of what could happen to this country, this culture, and this planet if it did work. If we can activate a critical mass of public support behind the overwhelmingly popular demand to get money out of politics and deliver our democracy to the people, then we stand in a historically unprecedented position to turn that popular, righteous energy into a force that can completely transform American politics, and with it, the global economic and cultural paradigm that is threatening the health and continued existence of our species and our living planet.
I’m talking about creating a radical democratic culture. Getting private money out of our public elections, ending corporate personhood, and closing the revolving door between government and big business are all important and necessary steps to realizing a democratic, just and equitable future, but they are, by themselves, insufficient.
Once these reforms are put into place, only then can we begin what we might call the “real work” of a democratic society, discussing, debating, and collectively deciding on the fate of our nation through – for the first time ever – a truly representative electoral process. For us to pull that off without it being undermined by corporate interests and wealthy ideologues (who will still be around and who will still be rich), we as a people who believe in political equality and self-determination, and who have been fighting and sacrificing for those principles, will need to stay organized and stay energized to bring the American people into the political arena, to vote for legitimately populist and progressive candidates, and then to hold those candidates accountable once elected into office.
The beauty of this strategic vision of escalating nonviolent action is that by creating the movement that will open up the doors to a truly democratic society, we will be learning the very skills we need to defend that new paradigm from backsliding into corruption and to advance our culture’s capacity to exercise a kind of radical, popular democracy capable of tackling our world’s most urgent moral crises: planetary destruction, rampant inequality and systemic poverty and oppression.
The skills of civil resistance, of mobilizing public support through strategic campaigns of direct nonviolent actions, can be used to advance solutions to all of these crises.
The fight to end corruption and realize genuine democracy would not only provide us with a modern opportunity to hone these skills and experiment with various strategies and tactics, but its success would provide future struggles with an immeasurably more amenable political landscape for waging and winning nonviolent conflict. It would deliver us democracy while simultaneously imparting the strategic knowledge, skills and experience to make the most of it, to use its representative mechanisms and mobilized citizenry to realize radical progress.
And in the final analysis, that is why – as a self-identified radical – I am so animated to struggle for true democracy and so convinced that the strategy of 99Rise must be put the test. It is why I risked arrest and 150 days imprisonment to send a pair of messages:
• One to those who now hold and abuse disproportionate power to their profit, who facilitate and benefit from this systemic corruption of our democracy: You will encounter determined, disciplined resistance; you will be opposed by We the People, who will no longer stand for the injustice and indignity you impose upon us.
• And another to the people of this country, who know that something is terribly wrong with how they are ignored, cast aside, and disrespected by our government, a government that is supposed to represent us: Join the fight; join the struggle to end the domination of money in politics and realize an authentic democracy for all. It will take a movement. It will take all of us.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the ideas or positions of 99Rise.