Democracy Spring: demanding political change through nonviolent civil disobedience

Like many Americans, I pride myself as an upstanding member of the community which in my mind, until recently, required the absence of a criminal record. I think most would agree with me that the feel of handcuffs and the restriction of one’s freedom of movement is not an enjoyable experience. Yet throughout history upstanding citizens have subjected themselves to arrest as a form of mass nonviolent civil disobedience. Civil disobedience was essential in bringing about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but I saw it as something that other people did, not me.

Still, when I heard about the Democracy Spring march and sit-in in Washington DC, I knew I had to at least consider it. Democracy Spring is a grassroots movement using civil disobedience to protest the corrosive influence of money in politics and voter suppression.

For the past several years I’ve been working on achieving political equality and real representative democracy. I’ve worked with a wide range of groups, each operating with a different theory of change and path to victory, but none had yet achieved the critical mass of support required to bring about the reform we so urgently need. Democracy Spring was offering another avenue, nonviolent civil disobedience.

I had never been willing to risk arrest before, but I’d never before had the opportunity to do so in the fight for democracy, the fight to save the republic. That’s my fight, so I decided now was my time.

Getting arrested in the name of democracy

Democracy Spring is a nonpartisan, solutions-based movement with very specific goals. We call for the passage of four bills currently before Congress: The Voting Rights Advancement Act (HR 2867, S 1659), The Voter Empowerment Act (HR 12), The Democracy For All Amendment (HJRes 22, SJRes 5), and The Government By The People & Fair Elections Now Acts (HR 20, S 1538). We also demand the confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee who will ensure political equality by deciding to protect voting rights and end the corruption of big money in politics.

My husband and I couldn’t do the 140 mile march from Philadelphia to Washington DC (April 2nd-10th), so we arrived in DC just before the Democracy Spring marchers reached their destination. I have a few friends who did both the march and the sit-in. They are true patriots and I am proud just to know them. On the morning of Monday, April 11th, we attended a training on how to deal with possible arrest scenarios, including how to manage potential conflicts by maintaining a spirit of nonviolence and practicing de-escalation. The DC Action Lab trainers explained how the Capitol Police historically have responded to protesters like us, but could not guarantee anything. They made it clear that we could encounter a variety of responses, from considerate to hostile. They explained that we would, at a minimum, be giving up our freedom for an undetermined amount of time. Despite the warnings, the training was helpful in allaying my fears.

Immediately following the training we started off towards the Capitol. Approximately 1,500 of us marched from our tent at Columbus Circle, right in front of Union Station. The Capitol Police escorted us through the street (we had no permit for the march). Soon after we reached the Capitol steps, the police started warning us to leave and go to our permitted area out on the lawn. After the third warning, 430 of us sat down. The rest of us slowly retreated, not to the lawn, but to an area behind the line the police had created between the west edges of the two Capitol Visitor Center skylights.

On the Capitol steps, we sat. We chanted. We sang. We contemplated what had become of our “democracy”. After about an hour, one of the organizers, Kai Newkirk, stood up, called for a mic check, and announced that the Capitol Police had told the Democracy Spring organizers that we had broken the record for the largest number of arrests in 24 hours at the US Capitol (at least since the sixties; apparently they don’t have accurate records of the number of arrests during the Vietnam and civil rights protests). We cheered. This meant the corporate media could not ignore us, and hopefully more people would join us. All told we had 430 arrests that day. It would be our peak number of arrests for the week.

It also ended up being the only day we were cuffed, carted away in buses, and formally detained for any significant time. Periodically we would chant, “One more bus, one more bus!” as the buses pulled up, were loaded with arrestees, and driven away to the Capitol Police’s protester holding center (not to be confused with what began to be known as “real jail”). A handful did not comply when the police asked us to stand. Those folks were taken to real jail. Some could have been treated more gently. I appreciate their more costly sacrifice.

They lined us up facing the building to be handcuffed (the plastic handcuffs, not the metal ones). I didn’t have much to look at since the few remaining protesters were in some stage of processing off to the side, so I was left to stare at the building, and of course, the Statue of Freedom atop it. I tend to be fairly stoic, but I don’t do this for fun (although it frequently is fun). I do it because I believe it is the most important thing I could be doing. So, yes, I could not help but have tears in my eyes. I’m proud to be among the 430 that day.

Over the course of the following week we marched and sat-in daily, averaging 100 arrests per day. We exceeded the Capitol Police’s ability to process arrestees. At one point a small group of Democracy Spring activists paid to take a Capitol tour and zip-tied themselves to construction scaffolding inside the building. On the fifth day I risked arrest again. By this point the process was not as dramatic, since the police were no longer cuffing and formally detaining us. Since Tuesday they had been processing us on site. Many of us visited our members of Congress and told them why we were there. My member’s staffer told us he’d worked for our Congressman for five years and this was the first time anyone had been in the DC office to talk about changing the way we fund political campaigns. We told him to plan to see us more often.

Civil disobedience as an effective way to make change

Getting arrested was scary, but I walked through the fear and did what I knew my country and the future of this planet required of me. The requirement that day was nominal. Being a woman, I thought of our mothers and grandmothers who made much greater sacrifices in the fight to expand participation in democracy to women. The Silent Sentinels protested in DC six days per week for 18 months before the 19th Amendment was passed. When they were arrested, they were beaten, not put on a cushy bus and released 12 hours later with a $50 fine. The champions of the civil rights movement made monumental sacrifices and received horrific treatment. I hope that level of sacrifice will not be required in this fight for democracy.

Democracy is what we are fighting for. We don’t have equality in our standing as citizens. Political science research has found that our representatives do not act in the interests of the majority of Americans. Our elections are anything but free and fair. Increasing numbers of us are denied the right to vote at all. This is not democracy, or a constitutional democratic republic.

Three days after the last sit-in, one hundred House members sent a letter to the chairs of two committees asking them to hold hearings on our bills. Although only two of the signers were new supporters of the bills, asking for formal hearings on the bills is progress. We can now target these committee chairs to get the hearings on the legislative calendar

We can achieve political equality in the United States, but it is going to take a lot of people fighting on a variety of fronts. Democracy Spring will go back to DC. We may go to the RNC and the DNC. Right now we are taking nonviolent direct action back to the home offices of members of Congress. I’m hoping more citizens follow in the footsteps of the suffragettes and civil rights marchers and join in on the nonviolent civil disobedience front.

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