Photo by Rich Kessler of Robert Weissman of Public Citizen and the colorful crowd protesting to protect democracy. Courtesy of Public Citizen.
Urging on the crowd gathered for the “Rally for Democracy” on April 17, the Reverend William Barber II, the charismatic leader of North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement, drew a parallel to protests past. Invoking the “blood of the martyrs” for history’s just causes, he thundered:
“This is our Selma. This is our Time.”
Errrr, Selma? Blood?
Early the next morning, several hundred of us who have volunteered to risk arrest pack into a room above Union Station for training in nonviolent civil disobedience. We are part of “Democracy Awakening,” mass nonviolent protests in Washington, D.C., demanding an end to the corruption of big money in politics.
Despite the hour, it’s a lively, colorful bunch: the Communications Workers in red t-shirts, NAACP yellow, Sierra Club green, a lot of Bernie blue, and the rest of us, per instruction, in our “Sunday best.” The movement lawyer tells us that the misdemeanor crime we are about to commit is punishable with up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. At that, my heart picks up a beat or three.
But jail, he quickly assures us, isn’t likely. Negotiations between the organizers and the Capitol police have been amicable. There’ll be no paddy wagons, not even handcuffs, just a $50 fine.
We take our nonviolence pledge—“We will use no violence, physical or verbal, toward any person . . .”—and move into the spring sunshine to the rally point, gathering for the short march to the Supreme Court and the Capitol.
A gentle breeze blew through dogwoods and cherry blossoms in ecstatic pink and white bloom. There were rousing speeches, NAACP singers and a beautiful, buzzing crowd—so many good people brought together by the sober enormity of the stakes. Among the topics were access to the ballot, humane treatment for immigrant families, urgent action on climate, respect for reproductive rights, a fair economy with decent jobs, and the fate of democracy itself.
“We. Are. The ninety-nine percent!”
From Columbus Circle, the growing crowd marches west, chanting, silk-screened banners held high, through the Senate Park and between the Hart and Russell Senate office buildings. A line of police positioned high on the Capitol steps waits for us. Those risking arrest move forward onto the steps. An officer with a bullhorn gives three warnings to disperse, but few leave. And the arrests begin.
My arrest consists of turning over my driver’s license and offering my left wrist to a smiling officer who graces it with two plastic bands, neon pink and green. Thus marked, arrestees walked in small groups toward a line of "pens"—open areas bounded on three sides by police barriers—and stood, chatting with each other, until we were called to a table in the shade and cited for "Crowding, Obstructing, or Incommoding." Then we were given our IDs back, told how to pay the “post-and-forfeit” fine, and released into the April sunshine.
The 300 arrests on Monday brought the total for the Democracy Spring, which occurred the previous weekend, and Democracy Awakening demonstrations to more than 1,300. According to Kai Newkirk, chief instigator of Democracy Spring, it was “the largest American civil disobedience action of the 21st century.” Not Guinness Book territory, not the Million-Man March, but it got some attention. #DemocracyAwakens was trending.
A chunky scoop of celebrity helped. After ignoring many of the activities, USA Today and the Washington Post finally delivered headlines on the arrest of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the ice cream guys. Less attention was given, predictably, to the arrests of key players in the NAACP, Greenpeace, Public Citizen and the Sierra Club.
“It’s not a moment. It’s a movement,” declared NAACP President Cornell Williams Brooks from the steps of the Capitol. Already there are signs that the movement is having an impact.
As I write this, Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia has just restored voting rights to 200,000 convicted felons who have served their time.
The Brennan Center tells me that, for the fourth year in a row, state-level measures expanding voters' access to the ballot box have outpaced those that would restrict voting, in terms of both introduction and passage.
The Texas Organizing Project is working to increase the participation rates of three million “low-propensity voters of color” in the state. A friend tells me that if Latinos in Texas voted at the same rate as Latinos in California, Texas might already be a blue state.
The movement is building. We shall overcome.
Jay Harris is the editor and publisher of The Hightower Lowdown and board member of Free Speech TV.